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Monday, July 23, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.
Obituary: "J.P. Patches," Seattle's beloved TV clown
By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter
Most people didn't even know his real name, but he was a bona fide piece of Seattle history, one that predated the Space Needle, the Mariners, the Seahawks and Microsoft.
Chris Wedes, better known as TV clown J.P. Patches, died Sunday morning after a long battle with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. He was 84.
On television from 1958 to 1981, and in countless personal appearances since, Mr. Wedes delighted generations of Puget Sound-area children and adults with his zany antics and a style that was irreverent yet gentle.
In his tattered hat, red nose and colorful patchwork coat, the character Mr. Wedes created, Julius Pierpont Patches, could cause all sorts of mayhem, tumbling off his tricycle, blasting himself into space and playing pranks on his TV guests.
But he also reminded his tiny viewers, known as "Patches Pals," to follow the rules, which included minding Mommy and Daddy, saying your prayers and sharing your toys. He opened his last major public appearance, in September 2011, by leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
His unrehearsed Emmy-winning show, which ran weekday mornings and afternoons on KIRO-TV, had an audience of more than 100,000 people at its peak.
"In my opinion, Chris Wedes — J.P. Patches — had a greater emotional impact on more people in the Puget Sound area than any person in the last 50 years," said Bryan Johnston, who cowrote a biography of Mr. Wedes.
The Patches show was put together without a script, drawing on the improvisational skills of Mr. Wedes and actor Bob Newman, whose many roles included that of J.P.'s masculine-looking girlfriend, Gertrude; Ketchikan the Animal Man, and Boris S. Wort, the "world's second-meanest man."
"Everyone remembers him," Newman said. "He left such a mark; he will never be forgotten."
Newman last saw his friend a few months ago. "He was gradually going down, but the clown hung in there for a long time."
J.P.'s many community appearances over the years included frequent visits to Seattle Children's hospital, where a smile and kind word from their favorite TV clown delighted countless young patients.
Mr. Wedes, who lived in Edmonds, had the distinction of having two days proclaimed in his honor in Seattle. In 1978, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer designated Oct. 14 "J.P. Patches Day," as thousands packed Seattle Center to see the clown.
In 2007, the Seattle City Council and then-Mayor Greg Nickels issued a similar decree after word circulated that Mr. Wedes was ill and had canceled most of his appearances.
Chris John Wedes was born April 3, 1928, in Minneapolis, the son of Greek immigrants. He made his acting debut in a preschool pageant when he was 4.
He played the role of the sun, and was supposed to stand directly behind the yellow cutout circle, but he couldn't resist peeking around it to flash a big grin.
And his impromptu, goofy style was born.
His first on-air appearance came in a "Catholic Digest of the Air" radio show at age 11. He played a paperboy with a single line: "Extra! Extra! Read all about it." He appeared in skits, community theater and radio shows in high school and later at Macalester College in St. Paul.
After serving in the Army in Korea, Mr. Wedes returned to radio work but was soon drawn to TV, which was fast becoming America's main entertainment medium. At WMIN-TV in Minneapolis, Mr. Wedes worked first as a director, then appeared on camera as a Greek-accented Joe the Cook and as Chuckwagon Chuck, hosting Wild West serials.
When the station's on-air clown, the original J.P. Patches, left the job, management pressed Mr. Wedes to take over. He was reluctant, largely because he didn't like the idea of time-consuming makeup sessions.
But he took the role, and the rest is history.
In 1958, Mr. Wedes followed his former director, Fred Kaufman, to Seattle, and on Feb. 10 of that year, the "J.P. Patches Show" became the first live broadcast on the newly created KIRO-TV.
Appearing before and after school, J.P. Patches soon became a major influence in the lives of Seattle's baby boomers.
Former Sonics guard Slick Watts once said, "In most big cities, the famous people are the sports stars, but in Seattle, J.P. was the man."
The show's action centered on J.P.'s cluttered shack, where as "Mayor of the City Dump" he presided over visits from Newman's characters and other guests. As they left, J.P. invariably warned them moments too late to "watch out for the hole" outside the door, as the director cued sound effects of crashing and banging.
Visitors to the City Dump included a long list of the famous and powerful: Danny Thomas, Steve Allen, Jacques Cousteau, Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, exercise guru Jack LaLanne and Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens among them.
Even celebrity guests weren't immune to J.P.'s pranks. He once challenged one of the Harlem Globetrotters to a shootout, operating a secret lever that moved the basket each time the player shot.
Although special effects were rudimentary, J.P. could sit on his "magic carpet" and fly over whatever backdrop was projected onto a screen. Spaceships and other contraptions could appear to take flight amid puffs of smoke and flashes of light.
None of his inventions captivated his tiniest viewers more than the "ICU2-TV," a box through which J.P. supposedly peered back at his audience, commenting on who was having a birthday and where they should look in their houses for a hidden present.
One reason the show was so popular, Newman said, is that it didn't condescend to children. "We talked to them as adults," he said.
Like other kiddie-show hosts in the early decades of TV, J.P. even did the program's commercials, extolling the benefits of Kellogg's Cornflakes or Milwaukee brand wieners.
In one live commercial for Hi-C juice, Mr. Wedes nearly spit out a big gulp, unaware a mischievous director had spiked it with vodka.
"Every type of kid imaginable watched J.P.: the geeks, the bullies, the popular kids, the invisible kids," biographer Johnston wrote in his book, "J.P. Patches: Northwest Icon," which he co-wrote with Wedes in 2002.
"They were drawn to him because he wasn't a namby-pamby, goody-two-shoes ... He wasn't preachy, but lessons were learned."
J.P.'s popularity amazed even Mr. Wedes. In a Seattle Channel interview in 2007, he described J.P.'s first public appearance in Seattle, a visit to a Magnolia grocery store.
"I couldn't believe the crowd," Mr. Wedes said. "I'd only been on maybe three months, and there were hundreds and hundreds of people there."
After his show was canceled in 1981, Mr. Wedes stayed on at KIRO as a floor director until retiring in 1990.
He is survived by his wife, Joan Wedes; a daughter, Kathryn Wedes-Frost, of Issaquah; and a granddaughter. Plans for a memorial service have not been announced.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seattle Times reporters Jim Brunner and Sandi Doughton contributed to this report.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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