Cincinnati, Ohio, has known its share of cult TV stars, from affable kids' show host Uncle Al to smooth, handsome TV personalities like Bob Braun or Nick Clooney (aka 'George's Dad'). But possibly the most oddball of this fine city's historic TV characters, whose onscreen exploits would appear arcane and alien if glimpsed by modern viewers, was for two decades known affectionately to his largely housewifey audiences as the irrepressible 'Paul Baby.'
Paul Dixon (born Gregory Schieier in Iowa on October 27, 1918) was known to the late-morning weekday TV crowd as host of the long- running Paul Dixon Show, a quirky blend of music, chat, guests, and Southern-tinged comedy which made optimal use of its in-studio audience. That most of the audience was composed of women was a fact that in no way escaped the (pseudo-) lecherous Paul, who took every opportunity to hug, kiss, grope, and fondle his younger, more attractive audience members. Since his show mainly thrived during the late 1960's, this was perfectly acceptable according to the sensibilities of the time. And, of course, the women never complained: on the contrary, they competed for the opportunity to be recognized by the host.
Paul Dixon spent the early part of his career bouncing around between his home town of Cincinnati, New York, and Chicago, doing a variety of radio and television shows, possibly the most notable of which was Paul Dixon's Song Shop, a three-hours-a-day, five-day-a-week series that catered to the currently hot teen music of the time. In 1954, the show became popular enough that it was picked up by a national syndicate out of New York. Within a year, however, Paul was ready to come back home, and thankfully had enough clout upon his return to create his own show, on WLW-T, specifically for Cincinatti audiences. The Paul Dixon Show debuted in 1955, a light-hearted mixture of music and variety that soon found its own niche audience - daytime television viewers, aka housewives.
Over the next decade the show settled comfortably into its goofy format, gaining in popularity (and reach) until it became something of a local institution. Starting out at thirty minutes, at its peak the show commanded an hour and a half every morning after Uncle Al went off the air, when hubby and kids were safely packed off to school and work, and the lady of the house could settle down and enjoy a cup of coffee with her onscreen friends before beginning her chores or errand-running. Since the show went out live, it was the next best thing to her being there in the studio.
The show's format was basically the same every episode, five shows a week for twenty years. Usually opening with the line, "This has got to be the youngest and most beautiful bunch of women we've ever had on this show," Paul would pretend to ogle the front row of the studio audience with a pair of binoculars. These young ladies - hand-picked for this honor often according to their skirt length and attractiveness - came to be known as Kneesville, due to the abundance of female knees (this was the mini-skirted 60's, by the way). Dixon would give some of these young ladies a small gift of some sort - a 'knee-tickler', actually a dangling earring, then later on a garter, each of which he applied himself, or (later still) a T-shirt, which he would put on over the girls' clothes, eliciting a hug in the process.
It wasn't all sexist, of course. Paul Baby appealed to the older women in the crowd more than the younger ones; asking how many of them had taken a bath that morning, he would squirt various audience members with a water bottle. Other running gags included Paul now and then breaking into song, despite his obvious lack of talent; the segments where he would read viewer mail (causing the house band to break into "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter" each and every time); giving a salami to someone in the audience, usually a person he would interview for comic effect; rubber chickens being lampooned in various ways; Paul's Jack-Benny-like perpetual age of 36; etc.
The real talent of the show lay in its musical contingent. The house band, the Bel-Aires, were talented enough, and participated in various shenanigans, but it was the ladies of the show that many remember. Paul co-hosted the show with Bonnie Lou and Colleen Sharp, two lovely (in a non-threatening way) young ladies with talent to spare. Bonnie Lou (the stage name of Mary Jo Kath) was a local celebrity in her own right: she hosted the Midwestern Hayride, a country-and-western themed show that also aired on WLW-T; she even had a couple of minor national hit songs, "Daddy-O" and "Tennessee Wig Walk." The trio of costars often performed together on the show, Paul's voice thankfully drowned out by the smooth sounds emanating from his lovely blonde companions.
Probably the show's most (in)famous moment occurred in 1969. The autumn of the previous year, an audience member gave Paul a rubber chicken prop, which was soon given the name Henrietta Pauline Leghorne and referred to in various comic skits as well as in in-house commercials for the Kroger grocery store chain. In time, viewers started sending in dresses and other clothing as gifts for Henrietta, and one viewer even donated a boyfriend - who was promptly given the name Harold Dominic. The chicken jokes grew in number and scope, until it was decided that nothing less than a formal televised wedding for the two rubber chickens was the only honorable thing to do. The fateful day arrived on March 11, 1969 (remember, this was months before Tiny Tim's onscreen wedding to Miss Vicki), and the two were married before a viewing audience of thousands. The bride wore white, the groom wore a tux, and Bob Braun was best man. Bonnie and Colleen were maids of honor. So many viewers stayed home to watch the episode - the highest-rated and most famous in the show's history - that schools and businesses reported a significant rise in absences for that day.
This wasn't high comedy; it was safe, comfortable cornpone humor, the kind that was quickly disappearing from television and radio as audiences began to think of themselves as being more sophisticated than their forebears. It was the sort of thing that appealed to older viewers, who were certain to be uninterested in (and confused by) the things going on in music and other popular culture, people who considered Laugh-In baroque and probably subversive. The tired old jokes, the endlessly repeated gags and musical cues - it didn't require a lot of the viewers, quite frankly. And despite its endless repetition, the show lasted for twenty friggin' years.
When Dixon died suddenly of a ruptured aneurysm in December 1974, the entire city was shocked. He had been staggered by his son's death in a motorcycle accident four years previous, to the extent that he often could barely continue his show; but the unexpectedness of his demise left thousands of viewers speechless and in tears. The show went into reruns for a full month, but without Paul, the show could not possibly survive, and so it was decided to end it after a run of twenty years.
I don't have a lot of memories of my late mother, but one vague memory I treasure is of being young enough to not have to go to school, instead spending the morning with my mom, probably sitting in her lap, watching the zany antics of Paul Baby. I didn't get all of the jokes and references, of course, but the two of us laughed at all of the silliness just the same. I distinctly remember how beautiful Colleen and Bonnie were, and how talented. I recall how the silly song "The Bird of Paradise" was an often-repeated tune during this era, the early 70's. It may not have been 'art,' but it was vastly entertaining.
Rest in peace, Paul Baby.