The Big Top set

Click on the image to see a larger version.

On Saturday, September 5th, 1953, WCAU-TV started broadcasting The Big Top, a circus for kids, on CBS-TV out of the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory at 32nd and Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia.

Seen in the above photo are members of the 276th Army Band, attached to the 111th Regimental Combat Team. In the foreground are Colonel Arthur D. Kemp, (on the left) commanding officer of the 111th Infantry Regiment, and Colonel Arthur D. Bertolett, (on the right) who commanded the 118th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Group.

Originally both Candy Carnival and the Big Top originated from the Camden site (Convention Hall, sometimes referred to as "the Armory"), which was destroyed by fire in June of 1953. Then both programs moved to the station's studios on City Line Avenue on a temporary basis. "Candy Carnival" worked out okay so the show remained there. However, "The Big Top" was just too large (sometimes there were over 350 people involved including the audience). After just a couple broadcasts, it moved to the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory. It remained there until the program went off the air.

Since The Big Top was sponsored by an ice cream company, Sealtest, everyone got ice cream for free. There were also balloons for many of the lucky visitors. This show aired Saturday from 12 noon until 1 pm on CBS-TV, originating from WCAU-TV. It was first broadcast on July 1, 1950 with the last airing in September of 1957. During that time, the program featured over 2,100 acts.

On Friday, December 25, 1953, there was a special Christmas Day live performance on CBS-TV from 3 o'clock until 4 pm. The show featured all the regulars plus a visit from a very tired Santa Claus. Also on that program was Professor George Keiler & His Jungle Killers, a teeter board act called "The Tokayers" and "The Coronas," a high wire act. Also featured were a trampoline routine by "The All-American Boys," Jugglers "The Rudenko Brothers" and Ricky Roy on the trapeze. A Bicycle act from Japan, "Yokoi Troupe" was on hand as well the Quaker City String Band. This broadcast came live from Philadelphia and WCAU-TV. On that same Christmas Day, the very next program on CBS-TV also originated from Channel 10, it was "Action in the Afternoon."

We know that at least from Saturday, September 30, 1950 to Saturday, December 2, 1950, The Big Top aired from 6:30 pm until 7:30 pm. Broadcast Pioneers member Charlie Higgins e-mails:

At the WCAU Retiree Luncheon today I brought up the subject of the 6:30 pm time slot and several fellows think that may have been correct in 1950 when it originated in Camden...."

Charlie got an e-mail from Fred (Skeets) O'Neill one of the WCAU-TV directors. Fred says:

I started work with WCAU working as a roustabout on The Big Top in the summer of 1950 when Paul Ritts and Joe Tinney were directing the Show, originating from the Camden, N. J. Convention Hall. There were times when we would work until midnight or later setting up the show, which aired ...the following day.

Old newspapers from that era show in their TV listing section that "The Big Top" was originally an early evening broadcast. By the way, Joseph L. Tinney was Vice-President of the WCAU stations and was Assistant General Manager. Jack Sterling was the ringmaster and Bob Russell was the barker for Sealtest (the sponsor). Regulars included local WCAU announcer Ed McMahon (his first national exposure) as a clown and also featured strongman Dan Lurie (Sealtest Dan, the Muscle Man) and bandleader Joe Basile. The program also spotlighted 6 foot, 9 inches tall, Bill Hart as a very huge clown. WCAU-TV President Charlie Vanda was the producer of the program. Charlie Higgins sent this e-mail...

I just found a CBS Television Network "Daily Operation Sheet" for Saturday, March 31, 1956, and it states that Big Top airs from 12:00:00 pm until the System Cue (CTN) at 12:59:25 pm.

The show was on the CBS-TV network. Charlie Higgins also wrote:

It required more than one crew to do Big Top. A crew consisted of 5 men, an audioman, two cameramen, a videoman, and a light and boom man or 3rd cameraman as needed. I have a Weekly Watch List for August 11th to August 17, 1956 (a Watch List is what a schedule was termed at WCAU. I suppose this harkened from the fact that Mr. Leitch was a Navy officer.) You always "stood a watch". Anyway, the Watch List indicates that on Saturday that two crews were working 7:00 am to 4 pm so they must be the crews for Big Top. And then there were additional Technicians assigned too to make up the complement of staff needed. Setup day for Big Top was on Fridays. I note I kept this Watch List because I was assigned from radio to Big Top that Saturday from 9am until 1pm when I would return to the radio studios for the remainder of my Watch that day.

My guess would be that another crew whose watch was 7:30 am to 4:30 pm was the studio crew that did Candy Carnival.

...(By the way) I refer to the long time Chief Engineer of WCAU, John G. Leitch. He was CE from 1928 until he retired in 1963. Under the Evening Bulletin, he was Vice President of Engineering for the WCAU Stations. He was very strict but very fair. No one ever addressed him other than Mr. Leitch with the exception of several Techs who knew him when they were shipboard radio operators and he was a Radio Inspector for the Federal Radio Commission. They were the only ones I ever heard call him Jack. Not even the Ass't. CE, George Lewis, addressed him that way.

We received this e-mail from a visitor to our site, Orland "Bud" Walker. Bud had worked with Jack Sterling, whose real name was Jack Sexton.

In 1934 Jack Sexton who later became Jack Sterling traveled with the Norma Ginnivan Dramatic Company, a tent show that traveled a circuit through south central Michigan and northwest Ohio. It's winter quarters were in Fayette, Ohio. It went out in May and came back in September. The troupe put on a 3-act play and in between the acts, did vaudeville. It brought entertainment to the small towns. My parents traveled with that show and I grew up on it. In 1934 I was 4 years old and Jack worked me into a comedy act with him being the straight man and they dressed me as a tramp and I did the punch lines. It became one of the features of the show. I don't know how many years Jack was with Norma (Ginnivan Dramatic Company). My Mother recognized Jack when he was doing "the Big Top show" and wrote to him. I have the letter that he returned to her and that was 1951. I heard him on the radio once. He ended his program by saying " This is Jack Sterling coming to you from inside Family Circle "

On Saturday, June 18, 1955, the guests on the program were: Excess Baggage, a dog act; The Virginions, a juggling act and The Aerial Winters, aerial gymnasts.

Bee Nonna, a visitor to our website told us about the show on August 11, 1956. She said that the acts included: Tell Teigan, a balancing act; Farias Duo with Roly Poly; Payton and Raye, acrobats; The Gregories, hoop jugglers; an elephant act with Captain Vidbel and Malikova with a high wire act.

In May of 1957, these acts appeared on the show, The Whirlwinds (Roller Skaters), The Barons (Acrobats) and The Albanis (Motorcycle aerialists). Jim Dziewik, a visitor to our website e-mailed: My aunt and uncle and cousin appeared on the television show The Big Top. They were a circus act called The Barons. (They were)...acrobatics with my cousin and uncle performing a pole act. ...Their real names were Jim and Pat Bredschneider.

On Saturday, June 29, 1957, Gene Crane substituted as ringmaster while Jack Sterling was on vacation. The guests on that show were: The Kayos Family, foot balancers; The Clyde Brothers Horses and The Lindners who were acrobats.

Ted Gerike, a visitor to our website (his wife's uncle is Les Waas, a member of the Board of Directors of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia) e-mailed: In 1952, I was a roustabout on the Sealtest Big Top. Jim Graham was a cameraman. Jess Schooley was the main AD (Assistant Director) and also in charge of the striking and setting crews. Fred Shimmen played the calliope. The Tommy Ferguson Trio (of "Action in the Afternoon" fame) was also involved. Every Saturday morning I would blow up 1,000 balloons on the air vent from the calliope. Sometimes, we would play touch football outside between the rehearsal and the airing of the show. Bill Hart was a great end. It was great fun! ...I worked the Friday set up for the "Big Top" and the Saturday show plus the M&M's Candy Carnival on Sundays. ...I am currently playing piano at the Society Hill Hotel at 3rd and Chestnut. I've been there for 21 years.

On Saturday, December 29, 1951, while channel 10 was airing the Big Top, WFIL-TV, Channel 6 aired two half-hour shows. The first was "Betty Crocker." It was described as a drama and interviews. The second program was "City Hospital Drama." WPTZ, Channel 3 was airing the second half of "Smilin' Ed's Gang," followed by "Tots and Tales," a children's program.

On Saturday, November 25, 1950, Jack Sterling was on WCBS Radio in New York from 5 am to 8 am. (The Big Top was broadcast live from WCAU-TV, Philadelphia at 6:30 pm that same day.) The story goes that WCAU-TV wanted local personality Ed McMahon (head clown on Big Top) to be the ringmaster. However, CBS, which owned WCBS Radio, had a very popular morning disc jockey. His name was Jack Sterling and he took over the hosting duties from Arthur Godfrey in the forties. In order to get Sterling to sign a new contract, they promised him some TV work. However, as time went on, they had no show for him. So the deal with WCAU-TV was that they could produce the show at the WCAU facilities, but needed to have Jack Sterling host the circus program. That's how Jack got the gig.

Charlie Gracie, Jr. tells us that his dad, Charlie Gracie, the fifties Rock & Roll Star ("Butterfly" & "99 Ways"), sang the Sealtest commercials (live) on "The Big Top." You remember. "Get the best, get Sealtest."

Bill Yerkes, a visitor to our website e-mailed:

I did the commercials on "The Sealtest Big Top." Probably around 1952-4. We'd rehearse the commercials at 6 am and then they would rehearse the circus part of the show and we'd go live at noon. One time, I was supposed to take a sip of milk and look at the camera and smile. Well, the milk had been sitting under the lights and it was sour. Of course I made a face. The Director said, "What's the matter Billy, don't you like the milk"? "We don't get this kind of milk at my house", I said. "We get Sylvan Seal." Well the "sponsor," the guy from the agency was over there like a shot and he tasted the milk and spit it out. "Get this kid some fresh milk", he hollered. We had free Sealtest delivered to our house for quite a while after that.

Dave Rush, a visitor to our website e-mailed:

I was very disappointed to find that my father'sname was not mentioned in the article. His name is Joseph Rush, now deceased, and he too was the strong man who advertised Sealtest during the early 1950's.

He worked for WCAU/CBS and not only did he perform as the strong man, he also did some live performances for the network. I was probably only 2 or 3 years old but I remember seeing him advertise Sealtest milk holding the quart between his huge bicep and wrist while making a muscle.

He took me to the circus at times and would have Ed McMahon, the clown, have his fun with me. I remember his big red nose the would blink! My father also was a hand balancer who along with Jimmy Gallagher called themselves the Rush Brothers and they were considered one of the best hand balancing acts in the metropolitan
area. They appeared in many of the Strength and Health magazines. I really don't know whether or not he was strong man before or after Dan Lurie, but I certainly do know that he was the STRONG MAN on the BIG
TOP.

4 Photos from the show in 1953

2 Clowns from the show - Ed McMahon & Chris Keegan

The show's control room

From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Text compiled and researched by Broadcast Pioneers historian Gerry Wilkinson
Additional information from Dan Lurie
© 2009, Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
All Rights Reserved

The e-mail address of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia is pioneers@broadcastpioneers.com