Irwin Fox died the other day. If you missed it because you were engrossed in obits about Hank Aaron, Larry King and Cloris Leachman, that’s understandable. Besides, at 95, Mr. Fox had outlived many of his fans.
As a kid in Brooklyn they called him “Sonny,” so he kept it – for the months he spent in a Nazi POW camp during WWII, through broadcasting courses at NYU, and into the offices of the “Candid Microphone” radio program, where my father, Allen Funt, gave him his first job in 1947.
The radio show and its television offshoot, “Candid Camera,” became Dad’s entire career. Sonny Fox moved on, first as a correspondent for the Voice of America during the Korean War, and then as a pioneer in children’s television. He paved the way for performers like Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) and then Fred Rogers, to name two who, like Sonny, could relate to kids on their own level.
“They taught me as much as I taught them,” he said about the children he interviewed. “I had an insatiable curiosity about the inner life that goes on in children.”
His first foray into kids TV came at an educational station in St. Louis, where he answered an ad for “A man who can talk to a boy, man-to-man.” This daily series, “The Finder,” was later used by the Ford Foundation to introduce public stations to children’s programming – the forerunner of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
In the mid-fifties Sonny landed a show on CBS called “Let’s Take a Trip,” a marvel of live-TV production, using full-size studio cameras that had to be lugged around the globe. Sonny and two young companions visited the Truman Library in Missouri, spring training in Florida with the Dodgers, as well as a rope factory, a shoe factory, and a ski slope in Canada.
Today’s kids can go to such places via the Internet, but back then it was unique, embellished by the smooth, gentle, always curious Mr. Fox. Unlike other kids’ fare of the period – mostly cartoons and slapstick – “Let’s Take a Trip,” which ran for three years, was a product of the CBS News Division. Billboard magazine reviewed this series in 1955, noting: “Like so many good things, ‘Let’s Take a Trip’ is so simple it is only amazing it was not done before.”
CBS gave Sonny a second job, in prime-time, hosting “The $64,000 Challenge.” He didn’t care for it – and wasn’t very good, once reading the answer instead of the question – so getting fired was a piece of good luck. He was spared the quiz show scandals that came a short while later.
In 1959 he took over as host of a local kids show on Channel 5 in New York that became nationally renowned, although televised only in the tri-state area. “Wonderama” was a weekly four-hour children’s festival.
“I have no talent – no performing talent,” Sonny conceded. “I don’t do puppets, I don’t sing. I realized that the kids in the audience were the show. I didn’t condescend to them.”
“Wonderama” was a mix of fun and games, but it featured guests such as producer Joseph Papp and a troupe of Shakespearean performers, opera star Roberta Peters, and regular appearances by Sen. Robert Kennedy, who conducted “press conferences” with youngsters.
Sonny went on to serve as head of children’s programming at NBC, and as chairman of Television Academy, but his legacy lies in what he did for children during the fifties and sixties.
W.C. Fields famously advised performers to never work with animals or kids. It’s a good thing my friend Sonny Fox never got the message. “What a long-lasting thumb print we left on those malleable minds,” he said.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com.