Whatever happened to the Old Rebel?
30 years ago this fall, WFMY TV cancelled The Old Rebel Show aft
In 1950, a year after WFMY first took to the airwaves and five years before Captain Kangaroo unlocked the doors to his Treasure House, an unknown performer named George Perry debuted on "Six-Gun Playhouse," a live children's program featuring clown acts, western serials and black-and-white cartoons. After a short period, Perry dropped the cowboy persona to don a black top hat, frock coat and old-fashioned bow tie to become the Old Rebel, one of the most beloved characters ever to parade across our screens.
Local kid shows were all the rage on TV in the 1950s: Just set the cameras up and let the talent fill time with whatever they came up with. This unexplored electronic environment was ideal for George Perry, with his limitless imagination and singular ability to make his young audience believe wholeheartedly in whatever whimsical notion he was trying to convey.
"The Old Rebel Show was a work of love for my dad and plenty of fun too. The main philosophy was to 'entertain, enlighten and educate.' My father was a native of Statesville, survived bullets, bombs and fire during World War II's Battle of the Bulge and, after the war, toured Europe with an acting troupe. When he returned to North Carolina, he was an announcer in the Statesville and Asheboro radio markets before being hired by WFMY in 1950 where he was a commercial announcer, part-time weatherman, built sets, served as cameraman and film engineer among other duties until he took over as the Old Rebel.
"Hundreds of thousands of youngsters appeared on the 'magic moving playhouse' bleachers and scores celebrated their birthdays in the studios. Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper were early sponsors so drinks were wheeled into the studio by the crateful atop shopping carts to give to the kids in the audience. My mother also joined in the festivities by cooking dozens of Curtis hot dogs and serving them on delicious Holsum bread rolls.
"Many people don't know that my father carved the show's puppets himself." - Timm Perry
In the early fifties it was far from certain that television was going to catch on with the public. TV sets were massively expensive (more than $1,500 in today's money), screens were miniscule, reception was deplorable and precious little content was available to fill the hours.
It wasn't until children's programs like "Howdy Doody" nationally and "The Old Rebel Show" locally began attracting the young ones that the TV tide started to turn. It became a race to "keep up with the Joneses" once dad witnessed his offspring running over to the neighbor's house to watch their TV set. And nothing sold television receivers like putting a family's precious tykes on the screen.
"As a young girl growing up in Greensboro during the 1950s, I, like all the kids I knew, had our favorite heroes. The Old Rebel, Lone Ranger and Superman were our heroes. Unlike the other guys, Old Rebel was attainable. I never will forget one day I was waiting to visit my dentist, Dr. Kilkelly, and none too happy about the upcoming regular exam. It was a small office and the doctor had just let out his last patient and was leading me into the examination room. Suddenly, the hall door opened and in rushed the Old Rebel... in full costume! I was aghast! My mouth literally fell open.
"He apologized for the interruption and asked the doctor to see him immediately as it was something of an emergency and he was due for an appearance somewhere. I gladly gave my hero my dentists' chair... after all this was little enough to do for one's hero. On his way out, he shook my hand and thanked me profusely. It was the best visit to a dentist I have ever had!" - Marsha Peele
In 1953 Jim Tucker joined the show as a friendly cowboy character; thereafter the broadcast became known as "The Old Rebel and Pecos Pete Show." Joining them was a pug-nosed pooch appropriately named Troubles, and Cathy the Chimp. Having a chimpanzee as a regular was not that unusual in the fifties but Troubles was forced to drop out in the early sixties after biting down on one too many of the small hands he was supposed to lick.
"Jim as Pecos Pete was a great cowboy, easygoing and kindly, a congenial co-host with a wide range of talents from the Wild West trail, including rope trick artistry, sharp-shooting and melodious guitar picking. Rebel and Pecos made countless appearances over a three-state area; they interviewed big western stars like Gene Autry and Dennis Weaver and ventured backstage at Greensboro's National Theatre in the fifties to flirt with the pretty Carter Sisters [June later married Johnny Cash] where a bashful fellow introduced himself to them... it was Elvis Presley!" - Timm Perry
Lee Marshall began appearing regularly around 1962 as Lonesome Lee the Clown and remained with the program until the very last episode, bringing with him a bizarre cast of characters that included Chee-Chee, a talkative worm in an apple, and Johnny Lee, his whacked-out ventriloquist dummy.
"My father, Lee Marshall, did a lot of clowning including working with Ringling Brothers and was a fixture in Piedmont Christmas parades, company parties, children's parties and similar events. I sometimes accompanied him to WFMY where my dad would join George Perry and the others in the dressing room before the show to get ready. Most of the time there was no script... George, my dad, or one of the other characters would have some simple idea and they would kick it around as they put on their costumes and makeup and basically ad-lib on the air.
"When I went off to college in 1963 (UNC Chapel Hill), the show came on at five in the afternoon. I lived in a dorm and would sometime go down to the TV room to watch it, that is until another student would show up and ask, 'Are you really watching that kid show?' Of course, I'd yield the TV and walk away." - Mike Marshall
By 1964, the Triad's leading kids' show boasted an extraordinary 15,000 members of the Old Rebel and Pecos Pete Club - to whom the station mailed out packages stuffed with club pins, a song sheet, secret decoder and a photo album.
Besides the Old Rebel, Pecos Pete and Lonesome Lee, other occasional cast members included Coocoo the Clown, ventriloquist Ted Moss and his pal Hal, Tiny the Clown and his trained K-9 Hot Dog, and "Uncle" Roy Griffin (executive director of the Greensboro Community Center) who popped in every few weeks. There were also filmed cartoon features including characters like Popeye, Wally Gator, Touch Turtle, Lippy the Lion and Space Angel.
"Remember, this was before cable TV. We could only get three TV stations with rabbit ears - channel 2 (about 2-3 miles away), channel 8 (pretty good reception), and 12 (barely could see it through the 'snow'). If you were in Greensboro, you watched WFMY-2, period.
"I was on the show once. I was at the top of the bleachers, we were jammed in like mackerels and after a six-ounce Coke I got sick and threw up. I'm sure that made a lasting impression at Channel 2." - John Hitchcock
At a time when racial tensions were high you would think a show with the word "Rebel" in the title might be problematic given the Old South implications. Instead, "The Old Rebel Show" was a place where kids of all colors congregated and nobody thought that much about it. Early on George Perry saw the need to fill the studio bleachers with kids from across the spectrum and would often drive out himself to pick up youngsters at the Hayes-Taylor YMCA to make sure all local children were consistently represented.
Riding the Baby Boom shockwave with ratings at an all-time high, the show's stars were in high demand for personal appearances, parades, shopping center promotions, private birthday parties and charity benefits.
"The downtown Christmas Parade in Greensboro was the big-time. One year there was Uncle Roy in an antique car, Lonesome Lee walking his invisible dog on a leash, Bob Gordon from Channel 12's Sunday afternoon show, local news and weather folks (good 'ole Lee Kinard and Charley Harville), and the master of ceremonies - the Old Rebel - riding on a vintage fire truck along with his mute polar bear, Marco.
"From the front steps of Millie Hopkins' nursery school, that's as close to heaven as a kid gets. Well, I could have caught a miniature loaf of bread from Little Miss Sunbeam, but you can't have it all." - John Hitchcock
It was the top story on the playground in the summer of 1967, an event of seismic proportions... Pecos Pete was leaving "The Old Rebel Show." After 14 years, the Old Rebel & Pecos Pete had become nearly synonymous; the playful camaraderie they exhibited on camera was something that couldn't be recreated.
Jim Tucker left to join the on-air staff at WSJS Channel 12 (now WXII) as co-host of their morning program "Today at Home." "The Old Rebel Show" was moved to mornings eventually settling in at 9 a.m. which meant Old Rebel and the former Pecos Pete were directly competing with each other for viewers (up against WGHP's "Dialing For Dollars" where Frank Deal might call you and ask for "the count and the amount"). "Today at Home" ran for four years.
Jim Wiglesworth joined "The Old Rebel Show" in 1968 as Jungle Jim to replace George Leh, a remarkably talented puppeteer who, from the very beginning, provided the homespun personalities for Homer the Hound and Marvin the Mule. Wiglesworth brought with him a youthful exuberance and inventive wit; he also began utilizing blue screen and other cutting edge color videotape technology to give "The Old Rebel Show" a more modern feel.
"I remember sitting down one day with George Perry and telling him I would love to fill in and try to develop these puppets. We quickly agreed, 'Why not give it a shot?' Marvin the Mule went into retirement and Homer the Hound forever after became known as Mr. Wiglesworth. I created several more puppet characters, there was Humphrey, a grumpy ole character who pretended to hate kids and love pickles; later came Charlie, a more mellow character who played well off of Humphrey.
"Every day we always had the kids in the audience walk through the door on the set and give us their names. If it was a smaller group, often the Old Rebel would ask questions like what school or what town were they from. We had kids from southern Virginia to just outside of Charlotte and everywhere in between. We also had a daily 'Birthday Spotlight.' Children from all over the state (as well as Virginia, it seemed) would send in their pictures. I can't even guess how many thousands of those we showed over the years.
"I did receive a little compensation for doing this show but I did 'The Old Rebel Show' for all those years because l liked doing it. I liked the 'purpose,' making kids happy (man, does this sound sappy... but it's true). I was a full-time producer/director for the station and my responsibilities were to write and produce television commercials and direct the 11 o'clock news. From the station's standpoint, my relationship with George and 'The Old Rebel Show' was my own personal labor of love.
"Possibly the worst golfer I've ever known, George truly loved the sport. He and I and his son Timm played golf on a fairly regular basis." - Jim Wiglesworth
"I remember a special day. A special day especially if you lived in or around Greensboro. It was my fifth birthday party. I was so excited because my friends and I were going to be on 'The Old Rebel Show.' At first the butterflies were too intense because I was going to meet Old Rebel himself, walk through that familiar door and shake the hand of someone I watched with great anticipation. I remember sitting on those cold bleachers sipping on a Pepsi and watching Lonesome Lee entertain us with his worm sliding in and out of his big red apple. I felt so big and so loved at the same time. I knew I was with someone who cared for me and all my friends with me that day. - Melinda Wrenn Thomas
"After introductions our main role as audience members was to cheer for the skits and finally wave to the audience at home as the cameras panned across each kid's face on the bleachers. We were given Coca-Colas from small green glass bottles and those little orange peanut butter crackers - after that we went absolutely wild with sugar and caffeine!
"I was surprised to be able to watch myself on the show a couple of days later, that it was recorded and not live. I was also amazed that on one show the Old Rebel took his grey top hat and painted it cherry red, trading his grey vest for a matching red one. Unlike many sitcoms and cartoons I watched at the time, this change was permanent and he never wore the grey outfit again." - James Counts
Several times WFMY dropped hints that it might cancel "The Old Rebel Show" but the outcry from the public was tremendous, so in 1976 they bumped the program to Saturday mornings at 7, now expanded to an hour.
During the summer of 1977, I was on a promotional tour for the Land of Oz theme park in Boone and one of our stops was "The Old Rebel Show," which taped on a Friday afternoon. This was one of the last programs, there was no longer a studio audience full of excitable kids and George Perry and Lonesome Lee seemed to know that the writing was on the wall. We clowned around with the Old Rebel, he developed a "crush" on Dorothy, the puppets came out from behind the curtains and a fine time was had by all.
That summer we attended numerous charity events across the state and at every function there was the Old Rebel. He was tireless in his devotion to muscular dystrophy in particular (remember his MDA backyard carnival kits?) and worked so hard to entertain those severely disabled kids. And they were a tough audience, let me tell you.
"I left 'The Old Rebel Show' in March or April of 1977. I heard through the grapevine later that summer that WFMY was thinking of canceling George's show come fall. I remember going over one day and sitting in the office of Chuck Whitehurst, the station's general manager at the time, and pleading with him not to cancel this show. His major reason for this decision was that, with all the federal regulations pertaining to advertising certain products targeted at children, he did not want to mess with it.
"I tried with all my powers to get him to see that it just didn't matter if this program generated a single penny in direct revenue, it was worth it all (and then some) in public relations and good will. But he was the boss and I no longer worked there - so guess who won that debate. - Jim Wiglesworth
After his show was cancelled, George Perry began reporting occasional human-interest stories on the Channel 2 news (a Roy's Folks kind of thing) and he was pretty good at it but was dropped unceremoniously after a few months, fired by what one WFMY employee referred to as "a vengeful general manager."
"Of course the sad thing about 'The Old Rebel Show' was the way it was phased out. Management determined that the show needed to go because it was not profitable. The truth is, it was never a profit center; it was an audience builder and image builder for WFMY. High above the studio was a huge observation room that could hold hundreds of moms, dads, grandparents and friends of the kids who came to tape the show each afternoon. We usually had about eighty to a hundred kids in the bleachers and a hundred or more spectators. Those folks went home all excited and told their friends and family about 'The Old Rebel Show,' creating tremendous goodwill and word of mouth. It was, in a sense, that goodwill that built the station's ratings and enabled the sales department to sell spots at a premium rate for the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news.
"George Perry was a great broadcaster committed to providing quality local programs to his audience. Were he alive today, he would be hurt to know that none of our TV stations have continued with the work he started. Shame on us for abdicating our responsibility to children in favor of syndicated programming. Television airwaves belong to the public, so TV should be about public service not just profits. Perhaps the Old Rebel will be reincarnated as a TV station manager and he will resurrect the local kid's show. We can only hope." - Jim Longworth, host of "Triad Today," YES! Weekly columnist
In 1978, Old Rebel turned up with Bob Poole on a Saturday morning radio show for WBIG-AM, airing live from the K&W Cafeteria inside the struggling Carolina Circle Mall. Neither of these media giants was terribly comfortable in this format. Bob Poole, the Triad's undisputed morning radio king for three decades, was in ill health and suddenly working with a live audience while the Old Rebel, fully decked out in his familiar outfit, was a TV children's host facing a room full of old folks wolfing down free biscuits and gravy. The program had a short run; Bob Poole passed away not long after.
Later that year George Perry was spotted at the unemployment office in Greensboro. Taunted by teenagers who easily recognized the pipe-smoking TV star, he left without being able to transact his business. How humiliating that must have been for this 30-year veteran in broadcasting, arguably the most recognizable personality in the area, one of a handful of people (along with Charlie Harville and Lee Kinard) who transformed WFMY from an iffy proposition into a multi-million dollar business.
George Perry died of a heart attack in 1980 at age 59, just three years after losing his job. Doctors may have labeled it a cardiac arrest but there's no doubt that not being able to do what he loved most is what broke his heart.
"Throughout the years my dad led a creative, productive life. He married a beautiful redhead named Martha, painted outstanding artworks, carved figurines and puppets out of wood, wrote poetry, played banjo and tenor guitar, raised vegetables and flowers, read biographies and history voraciously, fished, golfed and hosted WFMY's "RFD Piedmont." I loved the guy. Everybody loved the guy. You would have loved him too if you had known him!" - Timm Perry
'Old Rebel Show' Reunion
In 2000, my business partner James Counts and I put on an "Old Rebel Show" reunion with the help of the Greensboro Public Library's children's curator James Young, who holds the distinction of being one of the kids bitten by Troubles, the show's canine mascot.
Lonesome Lee Marshall and Jim Wiglesworth were there along with Martha Perry, George Perry's widow, Timm Perry and family members of Jim (Pecos Pete) Tucker. Tucker, who left WSJS in the mid-1970s to open a Baskin-Robbins in the new Hanes Mall, was ill at the time of the reunion and went to that great roundup in the sky soon after.
We didn't know what to expect or even if anyone would show up; the program had been off the air for more than 20 years but the crowd, who came from as far as Raleigh, was wildly enthusiastic. Parents who grew up with the Old Rebel brought their youngsters who laughed uproariously at clips from the show. These modern preschoolers reacted just as we did at their age, loving every minute of it. There's something timeless in what George Perry and his co-stars brought to the small screen, an incandescent charm that transcended the generations.
"I do feel there is something very nice and friendly about a local show of this type. The nature of the beast, 'broadcasting,' has changed so much in recent years that local stations can easily and cheaply buy a packaged program from a syndicator rather than create one themselves. Unfortunately, they don't have a local flavor and children today don't seem to have any more loyalty to one station than to any other. Children can't go visit and they don't have any local heroes." - Jim Wiglesworth
(Lonesome) Lee Marshall passed away July 3, 2004 at the age of 89. Today, "Jungle" Jim Wiglesworth is a successful real estate agent in Greensboro and the father of first season "Survivor" runner-up Kelly Wiglesworth. He was also the first to license Winston Cup Racing for TV broadcast. Timm Perry carries on the family tradition of entertaining children, he's in much demand especially during the holidays. Considered the best Santa in the area, it's amazing how much he sounds like the Old Rebel.
No question, television stations lost a key connection to the community they serve with the demise of locally produced children's shows. Oh sure, WFMY or WGHP will occasionally invite a group of youngsters into the studio to watch a news broadcast but somehow children sitting through stories of home invasions, murder and other assorted deviant activity doesn't exactly substitute for the character-building skits or lessons in manners that were offered up daily from those very same studios 30 or 40 years ago.
Like it or not, life in front of the tube will never be the way it was during television's messy adolescence. For my generation and the one that came before and after, George Perry remains nothing less than an icon, a remarkably positive influence on our psyches, a lasting spirit in the community and symbol of a way of life that we can romanticize now that's it's rooted firmly in the past, never to return.
Visit 'The Old Rebel' tribute site for rare video & more: tvparty.com/oldrebel.