By David Sanderson
EVERY once in a while in this business, you stumble across a story
that has it all: intrigue, mystery, and talking wood.
Recently, a crime to rival Who Stole the Keeshka was perpetrated upon
a Yahoo! online fan club devoted to Archie and His Friends, the iconic
TV show which, for the better part of two decades, was Winnipeg's
answer to Howdy Doody Time.
A couple of weeks ago, Warren Kowalson, the website's co-ordinator,
awoke to discover that the group's entire picture gallery had
inexplicably been deleted.
"Whoever did it sucks on 10 different levels," says Kowalson, the
morning newsman at Flava 107.9 FM. "But ultimately it was my fault --
I've now changed the settings so that only I am able to remove
Gone without a trace were everything from publicity stills of the
show's chief archie-tect, the late ventriloquist "Uncle" Bob Swarts,
to irreplaceable shots of his puppet co-stars -- Marvin Mouse, Petite
the dog and boy dummy Archie Wood.
The site was created in 2001, 12 years after the man Kowalson refers
to as "an institution of my youth" passed away.
"When I saw Uncle Bob's obituary, it was like a family member had
died," says the 42-year-old father of two. "I called up CKY (the
station that aired Archie and His Friends as well as its spin-off,
Funtown) and asked if they were planning a tribute or anything. They
Undaunted, Kowalson began trying to track down artifacts associated
with the show. "I kept hearing that nothing existed anymore and that
even if it did, nobody knew where it was," he says. "So I let it sit
on the back burner for years, until one day I was at this location in
the city -- I don't mean to make it sound top secret but I can't
disclose where it is, unfortunately -- when I literally looked up and
found myself staring into the eyes of Archie Wood.
"I thought, 'Cool! Now I've got a starting point.'"
Six months after that fateful encounter, Kowalson staged a weeklong
exhibit of Archie and His Friends memorabilia at Polo Park. His array
of sets, puppets and props was augmented in large part by
contributions from Swarts' family, friends and co-workers.
"Response was incredible," Kowalson says of the December 2001 display.
"People were crying -- it was literally bringing out such waves of
emotion. I had two episodes of the show on tape and I aired them over
and over. Shoppers would pass by and then end up staying for an hour."
In the mid-'60s, Swarts was working as a sound engineer at CJAY-TV
(CKY's predecessor) when the idea of a lunch-hour children's show was
being tossed around the boardroom.
"It was originally only supposed to be a few episodes," says Kowalson.
"It was sort of, 'OK, Bob -- give it a shot and we'll see how it
How it went eventually became local television lore: the show ended up
running for 21 years, from 1965 until 1986. Despite his unbridled
affection for the program, Kowalson is the first to admit that the
on-camera antics often topped the fromage-o-meter. (For in-the-dark
readers, consider that the show's high point was generally a
sock-puppet mouse lip-synching to Winchester Cathedral, or a spotted
dog puppet mouthing Petula Clark's Downtown or How Much is That Doggie
in the Window, cranked up to Chipmunks speed.)
"Especially in the later years it became pretty cheesy," Kowalson says
with a laugh.
"And apparently Bob had a hair-trigger temper, so the crew was always
trying to play practical jokes on him. They'd tie his shoes together
when he was retrieving letters from Robbie the Robot or walk in front
of the blue screen when he was pretending to ride his flying carpet --
that sort of stuff."
A quick study of the Yahoo! group's membership speaks to the series'
"We have people from all over North America who've joined," Kowalson
says. "I heard from one guy who served with the military -- he said he
was in the Afghani desert in the back of a convoy truck with four
other guys from Winnipeg when they started talking about Uncle Bob.
Before long, there they were -- in the middle of Afghanistan --
singing Uncle Bob songs."
Since the photos' disappearing act, Kowalson has worked hard to
recover the lot. Somebody from the group saved a number of them, he
says, but others appear to be gone for good. Kowalson, who dreams of
erecting a TV-puppet museum, would love to hear from anyone who might
come out of the Archie Wood-work with something to contribute.
He adds that many of the cherished tunes from Archie and His Friends
are accessible via the website
(http://tv.groups.yahoo.com/group/archieandhisfriends), where they
have been stored on MP3 files.
"Listen to this," he says, humming along to the show's signature
birthday greeting. "If that doesn't make your mouth water for a lunch
of bread and Alpha-getti, nothing will."