Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Art of Reinvention

As with most kids, Halloween was a favourite time of the year for the McNea brood. Every year, they would dash around in a tizzy trying to figure out what they wanted to be for the night. But, Bobby knew. He’d run from room to room gathering together oversized odds and ends of clothing, mismatched socks, size 12 shoes that his dad didn’t wear anymore (a different one for each foot), and of course, a jacket just like Charley Chaplin’s. He’d gleefully rummage through his mother’s makeup drawer collecting stubby, neglected eyebrow pencils, creamy rouge pots that had seen better days and gaudy red lipstick which was no longer fashionable, mumbling to himself  “Someday, I’ll save enough money to buy real greasepaint!” Never mind; with a little baby powder, coal dust and imagination he had all the trappings he needed transform into a comedic character. He’d clamor down to the kitchen carrying all his paraphernalia, lay the garments on the floor, line up the cosmetic booty along the counter, climb up on a stepping stool next to the sink and glare into the cracked mirror that hung on the wall. In the late afternoon, if he was lucky, the sun’s rays would blaze through the back door window, hitting his face at just the right angle. With pencil in hand, he’d steadily outline the tip of his nose, and then carefully fill it in with rouge. His mouth, with an outline drawn far beyond his natural lip line, received the same treatment. Of course, he knew if he wasn’t careful, both the rouge and lipstick would create a shadowy facial aftermath that his friends would taunt him for, so he’d slather on a generous layer of Ponds Cold Cream before “painting his face”. The pre-pubescent crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes received a trilogy of black lines; then a dimple dot on his chin completed the look. Brush on a light layer of baby powder, a couple of strategically placed coal smudges and voila! Bobby would reinvent himself into Popo-Nay.  

Once the war started in 1939, a daily 9:00 p.m. curfew was implemented for anyone under 16. The only exception to that rule was on Halloween, when the YMCA held a party allowing the costumed kids to stay out past the clampdown.

 All the miniature witches, ghosts, ghouls and goblins in town went to the bash to show off their costumes, play games, drink pop or Krim-Ko, eat candy and generally goof around. When the contest for best costume was over, which Bobby won that year, the kids frantically poured out the front doors of the Y to trick or treat their way through the nearby neighborhood. An hour or so later; cotton ticking pillow cases overflowing with goodies, they ran home, stashed their loot, then wandered back out into the darkness to door knock at the big houses on Roseberry Place.

Mr. Smith lived in that neighbourhood. He was a loud, gregarious guy who always had a cigar hanging out of his mouth and enjoyed kibitzing with the kids. Trick or treater’s were expected to perform before he’d give them any goodies. When it was his turn, Bobby took off his coat, gave it a shake, brushed it off, folded it neatly, placed it on the floor and then wiped his feet on it. “Taaa-Daaaa!” He took a bow and held out his pillow sack. 

Old man Smith yanked the stinky stogy out of his mouth, bowled over coughing and belly laughing at the same time, and then threw an extra candy in Bobby’s bag. “You’re good kid Bobbie. Come on back tomorrow. I have a paying job for you.” Old man Smith must have been so impressed with his shenanigans that Bobby imagined that the next day would be spent show casing his comedic talents with his Charlie Chaplin routine on that very porch while an audience of adoring admirers applauded wildly. As his mind started to wander into a fantasy world of fame and fortune, Mr. Smith added, “, Bobby, make sure you wear warm work clothes. Maybe a hat, gloves…and bring your wagon with you. Hope that lipstick wipes off when you get home tonight! Try rubbing it with a little vegetable oil.” Quickly catapulted back to reality, Bobby was still curious to see what was in store for him the next day. “Yes sir, see you after school.”
As it turns out, he was hired to wander up and down the town alleys, gather discarded wooden crates and haul them over to the Smith house where he was paid five cents apiece.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Charlie Chaplin, Bob McNea and the Elizabeth Street Theatre

The McNea children’s father, Bill was an accountant for the liquor control board in the 30’s. Unfortunately, when the Conservative government lost power to the Liberals back then, he and several other employees lost their jobs.

Bill McNea

No worries, Bill changed careers, becoming a professional milkman complete with a horse drawn wagon. One of the products he delivered for a dairy in town was a chocolate milk flavoured drink sold in miniature glass bottles called “Krim-Ko”. The dairy promoted the beverage by offering a prize for whoever saved the most bottle caps. Of course, the McNea kids had an advantage over the other collectors in town.

Not only did their dad quickly became the local #1 salesman for the Krim-Ko brand, but the kids acquired enough of the bottle caps to win top prize; a genuine hand crank 16mm movie projector with focusing lens. The projector speed could be adjusted depending on how fast the crank was turned. 

The prize also included Charlie Chaplin and Chester Conklin’s 1914 silent film “Dough and Dynamite” in which Chaplin and Conklin work as bakers. One hilarious scene in particular stood out for the kids. Chaplin waddles into one of the “oven” scenes, hastily (yet delicately) removes his coat, brushing and neatly folding it. Suddenly he throws it on the floor and proceeds to wipe his shoes off on it.

Decades later, Bob and his son Mike would use this particular film character as inspiration for developing “Billy Baker” in the Oopsy the Clown TV show.

Well, word spread fast in St. Thomas that the McNea kids had won the Krim-Ko prize projector, with the neighborhood gang around Elizabeth Street wanting to see the film. After a bit of brainstorming, Bobby determined that it could be lucrative to turn the McNea basement into a movie house. He gathered up wooden orange crates from the neighbourhood, dragged them down the stairs, and created a seating area.

Getting to the basement was a challenge to say the least since the entrance was through a trap door located on the pantry floor inside the house. Bobby knew that his mother Pearl wouldn’t think of allowing line-ups of kids to wander through her kitchen, so he had to figure out another way to get the audience into his “theatre”. As fate would have it, a mountain of coal, which was designated as furnace fuel, was soon delivered through the basement window creating a marvelous, albeit rocky, slide down to the dirt floor. After a few test runs, Bobby knew he could turn that coal into diamonds because movie goers would enjoy such a dramatic entrance!   

Bobby announced to his chums that the movie would be shown on specific days for a one cent admission fee. Kids came in droves, shimmying down the filthy hill of coal onto the damp basement floor. Interesting that his parents never said anything negative about the enterprise, nor did the young audience members get into trouble from their parents for arriving home with head-to-toe dirty clothes. After a few movie showings the coal heap dwindled in size and was eventually used up. Not to be discouraged, Bobby simply reconfigured the orange crates into a window staircase, but then they were used to start the furnace.

While recounting this childhood story decades later, Bob was asked what he did with the money he made from his first business venture. “The home theatre business was quite lucrative for a few weeks; until the neighborhood kids realized that I only had one film, which they’d all seen. What did I do with the money? Why, I spent my hard earned cash on black ball candy and then stood in front of a mirror making faces while watching my tongue change colour when I popped them in my mouth!”

Classic Detroit Kid`s show heroes, with Bob McNea as Bozo, early 1960`s

Here`s a must watch watch! Early 1960`s Bozo sketch with Bob McNea and all his buddies, Captain Jolly, Johnny Ginger, Sagebrush Shorty, Ricky the Clown, Larry Sands and Jerry Booth. Thank you Ed Golick! You are truly Detroit`s guru of Classic Detroit Kid`s shows!

Click here:

Sunday, 8 February 2015

When The Circus Came To Town

Bob McNea’s interest in clowning was sparked by a picture of a clown that he saw in a tabloid magazine.

(left to right) Bill, Shirley, Bob McNea 1937
Photo courtesy of Sumfun Productions Inc.
All rights reserved.

“When I was about 9 years old, I saw a clown picture of Felix Adler that really hooked me. Perhaps the reason I was so taken by a picture of a clown is that I was looking for something happy for a little boy as the great depression was playing all over the country."  

Felix was known as the "King of Clowns", performing for more than 20 years on the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey show. Years later, Bob bought a suitcase full of Adler's old clown boots clown for $20.00 and wore them whenever he performed!   

St. Thomas was a railroad town. The McNea family lived a short block south of the main line where the New York Central passed through.  Further to the north lay the tracks of the Wabash and on the other side of town to the south was the Chesapeake and Ohio rail lines. On top of all these tracks, the London and Port Stanely (L&PS) electric trains cut across each of the main lines.

During the 30’s strangers were often seated at the McNea family dinner table for a meal; many of these people were “riding the rods” (hitching a ride on a freight train). Often little Bobby’s mother would make up a sandwich or two for anyone else who knocked on the door because they were hungry.

Many of the major circus shows had been travelling by train since the early 1800’s with crew hands changing shifts in the town. During the stop overs, mud shows would set up their big tops and perform for the residents, a common event that everyone looked forward to.

On September 15th, 1885 P.T. Barnum’s famous elephant Jumbo was unceremoniously hit by a train and killed at a busy St. Thomas railway junction. Jumbo was the star attraction of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, which was performing a stopover show that day. Folk lore has it that Jumbo's demise was the result of him courageously attacking an approaching locomotive because it was about to hit another show elephant named Tom Thumb.

A local photographer Thomas Scott took a photo of the carcass as it lay by the tracks the next day, which was published worldwide.

Townspeople have always been fascinated by this event. There was a “Jumbo Ice Cream Parlor” back in the 30’s were folks bought a 2 scoop cone for 5¢. 

Local retailer Edger H. Flach, owner of a popular jewelry store in town, witnessed the train collision with Jumbo when he was a little boy. Every year on the anniversary day he would decorate the store window with black crepe and display one of Jumbo’s toe nails, which he claimed to have retrieved at the scene.

In 1935, the town was abuzz with the announcement that there would be a 50th anniversary event in honour of Jumbo. Local politician and one time boxer George Lang commissioned the St. Thomas Metal Signs Company to design 125 signs depicting Jumbo to be placed on each lamp post along Talbot Street during the upcoming summer “old home week” celebrations at the beginning of July that year. Town residents were excited to learn that the limited edition signs were going to be available for the public to purchase for $1.00.  

The signs were erected during night on Tuesday June 15th, however, by day light the following morning, 22 had been stolen. Over the next few days all the signs disappeared and by Thursday morning, every pachyderm in the herd had vanished!! Bob had the opportunity to touch on of these green “hot” metal signs 50 years later on the 100th anniversary of the demise of Jumbo in 1985. The vendor was asking $125.00 for it.  

To this day, if you enter St. Thomas from the west end of town and drive up the Talbot street hill, look to your right where an enormous cement statue of Jumbo was erected in 1985.  The view is reported to be the same sight the freight train engineer saw 100 years ago.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Guess what????

Oopsy Daisy!! 23,432 blog views to date world wide!!! Check out for more photos and fun!