Review by C.J. Bunce
One of the least discussed areas of television is local television–those productions going back to the beginning of television and still a fixture even of small markets around the United States. Even big city networks and cable channels sprouted out of the success of local personalities or shows, as found in places like Chicago’s WGN, Kansas City 41, and Atlanta’s TBS. For parts of four decades, if you lived or visited Iowa or within the wider reach of its local NBC affiliate, you would have been introduced to The Floppy Show. The Floppy Show was a creation of World War II veteran Duane Ellett, a young Drake University graduate who bridged a career as a familiar voice over the air to a familiar face in black and white in the late 1950s as television became widespread. At the center of the show was Floppy, a wooden puppet with a red sweater holding his trusty bone, who would come to be known and loved by multiple generations of fans. Floppy and Ellett are the subject of a new book by professor, broadcaster, and historian Jeff Stein, titled The Floppy Show.
Since Ellett’s death in the 1980s, Floppy, the famous dog in the box, was displayed at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, for 20 years, followed by a brief stint at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. It’s a testament to Ellett and his creation that their beloved fans never wavered–these exhibits became hallowed ground, the kind of quiet spot to revisit one’s youth for a mix of reflection and nostalgia. Of course The Floppy Show was only one of hundreds of similar shows that came and went across America over the decades, but author Stein showcases the history of an important area of television in this singular show. Working with WHO-TV and the archives of Ellett’s family, Stein researched videotapes, film, marketing materials, and photographs and pulled out more than 180 images that reveal a changing America from 1957 to 1987.
At the same time Jim Henson and his Muppets were first introduced on a local Washington, DC show, Ellett was asked to create a puppet for the show Pet Corner, a local TV program hosted by the Animal Rescue League where viewers would meet local stray dogs and cats, and hopefully adopt them. Floppy was created to help teach kids how to care for animals, in the vein of shows like the contemporary national programs Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Floppy’s popularity took off and he soon had his own show at WHO-TV. For most of its memorable years the show featured Floppy and Ellett introducing cartoon segments like Popeye and Looney Tunes, and the big deal for kids was the live studio segment where kids (including your humble editor minus 40 years or so) appeared on-air, beeping Floppy’s nose, telling jokes, and getting a sack with a bottle of Mountain Dew, a bag of Hyland potato chips, and a photo of Floppy. My joke? “What’s the biggest can in the world?” Answer: “I forget.” Quietly prompted by the kindly moustached fellow in the leisure suit, I blurted out “Canada!” Guest stars on the show visiting the local NBC affiliate included Adam West in full Batman garb.
For many, scrabbling through the photos in Stein’s book, looking for an image of the reader on the set of the show, will be a big draw. So many photos of Floppy and his audience both in the studio and at events like the annual state fair make seeing yourself in the crowd in one of the book’s photographs an actual possibility.
For anyone who ever encountered Floppy or Ellett, and anyone curious about the history of television, Jeff Stein’s new book The Floppy Show is a worthwhile–and fun–trip back in time. Pick up your copy of the book The Floppy Show now, available here at Amazon.