Growing up in Chicago, I tuned into the holy trinity of local children's-TV hosts: Ray Rayner, Garfield Goose, and Bozo the Clown. Here in Memphis, children grew up watching Dick Williams and Mr. Be, cringed whenever Sivad came onscreen, or helped Professor Shylock Bones solve scientific mysteries. Today, they learn about life from Charles "Mr. Chuck" Scruggs, via his WKNO-TV program, Hello, Mr. Chuck.
In his trademark red shirt and faded blue jeans, Scruggs is Fred Rogers, Bob McGrath, and Captain Kangaroo all rolled into one: oftentimes silly, occasionally serious, and always willing to deliver exactly what his audience needs: a helping hand, an open ear, and easygoing instructions on the day-to-day.
This Sunday, WKNO, the regional PBS affiliate, will host a summit of children's-TV icons, including Mr. Chuck, Mr. McFeely, the speedy delivery man from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Allen Hamilton, who portrayed Mr. Be on All Aboard With Mr. Be, Earl Fuller aka Professor Shylock Bones from Scientific Bureau of Investigation, and Rosanna Quinn Kendall, who hosted the '60s program The Playground, along with children's-show characters such as Arthur, Calliou, and Jay Jay the Jet Plane.
The event, held on WKNO's studio grounds, located on the South Campus of the U of M, kicks off the station's 50th anniversary celebration.
Although Scruggs seems tailor-made for the role of an Emmy Award-winning children's-TV host, the route to his current career was hardly direct.
Born in Chattanooga, Scruggs gravitated toward public speaking after listening to radio announcers like popular circa-WWII newsman Martin Agronsky. A local DJ heard Scruggs calling plays at a high school football game and recruited him for the radio. Soon, he had a popular morning slot. Dreams of a law degree were pushed aside when he earned a communications degree from the University of Connecticut. After stints at stations in Connecticut and northern California, he came to Memphis to work as general manager at WDIA in 1972.
"Ultimately, I realized the power of broadcasting," Scruggs says today. "I recognized the media's ability to disseminate information. I wanted to cause change."
While at WDIA, he spearheaded a campaign to save the charter of Mound Bayou, Mississippi's first all-black town. He also served on the NAACP board and helped form the nonprofit foundation that eventually opened the National Civil Rights Museum.
Scruggs took over the community education department at WKNO in the mid-1990s. Hello, Mr. Chuck, he says, was an outgrowth of a state jobs conference he attended soon after.
"Tennessee's low literacy rate affected the quality of labor, so we decided to do local feeds and spot bits related to the children's programming already on PBS," he says.
"I have two sons and eight grandchildren, so hosting a kids' program did sound interesting," Scruggs adds.
With the assistance of a skeleton crew, Scruggs currently produces 26 episodes of Hello, Mr. Chuck a year. He recruits kids from local child-care centers and city school classrooms to appear on the show, which is broadcast in suburban Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, as well as Memphis.
"We're targeting children who are between 2 and 8 years old," Scruggs says. "At 2, their brain development is like lightning -- and their synapses are firing, with or without the proper educational information."
As he explains, there's "no exact formula" for successful interactive children's programming.
"There's so much pollution out there, no matter how much parents work with their children," he says. "Kids are constantly exposed to negative social viruses. Through positive reinforcement, we hope their immune systems will be able to resist."
Scruggs sees his 30-minute slot as an opportunity to emphasize family values, expose children to different cultures, and fortify their physical and literacy skills. He regularly encourages parents to view the program along with their kids and participate in the activities and songs that are a part of every episode, then continue the learning process with reading sessions and conversations about what they've seen.
He also begs parents to turn off the television set and spend more one-on-one time with their children.
"Anybody could be Mr. Chuck, but it's a lot more than wearing a red shirt and blue jeans. You have to spend a lot of time doing what children need -- simple things like listening and filling their basic needs," he says.
"You never know when they're watching you," he says of his pint-sized audience members, who flock to his side at school visits, grocery stores, and speaking engagements, "so you always need to be good.
"On every episode, I'm singing the songs that the kids like, but I'm also sneaking in plenty of parenting information," says Scruggs. "If I help just one child, I know they'll be able to help the next."
WKNO Open House on the South Campus of the U of M
Sunday, June 25th 1-6 p.m.
For more information, go to www.WKNO.org.