FOX KIDS' CLUB
Ben Ulin was the original television host of the KDSM FOX 17 Kids Club aired throughout central Iowa from 1989 to 1991. Here are some of his experiences with the show:
At the time, the National Fox Network was offering programming and resources to affiliate stations to develop a nationwide Kids Club. This provided a way for a live host to offer contests, give away prizes, and introduce cartoons. KDSM liked the idea, but wanted something more educational and interactive. Our local version of the kids club became quite unique.
The director of the show was Dan Nannen. We became great friends and had real fun putting the show together. After being hired, I was surprised to find out that there were no writers for the show. Dan and I were responsible for all of its content. Because of this, I did not make things easy for Dan. My creative instincts were always thrown into his lap to figure out how to construct and make them happen.
We started with the idea of building the clubhouse on air. Keep in mind that the actual air time for each segment ranged from 10 seconds to a rare 2 minutes. Most were only 30 and 60 seconds long. These were just commercial length spots that ran between cartoon programming. There were eight each weekday, four in the morning and four in the afternoon.
There were other concepts that became part of our routine. There was the birthday segment where I read off the names of children who had birthdays that day. Later, the list became too long to read and we had to just scroll the names across the screen.
We had the 'Member of the Day', which featured, Cranky, the Kids Club computer. Cranky was a cardboard box with a panel of lights and a paper tray mouth. His lights would flash when he was 'randomly determining' who was going to be our member of the day and then he delivered a slip of paper which had a name printed on it. That child was sent a prize from out of our big prize box. I guess I can admit now that Cranky was not a real computer. He was named by our head cameraman, Mark Perkins, who constructed him and had to remotely make him work while running the camera. Although never seen on the show, Cranky didn't always work right and was aptly named.
We also showed drawings sent in from children. Later we introduced an idea that I called, Doodleloops. We 'digitized' some of the children's drawings and turned them into simple animations. This was pretty cool back in 1989! (Does anyone remember the Commodore Amiga computers?)
We wanted to start doing segments in other locations. I felt we needed to have some interesting way of getting from the clubhouse to the locations. I came up with the idea of a magic door. So, on the show, a magic door in a rolling door frame was sent to the clubhouse by an anonymous benefactor. I had to figure how to use it. My first trial of walking through the door made me magically disappear... and appear outside ... hanging upside down in a tree! The second try made me appear standing up in a boat in the middle of Grey's lake. Eventually I discovered that you had to name a place and say, 'please'. This became a quick and fun way for introducing and visiting other places.
The most surprising thing about the show is that it wasn't a live show. It appeared to be, but we taped all of the spots that would air for that week in one day. This was 40 to 50 different commercials taped every Monday. I was still doing Adventureland throughout the summers and traveling to comedy clubs and company functions the rest of the year. For me, Kids Club was just a once a week job, with an occasional live appearance on other days throughout the month. For central Iowa families though, I seemed to be on television live every day.
From the show, we received an Iowa Addy award for a special segment we called, Kids Club Weather. Dan Nannen and I also wrote a Christmas special called, A MAGIC CHRISTMAS IN IOWA. Dan directed and produced it, I played a main character, and it aired on KDSM for two years.
Dan also produced a show called, THE FAMILY FUN ZONE. This family game show was taped out at Adventureland for a live audience. The show was picked up by a couple of outside markets and aired throughout the Midwest. I was the host, the writer, and designed the games.
The most common question people ask me about the Kids Club program is why I quit. Well, I didn't quit. KDSM was sold to a new company that operated several other Fox stations. They were producing their own Kids Club shows using the formula laid out by the National Fox Network. Their formula did not require an actual clubhouse set. It did not allow for any segment that wasn't promoting either the station or a sponsor in some way. It didn't need a host with any sort of 'performing art talent' like comedy or magic.
I was offered the job to stay on as the host, but with these changes; they needed me to give up performing magic at Adventureland and other out of town shows to take on a fulltime daily schedule at the station. On air, I was to become what the television business calls, 'a talking head' giving up all the creative elements of the show to just announce stuff. Lastly, I was to take a cut in pay. This amounted to about a third of what I was being paid.
I really enjoyed doing the Kids Club, but it was about to become something very different. After three years of smiling into a camera and saying, 'Hey, kids!', I politely told the new KDSM, I'm not the right guy for this job.
Thanks to all at KDSM: Jo Marie, Lynn, the two Marks, the receptionists, the interns, the sales staff, Ted, Johnny, Helmut, and especially to Dan for treating me so well.
- Ben Ulin