They were watching J.P. Patches.
Any Baby Boomer who grew up in Puget Sound knows about J.P. Patches. Oh, there were other shows for kids: Brakeman Bill (with Crazy Donkey), Capt. Puget, Wunda Wunda, Stan Boreson. But J.P. was the king. His show was live, improvisational, and fun. I was a member of his earliest audience out of KIRO, and grew up with him. When I had to write a paper about children's television, it seemed only natural to write about J.P.
To my amazement, when I left a message at the TV station about my interest, J.P. called me back and agreed to talk with me. I had seen him only twice before in person. I saw him at the Century 21 Exposition (Seattle World's Fair) in 1961, and he also came to the grand opening of the shopping complex where Rainy Day Records now sits, which took place about the same era.
When I showed up at the station early one morning, I was ushered into a little sound booth. Through the glass I saw the set of J.P.'s home in the City Dump. In the booth there was a TV and it was playing what was being broadcast at the moment, a really low-budget choppy animated bit about "Little Johnny Everything," which had an annoying jingle throughout it. The door opened, and it was J.P. "Are you Willis?" he asked. Yup. "Keep watching," he pointed at the screen, "Maybe you'll learn something new." He followed this comment with a jaded laugh and walked to the set to begin performing.
There were two things that really stick in my mind about his performance that morning, over 30 years ago. First, the off-camera crew were constantly barraging him with sound effects and camera shots that forced a response from him. All unrehearsed. He was the master of improv. One incredibly obnoxious sound effect they kept playing over and over and over was from the cartoon I had seen in the booth, "I'm Little Johnny EVVVVVVERYTHING!!" Secondly, whenever there was a cartoon or commercial break, J.P. whipped off his gloves and started dragging on a cigarette like there was no tomorrow. I think you had to grow up with his show in order to appreciate just how disturbing a sight that was.
After the show, I accompanied J.P. to his dressing room. He talked to me as he removed his greasepaint. His head would disappear behind a small partition, and every few minutes he would lift up to look at me, and his real face slowly emerged in stages. Somehow I felt like this was something I should not be seeing. When I told him about the students in A Dorm, he said around junior high level he lost his audience, but they came back as adults, appreciating the show at another level. J.P. was delighted that he had an especially enthusiastic audience at TESC. He viewed himself as an actor and strictly an entertainer, and seemed modest about his role as a Northwest icon.
J.P. spent a good couple hours talking with me and patiently answered all my questions. As he donned his leisure suit, we went out to the station lounge and I met the guy who played Gertrude. Here I was, a nobody college kid, and these two were very generous with their time. J.P. told me many stories, most of which are also recorded in his recent autobiography.
I asked J.P. why the crew kept playing that sound bite from "Little Johnny Everything." And he said, "Because they know I hate that little bastard."