Op-ed: J.P. Patches transcended changes in broadcast television
While he got his start in local television, J.P. Patches' career transcended the changes in broadcast TV, from broadcast to cable and the Internet.
Special to the Seattle Times
THE Seattle "brand" is an iconic national and international phenomenon. Boeing jets crisscross the globe. Microsoft Windows freezes up and spits out error messages in every language imaginable. Amazon is undercutting local bricks-and-mortar shops in every time zone. Starbucks has retail outlets everywhere but, I think, the Arctic.
When the iconic Chris Wedes, known to us as TV clown J.P. Patches, died two Sundays ago, it was big news, and rightfully so. But the news was only big in an area roughly corresponding to the reach of the old KIRO-TV transmitter atop Seattle's Queen Anne Hill. J.P. Patches, who was as big and well-known around here as any of those other Seattle brands, just didn't translate beyond the original viewing area of his show. And this by itself is worth celebrating -- the fact that J.P. was only for us, which made him very special.
Wedes timed his brilliant broadcasting career perfectly, coming on the air in the late 1950s when local TV was the Internet of its day.
At the time of Wedes' and J.P.'s rise, every TV station in America had at least one J.P.-like character whose job was to anchor the morning or afternoon kids' show and function as a cartoon jockey, do a few skits and bring on guests from the police department or the zoo. These programs and their hosts served one purpose: to give the sales department at the TV station a chance to sell advertising time to local companies promoting candy, hot dogs, milk or other kid-friendly products.
"The J.P. Patches Show" made Wedes a star and made KIRO-TV a fortune over the years. If J.P. told kids to buy Sunbeam Bread or Sunny Jim Peanut Butter, by golly the kids made sure mom did exactly that. KIRO was happy, the advertisers were happy, and even the viewers were happy.
And other things about J.P. were different from the typical cartoon jockey. Chris Wedes had a high IQ, a sharp wit, a great memory, unbounded charisma and, most of all, a genuine love of people.
So when the National Association of Broadcasters changed its rules in 1973 and began to forbid hosts like J.P. from plugging products on the air, it was the death knell for nearly every other local kid's show in the country within two years. J.P. stayed on the air, incredibly, until 1981. By then, the economics of local TV had changed. Syndicated shows were cheaper to put on the air, cable was on the horizon, and VCRs were changing how people consumed TV.
Though he was off the air, J.P.'s popularity grew and grew to a point where rarely a weekend passed that Wedes wasn't putting on the makeup and appearing at a birthday party or a county fair or a store grand opening. First VHS cassettes and then DVDs of the few surviving episodes were produced for sale, along with T-shirts and other swag. Then came a website, and multiple appearances and specials on radio and public TV. No longer tied to just one TV station, J.P. was everywhere at once.
The continued rise of J.P. after leaving the air is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented compared with any other kids' TV host in any other part of the country. Simply put, Chris Wedes transcended the medium of television. His love for all of us, and our love for him, meant that he didn't need a studio or a transmitter to reach all of us Patches Pals all the time. We just could never get him out of our head. And this is definitely worth celebrating.
Feliks Banel is a writer and producer in Seattle. He hosts the history program "This NOT Just In" for KUOW 94.9 FM and is the founder of Seattle Radio Theatre.