THE BOOTLEG FILES: WONDERAMA

BOOTLEG FILES 290: “Wonderama” (a 1955-1977 kiddie TV show).

LAST SEEN: Clips are available on numerous web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Problems in clearing performance rights and the expense of restoration.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely in the near future.

One of the joys of growing up in the early 1970s was the luxury of enjoying classic television when it was still first-run. Among my many, many favorite TV shows – I don’t believe there was any show that I didn’t like – was a bizarre but beloved variety show/game show/dance program for kids called “Wonderama.”

If you never heard of “Wonderama,” that’s because it wasn’t widely seen. The weekly three-hour Sunday morning show originated from WNEW-TV in New York and was syndicated over the Metromedia network – albeit in a smallish syndication. Reportedly, the show only played in six major markets during its peak years – New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Washington, D.C. – so the majority of the country never saw “Wonderama.” And that is a major shame.

“Wonderama” began in the mid-1950 and went through a number of different hosts and formats before an affable ventriloquist named Bob McAllister took over the hosting job in 1968. McAllister stayed at the helm until the show went off the air in 1977. He wasn’t a particularly remarkable host – his comedy exchanges with guests sometimes fell flat – but he managed to keep the production on track through the various games, skits, and interviews that kept “Wonderama” in motion.

And for a three-hour extravaganza, “Wonderama” was not lacking in action. Interactive games were a major component, and nothing was more challenging than “Snake Cans.” This game featured 10 cans lined up on a long table. Nine of the cans contained a spring-loaded toy snake while the tenth had a paper flower bouquet. Kids were called up from the audience to open a can – those who found a snake were given the chance to win a minor prize by answering softball-easy trivia questions. The one who found the bouquet received a grand prize (usually some trendy new toy).

The parents of the all-kid audience were usually kept off camera, although one game called “Whose is Whose is Whose” required the matching of parents with children. A child from the audience would be asked to pair whichever of four parents supposedly resembled one of four children. I can clearly recall one game where three pairs of white mothers and children and one black mother and child were in the mix – a kid from the audience came and created matches that put the black mother with a white child and the black child with a white mother. McAllister, barely concealing his laughter, remarked in very pre-P.C. tones, “Looks like we have a little salt-and-pepper going on here!” He then urged the child contestant to rematch the groupings – and the poor kid switched the remaining white parents and children, leaving the mixed race couplings alone!

“Wonderama” also tapped into the musical zeitgeist of the era with its “Wonderama A Go-Go,” which became “Disco City” when Gloria Gaynor and company reigned on the charts. A character called The Disco Kid (someone dressed like a cowboy with a cutout of a horse around his torso) would run about while the soundtrack wailed “Ride on, ride on, Disco Kid.” The Wonderama audience would wiggle and twist to the latest AM radio hits, and a dance-off would involve the most coordinated members of the audience. Almost everyone won some sort of gift. (The show was never lacking sponsors.)

While a certain amount of amusement could be found watching my young peers having a ball on TV (including, one Sunday, a third grade classmate of mine named Erica – oh, I was so jealous that she was on TV and I wasn’t!), the real fun was having celebrity guests turn up. For a kiddie show, “Wonderama” had a remarkable track record in hooking major stars.

Among bootleg video fans, the most amazing “Wonderama” coup was ABBA. Yes, the sexy Swedes turned up in white kimonos to lip-sync “Mamma Mia” and “Fernando” and to engage in very small talk with McAllister. The Jacksons turned up, too, and their appearance was capped by having a little girl in the audience fulfill a dream by kissing Michael Jackson on the cheek. In view of Michael Jackson’s untimely death, it is difficult not to be rueful in viewing the charismatic, energetic young man in the years before bizarre behavior overtook his judgment and ruined his life.

Other celebrities of the day routinely stopped by “Wonderama” to shoot the breeze, promote their activities, or just clown around. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier made a joint appearance prior their 1974 New York bout – Ali was at his rambunctious, motor-mouthed peak while Frazier was conspicuously stolid as the duo faced off in a marbles match. Yes, marbles! And Ali won that bout (as well as the later boxing match).

Evel Knievel also showed up on “Wonderama” to discuss his motorcycle jumping shtick. Other top-line guests that I can recall included Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams (when “Laverne and Shirley” took off), a few of the Monty Python squad (I believe Michael Palin and Terry Jones turned up, but I could mistaken – I recall the kiddie audience didn’t laugh very much), Paul Lynde (who did a frantic spoof of “Hollywood Squares” by playing all nine of celebrity boxes), and Johnny Whitaker (who dressed up as Groucho and later had a bunch of pre-pubescent girls maul him). And, on occasion, there would be a guest whose presence was difficult to explain (most notably frizzy-haired comic Marty Allen, who engaged McAllister in a wrestling match).

I cannot imagine how it would be possible to stage “Wonderama” today. For starters, a three-hour production would be unthinkable on television (the show reportedly took upwards of six to eight hours to tape, with the juvenile audience getting ice cream and soda to pacify them while McAllister chain smoked between shots). Plus, getting a weekly line-up of A-list stars as guests for an audience with an average age of eight was no mean feat – imagine staging the Kids Choice Awards every week and you have an idea what it would require.

I am unaware of any complete episode of “Wonderama” being available on DVD. I assume the original videotapes still exist in some vault, but the costs of restoration and rights clearance would probably cost a fortune. Video cassette recording was not prevalent until the final years of the show, and the clips that can be found online in unauthorized reproduction – The Jacksons, Ali-Frazier, ABBA, Evel Kneviel, a game of “Snake Cans” and, oddly, Marty Allen in a wrestling match – are of a notoriously poor visual quality.

Still, snippets of “Wonderama” are better than nothing. For those who remember the show fondly, these bootleg videos offer a pleasant side trip down memory lane. And for those who never heard of the show, these bootleg goodies offer proof of a missed treasure. If any product deserves a proper rescue from bootleg into the commercial DVD mainstream, it would be this grand old TV show.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on July 3, 2009 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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11 Comments on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: WONDERAMA"

  1. marc on Tue, 1st Mar 2011 1:49 am 

    Sadly it was the practice at Metromedia to re-record over the video tapes to save money and when they became worn to cut them up to use for local spot commercials. Since the shows were, except for the kids in the audience, almost the same every week, snake cans, balloon breaking relays,dance contests, no one felt the need to keep a library of past shows. It does seem odd that the segments with name entertainers would not be preserved but as you state there may have been issues with residuals.


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  2. Brian Cunningham on Thu, 5th Apr 2012 1:54 pm 

    Sometime between Fall 1973 and Fall 1974, my younger sister and I, and a friend with “connections ” got to be on Wonderama. It was Game Show Day and the hosts of Treasure Hunt (Jeff Edwards), Jokers Wild (Art James), and Beat the Clock (Gene Wood) were in attendance. I won a desk chair race on Jeff’s lap and later he picked my name out of a box for an encyclopedia, my sister told Bob a joke about a pick-pocket at a nudist colony she had read from a “Dirty” (Dixie) Riddle Cup. Our friend was underage for the show and had to lie to Bob, badly. “Six… er, seven! “. “Sixty-seven! “, announced Bob. Later we go-goed our asses off!
    I was nine, and I was on TV. What better memory for a guy to have.


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  3. Chris M. on Thu, 17th May 2012 12:30 am 

    I remember the game host episode in 1974 of Wonderama. Gene Wood had to sit on as many balloons as possible in 60 seconds and the 3 contestants on Guess Your Best had to predict how many he could burst. I remember how exhausted he was afterwards but he was such a good sport..I think he ended up popping 17.


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  4. PETER GEHN on Mon, 25th Jun 2012 1:00 am 

    I was on Wonderama in October of 1973. I was a little old(13) but my freind’s uncle worked at WNEW, so we got to be on. Larry Storch(from F Troop) was the guest and I did my Donald Duck impersonation for him, They had a game called I spy. The took 4 kids out of the audience, took a picture of one of them, then dressed them up in costumes. Then they picked a kid out of the audience(ME), and they showed me the picture and I had to guess which kid in costume was in the picture. My first guess was wrong, and when Bob Mcallister went off stage to give me time for my second guess, his mike wire wrapped around my ankle and nearly dragged me off stage!!!! I truly wish I could get a copy of that episode and gladly pay for it!!!!!!


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  5. Barry on Sat, 29th Sep 2012 8:15 pm 

    My brother and I were on the show sometime around ’73-’74 when I was 9 years old. During the show Bob was talking to a girl who must have been 7 or 8. He then walked her over to me and asked if I was interested in her as a girlfriend. I was on camera for about 5 seconds displaying my utter embarrassment.


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  6. Mary McDermott on Fri, 30th Nov 2012 8:22 pm 

    I was on the show March 25, 1973. I had written in for tickets when I was 9 and got them when I was 13! I lived on Long Island and my mom drove me and my 3 friends to the taping. 2 of my friends were tall and looked 13 so they got placed in the top row, end seats. My friend Kerry and I were told to sit in the top row but when they left to get kids off the elevator we jumped over 2 rows and sat dead center. We were basically on tv for 3 hours! We had a great day. My one friend won the go-go contest, my other friend, chosen 1st for the snake can game, chose the flowers on the 1st try (10 games and a bike) and I won the ‘Guess Your Best’ segment (prize – $100 Odessey Game). When we left the taping many hours later the little kids in the elevator with us started crying when they saw us beacause we won all the prizes! I would love to get a copy of that show but it doesn’t sound too promising.


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  7. Joan M. on Thu, 27th Dec 2012 6:19 pm 

    I was on Wonderama in 1968 when I was just 5 years old. My Dad told me to say I was six when they asked so when Bob asked me how old are you I looked right at him and said “I’m 5 but my Dad said to say I was 6″. Bob said to me that because I told the truth he would let me come on the show. My 3 sisters were on the show too and each of us had a fun spot on the show. My sister Carleen was picked 1st in the snake can game and my sisters Lena and Mary were picked for the make up segment. My sister danced in the go go cage and we played “Does anyone here have an Ardvark”. I was featured through most of the song “You’re my little choo chee face”. After 3 hours of crazy fun and snacks galore we were each sent home with a bag of goodies from all the sponsors of the show. I wish I could get a copy of that show. It was a blast!


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  8. Don on Mon, 11th Feb 2013 9:48 pm 

    I was on in early 70′s and the Music was Elton John. My sister and I won a bunch of gifts but I would love to watch it again. Any help Elton I am sure its one of your favorites.


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  9. Michael Brown on Fri, 17th Jan 2014 4:02 am 

    Was on Wonderama with about 10 kids from my block. Ursula moms and aunt took us. I believe the year was 1969 … could be 1970 …. easy to find us because we were from Bedford -Stuyvesant and the only Black kids there :-) It was so cool at school when kids would come up and say they saw me on TV.


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  10. Michael Brown on Fri, 17th Jan 2014 4:08 am 

    We were from Monroe street, between Marcy and Nostrand in Bed Stuy. And we won so many prizes. Ursula won the bike dancing, and we felt because her mom was a judge because Monica was the best dancer on the block and she lost. I was picked to do a Jack be limbo, Jack be quick, Jack went under the limbo stick (where you go under a stick thay is lowered each time you go under. We won many games, Operation sticks out in my memory but we each. Had at least 5 -6. games and Ursula Bike


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  11. Mark G on Fri, 11th Jul 2014 5:53 pm 

    My father worked at the New York Daily news and had some connections that managed to get him two tickets. Tickets were VERY hard to get so I was ecstatic when Dad told me he got me tickets!!!I was on the show in 1975 with my friend Anthony. I remember the 8 hour taping and the show airing around 4 weeks later; it aired on April 6th 1975 to be exact. Ben Vereen, he was starring on Broadway in Pippin I believe, and some woman that was like the only female boxing ref were the guests. I had my Lenders bagel necklace for years and still have the Ben Vereen vinyl album that all the kids were given. I wish I could find an archive of that show…


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