Good stories led by lively, creative people quickly cross geographic boundaries. One of those books that should appeal to a wide readership is The Calamities of Kalamity Kate, by Leta Powell Drake (J&L Lee Company).
It is many things to many people, beyond a history of Nebraska children’s TV shows written by a peppery, energetic, outgoing gal who hosted children’s shows in an earlier era of live, unpredictable broadcasting. The volume quickly shows that the past has keys to future honesty and inventiveness, in Lincoln or Joplin or Chicago. There are pictures and words from generations about smiles on the faces of children, unexpected words from them and what they recall about yesterday as unfortunately the genre slowly dies in today’s network-cable-syndication climate. The significance of a few minutes with Drake on one of her shows or with others in her genre anywhere in the nation has had lasting significance to kids.
The foreword penned by Ron Hull, co-founder of Nebraska educational television, adds another historical note. Hull and Drake pay homage to Juvenile Jury, Romper Room, Cartoon Corral, Captain Kangaroo, and other shows for children produced in the early days devising language, setting, moral content and thought suitable for the young viewers squirming on the set in front of their cameras. Drake was never quite sure what her wiggling fans were going to do, a predicament fostered by the new live medium that also, by the way, saw the production locally of KOAM-TV's Melody Matinee.
The book is a name-dropper’s paradise, as on her show or in network junkets Drake met and did promos with singer Gordon MacRae, puppets, Mordy Mouse, magicians, elephants or whoever or whatever would get the attention of children. She visited big local museums and small towns, helping knit together ideas within her state.
One of the more memorable sections of the "Kalamity Kate" saga revolves around Jerry Lewis, the comedian who became the voice and soul of the telethon to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Drake encouraged kids in her state to hold backyard carnivals and other fund raisers to help “Jerry’s Kids.” Keeping in touch in later years, these kids thanked Drake for what they learned from that experience: caring about others. A change of tone is obvious in the book when nostalgia about the celebs and children’s stories and old shows turns to a twinge of bitterness and doubt. Drake notes the day in August, 2012, when MDA made an unexpected, bare-bones public declaration that Lewis after 45 years would no longer host the Labor Day landmark telethons. Drake's cartoon collection, her chatter with children, her eagerness to reach as many as she could, did have those more serious moments with Jerry, or aiding a small boy in a wheelchair through a fund raiser inspired on air. "Cartoon Corral" was pre-empted once because of the Watergate Hearings. Some TV execs thought the Watergate content was more instructional and mature. One wonders how disappointed the young viewers were over that decision.
A buoyant blonde wig, which Drake still has after 50 years, gave her frontier persona and the brown fringed outfit she wore on the show an extra boost. So did the smiles and shouts coming from the children on the benches in front of her. Anyone who remembers their childhood, watched television or who has observed history should profit with pleasure from Kalamity Kate’s tales.
LETA POWELL DRAKE
Title: The Calamities of Kalamity Kate
Author: Leta Powell Drake
Paperback: 260 pages
Publisher: J & L Lee Co.; 1ST edition (2014)