Blasting Off for the Top of the Christmas World!
A Search for Mr. Wrinkle Fuels Space-Age TV Holiday Memories
What would Christmas be without holiday TV specials? I have a fond, black-and-white memory of an old Christmas show for kids on KDKA television in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
As I recall, this program had a main character, Mr. Wrinkle, played by a very funny local guy named Sterling Yates, and the always-engaging Josie Carey was his sidekick. They had a rocket ship that somehow went to the North Pole. I loved the show but don’t remember a lot of specifics. Did they deliver letters to Santa or just send the rocket? Did it blast off every night? Could I find facts and pictures to justify this whole page about it?
I know that most early TV was ephemeral, broadcast into the air, never recorded, never repeated. So I didn’t look for tapes or kinescopes.
Sadly, both Sterling and Josie are dead, but I searched “mr wrinkle josie carey” on Google. Bingo! There’s a site called Pittsburgh Radio & TV Online (pbrtv.com), which includes some comments from a Will Kelton, who also remembers: “Along with the obligatory letters to Santa, there would be some threat to the holiday…reindeer couldn’t be found, not enough snow to make the trip, kids letters to Santa were stolen…I think the title of the show was ‘Mr. Wrinkle Goes to the North Pole.'”
Yes! I wasn’t crazy! But I wanted more.
You see, I knew Josie and worked with her, and she had amazing scrapbooks. So I called Josie’s daughter, Kathy Massucci, in California. She said the scrapbooks are in storage here in Pittsburgh but would be impossible to find unless she came here herself. That seemed too much to ask.
The Pennsylvania Department at Carnegie Library had some Josie clippings but nothing on Yates or Wrinkle.
I posted my search on Facebook, and friends responded, including one-time KDKA promotional wizard Arthur Greenwald, now in Los Angeles. He knew the Mr. Wrinkle holiday shows were sponsored by Horne’s Department Store. “Some years there was a running story line that involved Santa, but always plenty of plugs for the opportunity to meet Santa in person at Horne’s toy department.”
Arthur suggested I call “the legendary Aviva Radbord” at KDKA-TV’s newsroom, but Channel 2, like most TV stations, has spotty archives at best. Aviva said there were no photos or official history of such things.
I also checked with David Newell, also known as Mr. McFeely from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” because I knew he had some vintage photos of Josie. David gave me a phone number for Bob McCully, another great Pittsburgh entertainer and writer, who had been best friends with Sterling Yates.
I had never talked with McCully, but we chatted for a long time (even verifying a family legend that he had dated my mom before she married my dad), and he sang the praises of Sterling Yates as musician, comic and superb Sunday-morning jazz DJ. Mr. Wrinkle, an eccentric inventor, was just one of many characters that Yates invented for radio and TV.
Still I needed a picture of Mr. Wrinkle. I called Barbara Vancheri at the Post-Gazette, and she uncovered a vintage promotional photo. Perfect.
Then Aviva Radbord called back and said that John Fabac, a retired KDKA floor manager, was in the studio that day, and he worked on the Mr. Wrinkle shows in the ’50s and ’60s. So I called him. Yes, he helped make those “golden days of television.” He said the “Santa Claus” programs were short, featured lots of toys from Horne’s and had different story lines every year. John’s main message: “Sterling Yates was the most talented man I’ve ever worked with in all my years of television.”
Nonetheless, my affection for this old TV show still seemed excessive till I went to turn in this story at the offices of Pittsburgh magazine. Jan McEvoy, the art director, who designs this page (as well as other sections of the magazine), started jumping up and down when she heard I was writing about my Mr. Wrinkle memories. She remembered him – and the Christmas rocket – and then several other folks at the magazine (all of us about the same age) started chiming in too. Lots of us remember. We get buzzed by that crazy joy of shared memories, the joy that so often brightens holiday events.
So now I’m hoping to bottle some of that energy, find a vintage rocket, put this page in the nose cone and send it off to the North Pole. Mr Wrinkle invented a potent Pittsburgh holiday tradition.
Rick Sebak’s special “Happy Holidays in Pittsburgh” and his latest documentary, “Right Beside the River,” are just two great gift ideas available at Shop WQED. Call 800/274-1307 or visit shopwqed.org.
Rick Sebak produces, writes and narrates documentaries for WQED tv13, as well as national specials for PBS. His programs are available online or call 800/274-1307.