Born in Philadelphia, Warren began his broadcast career at WCAU Radio in Philadelphia following a short acting career in a stock company at the 69th Street Playhouse in Upper Darby. He was hired by Stan Lee Broza, our organization's first president, who was the Program Manager for WCAU Radio at that time.
In 2000, Warren told us that he left stage acting because someone told him that radio acting was so much easier because you didn't have to memorize everything. You just read from the script.
During his interview with Broza, Stan Lee asked him if he could do a southern accent. Wright said, sure and was sent down to Studio 6B at the old 1622 Chestnut Street studios of WCAU. The show went on the air that evening over the old "Dixie Network" which was the CBS link to the south.
In 1937, he was contacted by Philco (they called him at WCAU Radio) to bring the entire cast of a church play he was directing to the Philco plant and W3XE, one of the first experimental television stations in the nation, now KYW-TV. It was Philly’s first TV station. Shortly thereafter, he became Program Manager for the upstart television outlet.
(Left to right) Warren Wright with two technicians
W3XE Control Room
After serving in World War II in the signal corp, he returned to WCAU in 1948 as a producer-director (and eventually executive producer) and later became known to children throughout the Philadelphia area when he created Willie the Worm for WCAU-TV, Channel 10 in Philadelphia. Willie aired over WCAU-TV from about 1950 to 1959. The program also aired nationally for a quarter of a year on the CBS Television Network. The network show also originated live from WCAU-TV.
Willie the Worm
April 30, 1953
One day, Warren Wright just happened past the PD's (Program Director) office at Channel 10 and was called in. He was told that the station had just purchased some old cartoons. They would start running them soon and the PD said that Wright was to host the broadcast from the announce booth over a slide. Warren thought that was a terrible idea. He said that the show should be hosted by some kind of puppet. The PD dismissed the idea and sent Warren Wright on his way.
A little while later, Wright was called back to the Program Director's office and told that he was right. The show will be hosted by a puppet. He wanted Warren to host the show and make the puppet. Shortly thereafter, the puppet show started on WCAU-TV, Channel 10 in Philadelphia. It was called "Willie the Worm." Willie was made from parts purchased at Pep Boys for a total cost of about five dollars.
Both Wright and Willie became icons. By the way, Willie had an off-camera assistant who projected the cartoons. He was Newton the Mouse. Wright said that Newton was used to give a verbal cue to the director to do a specific thing, like roll the cartoon.
In December of 1951, Harry Harris (a member of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia) and the Evening Bulletin selected "Junior Hi-Jinx" with Willie the Worm as the "Best Local Children's Show."
Wright didn't use a puppet voice but his own normal voice. He had three children and none of them knew he was the voice of "Willie the Worm" until a neighbor told them.
Warren said that the show was so popular that the station gave him the right to refuse commercials on the program, if Wright thought them to be improper.
In our 2000 interview with Warren Wright, he recalled that he was Broadcast Pioneers member John Facenda's very first director. He mentioned that he also did alot of directing for Broadcast Pioneers member Jack Whitaker.
Broadcast Pioneers member (and former President) Herb Clarke recalled to us recently about his very first day at WCAU-TV as the Atlantic Richfield weatherman. He arrived to find his "service station's uniform" unwashed and not pressed. Warren saved the day by taking it personally to a 60 minute dry cleaner.
Broadcast Pioneers member Gene Crane e-mailed us from his new house in Mexico:
In those early days of TV, 1948, we all did different things to get involved. Warren Wright was actually an Executive Producer.
He produced two of my network shows for CBS; “Grand Chance Roundup” and “Candy Carnival.” But one day he came in with an idea for a puppet show. He bought a piece of automotive accordion-like equipment, gave it eyes and a mouth, put glasses on it and a cute little hat, lo and behold, Willie The Worm was born.
At one point, his afternoon program was one of the highest rating shows on the schedule. He also did a Saturday morning cartoon program which I co-starred with him called Cartoon Carnival. The creation of this soft-spoken little puppet was a stroke of genius on Warren's part.
He was very particular about protecting his identity as the hand and voice behind Willie. He had a friend, Newton the Mouse, with whom he held one-way conversations. We never saw or heard Newton. When Warren left us, he headed for Indiana.
During 1959 (shortly after the station’s takeover by CBS) Willie the Worm was cancelled and Wright moved on to Indianapolis, Indiana to become program director for what was then WFBM-TV.
In 1969, he was given the challenge to bring public television to the city of Indianapolis. He served as general manager (their first) of WFYI Channel 20 during its initial operations. He subsequently owned and managed WNON radio in Lebanon, Indiana until his retirement.
(Left to right) Willie the Worm & Actor Gene Lockhart
Warren Wright was a member of Trinity Episcopal Church where he served on the Vestry Committee and the Board of St. Richard’s School. He was active with the Indianapolis Civic Theater and the Indianapolis Shakespeare Festival. For 12 years, Warren served as president of the Wynnedale Town Council and as board member of the Legal Aid Society for 32 years.
Warren Wright passed away on Thursday, July 21, 2005 in Indianapolis. He is survived by his wife Vivian, sons Skeeter, Christopher and Brian, and 8 grandchildren.
On April 18, 2000, we spoke with Warren Wright about his career here in Philadelphia. It was our very first program of our webcast, "Pioneers in Broadcasting."
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
W3XE Photo originally donated by Norm Gagnon and the GGN Website
1953 Willie photo originally donated by "Action in the Afternoon" Director, Bill Bode
1954 Willie photo originally donated by Broadcast Pioneers member Herb Clarke
Researched and written by Broadcast Pioneers member Gerry Wilkinson
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