The Anatomy of an Urban Legend

An underreported event resulting from the advent of You Tube has been the demise of TV urban legends. These days, anything that happens in front of a television camera, or relatively close to anyone with an I-Phone, can be posted on the internet immediately, and can go viral within hours. Verbal faux pas by politicians, wardrobe malfunctions involving female entertainers, and loud angry tirades spouted by news channel hosts have played havoc with the careers of those unfortunate enough to be caught by the unblinking eye. This, of course, has only recently been the case. For many years, unexpected television moments could be lost forever in the era of live television, with very little of it being saved on film or videotape. It was in this environment that folks would only learn about controversial incidents through word of mouth, with no proof that it actually happened. Thus, the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s saw the phenomena known as the TV urban legend.

We’ve all heard the stories…the female contestant on “The Newlywed Game,” who guessed, “In the butt Bob,”  Arnold Palmer confiding to Johnny Carson what his wife did to bring him good luck, or the youngster telling Bozo the Clown to “cram it.” In each of these cases, as in so many others, no one seems to have seen any of the events directly, usually relying on what is described in the courtroom as hearsay. All of this brings me to my all-time favorite urban legend, one that has the perfect characteristics that make for a great story: No one is certain of when it happened, who it directly involved, or even if it actually took place.

The tale goes something like this…A host of a weekday afternoon kid’s show is doing his usual signoff, telling his young audience to listen to their parents, do well if school, and always play by the rules. Thinking the camera has shut off, he adds, “I guess that will hold the little bastards for another day.” Of course, his final words are heard by thousands of children and many adults, causing a firestorm that may or may not have resulted in the host losing his job. I first heard the story sometime during my junior high school days by someone who suggested that it had recently happened, but was a bit unsure which Bay Area kid’s show host had made the remarks. He mentioned that it might have been KRON’s “Mayor Art”, but felt it might well have been Channel 2’s “Captain Satellite”. A quick survey of the schoolyard revealed that many who had heard the story were also not certain as to which TV personality, but it became apparent that the story wasn’t as fresh as I was originally led to believe. A couple of years later, I heard the legend repeated once again, but this time it was told as if it had happened many years earlier. My friend Bill brought up the incident, but his version, passed down from his older brother, claiming that the offending host was “Fireman Frank,” who appeared on Channel 4 back in the 1950’s. I ran this by my older sisters, and they too felt that the “little bastards” remark happened when they were children, but it was their understanding that the guilty party was “Captain Fortune,” who resided on Channel 5.

If you figured at this point, I was at least closing in on the time frame, you’d be wrong. My father, overhearing my conversation, informed me that what I was describing actually happened during a radio broadcast when he was a kid. According to my dad, some guy known as “Big Brother,” said the offending words at some point during the 1930’s on a San Francisco based radio show. Did my dad actually hear it when it happened? On that, he wasn’t sure, but he knew a lot of kids that did hear it…or at least might have heard about it. The “Big Brother” connection to this urban legend was discussed in Jerry Flamm’s excellent book, “Good Life in Hard Times…San Francisco in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s.” It is Flamm’s contention that possibly, the source of the story may date back to a San Francisco charity function during the 1920’s, an event that attracted many local media personalities. During the festivities, a skit was performed that spoofed “Big Brother’s” radio show, and acted out the “little bastards” event more or less the way I heard it many years later. Although this scenario takes “Big Brother” off the hook, the question then becomes whether or not the skit was a reenactment of an event that had already become an urban legend? In trying to hunt down the origin of this event, I soon learned that some urban legends have wings that enable them to travel across continents.

According to the urban legend debunking website, Snopes.com, the “little bastards” story dates as far back as 1928, and is not true. Although the story has been applied to everyone who hosted a kid’s show from the ‘20’s to the 1960’s, the individual most frequently linked to the incident was “Uncle” Don Carney, who hosted a children’s radio show on New York’s WOR from 1928 to 1947. In 1930, Variety reported the “little bastards” story as having taken place “about two weeks ago” at an unnamed Philadelphia station, resulting in the firing of an unnamed host. It should be noted that nothing appeared in any Philadelphia newspaper regarding anything like this, but the seed had been planted, and soon Carney, the most prominent kid’s show host on the East Coast, became associated with the tale. For years, Carney denied any connection to the story, pointing out that he stayed employed more than a decade after the rumor first surfaced. “Uncle Don’s” attempts to squelch his link to the legend faced a major setback in the 1950’s when radio producer Kermit Schaefer released the first of several radio blooper albums. The first of these LP’s, “Pardon My Blooper,” included a recording of the now infamous “little bastards” moment, indentifying Carney as the culprit. What many listeners didn’t know was that producer Schaefer would often do recreations when actual recordings were unavailable, and the Carney segment on the album was actually an actor reenacting what was not really a true situation. Schaefer certainly did Carney a disservice by perpetuating a myth. It was “Pardon My Blooper” that probably convinced millions that they actually heard the “little bastard” remark almost as it happened.

Now days, of course, an incident such as the “little bastards” story would never be believed without the video evidence to back it up. The current “You Tube” era has made most of us skeptical of anything we cannot verify with our own eyes and ears. In some cases, even the visual experience isn’t convincing, as most of us have become aware of the art of photo-shopping. Is this a good thing? I, for one, am not sure, as I have always preferred our culture to have mysteries attached to it. What if our current technology had been available throughout our nation’s history? Would the video footage of historical events live up to how we imagine them, or would we learn something new? For example, I just heard a rumor that after the Battle of Saratoga, George Washington said, “I guess that will hold the little bastards.”