Original publish date: February 22, 2016
To say that my dad’s sense of humor was dry would be like saying water is wet. Every Saturday morning for a half dozen years or so, I met my dad at Pleasant Run golf course for 18 holes of golf. Robert Eugene Hunter was an Arsenal Technical Graduate and all-city center on the Tech Titans football team in the early 1950s. 1954 maybe? I’m surprised I can’t remember the year date because he never lost an opportunity to tell me all about. Now that I’m older and a parent myself, I know that dad’s do that sort of thing. Seems he was always getting things wrong: tv & movie titles, people and place names, year dates, directions. After awhile, I learned to tune most of that stuff out. He died in 1997.
Last week, my wife and I were out searching an antique mall on a cabin fever diversion when we came upon something that looked very familiar to me. It was a little 6″ tall soft rubber frog in a waist coat and bow tie posed with his arms outstretched and his mouth agape. I turned it over and saw that it was dated 1948 and made by the Rempel rubber company out of Akron, Ohio. It also had the trademark of J. Ed McDonnell on the back. I held it up turned to my wife and exclaimed, “Hey Rhonda, its froggy!”
During those Saturday golf outings, whenever I made an extraordinary shot (which was in my opinion more often than not wink, wink) my dad would yell out “Plunk yer magic twanger froggy”. I recall once, while hitting my second fairway shot on the par 4 hole number 4, I hit the metal guardrail that runs alongside Arlington Avenue on the fly and the ball miraculously back towards the green about a foot from the hole. Sure enough, dad yelled out that line and I finally asked him what the heck he was talking about.
Just so happens, we were stacked up on the hole 5 tee waiting for the fairway to clear, so he explained what the saying meant. He told me that it was a line uttered on the “Smilin’ Ed’s show” children’s radio (and later TV) show by a character named “Froggy the Gremlin.” Dad said Froggy was terrifying. “He would appear in a puff of smoke, and grumble in a low, gravely voice, ‘Hiya kids, Hiya! Hiya! Hiya!'” Apparently Froggy was a trouble-maker with no respect for adults known for pulling pranks, practical jokes and generally disrupting the show and presentations of other guests. Dad said that Smilin’ Ed would always call out “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy” to make him appear.
I really hadn’t thought much about those days until I found Froggy in that antique mall. Although I often found myself using the expression whenever I thought it appropriate to do so, which always elicited quizzical looks from my wife and kids. Knowing my dad’s penchant for getting things wrong, I went home and googled Froggy the Gremlin and was astonished to find that my dad’s recollection was bang on.
According to Wikipedia, “Froggy the Gremlin was a character created by Smilin’ Ed McConnell and brought to radio in the 1940s and television in 1950s on the Smilin’ Ed’s Gang show. Froggy was a troublemaker. Disrespectful of adult authority figures, Froggy played practical jokes and disrupted the presentations of other guests. If a guest were to demonstrate how to paint a wall, they might say, “And now I’m going to take this can of paint…” Froggy would chime in, “And dump it over my head.” And the confused guest would proceed to do so. On radio and the early TV shows, Froggy’s voice was frequently supplied by Arch (“Archie”) Presby, who was also the program’s announcer.”
Smilin’ Ed was born James McConnell in Atlanta, Georgia in 1882. The son of a minister, McConnell began to sing at age three and soon learned how to play drums and the piano before he started school. He was an athletic teenager and later became a professional boxer before enlisting in the US Army during World War I. According to an NBC press release, “A troop train on which he was traveling was wrecked in Arkansas by a German sympathizer and Ed wound up in a river. When he was pulled out, an Army surgeon pronounced him dead, but a buddy finally revived Ed with artificial respiration.”
After leaving the Army, McConnell was a barnstorming gospel singer and sometime evangelist. He got his big break on an Atlanta radio station in 1922 when the scheduled performer failed to show up. He married in 1928, and four years later joined the CBS network. In 1936, McConnell starred on the Acme Sunshine Melodies radio show on WMAQ in Chicago. The Sunday afternoon program was sponsored by Acme White Lead and Color Works. In 1937, he moved to NBC as their “Sunshine Melody Man,” offering hymns and uplifting messages in his rich, distinctive baritone voice.
But McDonnell’s biggest break came in 1944 when he invented Froggy and became known as “Smilin’ Ed” and hooked Buster Brown shoes as his title sponsor. By 1948, 145 ABC stations were subscribing to his “Smilin’ Ed’s Buster Brown Gang” program. Smilin’ Ed’s humor, songs, and music transformed Buster Brown from a dated comic strip character into one of the most widely recognized advertising mascots in the country. The show aired on NBC radio every Saturday morning at 11:30 through April 11, 1953.
The show opened with an adventure story and was peppered throughout by ads for Buster Brown shoes. In between songs and stories, Froggy would magically appear, laughing, hopping from side to side, to sing a song in his low, gruff, Popeye-like croak or annoy regular guests like Shortfellow the Poet or Alkali Pete the Cowboy.
A character named Midnight the Cat spoke a few lines every show and Smilin’ Ed would sing a novelty song or two. Midnight was voiced by the legendary June Foray whose name might not ring a bell, but the characters she supplied voices for surely do. They include Rocket J. Squirrel, Natasha Fatale and Sweet Nell (Bullwinkle & Friends), Cindy Lou Who (The Grinch), Betty Rubble (Flintstones), Jokey Smurf, Granny (Tweety Bird) and the voice of Mattel’s original Chatty Cathy doll. Smilin’ Ed not only promoted Buster Brown shoes but also the comic books that featured little storie involving the “Buster Brown Gang” of Midnight, Squeaky and Froggy.
In 1950, Smilin’ Ed brought Froggy and the whole gang to television in shows that were some of the earliest to be filmed in color. He cut the mold for a long line of children’s television’s jolly fat men to follow; six feet tall and weighing over 250 pounds. Smilin’ Ed McConnell died of a heart attack on July 23, 1954 at Newport Beach, California. King of the cowboys Roy Rogers’ sidekick Andy Devine took over the show. Ironically it is “Andy’s Gang” that most people now remember.
But who was Froggy the Gremlin? Was he a ghost, a creature from outer space, a leprechaun or maybe a short human with an oversized frog’s head? He was dressed in a smart looking red jacket, white shirt and black tie, but he wore no pants. Was he a frog that became a gremlin? A gremlin that had become a frog? And where exactly was his “twanger” and how did he “plunk” it? Nobody really knew much about the magical, mysterious Froggy the Gremlin, but he managed to make my dad shudder a full generation after he left the air. So, Plunk Your Magic Twanger, Froggy and rock on!