The Fort Worth forecast for the last week of September 1991 called for a widespread sense of loss with a zero percent chance of laughter. That’s because Channel 5 meteorologist Harold Taft died September 27; Channel 11 comedy icon Bill “Icky Twerp” Camfield died September 30.
(Links to YouTube videos of both men are at the bottom of the post.)
Harold Ernest Taft Jr. was born in Oklahoma in 1922. In 1942 he joined the Army Air Corps. After the war he graduated from Phillips University and joined American Airlines as a staff meteorologist. In 1949 Taft and two other American Airlines meteorologists proposed to WBAP-TV (now KXAS) a nightly weather program.
Weather Telefax debuted (as Weather Telefacts) on October 31, 1949 with Taft moonlighting as chief meteorologist—the first TV meteorologist west of the Mississippi (and paid $7 per show). Note that on Sundays WBAP broadcast from only 4:45 to 9:30 p.m. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
(WBAP-TV had been on the air just over a year. On September 27, 1948 a WBAP camera crew had been at the T&P passenger depot when President Truman arrived and gave a speech. Performing for the occasion were bands from Carswell Air Force Base, TCU, and Poly High. “WBAP-TV televised the scene, the first spot news event ever broadcast in the Southwest,” the Star-Telegram wrote on page 1.)
In 1952 Taft (just back from Korea) and Weather Telefacts celebrated their one thousandth broadcast. Shown with Taft is Walter Porter, one of the three American Airlines meteorologists who created Weather Telefacts.
This photo of Taft at the weather map is from 1954. Taft would remain in front of the weather map almost forty-two years—forty-two years of changes in technology of forecasting and presenting the weather, forty-two years of deluge, drought, fog, tornadoes, snow, sleet, ice . . .
and changes in management:
Despite Taft’s title (bestowed by WBAP radio deejay Bill Mack) as “the world’s greatest weatherman,” in the early 1980s new management at KXAS announced that Taft would be replaced. Outraged viewers came down on the station like hail on Mayfest. Viewers waved protest signs. Cars bore bumper stickers that read “I Believe Harold.” Advertisers threatened to withdraw their business.
Well, management didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows: Taft kept his job.
And why not? Harold Taft was trusted, fatherly. The Walter Cronkite of meteorology. Many of us remember Taft coming to our school (as did Fireman Bill) to talk about meteorology and to answer questions from kids in the audience, such as “Does it ever get too cold to snow?”
(Short answer: no.)
Each Christmas from 1956 through 1989 Taft drew children into his viewing audience as he “tracked” the flight of Santa Claus on radar.
Taft also is credited with the phrase “Stock Show weather.”
Station promo for the Texas News is from the February 26, 1970 Dallas Morning News.
Taft was a colonel in the Texas National Guard and was the Guard’s senior meteorologist. Clip is from the May 25, 1972 Star-Telegram.
In the late 1980s Taft was diagnosed with cancer but continued to work. His final broadcast was on August 30, 1991—less than a month before he died. At the time, he was “the world’s longest-serving TV meteorologist.” Clip is from the September 28 Star-Telegram.
The Star-Telegram published a two-page tribute to Taft on September 29.
His funeral was broadcast live by the TV station that had once threatened to replace him. Despite that TV coverage, attendance at the funeral was anticipated to be so great that the service was held in one of Fort Worth’s largest churches: St. Stephen’s Presbyterian.
Shortly before he died, Harold Taft said, “Life goes by so fast. We have had a good life.”
To a generation of kids in the Channel 11 viewing area, Bill Camfield’s Icky Twerp and his Slam Bang Theater were the very apogee of kid culture. In the 1960s Icky and Slam Bang Theater had it all, combining the slapstick of the Three Stooges with the shaggy haircut (okay, it was a wig) of the Beatles and the undersized cowboy hat of The Terror of Tiny Town. Each day after school, no homework could be done, no chores executed, no outdoor sports played until Ajax, Delfinium, Arkadelphia, Caladium, and Linoleum had slammed their last bang and that theme song—which even today has a Pavlovian effect on a generation of AARPers—had faded.
(The theme song was “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” written by J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole and often played by jazz bands at New Orleans-style funerals.)
Hear the theme song:
William Joseph Camfield was born in Mineral Wells in 1929 and moved to Fort Worth about 1935.
He attended Carter-Riverside High School, where he acted in school plays and wrote a column entitled “Reader’s Indigestion” for the school newspaper. He graduated in 1947 and soon got a job writing ad copy for Leonard’s Department Store.
By 1951 Camfield was on TV, co-hosting Let’s Go Shopping on WBAP at 12:45 p.m. after the Bobby Peters show.
Meanwhile, Camfield got married and started a family. In 1951 he was married in the church that forty years later would hold Harold Taft’s funeral. Clip is from the October 7 Dallas Morning News.
In 1954 Camfield was among winners of a creative writing contest at TCU. Clip is from the May 8 Dallas Morning News.
In 1955 Camfield went to work for the new TV station in town: KFJZ-TV Channel 11 at 4801 West Freeway. He wrote ad copy and created original programs and commercials, often performing in them himself. He voiced the puppet Hoover the Movie Hound on Million Dollar Matinee and played Mortimer Moolah in commercials for credit company Texas Consumer Finance. He also was Cosmo the Clown. Oh, also Mr. Tapioca and Hobart Entwistle.
Camfield created the character Icky Twerp (born “Ickamore Twerpwhistle”) for Slam Bang Theater, which went on the air in 1959. Camfield wrote seven scripts a week for the show. Often using only the most skeletal of scripts, Camfield and company (most cast members had “real jobs” off camera at the station) improvised a lot. The final stage direction often was “[FOC]” (fade on confusion).
In addition to the several hats Camfield wore on camera, he wore another hat off camera: He was the station’s executive producer.
Scripted or not, Icky Twerp and his show were wildly popular. Ben Griffin’s Ford dealership in Dallas offered a $2,197 “Icky Twerp Special” when Camfield made a personal appearance at the dealership in 1960.
After the birth of Icky, Camfield remained Channel 11’s jack-of-all-trades. On Saturday nights Camfield went over to the dark side. On his Nightmare show Camfield, as host Gorgon, took us to the opposite of slapstick—horror. Appearing cadaverous and menacing, with his fiendish echo-chamber laugh, Camfield as Gorgon was the anti-Icky.
Remember the opening narration of Nightmare?
“When the night falls, and the shadows become deep and black, the silent pall of evil settles on the Earth. Who dares to search, who dares to see what walks in the night? If you dare, welcome to Nightmare.”
Camfield also co-hosted Reveille, a morning show, in 1963. He was also the station’s director of programming and merchandising.
But we remember Camfield best as Icky Twerp. This Dallas Morning News clip from 1964 is a real time machine: Channel 5’s Feature Five movie hostess Bobby Wygant, senatorial candidate George Bush, Slam Bang Theater (4 p.m.), Nightmare (7:30 p.m.), and the Texas News (10 p.m.) featuring Harold Taft. (I have enlarged the TV listings in the inset in the upper left corner.)
In 1965 Camfield, along with eight other kids show hosts from around the country, went Hollywood: They appeared with the Three Stooges in the feature film The Outlaws Is Coming. Camfield played Wyatt Earp. Clip is from the January 13 Dallas Morning News.
Some still frames from The Outlaws Is Coming.
Camfield is in the background of this photo as fellow Outlaws cast members Larry Fine, Emil Sitka, and Curly Joe DeRita mugged at a cast party.
Icky Twerp/Slam Bang Theater is one of those “If you were there, you don’t need to be told. If you weren’t there, you can’t be told” memories of childhood. During thirteen years an estimated 1.5 million kids (and adults) watched five thousand episodes of SBT.
Camfield wrote in D Magazine in 1987:
“I have reaped some real rewards in recent years when the former kids (now in their twenties, thirties, and forties) recall their days in front of the screen. Few say more than ‘I used to watch you when I was a kid,’ but there is a fondness about the way they say it and the look in their eyes. I can tell that their hours with Slam Bang Theater are treasured in their memories as good times. They tell me, in many ways, ‘It was good that you gave us that entertainment and we remember it fondly.’ That is what I think I hear them saying, and what I want to hear them say.”
SBT was on the air until 1972, at times before school, at times after school, at times both. In 1972 Camfield moved to Denver to work for a TV station there.
When Camfield left Channel 11 and the show ended, Icky explained to his young viewers that he was going away to help Grandfather Twerp work the Lost Twerp Mine.
Camfield recalled: “The very last show was really something—a shot of me walking over that hill by the Lena Pope Home [nearby orphanage] and a shovel, and they were playing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ But you know something? I never really said goodbye.”
Perhaps Icky never really said goodbye to us, but we had to say goodbye to him. On September 30, 1991—three days after Harold Taft died—the Star-Telegram announced a double loss: Bill Camfield and Icky Twerp had died.
Harold Taft is buried at Rose Hill; Bill Camfield at Greenwood.
(Thanks and a tip of the Twerp wig to Michael H. Price for his assistance.)
Harold Taft in Weather Telefax in 1973 on YouTube:
Icky Twerp on YouTube:
In 1989 Camfield was the subject of a TV special, 30 Years of Comedy: A Salute to Icky Twerp. Here are short clips from that special taken from VHS videotape:
Icky Twerp and Star-Telegram wrestling columnist Betty Ann Stout arrive for the TV special.
“Icky Twerp Day” in Texas.
Fritz and Chris von Erich, Bobby Wygant, and Joan Maurer.
“Slam Bang” slapstick.
Man of many faces.