Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ray Rayner, a staple of Chicago Children's Television in the 1960s & 70s. (1919-2004)

Ray Rayner; born Raymond M. Rahner on July 23, 1919 in Queens, New York.

In 1942, Rahner (pronounced "Rayner") enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and trained as a navigator on B-17s. Promoted Second Lieutenant, he was assigned to the 422nd Bombardment Squadron, 305th Bombardment Group (Heavy), deploying to England and 8th Air Force in September 1942. Rahner quickly developed a reputation for superior airmanship.

On 8th March, 1943, Rahner was assigned to a different crew than his own, with Lt. Albert Kuehl as pilot and Lt. Floyd Truesdell as copilot. Truesdell was on his first B-17 mission after transferring to the USAAF from Royal Air Force Coastal Command and would die at the controls of his B-17F 42-5376 JJ-X "Eager Eagle" in a mid-air collision with RAF No. 96 Squadron Bristol Beaufighter V8715 on 31st August 1943.

Sixty-seven B-17s attacked the railway yards at Rennes, including 16 from the 305th Bombardment Group. The formation was attacked by German fighters en route to the target, and Kuehl's aircraft, with Rahner navigating, bore the brunt of enemy attacks: the No. 3 engine was destroyed and the airplane's radio compartment, hydraulics, and control systems were all damaged. Every member of the crew was wounded -- particularly the bombardier, Lt. Arthur Spatz of Reno, Nevada. Though he was himself wounded, Lt. Rahner administered first aid, saving Spatz's life, then took over as bombardier, toggling the bombs, and fighting off German fighter attacks from two gun positions. Though the B-17 dropped out of formation, Rahner successfully navigated it to an RAF base in England. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for that action.

On 4th April 1943, Rahner was navigator in "Chuck Wagon," B-17F #42-5146 (code JJ-S). In a raid on the Renault automotive works near Paris, Rahner's aircraft was shot down, crashing in Normandy, and Rahner was taken prisoner. After being processed through Stalag VII A (Moosburg), he was imprisoned at Stalag Luft III for 2½ years. There he helped edit the camp newspaper, "The Circuit," and contributed to the digging of tunnels Tom, Dick, and Harry, serving as a lookout for German "ferrets" and helping disperse the dirt; as depicted in the film The Great Escape—though he was transferred to another camp before the escape took place.  (Written by Russ Burgos)

It was during his time as a POW that he would discover his talent for entertaining, namely through his fellow prisoners and his German captors.


Ray Rayner's "Rayner Shine" (Rain or Shine) was a short lived weather program on WBKB which later became WLS-TV in Chicago.

"The Ray Rayner Show" started in 1953, he and his co-host Mina Kolb would host a somewhat free form show that would feature music, comedy skits, dance and pantomime. The show, geared towards teens. The show had a call-in and guess the song and win a prize. It ran for five years on Saturday's until 1958. 

In 1956, Rayner hosted the TV Bowling Classic, which aired on Wednesdays at 11 pm on WBBM-TV Channel 2. He also hosted Teen Pinners, a bowling program with teen bowlers produced for the teenage crowd.

WBBM-TV asked Rayner to switch to a children's program in 1958, though reluctant at first, he did so with a show called "The Little People," which ran for two years.

The "Popeye's Firehouse" children's show featured Ray Rayner, whom WBBM-TV executives hoped would make a dent in the ratings, worked on the show for two years. On Popeye's Firehouse, Rayner appeared as "Chief Abernathy." The voice of John Coughlan was heard in the show too. Dave Garroway, famous for his show "Garroway At Large (1949-1954)," had anchored the station's early attempts on a program called "Rayner Shine," starring Ray Rayner as host. 
Ray Rayner hosts a TV show called "Popey's Firehouse,"
on Chicago's channel 5, WNBQ.
Ray Rayner would move on to WGN-TV in 1961. Rayner's first role on WGN was as Sergeant Pettibone, the host of the afternoon "The Dick Tracy Show" in the 1961. Here, Rayner sported a 2-way wrist radio like Tracy's, through which he would pretend to hear the call "Tracy...this is the Chief...," and the Chief would describe the latest trouble caused by Pruneface, etc., which would be the cue to roll a Dick Tracy cartoon.

Here, Rayner sported a 2-way wrist radio like Tracy's, through which he would pretend to hear the call "Tracy...this is the Chief...," and the Chief would describe the latest trouble caused by Pruneface, etc., which would be the cue to roll a Dick Tracy cartoon.
Ray Rayner, as Sgt. Pettibone, was the host of  the Dick Tracy Show
with Police dog Tracer on WGN-TV
Among other low-budget Rayner morning show feature was "Let's go into the closet," where he would find a marching band jacket and baton (no doubt borrowed from the Big Top Band on Bozo) and proceed to march around the set to some corny tune. Then, there were the traffic reports, which were an attempt to keep parents from switching to news on another channel. The reports were dubbed over a b/w aerial video of the expressways  the same video was shown every day.

He joined the cast of Bozo's Circus as country bumpkin clown "Oliver O. Oliver" who had a talent for singing. Bozo and Oliver sang songs like 'A Clown Is a Kind of a Guy'. 

Rayner hosted the Laurel & Hardy Theater in the summer of 1963. Before each film and during the commercial breaks, he provided biographical information about Stan and Ollie. The Laurel & Hardy Theater later became the Ray Rayner Theater, showcasing WGN's library of classic comedy movies.
By 1965, Rayner's clown character, along with "Sandy", played by Don Sandburg, were added to Larry Harmon's Bozo coloring books. Rayner left the show in 1971 because he wanted more time for other projects. After that, he would occasionally do an appearance on the show as Oliver and would fill in for Ned Locke as "Mr. Ray" when needed. 
Ray Rayner as Oliver O. Oliver on the right. Ringmaster Ned Locke is on the left and Bob Bell as Bozo the Clown is in the center, during the WGN-TV produced show "Bozo's Circus." (1967)

Ray Rayner as Oliver O. Oliver on Bozo's Circus. 1967
A new afternoon program called "Rocket to Adventure" ran until 1968; this featured early appearances by Gigantor and Tobor the Eighth Man. Rayner hosted the show appearing as an astronaut on a space ship introducing space adventure cartoons. 
Rocket to Adventure.
In 1968, Rayner also appeared in television commercials for McDonald's as Ronald McDonald.
1968 McDonald's Commercial
featuring Ray Rayner.

At one point, WGN-TV had enough hope in being able to syndicate Rayner's "The Dick Tracy Show" to produce a pilot for that purpose.

Chelveston the Duck.
Beginning in 1962, Rayner hosted the show "Breakfast With Bugs Bunny," which was an early morning weekday show that first starred Dick Coughlan and was produced by Don Sandburg.

When Coughlan left, Ray Rayner, recently arrived from WBBM-TV and working afternoons as "Oliver O. Oliver" on Bozo's Circus and "Sgt. Henry Pettibone"  in the "Crime Stopper Cruiser" on "The Dick Tracy Show", took over. This made Rayner one of the busiest and highest paid talents at channel 9. It became "Ray Rayner and His Friends" in 1964.  

A shows director at the time suggested to Rayner to wear a jumpsuit because they were only $5 at Sears. On his first show Ray wore a brown jumpsuit. But it needed something, so Sandburg suggested the use of notes stuck to the jumpsuit and the rest is history. He covered his jumpsuit with little squares of paper (this predates Post-it Notes) and during the show, he would pull them off, one at a time, and read them out-loud to see what to do next (time for a cartoon, traffic report, visit with Cuddly Dudley, etc.). 
"Ray Rayner and His Friends" featured old cartoons such as various Warner Brothers character cartoons, arts-and-crafts, and animals such as Chelveston the Duck who was named after RAF Chelveston where Rayner was stationed during World War II. Chelveston would occasionally bite, and Rayner was notably wary. During these segments, Chelveston would basically walk around the set, eat, or bathe while a then-current top 40 song was played. Rayner later said he put duck feed in the cuffs of his coveralls so Chelveston would nip at them, then save himself from the duck by giving him a head of lettuce to pick apart. What was not known to the public until after the program was no longer on the air was that Chelveston was actually played by four different ducks over the years.
Cuddly Dudley.

Ray also had a talking dog puppet, Cuddly Dudley, created and voiced by Roy Brown, a.k.a. "Cooky the Cook" from Bozo Circus. The segment would highlight viewer mail which included many hand-drawn pictures submitted by children. The segment was often humorous as it was a chance for Rayner and Brown to interact and use comedic ad-libs. 

Rayner's turtle races where epic. Three turtles, painted numbers on their shells, were placed in the center of a table-top with perhaps a 3 foot circumference circle with a finish line painted at the edge of the circle. Rayner would try to entice the turtles to run to the finish line by cheering them on. 

The seemingly impromptu nature of Ray Rayner's show was fascinating to children.  

He would also simulcast traffic reports from sister-station WGN Radio over stock footage of traffic moving along the Chicago-area highways.

Cubs-Sox half-half baseball
helmet from May 6, 1980.
During baseball season, he would show & narrate highlights of the Cubs and White Sox games from the previous day, wearing a custom baseball helmet that had the front half of  the Cubs and the front half of the Sox, resulting in a two-billed helmet which he would spin around on his head depending on which team's highlights were being shown.

The arts-and-crafts was a regular segment that always began with a finished version prepared in advance by someone "behind the scenes" (who quite often was the wife of Producer Dick Flanders) that was displayed to the audience, followed by Ray attempting to demonstrate the process in an amusing, all thumbs effort, also set to music, that resulted in a comically sub-par facsimile that more resembled a random collection of felt, construction paper and glue. Ray's version would then be displayed alongside the original further emphasizing his comical ineptitude regarding crafts. 
He held an annual jellybean contest where viewers were to submit guesses of the quantity in a large jar displayed for a period of time on the show. Every Christmas he would have an Advent calendar and reveal a date until the Christmas holiday.
Another bit was a lip-syncing sketch Rayner would do usually to an older novelty song such as "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" by Allan Sherman. However he would also perform songs while actually singing.

Another show segment was the PBS news (for Pretend Broadcasting System). He would sit at a table with a wire strainer with the letters PBS on it as a microphone. The "news" reports consisted of viewer letters. In addition to Diver Dan and lots of Warner Brothers cartoons, another staple of the show was a live action "talking animal" series "Rupert the Rat, Kookie the Kitten and Bessie the Bunny, down on Animal Farm

The feature "Ark in the Park" was a taped segment of a trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo featuring the then-director of the zoo, Dr. Lester Fisher. The introductory music for this segment was "The Unicorn" by The Irish Rovers
Rayner also featured a "How and Why" segment on his shows with J. Bruce Mitchell of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, as did Garfield Goose and Friends. 

Rayner added a game for those at home to play by telephone called, "TV Powww." Rayner hosted this show until January 23, 1981.

At the end of each show; A friendly reminder to dress appropriately for the weather, and - last but not least - at the end of every show, the outstretched arm, with the open hand and his fingers wiggling wildly; "BU-BU-BU-BU-BYYYYYYYYYYYYYYE!!!"

Watch Ray Rayner's Last Show on Friday January 23, 1981

During his time at Channel 9, starting in 1974, Rayner also hosted a Thursday night broadcast of The Illinois State Lottery's. 
It was a weekly drawing, which featured a top prize of $300,000 ("Weekly Bonanza") and a second prize of $50,000 to a field of about a dozen contestants who had won a special lottery game over the preceding seven-day period. The show aired at 7:00 PM.
Chicago, July 3, 1975 - Picking up the Winnings. Chicago television personality Ray Rayner congratulates Chicago Policeman Michael Berchel, whose mother Grace Berchel, from Chicago, won $50,000 prize in Illinois Lottery drawing Thursday night in Chicago.


Ray Rayner in the Elmhurst Illinois 4th of July Parade.
The Story of Television. 1972


I met Ray Rayner at Thillens Stadium in 1969. Thillens was located on Devon and Kedzie, between the canal and Kedzie. 
Rayner was on a WGN softball team playing against the Playboy Bunnies, and used the Chicago 16" softball. The evening game was for some charity and there was standing room only. 

If you know anything about Thillens Stadium, one kid worked the manual scoreboard placing the number of runs per inning and a total count of game runs. I worked the Strikes, Balls, and Outs from an elevated platform with a game announcer from behind home plate. 

I met Mel Thillens at the "Thillens Armored Car Check Cashing Company" office on Devon Avenue just east of Western, by just walking in and asking if I could work at Thillens Stadium. I was allowed to attend any and all games I wanted to, and when working, I was allowed to eat, drink and snack for free. Sounds good, right? Although I didn't get any money, I was able to meet some local celebrities, Like Ray Rayner.

Ray told me he would talk about the charity softball game on his Monday show. He said he'd mention me on TV. I then told him that I never heard my name called out on the Romper Room show. He told me to count on it.

Sure enough... Ray talked about the charity softball game and how much was raised, then said he met a great kid who worked at the stadium, Neil Gale. I was floored. It's too bad there were no recording devices to capture that, but it's one of my "claim to fame" moments.

Rayner moved to KGGM-TV in the 1980s, the CBS affiliate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before retiring from television. He cited the harsh Chicago winters as the motivating factor. Later, he moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida after his wife of several years died of lung cancer. He is survived by his daughter Christina Miller, his son Mark Rahner, and his grandchildren Patrick, Sean, Hilary Miller and Troy Rahner. 

He died on January 21, 2004 of complications from pneumonia in Fort Myers, Florida at the age of 84. 



Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.