Where broadcasters are concerned, my definition of the word “pioneer” is one who wrote the rules before we had any rules.
Few pioneers stay the course in one city any more. The television business is far too migrant.
When the era of daily children’s shows ended, a part of the childhood of baby boomers was decimated. Author Tim Hollis documented more than 1,400 local children’s shows airing from the early 1950s through the 1980s. The hosts of these shows, usually playing a fictional character, became surrogate mothers and fathers to the thousands of kids they entertained and taught in television’s golden era.
Baby boomers in South Georgia, where I grew up, still fondly remember Ranger Hal (Henry Baron) and Skipper Ed (Ed McCullers) in Jacksonville, Captain Mercury (Grady Shadburn) in Albany, Miss Patsy (Patsy Avery) and Colonel Chick (Chick Autry) in Columbus, and the immortal Cap’n Sandy (Joe Cox) in Savannah.
In my town of Jackson, Tn., a call came to my house Saturday morning that I knew ultimately would bring some sad news.
Doris Freeman, the first woman broadcaster in Jackson and West Tennessee history, passed away peacefully at the age of 91. Her grandson Brad Little said, “Her body finally just gave out.”
Few people in Jackson called her Doris. In the 1940s, as a performer on radio and on old-time hillbilly shows, Doris created a character, Cousin Tuny, that became a Tennessee legend. Tuny could have been the cousin or little sister of her friend and Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl. Tuny’s attire and performing style were subsidiaries of Minnie.
“I was really born Tuny and Tuny was me,” she told me in an interview for a documentary I did on her life and career in 2001.
Her brother-in-law Aaron Robinson put WDXI on the air in 1945. Robinson hired Doris as one of his first advertising account executives.
She definitely could sell. However, her personality was too entertaining to leave at the ad table. She reported news. She read the noontime hog report. She sang on both a big band and a country music show.
In 1955, Doris filed for the FCC license to add television to WDXI’s portfolio on Channel 7. Robinson studied the landscape of local television. He felt he needed an afternoon children’s program to connect with the community and attract advertisers.
“The Cousin Tuny Show” was born with a ranch-style set and room for up to 20 kids to make their TV debuts. With a tacky hat, a red-checkered dress and pantaloons, Tuny became a second mother to children from up to 60 miles from Jackson.
Birthday parties, church children’s gatherings and school groups were on waiting lists to spend an afternoon with Tuny. So popular was the 90-minute kidfest that the show had to be moved to a movie theater stage across the street from WDXI’s downtown studios.
“We had our cartunies, as I called them,” Tuny said. “But I wanted to teach children much more.”
After the theme song, an old creation called “Doll Dance,” opened each episode of “The Cousin Tuny Show,” Tuny greeted the boys and girls in the studio and at home, then immediately led the pledge to the flag.
“Every day, I told the children on the show and all the ‘little cousins’ at home to say their prayers, clean their plates, mind their parents, and love everybody,” she said. “We said the blessing every day before we had our milk and cake. You won’t find that on television any more.”
For 11 years, “The Cousin Tuny Show” was appointment TV for children—most of whom are at least in their sixties today, some of whom Tuny outlived. In 1966, a fateful turn was a carbon copy of what happened to many kids show hosts across the nation.
WDXI was sold to Cy Bahakel Broadcasting of Charlotte, N.C. Tuny began to see the handwriting on the wall from the station’s new general manager Jerry Quick.
“He told me, ‘We want you to continue doing the show but we want to cut it to a half-hour. You’ll produce it and host it, sell it and answer all the mail. We’ll give you one dollar for every commercial.’
“I thought about it and I said, to have any content you couldn’t have any more than six commercials. That meant $6 a show—-$30 a week,” she said. “I told him, ‘You know I don’t know what in the world I would do with all that money.’ It was obvious he was the hatchet man and they wanted the show off the air.”
Three months later, in early 1967, Tuny finished her Friday afternoon show. Quick came onto the set after the cameras went dark. “Thanks a lot, Tuny, it’s been great,” she recalled him saying.
Stunned, Tuny asked, “What do you mean?” She was told, “This was the last show.” Still in shock, she said, “I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to the children at home.” In virtual condescension, she was told, “Well, that’s the way it is.”
As was the case with scores of her colleagues in children’s television, Tuny was not given the dignity of a farewell show. When callers flooded the station the following Monday, they were told Tuny “is going on to other things,” or “we’re just not going to have it any more.”
While Jackson was a one-station television market, local stations in Memphis and Nashville had begun attaching themselves to the popularity of 90-minute afternoon talk shows hosted by Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. Mike and Merv had strong appeal to women. Moms began to control the television sets in late afternoons. Kids were sent outside to play in increasing numbers rather than spend the pre-sunset period with their favorite local TV character. Mike or Merv were a lock for an hour and a half of local and regional commercials at prices higher than a children’s show could bring.
“The Cousin Tuny Show” was history. Over 12 years, the daily broadcast became an institution and made Doris Freeman an institution. Viewers were beyond angry at the show’s departure but the outsider ownership and management could not have cared less.
As for Tuny, you could not keep her down. She was in constant demand to make personal appearances all over West Tennessee despite losing the television show.
Doris Freeman was also a first-class businesswoman. She eventually became marketing director and general manager of Old Hickory Mall in Jackson.
In the late 1960s, she began emceeing an annual telethon to raise money for Jackson’s Cerebral Palsy Center. She had a heart for the children whose lives had left them with physical challenges. From 1976-88, Jackson native Wink Martindale loaned his name to the telethon. Tuny was there at every one of them.
In the ‘90s and the ‘00s, I co-hosted 16 of those telethons with her. She taught me more about broadcasting than I learned in my entire four years at Valdosta State College and The University of Georgia.
Tell Tuny, “We need to fill four minutes and 18 seconds,” and she would fill it to the second with intelligence and wit. If you told her to fill four hours and 18 minutes, she could have done the same thing.
In 1981, Tuny teamed with rockabilly music legend Carl Perkins to do a second annual telethon for the Exchange Club Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse. I did nine of those with Tuny and Carl until his death.
In 1990, I was named news director of WBBJ (the former WDXI) in Jackson. For a variety of reasons I will soon discuss on this blog, I lapsed into depression in the summer of 1991. I managed to force myself to attend a media luncheon to preview that year’s Carl Perkins Telethon. I sat next to Tuny, who had only known me for about a year.
“Something’s not right, is it?” she asked. Ordinarily, I would have deferred answering that question honestly. However, if Tuny called you “cuz,” you could guarantee you were friend for life. I told her, “No it isn’t.” She knew the intense pressure I was under to rebuild a news department that had been virtually left unattended for eight months as the station searched for a news director and general manager. The resources were not nearly enough to do the job right. I was exhausted, overworked and folding quickly.
Tuny took me back to her office at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital where she was public relations director. “I want you to take this book, but don’t just set it on your coffee table or your shelf. Read it,” she said. I might have otherwise done what she suspected. Instead, I read the inspirational book by Og Mandino. In short, he offered a message that the road back from depression includes letting go of the guilt one feels for being in that condition. Months of medication and therapy, as well as clinging to the Bible for encouragement, finally brought me back from the depths. Yet, the book Tuny loaned me planted a note of hope in me that I needed to stop blaming myself for the emotional straights I was experiencing.
That’s the kind of person she was. If one of my reporters was feeling a sense of discouragement, Tuny was often a mother counselor. Pam Nash, long-time director of the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, told me Saturday, “Tuny was my confidant. I can’t tell you the number of times when something wasn’t going right and we’d sit on her porch. We’d talk things out and she’d help me figure out an answer.”
For children who didn’t grow up in the “Cousin Tuny Show” era, Doris’s identity as Tuny continued through the telethons.
In 1999 and 2004, we had two chances to revisit television history. The telethon producers surprised Tuny midway through the nine-hour fundraiser 17 years ago by re-creating the old Cousin Tuny set, complete with cartoon characters on the backdrop and 20 children to interact with a master of children’s entertainment.
A Jackson woman had even uncovered a brief silent 8mm color film of the day she had appeared on “The Cousin Tuny Show” at least 35 years earlier.
Tuny was at her best, acting as a female Art Linkletter. “Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked one child. “Nope” was the quick response. “Yes she does,” came a response from across the set. “She has two.” Tuny, still quick on the rejoinder, asked, “Isn’t that just like a bunch of women?”
Twelve years ago, Jackson Energy Authority entered the broadband internet/cable business. As a professor of broadcast journalism at Union University, I entered into an agreement with the good people of JEA to provide news, sports and special programming for EPlusTV6, the local cable channel, as part of a laboratory for my students.
That first December in 2004, as a final project for fall semester, we recruited 14 children of Union University parents, built an inexpensive set, and my students learned a bundle by producing “The Cousin Tuny Christmas Show.”
We brought in a cake, milk and orange juice. Tuny worked with producer April Houston and my crew with a basic outline of what she wanted to do. As in every single one of her shows in 12 years on Channel 7, Tuny had no script.
“I did it from my heart,” Tuny said. “I knew that children could see right through you if you were just reading off a Teleprompter. You had to communicate with love and kindness. You can’t do that with a script.”
We produced five 60-second snippets of my on-air students working with children to produce craft and gift ideas for Christmas. They were inserted as breaks into Tuny’s special. When she saw the final project, she loved the inserts because they maintained the Christmas theme of the show.
One dark period in the ’00s taught a few people a great lesson. You don’t mess with an institution in a small television market.
A new executive director was hired to run the Cerebral Palsy Center in Jackson. He and a couple of cohorts decided the annual telethon needed a new, younger, hipper look to energize the community’s contributions.
The man decided the time had come to end the Cousin Tuny era on the telethon. However, he did not have the professional and ethical decency to call to tell her directly. As a personal friend who had a long career in network television until the 1990s once told me, “When they decide they aren’t going to call you, they don’t call to tell you that. They just don’t call you.”
That year’s Cerebral Palsy telethon went on the air with a combination of people who looked like guests in the wrong house. My long-time friend and colleague Dee Ann Culbreath and I were assigned to anchor from the phone banks from 3 to 6 p.m.
The telephone operators were employees of the Center. When I arrived, those operators and callers began flooding me with questions about when Tuny was going to come. “She’s not,” I said. They were aghast. When asked why, I responded, “Ask your boss.”
The callers evolved from people intending to pledge to rage at Tuny’s absence and the lack of explanation.
When the telethon ended, pledges had fallen to a level not seen in nearly 30 years. Three days later, the executive director was summarily dismissed.
The following year, a promo aired for two weeks prior to the telethon. “I’m baaaaaaack,” said the enthusiastic voice in her traditional red attire. Contributions nearly tripled with the return of Cousin Tuny. In Jackson, Tn., you don’t mess with an institution.
In the spring of 2015, Tuny celebrated her 90th birthday at Regency Retirement Living. Everybody who was anybody in Jackson turned out. My students were producing a documentary on senior living in the city. The celebration was a perfect segment for the half-hour.
“I’ve lived a wonderful life,” Tuny said. “I’ve been blessed to have so many friends and to live in the greatest city in the world. And I love all of my little cuzzins, some of them who are grandparents now. I don’t know why I’m still around—-but I am.”
During the last two years, Tuny—whose health was beginning to fail—still managed to make her way in a wheelchair to do a few hours of the Carl Perkins Telethon. When it came to children, she could not say no if in some small way she could help them have a better life.
“Children need encouragement. We need to teach them three four-letter words—-WORK, LOVE and PRAY,” she said. “If you wonder why we have so many problems today—it’s because we don’t have enough people teaching those to children.”
This coming Sunday, the annual Carl Perkins Telethon—the last of its kind in West Tennessee in a dying genre of broadcast fundraisers—will once again air. An institution will not be there. We knew that day would come—-but as we often said in recent years, “I hope it’s not this year.”
Today, television station managers aren’t looking for the next Cousin Tuny. Their afternoon schedules are crammed full of dysfunctional families, people with aberrant behavior and contrived conflicts for TV psychologists or judges to resolve. The greater the antagonism or the more angst between parties, the better.
We have become such a viewing culture that we have to constantly yell and scream at each other. We whip an audience into a frenzy to offer daily standing ovations to national personalities who hardly deserve them.
We have closed the door to anything gentle and kind on television because that does not create an emotional response from the audience. Maybe with Hallmark movies but not on syndicated television in the afternoon.
Cousin Tuny was not just a television personality. She gave from her heart to children every day. I still encounter people frequently who say, “I was on her show and it was one of the fondest memories of my childhood.” Far more people have been telling stories of their day on TV with Tuny since the news of her death spread through West Tennessee last Saturday.
She was there for me at one of the lowest points of my life. She always enjoyed a good, hefty laugh. If you were her cuz, she truly cared about you.
Her grandson Brad said Saturday, “She always referred to the children at the Cerebral Palsy Center as God’s Special Children. I think for everything she did for children and for her community, my grandmother was God’s Special Child.”
The term legend has become an exaggerated cliché. Doris Freeman as Cousin Tuny was not only a broadcasting legend but a legend among people. She was truly one of a kind. You would have liked being her “cuz.”