If you were eight years old or thereabouts in Fort Worth in the late 1950s, when it came to local power couples, never mind your Nancy and Perry Bass, your Ruth Carter and J. Lee Johnson III, your Cornelia and Bayard Friedman. Nosiree. To the Hula Hoop-and-hopscotch set, the power couple was a he named “Mickey” and a she named “Amanda.”
Oh, he was a man’s man, was Mickey. Well, a turtle’s turtle anyway. And Amanda, she was everything anyone could ask for in marsupial pulchritude.
For five years Mickey Mudturtle and Amanda Possum were two of the most popular children’s show personalities on a TV station that catered heavily to children: KFJZ. (Photo from the Dallas Morning News, 1959.)
The story of Mickey and Amanda is also the story of Dick Clayton and Hilda Cohen. We can begin their story in Nebraska. Dick Clayton was born in North Platte. After four years in the Air Force he enrolled at Baylor University, planning a career in television programming. As a senior he got a part-time job as a film projectionist at Waco’s channel 10. “They needed a children’s show. I designed a puppet that fit over my hand like a glove and called him P. J. Possum.” Clayton and P. J. were regulars on the Uncle Elihu Show for four months.
After graduation in 1955 Clayton moved to Fort Worth and enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Meanwhile, Hilda Cohen, a Fort Worth native, had graduated from TCU.
In 1955 Clayton and Cohen were hired by KFJZ-TV soon after the station went on the air. Clayton was a film projectionist; Cohen was an ad copywriter. Her boss: Bill Camfield.
Here is a snapshot of television programming in Fort Worth on Sunday, September 11, 1955, when Cowtown’s fourth channel began broadcasting at 1 p.m. with an opening dedication. Note Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth at 8 p.m. By 1955 the show was in syndication; White was thirty-three years old.
In 1956 Dick Clayton and Hilda Cohen were part of the cast of a KFJZ Christmas special. Clayton debuted a new puppet, Timothy Turtle. Cohen was Mrs. Santa Claus’ Helper. The show was received so well that station management asked Clayton and Cohen to audition a new program showcasing their talent.
And so it was that in February 1957 Mickey Mudturtle and Amanda Possum began hosting Cartoon Clubhouse. Supporting characters included an absent-minded Scotch-plaid snake, a bear who thought he was a reindeer, and a gorilla who took ballet lessons from a hippopotamus.
Clayton and Cohen were twenty-seven and twenty-three years old.
Clayton later revealed the inspiration for Mickey: Clayton was a fan of “The Adventures of Pogo” comic strip by Walt Kelly. One of Clayton’s favorite “Pogo” characters was Churchill “Churchy” LaFemme, a mudturtle.
In September 1957 Mickey and Amanda shared the TV-radio page with another media power couple: Chet and David.
Like most celebrities, Mickey and Amanda made personal appearances before an adoring public. In October 1957 Mickey and Amanda appeared at an event hosted by a savings and loan association.
On November 24, 1957 M&A and their Cartoon Clubhouse shared the TV-radio page with another entertainer with local ties: Pat Boone.
And below Boone was a notice that on the Lux Show Rosemary Clooney would introduce brother Nick, father-to-be of George.
(This page is also a time capsule of ads for cafeterias of the era.)
Mickey and Amanda were so popular that by 1958, in addition to Cartoon Clubhouse at noon, they were hosting the eponymously entitled Mickey and Amanda show in the afternoon. Suddenly Clayton and Cohen were on the air two and a half hours a day. Poor Amanda required a new mouth once a month because her jaw plumb wore out.
There was a dash of Bart Simpson in Mickey, a dollop of Lisa Simpson in Amanda. Remember Mickey’s lusty Rebel yell? “Yeeeeeeeeeeeeee-haaaaa! Ha ha ha.” (In 1958 the centennial of the Civil War was still three years in the future.)
Clayton recalled that he and Cohen never used a script for their show. “Matter of fact, I wouldn’t know how to do a show with one,” Clayton said. “Everything was ad lib. Neither of us knew what the other was going to say. Hilda and I would meet about an hour beforehand to discuss what the puppets would do that day. We always had an adventure for them. If it was rainy, they’d come in wearing raincoats and play indoor games, draw and color pictures, make handpuppets or cutouts. If it was a clear day, they might go on a picnic. But we never wrote anything down.
“We also had to hunt for ways to make the kids laugh. We felt a sense of responsibility toward them and the parents because . . . we were babysitting for several thousand kids every day.”
Mickey and Amanda also acknowledged viewers’ birthdays. The pair would read from a book the name, age, and address of each child who had a birthday that day and then sing a birthday song set to the tune of “London Bridge.”
Channel 11 was not a big-budget operation. Just as off-camera employees appeared as the apes on Camfield’s Slam Bang Theater, off-camera employees appeared with Mickey and Amanda as “barefooted foot runners”: Blubber Forthman, Oily Earl, Captain Gator.
Even Clayton moonlighted: At six-foot-five, he occasionally appeared in a Frankenstein monster mask on Nightmare, hosted by Camfield as “Gorgon.”
A quarter-million people across Channel 11’s twenty-six-county viewing area watched the two M&A programs. Mickey and Amanda received three thousand fan letters a month. Fans sent Mickey dead flies (his favorite snack) and even jars of mud.
Mickey and Amanda made personal appearances at school carnivals, churches, club and scout meetings, hospital wards, grocery and department stores. They were celebrities, the zoological equivalent of the Kardashians.
But despite all that success, asked in 1958 what she hoped to be doing in five years, Hilda Cohen—who was still living at home with her parents—said: “I hope to be raising little possums of my own.”
(In the TV schedule grid above, note that between 5 and 6 p.m. all three network channels broadcast dance programs aimed at teens: Teen-age Downbeat, American Bandstand, and Party Time, which originated from KTVI in St. Louis with host George Edick. The show’s resident band, the Kings of Rhythm, was led by Ike Turner. In 1960 the band would become the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.)
For a while Cartoon Clubhouse was sponsored by Hill’s. Don’t remember Hill’s?
Neither do I. It was a small chain of “groceries and general merchandise” stores.
But on KFJZ the reign of Mickey and Amanda, the handpuppet power couple of Cowtown, ended in February 1961. North Texas youngsters mourned the loss of a cloth mudturtle and a cloth possum. (Photo from the August 10, 1958 Fort Worth Press.)
Dick Clayton married and moved to Denton to enroll at North Texas State University to earn a master’s degree. Hilda Cohen married and moved to Dallas.
And then, from Denton, came new hope for M&A fans. Seems that Mickey—not Amanda—had been playing possum! While Clayton was living in Denton, through his wife he met Janet McGill. In 1962 Clayton and McGill collaborated for a new incarnation of Mickey Mudturtle, albeit sans Amanda: Clayton was still Mickey, but McGill was Mickey’s twin sister Michelle. Mickey and Michelle would host Cartoon Capers on WBAP-TV.
Trouper that he was, Mickey continued to make personal appearances, now with twin sister Michelle.
(This page is another time capsule that shows Fort Worth’s options for entertainment and dining in 1962. You could watch the broncs buck at a rodeo in Colleyville or kick up your heels at National Hall, Ward’s Club, La Barn, Casino Ballroom, or Crystal Springs. You could eat at Holloway’s with M&M or at Jetton’s, Zuider Zee, Carlson’s, or Chicken Shack. At the movies you could see the King in Kid Galahad or the Duke in Hatari. You could watch I Spit on Your Grave, Premature Burial, or Dr. Blood’s Coffin. You could hear Jimmy Reed at the Skyliner or Little Al and His Hifis at the Rocket Club on Jacksboro Highway.)
Clayton insisted that the new incarnation of Mickey’s show still be performed live at Channel 5.
But, alas, the show aired on WBAP-TV for only a year.
Then Mickey (and Michelle) went Hollywood. Literally: From 1966 to 1968 Clayton hosted Mickey Mudturtle’s Fun Park, a cartoon show, on station KCOP-TV in Hollywood.
As for Hilda Cohen, she indeed fulfilled her wish of 1958: In 1964 she gave birth to Stephen Jules Linn, quite possibly the only child ever born of a TV newsman and a possum.
I’d like to think that Mickey would approve.