Big Jon and Sparkie
"Big Jon and Sparkie" was the name of a radio show in the 1950's. It inspired many children's television shows and certainly left an unforgettable mark on me.
The title characters were the co-hosts of the show broadcast on Saturday morning network radio about 8:00am. The show began the same every week with the Jon shouting proudly, "No School Today". My brother was a religious listener and since we shared a bedroom so was I. It was the model for the "Howdy Doody Show" which would dominate Saturday morning television only a few years after "Big Jon and Sparkie". It was mainly an entertainment show, but it also attempted to teach some basic information as well. That was a very radical concept for that time 20 years before Sesame Street.
Big Jon and Sparkie hosted a cast of different characters. One I remember well was Little Orley. He was a little nature boy character and had various adventures. The voice behind the character was Hugh "Lumpy" Brannum who later became Mr. Greenjeans, one of my television heros on the "Captain Kangaroo Show".
Sparkie was actually the sped up recorded voice of Jon Arthur. A technique exploited by Dave Seville a few years later with his hit records of "Alvin and the Chipmunks".
To a television generation there is no way to describe how the imagination of a child can expand when listening to a radio show. You have your very own idea of what the characters look like. They are perfectly cast because they are only visualized in your mind. I remember listening in bed, starring at the ceiling watching my own version of the "Big Jon and Sparkie" Show in my brain. For this reason it was no small event when the radio station advertised that "Big Jon and Sparkie" were coming to make a personal appearance at a theater in Lubbock, Texas twenty minutes from where I lived.
It was a fully realized performance. The set looked like a typical living room, with a couple of doors and windows up stage. I remember Jon came out first and told everyone he was looking for Sparkie. The audience could see Sparkie peaking through the windows but he was always gone when Jon looked.
As Jon went off stage to look for Sparkie, Sparkie came on the stage. He was a large string puppet, maybe 36 inches tall. His overalls were scarlet red, his shirt jet black and he had brown "carved hair". He stayed mainly to the back of the set. He went off to look for Jon as Jon came on stage and missed him, again. They seemed to take turns coming out and missing the other one for most of the show. It was only at the end that they came out together and sang a song. What a vivid memory that has never faded over the years.
I think that my first character "SQUEAKY" was an attempt to recreate Sparkie. Even the names are similar. I was fascinated with the idea of speeding up a tape recorder and creating that munch kin voice and created endless "radio" shows on an old Ampex reel to reel tape recorder my Dad let me use. All of those interests I trace back to the hours of imagination Jon and Sparkie provided me as a kid. Truly one of the inspirations to my life's work.
That's all I know about Jon and Sparkie. I wonder if Jon is still around? If anyone knows more about the show or Jon please e-mail me. And... Jon if you happened to be reading this ...Thank you very much. I believe you are an unsung genius and a talent ahead of your time.
Note: I guessed I always hoped that Jon Arthur aka "Big Jon and Sparkie" would read this article some day. Unfortunately, I find that Jon Arthur passed away in 1983. I am grateful to Thad McKinney, Western Regional Manager of Family Radio for taking the time to write me about his friend and associate "Big Jon". Evidently there are several of us who regarded Jon Arthur as a hero.
Mr. McKinney also sent the address of a web site about Jon and Sparkie. There are pictures of a live performance like the one mentioned above, for while there was an actual recording of the opening of his radio show. Hearing those voices again after so many years was an incredible experience. I become 5 years old one last time feeling the unequaled joy of realizing "THERE'S NO SCHOOL TODAY". Thank you very much Thad McKinney.