John Conway and Uncle Chichimus

Note: This page was originally posted in 2013, as such it references the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The museum has since changed it's name to the Canadian Museum of History.

Back in the late 1990s I had the opportunity to meet puppeteer John Conway. He was a modest and kind person, and I'm forever grateful that he took the time to talk with me about his famous puppets. Of course when I say "puppets" I'm talking about that little fellow with the chubby cheeks, Uncle Chichimus, and his niece Hollyhock who were regulars on the CBC during the broadcaster's inaugural years. In fact, Chich and Holly, as they came to be known, appeared on the very first broadcast of the CBC, September 8, 1952, which marked the debut of English language Canadian television. (The CBC's French language television made its debut two days earlier on Sept 6, 1952, marking the very beginning of Canadian television in any format).

This classic image of Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock from the archives of the Canadian Museum of Civilization was found at this link: http://media.civilization.ca/s_t_e2.htm

The CBC Years, 1952-1954

After their debut the puppets quickly became CBC's unofficial mascots. Remarkably, Conway performed both characters overhead simultaneously while also providing their voices. The first incarnation of the program was simply titled "Let's See", and informed viewers about the programming schedule for the evening. As the show was broadcast daily live to air Conway didn't have time to write scripts or to do any extensive rehearsals. Each time he went on air he improvised his lines with his human co-host, Canadian television's first weatherman Percy Saltzman, shown above.

The photo of Mr. Saltzman was found at this link: http://www.penelopeironstone.com/CS101broadcastingandnation.htm


In early 1953 Conway and Saltzman were each given their own programs, and Larry Mann (shown above) joined Conway's puppets on screen replacing Saltzman as the shows human counterpart. Saltzman's new show "Tabloid" premiered March 4, 1953 which indicates that the original daily program "Let's See" was broadcast for six months. This second incarnation of the daily program to be hosted by Larry Mann was called "Uncle Chichimus" and ran for one year. When Vancouver's CBC station, CBUT, made its debut on Dec 16, 1953 "Uncle Chichimus" was included in the programing schedule and would continue to be seen across Canada until March 1954.

The above photo of Mr. Mann was found at this link: http://obits.dignitymemorial.com/dignity-memorial/obituary.aspx?n=Larry-Mann&lc=1234&pid=168981353&mid=5808808

The above photo of the Uncle Chichimus title screen was found at this link:
http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=35858

Unfortunately the distinction between "Let's See" and "Uncle Chichimus", two very different TV programs, is seldom made in archival sources. Rather it is often stated that John Conway performed his puppets on only one program that ran from 1952 to 1954, though this is not the case as there were two programs. This error is most relevant to online archival sites, which brings me to another very important issue that needs to be addressed. Actually it's also a pet peeve of mine....

How to spell "Hollyhock"
Today there are many archival websites that present the same copy and paste information. The publishers of these site clearly don't bother doing any research or spell checks. Incorrect information on such websites is very difficult to correct and can be confusing. So here is a tip for online researchers: "Hollyhock" is not spelled "Holly Hock". The name is one word: HOLLYHOCK. The best source for confirming this spelling is to go to the Canadian Museum of Civilization website (see web link at the bottom of this page) to look in their online archives. There you will find a digital scan of the patent registration for the puppet "Hollyhock" which puppeteer John Conway himself had drawn up. This legal document provides the correct spelling of "Hollyhock". 

Another source of the correct spelling of "Hollyhock" is seen in all 24 episodes of the Adventures of Chich film series produced by John Conway in 1957 and 1958. The opening titles of these episodes show the spelling as "Hollyhock". Remarkably, the incorrect spelling of Hollyhock's name can be traced back to Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock's first introduction to Canadians in 1952.....

This is the advertisement for the very first broadcast of the CBC's English language station, CBLT. Click on the image to see a larger version. Hollyhock's name is spelled incorrectly on the poster as "Holly Hock" rather than "Hollyhock". It surprises me that with the advancements in technology since then, we would still have trouble sorting out a simple thing like the correct spelling of a name!
 

I've also noticed some online sources that state Hollyhock was created in Vancouver while John Conway was working there as a teacher, which is incorrect. He created "King Chichimus" while in Vancouver but did not create Hollyhock until after he had moved back to Toronto, as the puppet was made specifically for the CBC program in 1952. At this point King Chichimus became "Uncle Chichimus" to his lovely niece, Hollyhock.

In any case, hopefully people who make online database sites will read this and update their databases with the correct information. I think that Hollyhock deserves the effort, especially as she has such a unique place in Canadian history!

Innovation on the small screen
It is commonly believed that Jim Henson, the creative genius behind the Muppets (and one of my idols), was the first television puppeteer to do away with the puppet booth and use the TV screen to frame the puppets. While there is certainly no doubt that Henson innovated this technique on his own, he was not the first to do so.

In February 1953 American puppeteer George Latshaw visited the CBC studio in Toronto, Ontario Canada, where he worked with John Conway as a guest puppeteer on Conway's program. Latshaw performed his own puppet character Natalie Hackenschmidt in scenes with Uncle Chichimus. Many years later Latshaw documented this event in his book "Puppetry the Ultimate Disguise", published in 1978.  In the book Latshaw states "Canadian puppeteer John Conway and television producer-director Norm Campbell pioneered in the use of the camera to frame the puppets on the Uncle Chichimus Show for CBC. [...] Their work was a landmark for all that followed." Latshaw also included two photographs from his visit with Conway to illustrate the technique. Further documentation of Latshaw's visit to the CBC is found in the archives at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. As the earliest that Henson worked on TV was in 1954, clearly John Conway's use of the TV screen to frame the puppets precedes Henson's involvement by at least a year if not longer.

However, it was pointed out to me by a Curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization that when doing research of this type we must be careful when we say who was "first" at something. This was after I had completed my 2003 documentary about John Conway, in which I did just that! I made the claim that Conway was first. This was a rookie mistake on my part as we still do not know for certain who in Canada was first to use this TV puppetry technique. It's very possible that the puppeteers at the French language CBC came up with this innovation as well, as there is documentation which suggests this is possible. And of course, we must also consider Europe and the rest of the world! For example, Ann Hogarth's BBC series "Little Grey Rabbit", which debuted in Sept 1950, should be discussed here too.

Therefore determining who was "first" in using the TV screen to frame the puppets would be quite difficult. More research needs to be done, though a definite answer may be impossible to achieve. None the less, we do have clear evidence from Latshaw's account that John Conway used this technique on television in February 1953 before Jim Henson arrived on the TV scene. We also know that Jim Henson is likely to have been the first American puppeteer to use the technique on television in the United States. Certainly no other American puppeteer or researcher has ever come forward to claim otherwise. However when it comes to US television I find that some credit also needs to be given to Bob Clampett's puppetry TV program "Time For Beany" which, according to Wikipedia, made it's debut in 1949. This program did not use a puppetry booth, but instead presented the puppets roaming about larger sets with a short wall obstructing the bottom edge of the screen. American puppeteers Daws Butler and Stan Freberg performed all of the program's characters. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_for_Beany
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMQL0wW8wns

In any case, it seems very likely that several puppeteers throughout the globe had developed the same innovation for puppetry on television at or around the same time, and as such to some extent determining who was first becomes a moot point. Conway, Henson, Hogarth and other puppeteers who experimented with the medium of television during those inaugural years are all innovators. Therefore it is proper for future researchers to credit all of these puppeteers for their roles, rather than selecting just one puppeteer to give the credit to simply because he or she is the researcher's favourite, or the topic of a specific project.

Theft of the Puppets, Jan 19, 1954
John Conway and his on air host Larry Mann had to make due on live television for a few weeks without the puppets when they were stolen from John Conway's car, January 19th, 1954. During the puppets two week "vacation" from being seen on air Conway built new puppets of Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock to replace those that were stolen and ultimately never found.

"Uncle Chichimus" TV show comes to an end, March 1954
Although Conway got things back on track with his puppets, the consistent demand of doing a live daily TV program since the debut in 1952 took its toll, along with production issues in the studio. As such, despite its popularity Conway ended the shows run on CBC in March 1954 to take a break from television.

Above is a cropped view of a TV Guide article from 1954 relating to the absence of Uncle Chichimus on CBC after the show went off the air. An image of the article showing the complete page was found on e-bay, from an April 2016 auction.

"Adventures of Chich" film series, 1957-1958

John Conway along with Chich and Holly (shown above, likely in 1957 or 1958), returned to the CBC in the late 1950s with "Adventures of Chich", a film series that John Conway produced independently in 1957 and 1958. The series was broadcast twice on the CBC from 1958 through to 1961. Each 15 minute episode featured one of four hosts. Among them was Larry Mann, the former host of "Uncle Chichimus", Helene Winston (who went on to star in "King of Kensington"), Tom Kneebone and Bill Cole. The episodes began with a short introduction by John Conway himself. This complete 24 episode film series is now in the archives of the Canadian Museum of Civilization which has all of the original film reals as well as video copies. The series is available for viewing in the museum's archives if arranged in advance of your visit (a minimum of two weeks notice).

The above photo of John Conway was found at this link: http://www.penelopeironstone.com/CS101broadcastingandnation.htm

Here is a photo of Tom Kneebone with Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock from the TVarchives.ca website listing. Unfortunately there is no source information given for the image and no mention that this is Tom Kneebone.
http://www.tvarchive.ca/database/18900/uncle_chichimus/details/

Here is the TV archives page for "Adventures of Chich" (which does mention Tom):
http://www.tvarchive.ca/database/16186/adventures_of_chich,_the/details/

Cartoonerville, 1961-1966
Although John Conway's years in Toronto at the CBC are what he is most noted for, he had continued his TV career in Ottawa when he moved there in 1961. As such, Conway performed Uncle Chichimus and Hollyhock for another new broadcaster, CJOH/CTV, when the station made it's debut that year. Conway's puppets appeared on "Cartoonerville", a program hosted by Champ Champagne and Miss Helen among others. A new puppet friend also joined the cast as well. He was a green felt mouth puppet named Slimey the Frog who was created for the show, and is seen on the colour poster below. The program had a very impressive run lasting six years.

In the late 1960s John Conway retired his puppets to become a High School teacher. He continued on in this role throughout the 1970s until his own retirement in the late 1980s. He passed away in March 2003 at the age of 80.

Documentary



In 2003 I completed an independently produced documentary about John Conway's puppetry career tilted "John Conway and Uncle Chichimus". Staff at the Canadian Museum of Civilization were very instrumental in making this documentary possible by providing me with access to the "Adventures of Chich" film series. The staff at CJOH was also very generous with their interview footage of John Conway. As for accessing footage from the CBC, that was a different story. The best I was able to do was to get permission to use five CBC photographs, which is better than nothing at all. Thankfully the "Adventures of Chich" film series provided a good variety of stories and puppetry scenes to make up for the absence of CBC footage. The project was partially funded by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council.

Screenings
The Documentary was screened in 2004 at the Puppeteers of America festival held at the University of Connecticut. Later it was screened in Jonquière, Quebec at the "Festivale international des art de la marionnettes". Screenings were also held in Toronto and Ottawa. For a short time I had the documentary available on VHS but this unfortunately was toward the demise of that format, and I have yet to get a DVD version made. However, copies of the documentary are available for viewing at the Canadian Museum of Civilization as well as National Library and Archives Canada. Here are the call numbers:

Canadian Museum of Civilization Archives:
VHS copy:   Call No. Archives VIDEO V2012-0295
DVD copy:   Call No. Archives DVD  DVD2012-0036

National Library and Archives Canada:
VHS Copy:
http://amicus.collectionscanada.gc.ca/aaweb-bin/aamain/itemdisp?sessionKey=999999999_142&l=0&d=2&v=0&lvl=1&itm=29967613
DVD Copy:
http://amicus.collectionscanada.gc.ca/aaweb-bin/aamain/itemdisp?sessionKey=999999999_142&l=0&v=0&lvl=1&rt=1&itm=40639880&rsn=S_WWWoaaPlP0ss&all=1&dt="Artellephant+Productions"&spi=-

Online Footage
Footage from "The Adventures of Chich" TV program can also be accessed online through the Canadian Museum of Civilization's website:
http://catalogue.civilization.ca/musvw/List.csp?Profile=ArchivesOnlyCMC&OpacLanguage=eng&SearchMethod=Find_1&PageType=Start&PreviousList=Start&NumberToRetrieve=10&RecordNumber=&WebPageNr=1&StartValue=1&Database=1_CMC2&Index1=1*Otherstdid&EncodedRequest=k4*9Cy*B8*7F*14*00*E7*06z*B1*CB*2A*60P&WebAction=NewSearch&SearchT1=2130&SearchTerm1=2130&OutsideLink=Yes
If you click on the link above you will be taken to a page from the museum's archives database. You will see two links next to the description heading "Electronic resource". Each of these links will show you a different film clip.

More online info about John Conway and his puppets:
Here is the page about John Conway from the Canadian Museum of Civilization's online exhibit "Art of Puppetry":
http://theatre.civilization.ca/narratives/details.php?lvl2=4810&lvl3=4817&lvl4=5318&language=english

Here is the Canadian Encyclopedia information about John Conway:
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/john-e-conway

Here is the Ottawa XPress article about the documentary:
http://ottawaxpress.ca/2005/04/20/john-conway-and-uncle-chichimus-puppets-who-instill/

Here is the CBC Digital Archives page about the debut of Canadian television:
http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/arts-entertainment/media/canada-tunes-in-the-early-years-of-radio-and-tv/cbc-television-debuts.html

More about Larry Mann:

The Wikipedia page about Larry Man: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_D._Mann

Here is a remarkable interview with Larry Mann discussing his involvement in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGhoH3ar0BE

The Alchetron website has several images of Mr. Man throughout his career.
http://alchetron.com/Larry-D-Mann-992952-W

Here is an obituary for Larry Man from the Dignity Memorial website:
http://obits.dignitymemorial.com/dignity-memorial/obituary.aspx?n=Larry-Mann&lc=1234&pid=168981353&mid=5808808

Related links:

Torontoist
This is an excellent online article by Jamie Bradburn about the debut of Canadian television with several archival images. http://torontoist.com/2008/09/historicist_television_comes_to_tor/

CBC Archives: 1952 CBC television debuts
Here is a short video on the CBC Archives website about the very first broadcast of their English language station. However Percy Saltzman, John Conway and his puppets are not mentioned... which is quite an omission! They are shown very briefly in a photo montage towards the end of the video, but don't blink or you'll miss them! http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/1952-cbc-television-debuts

CBC Archives: Percy Saltzman remembers early CBC TV
This is a short clip from an interview with Percy Saltzman from 1975 in which he mentions that his CBC program "Tabloid", which came after "Let's See", made its debut March 4, 1953.
http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/remembering-percy-Saltzman

Debut of CBC television in Vancouver, British Columbia
A blog tiled "Vanalogue" presents an article with archival images detailing the 60th anniversary of Vancouver's CBC station, which made it's inaugural broadcast on December 16, 1953. Images of documents show that John Conway's program "Uncle Chichimus" was part of the programing schedule. Later the show would become one of only two Canadian produced shows available in the evening schedule. It's great to see this historical evidence that Uncle Chichimus was known to Canadians all across the country. Unfortunately the author of the blog is unknown: https://vanalogue.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/60th-anniversary-of-cbut-part-one/

Wikipedia page about Percy Saltzman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Saltzman

Click here to return to the main directory page:
http://mikeyspuppetryblog.blogspot.ca/p/blog-page_17.html

This blog page was posted Feb, 28, 2013
Last updated July 17, 2017
All text on this blog page © Mike Artelle, 2013, 2017

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