On Saturday, July 5, 2003, a legend in our industry passed away, Chief Halftown.
He always preferred the word "Indian" to the politically correct "Native American." Traynor Ora Halftown was 100% Seneca Indian. Born on the reservation on Saturday, February 24, 1917 in upstate New York, Chief Halftown always started his television broadcast with "Ees da sa sussaway" which was Seneca for "Let us begin" or "Let's get started." The idea was actually his mom's. He just wanted to say, "roll the cartoon."
Halftown grew up in Buffalo, just a couple dozen miles away from the Seneca reservation where both of his parents were born. Chief got his middle name, Ora, from his dad. That was his father's first name. His dad worked as a professional middleweight boxer and mill worker while his mother, Katie stayed at home as a "housemaid" as she liked to be called. His grandfather toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
Halftown started his legendary channel 6 broadcasts a couple days after Labor Day of 1950. Upon "retiring" in 1999, he had spent 50 years (a half-century) on WFIL-TV that later became WPVI. It is the longest running local TV children's show in the history of the world. Not bad for a guy who was hired for a six-week series.
On his broadcasts and public appearances, Chief Halftown always dressed in full Indian costume. This included a full-feathered bonnet, beads, and buckskin. The show started out as an inexpensive cartoon vehicle and within weeks, Halftown was a star. Eventually, the Chief also included lessons dealing with tribal folklore, customs, language, crafts and chants.
Chief Halftown almost always worked in front of a live on-set audience of kids. However, Halftown early on wanted to be the next crooner like Frank Sinatra. While in high school, he was performing as "The Singing Seneca" in local nightspots earning ten or fifteen dollars a night. He did some big band singing with Buddy Wilson's Band at New York City's Glen Park shows and "had a fabulous voice" said friend Sally Starr, also a legend on channel 6. Sally said, "he was a successful nightclub singer and had a much in demand lounge act." He loved to visit nursing homes where he would lead group sing-alongs.
The Second World War put a halt to his performances with Buddy Wilson. After his discharge from the service in 1946, he went looking for singing gigs in Harrisburg. They were few and far apart. He needed steady work and filled in an application for a toll taker job on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. However, before he mailed it in, he received a notice from a Philly radio station.
Halftown was also a top, professional bowler and was a spokesman for the Brunswick Bowling Manufacturing Corporation. At the age of 15 in Jamestown, NY, Halftown worked as a pin boy, someone who loaded the bowling pins into the equipment. While stationed in the Army at the base located in Carlisle, PA, he competed on a three-state championship team. He continued bowling even while on channel 6. One night, he was asked to substitute for another player, and a large crowd gathered. He bowled well and became part of the team. During the 1957-58 season, his team won the city's major league title. Because of this, Brunswick signed him as part of their "pro staff."
Halftown also worked as a teenage errand runner and water carrier for circus elephants. Many also recall seeing Chief Halftown at his numerous public appearances like "Dutch Wonderland."
He stood 6 feet, 3 inches tall. Chief Halftown once stated: I had an offer from WDAS (radio in Philadelphia) to be a DJ in 1949. Grady and Hurst (two other local legends) were already doing their bit. In a year, the station was sold and… I was out of a job.
Speaking of the TV career, the Chief mentioned I had no idea what it would come to, but I vowed that I would be myself. I wouldn't talk like a Hollywood Indian. I was surprised at the success of the show. …I made it clear that I was an Indian and no one was to tell me how to be an Indian. I was always disturbed that in the movies, you never saw an Indian laugh. Do into an Indian home or reservation, and the first thing you would do is hear laughter. I had firm, loving parents, so I was not going to be a dull Indian. …I've never considered myself a celebrity. …I always like best what I'm doing at the time.
When he first applied for the channel 6 program, he had no gear so he went to a Chestnut Street costume shop to rent one. He came a long way.
For years, Chief Halftown and his wife, Margaret lived in Glen Mills, PA. A couple years ago, the Halftowns moved to the shore to be near their three children. On Friday, November 19, 2004, Chief Halftown was inducted into our "Hall of Fame." To Chief Halftown, all the kids who ever watched say "Nya-wey." That means thanks in Seneca.
Diane Kirlin Murphy, a visitor to our website e-mailed: I had been invited to appear as a guest on his show with another little girl as a Philadelphia Poster Child for the March of Dimes and remember doing the "live" commercial with him for Ovaltine during the show. I'll never forget it till this day. The Chief offered me the chocolate drink and I refused it saying, "No thank you, I like Hershey chocolate." Well, I thought my mother would die; and others found it quite funny! That's my big claim to fame on the Chief Halftown's show. I always tell this story. As a Philadelphia Poster Child, I made a lot of public appearances on behalf of the March of Dimes to raise awareness for donations and the fight against polio. My name was Diane Kirlin; the other little girl who appeared with me was also named Diane, but I don't remember her last name. She was a cute little blond; and I was the cute brunette; we were about the age of six.
For three days in January of 1957, WFIL-TV, Channel 6 was kept in an uproar as studio technicians and zoo keepers tried to cage a parrot lent by the Philadelphai Zoo for Chief Halftown’s children's program. The bird, believed tame, took off when the Chief took it out of the cage to show it on camera. For the next 72 hours, it perched on rafters, scorning food and drink. Someone finally got the idea of turning out all the lights so the bird might go to sleep. It did. They climbed a ladder and captured the little guy while napping.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Photos originally donated by Sally Starr & WPVI-TV
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