It might be hard to believe but forty years ago New Yorkers tuned in every morning to watch children's birthday parties complete with sing-a-longs, animals and staring into a tropical fish tank. For the 1960s, this was big city daytime TV at it's finest - and it was surprisingly entertaining.
Birthday House starred Paul Tripp, TV's first child educator. As the producer and star of the critically celebrated Mr. I. Magination program on the CBS network from 1949 until 1952, he influenced and predated Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street and every children's program that followed.
Birthday House aired live on WNBC 4 Monday through Saturday mornings from April 1, 1963 until September 8, 1967; it was nationally syndicated for a while and two best-selling soundtrack albums were released with songs from the show.
Similar in tone to Romper Room, the broadcast was a smash hit with kids and parents alike thanks to the exemploray talents of Tripp and his spouse, co-host Ruth Enders Tripp. A creative team since the pioneer days of television, they were masters of the intimate, seat-of-your-pants nature of live broadcasting.
Each day one, two or three lucky youngsters were selected from the New York / New Jersey viewing area to attend a birthday celebration with their friends on television. The WNBC studio could only accommodate a dozen or so children at a time, naturally tickets were highly coveted.
Tom Tichenor designed, manipulated and voiced the many cheerful puppet characters and portrayed Strawtop the silent scarecrow doll; Jan Lara and Kay Lande also appeared in character roles. In 1964, WNBC Channel 4 received a special citation for Birthday House at the NYC Emmy Awards.
The underlying focus of Birthday House was on learning, however simple the lesson. This was accomplished with segments like Buzzy the spelling bee, kids drawing together at a chalk board and a milk drinking game to encourage good nutrition.
In this found episode, Paul and his puppet pal Felicia the mouse play around with a couple of gerbils before Paul strolls to a fish tank where he ad-libs as the camera lingers on the exotic fish swimming about.
This is representative of what the NBC flagship station offered for the morning hours in the nation's number one television market, part of a steady diet of quality kidvid available around the dial - all day long - with top talent that included Chuck McCann, Sandy Becker, Officer Joe Bolton and a legion of other versatile performers who instilled in their viewers a sense of fair play, virtue and a love for education.
We've gone from watching children at play on TV to performing DNA tests to determine who the kid belongs to.