Longtime Phila TV host Gene London dies at age 88
Gene London. FILE PHOTO
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY TERREE O’NEILL YEAGLE-THE MOMENT PHOTOGRAPHYGene London, with information wall panel, “Designing Hollywood” exhibition, Allentown Art Museum.
Gene London, 88, the former children’s TV host, died Sunday, in Reading, according to his family. The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage after a fall Friday.
London — born in Cleveland as Eugene Yulish — hosted a show from 1959 to 1977 that aired under a variety of titles, including Cartoon Corners and The Wonderful World of Gene London.
London would greet the children who were guests on the show, sing the theme song, tell classic stories, voice each character and sketch scenes from the stories.
It was an era when TV markets across the United States had original programming for children. In addition to Gene London, Philadelphia children’s TV show stars included Sally Starr, Bill “Wee Willie” Webber, Pixanne, “Uncle” Pete Boyle, Chief Halftown and Captain Noah.
A recent exhibit at the Allentown Art Museum included costumes from his collection and he appeared for a lecture there.
The exhibit, subtitled “Golden Age Costumes from the Gene London Cinema Collection,” included 60 vintage costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood movies, including those worn by Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Charlton Heston, James Cagney and many more.
He began his Allentown Art Museum talk by saying, “My real name is Eugene Yulish. I grew up in Cleveland. Everybody was poor during the Depression. But we could go to the movies. They had palaces for the movies.”
Pausing, he said, “I love the make-believe.”
London seemed overwhelmed by the adulation of the estimated 120 who filled the auditorium. London spoke calmly and softly. After his talk, he listened to each person waiting in the long line.
In a phone interview for the Lehigh Valley Press, London recounted his love of the movies, the influence of his mother’s aspirations on his career, and how he has collected some 60,000 Hollywood costumes.
Before his career in Philadelphia, London was on children’s shows telecast 1957 - 1959 in New York City, including “Johnny Jupiter,” a puppet show where he played Re-ject the Robot; “Tinker’s Workshop,” on WABC-TV, playing Tinker Tom the Toymaker, and NBC-TV’s “Today’ show with host Dave Garroway, for holiday-themed specials.
“I got better and better,” says London. “I thought I was hot stuff. I went into the program manager (at WABC0.” “Farmer Brown” cartoons from the 1920s were telecast on “Tinker’s Workshop.” “I said, ‘Get better cartoons or I quit.’ He said, ‘You’re fired.’
“Then I went to the competition.” London called Dave Garroway at the “Today” show. “When I called, (Garroway) answered the phone. That’s how different it was in those days.”
London had taught puppetry at Summerdale Day Camp, near Philadelphia. “The head counselor became my godfather. He was a school teacher in Philadelphia, Sam Browne. They (Browne and his wife, Ruth) talked me into coming to Philadelphia.
“I walked from Independence Hall to WCAU on City Line because I didn’t have enough money for the subway. Jack Dolph was the program manager there. I told him all the things I could do. He said, ‘Tell me a story.’ I told him “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ He called in the staff. I changed my voice for each character. Jack Snyder, the general manager, said, ‘Hire the kid. He’ll make us a fortune.’
“They had a set, a pub set, left over from a show and they painted flowers around it and made it look Pennsylvania-Dutch. And we did our first ‘Cartoon Corners’ General Store.
“The first show changed all the ratings. After the third show, it was the highest-rated show in Philadelphia.
After “Cartoon Corners,” London ran a collectible clothing shop, Gene London: The Fan Club, along West 19th Street, New York City, from 1992 until 2002. London also became a spokesman for Mikimoto, traveling the world to represent the jewelry firm.
“The truth of my life is that I love the movies. To me, the movies of the golden age are an extraordinary time in our country. It’s a 20th century phenomenon of our age,” he said.