Cap’n Bill

Ask Vance



Scatter at the wheel of Bill Killebrew’s 1952 Pontiac

photographs and scatter club card COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

Dear Vance: What was the name of that kids’ show in the 1960s that featured a host with a monkey, who drew cartoons for the children?
— s.h., memphis

Dear S.H.: In our May issue, one of my talented colleagues — a real prince of a fellow — wrote about the perils of keeping exotic pets. Creatures like chimpanzees may seem cute in the Tarzan movies, but they can be downright dangerous when they grow older. They don’t exactly have the best manners or hygiene. And then, when the monkey we’re talking about here is named Scatter, well, that should tell you right away that he might be trouble.

Let’s begin this story by clarifying that it was the host, “Captain” Bill Killebrew, who drew the cartoons (caricatures, actually), not the monkey. That monkey had many other talents, and we’ll get to him in a second, if you’ll stay with me here.

I’m sorry to confess that I have no distant memories of this particular show, because Mother and Father wouldn’t allow television in the Mansion, believing that the live performances of the Memphis Symphony, Moscow Ballet, and Ringling Bros. Circus in the Lauderdale Ballroom were entertainment enough. So I turned to my 126,897 Facebook friends for help, but most of them offered contradictory accounts of this show and its genial host. So most of what you’re about to read comes from Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar accounts archived in the local libraries.

Just trying to give credit where it’s due, you see. And to assign blame if the facts happen to be wrong.

To begin with, “Captain” (actually, he preferred it spelled “Cap’n”) Bill Killebrew wasn’t really a captain of anything. I hope that doesn’t destroy any precious childhood illusions, but it’s true. He also wasn’t a native Memphian, but we can’t hold that against him.

Killebrew was born in 1911 in Dresden, Tennessee, a little town about 100 miles northeast of here. He claimed he never took any drawing lessons, but somehow got hired to create advertisements for the high school basketball team — announcing upcoming games and such — on the town sidewalks using colored chalk. He also drew a few cartoons, so I’m told, for the local newspaper.

I don’t know what drew him to our city, but sometime in the 1940s, he came here and got a job as a draftsman for Memphis Light, Gas and Water in the Hydrant Engineering Department. That’s right; he was paid to draw pictures of fire hydrants, a dream job if there ever was one.

One day, so the story goes, he wandered across the street to the Goodwyn Institute Building, where the offices of WMC-TV were located. This was in 1949, and television was just coming of age here. A local business called Ferguson’s Record Shop was sponsoring a TV show, and the producers were looking for a way to make the show more visual. I guess the plan of showing records on a turntable didn’t occur to them. Anyway, they hired Killebrew — look, I’m going to call him Bill here — as the artist for a show called Spinning Images.

This show sounds (and must have looked) rather surreal. Viewers tuning in heard music but basically saw a blank screen. A dot formed in the middle of that gray image, and it turned into a line, which gradually turned into a drawing. That was the work of Bill, standing behind a thin sheet of paper clipped to a pane of glass. As my pal Michael Donahue reported in one of the Press-Scimitar articles, it wasn’t until the show’s producers came up with a “mirror contraption” that Bill didn’t have to draw everything backwards, so it would appear correctly to viewers from the front.

Hard to believe, but Spinning Images stayed on the air for almost ten years. Somehow, during this time, Bill became the advertising manager for Hart’s Bread Company, the bakery on Summer with the tremendous heart-shaped neon sign topped by a rotating loaf of bread. To promote the Hart’s products, and to take advantage of his growing talents as an artist, the producers at Channel 5 put Bill in front of the camera, as host of a children’s show called Hartoon Time.

No, I’m not making that up: Hartoon Time.

This was the beginning of a long career on television featuring shows that basically followed the same format: a “peanut gallery” of children that Bill would interview and draw, interspersed with movies and cartoons. Do you remember the names of these shows? How about Bill and Charlie’s Diner, or Captain Bill’s Cliff Hanger Club, or Adventure Time, or simply Cap’n Bill?

Ah, and then there was Scatter’s World. Somewhere, somehow Bill acquired a cute little chimpanzee called Scatter, and he began to appear on the show, quickly becoming the star attraction. In fact, Scatter was featured in several of his own films. According to the Press-Scimitar, “Scatter is presented in a variety of roles and situations — as a business executive, as a baseball player, as a banquet speaker — all designed to show how ridiculous this people business can be.”

 “I’ve been on television for 11 years. That dad-blamed monkey was only on television for one year. Now he’s in Hollywood, and I’m still a broken-down bread salesman. It’s just a monkey’s world.”

Bill, who often told reporters, “that monkey is smarter than most people I know,” taught him all sorts of tricks, and one of his best-known stunts was to take Scatter driving around town — with the monkey doing the driving. Bill, you see, would lie low in the front seat, while Scatter pretended to turn the wheel. As you might expect, it caused a commotion wherever they went.

But it made Scatter’s World incredibly popular with Memphis audiences, and any kids who wrote in could become members of the Scatter Club. I was delighted to discover that the University of Memphis Special Collections kept an original membership card (shown here) in their archives. It’s strange that the members were apparently given numbers, not names, but even stranger is this: I don’t know who scribbled “Bill Killebrew” in ink across the top of the card, but look at the bottom and you’ll see that Bill’s signature looks suspiciously like Scatter’s. I hate to destroy another childhood memory, but it looks like Scatter could not actually write his name. Oh, the shame of it.

Now, no good Memphis story is complete without an Elvis connection, and here it is. After about a year, Bill sold the chimp to the King of Rock-and-Roll, where it lived for years at Graceland. Being surrounded constantly by the guys who made up Elvis’ retinue wasn’t exactly the best environment for a growing monkey, and Scatter quickly developed bad habits. One day, the monkey bit Vernon Presley’s new wife on the finger.

Hospitalized for an annual checkup, Cap’n Bill took time to visit other patients and draw their portraits.

When Elvis called Bill to ask if the monkey had his rabies shots, Bill retorted, “Yes, Scatter had his shots. Does Mrs. Presley have hers?” Among other things, Scatter ripped up the curtains at Graceland, yanked up the skirts of Elvis’ female visitors, and when he was in a really playful mood, tended to throw . . . you know, things . . . at visitors. Nasty things that made everyone scream and, well, scatter.

The chimp even went along when Elvis toured, and that prompted Bill to complain to reporters, “I’ve been on television for 11 years. That dad-blamed monkey was only on television for one year. Now he’s in Hollywood, and I’m still a broken-down bread salesman. It’s just a monkey’s world.”

But back to Bill. He stayed on television forever, it seems, first on Channel 5 and then moving to Channel 13. When Captain Bill’s Cliff Hanger Club ended, he claimed that he sent out more than 196,000 letters to the little “Cliff Hangers” who watched the show. He set up a booth at Libertyland and the Mid-South Fair and told reporters that he drew more than 5,000 caricatures one year alone. He visited nursing homes and hospitals and drew pictures for the patients. Even when he was in the hospital himself one year, he wandered the hallways in his pajamas, giving out caricatures of everyone he met. “I can’t help it,” he told reporters. “I have drawing sickness.”

When he finally left the world of television, he started a newspaper comic strip called Orbie Orbit, about the adventures of a little moon boy who wanted to visit earth, but I’m not sure what newspapers carried it. In later life, a series of strokes slowed him down, and he continued to draw even after losing his vision in one eye. In his whole life, he only made one oil painting. His wife, Helen, asked him to paint a picture of their home in Whitehaven. He complied, producing a lovely wintry scene — with their home depicted as an outhouse with a television antenna.

Cap’n Bill Killebrew passed away on January 14, 1987, at the age of 75 and was laid to rest in his hometown of Dresden. He certainly left thousands of drawings — and good memories — behind. 

 

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