Bruce and Claire Newton
1926 - 2007 (Bruce)    /    1928 - 2006 (Claire)  Class of 2004
In an age when the average television viewer can choose from a hundred or more channels, when television news is a confusing welter of graphics, theme music, split screens, crawlers and sound bites that whisks the viewer all around the world and back again in just a few minutes, and when entertainment is almost entirely prepackaged, it takes some effort to appreciate the age of television at the beginning, in the 1950s. That was an age of handcrafting, of live performance and of experimentation to learn what the audience would watch and how to utilize the medium. Bruce and Claire Newton of Aurora were pioneers of those early days. Together they contributed to the development of the television art form and left a lasting impression.

Bruce was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on December 21, 1926, to Frederick and Belle Newton. He was expected to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and become a lawyer, but that never appealed to Bruce. He was a quiet child who loved to read and entertained himself by making marionettes and putting on little shows with them, until one day some boys laughed at him for “playing with dolls.” “That was the day they went into the attic,” says Bruce, “and I never touched them again until I started in television.” In 1936, when Bruce was ten, he was picked from the audience at the Saginaw town auditorium to be “televised” on the Farnsworth Electronic Television, a new invention that was touring the country. Bruce remembers standing up on a box and feeling the incredible heat of the klieg lights on him, little dreaming that lights and
television would be his life in a few short years.

Summers were spent at a family farm, where Bruce helped tend a flock of sheep, leading to a lifelong lack of taste for lamb or mutton. At Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw, Bruce gobbled up courses in public speaking, psychology and stage design and competed on the first varsity swim team. Because of gasoline rationing during World War II, the team could not travel to meets. The coaches devised a method of competition that had each team swimming simultaneously in their home pools. Times and results were telegraphed back and forth. Bruce recalls fondly working in the cafeteria, which meant as much food as he cared to eat every day, a great bonus for the tall and athletic youngster. Already an innovator, he concocted a way to tie towels together so that, utilizing his wide “wingspan,” he could wipe down an entire lunchroom table with one sweep.

World War II was raging, and after graduating high school in 1944, Bruce joined the Navy. His test scores were high and he expressed an interest in electronics, so the Navy decided to make a radioman out of him. After basic training at Great Lakes, he was sent to study communications at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and was then assigned to active duty. “I learned very quickly that when we moved onto a ship, I needed to grab an upper rack for my bed,” said the 6’4” veteran. “I stuck out so far over the edge that it was really the best place for me.” Never a drinker, Bruce was a popular companion amongst his fellow sailors, who depended on him to get them back in good order after a night on the town.

He went to sea on the U.S.S. Clouses, a destroyer, which assisted in the clean-up of Hiroshima, Japan, after the U.S. attack. “I was there two days after the bomb dropped,” Bruce recalled. “We had no idea of the health risks we were facing.”

Following his military service, Bruce returned to Michigan and continued his education by studying communications and stage design at Bay City Junior College, and then moved to Chicago where he enrolled, under the GI Program, in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

Claire was born to Clarence and Mabel Busick of Oswego on August 21,1928. She and her older sister, Billie, received their earliest schooling at the Little White Schoolhouse in Oswego. Her father was a cattle feeder and when he had an opportunity to advance his income he moved the family to the Aurora area. Claire, age ten at the time, attended the one-room country school on Deerpath Road with twenty children. There was one other student in her grade. She remembers when the teacher needed something made for the classroom, she always turned to Claire because she was so artistic and handy. She walked to school. “We were poor,” she stated, “but I had no idea of that. We were happy.” It was during these childhood years that little Claire discovered the joy of making and playing with marionettes on strings, put together out of old dresses, yarn and buttons.

She attended West Aurora High School, graduating in 1946. She studied the flute and played in the West Aurora band although other after-school activities were not an option for the teenager because she had to walk the five miles home to do chores. After leaving West High, Claire worked for a year as a secretary at Lincoln School in Aurora, then enrolled on scholarship at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, owned and directed at that time by the dynamic Aurora painter Ruth Van Sickle Ford, a 2002 inductee of the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame. She made the daily round trip of roughly one hundred miles on the Chicago Aurora and Elgin electric line.

The diminutive farm girl from Aurora and the towering ex-sailor from Michigan met in an illustration class. “In those days everybody smoked and we used to have smoke breaks about every hour” Bruce recalled, ”but I didn’t smoke, so I just sat out on the fire escape and worked on my drawings. One day we were using lampblack and I was wetting the brush in my mouth to get a point on it. I must have been making faces, too, because I heard a voice behind me say ‘What’s the matter, doesn’t it taste good?’ That’s the first time I ever heard her voice.” They soon were spending every class break together and Claire was inviting Bruce out to the farm for chicken dinners. “I’d never seen food like that,” he said. “Such chicken! And back home apple sauce was something that came in a spoonful next to your pork chop. At the Busick’s, apple sauce came in a great big bowl like that for everybody to help themselves.” “Well,” Claire responded with a serene smile, “We did have an apple orchard, after all. And a chicken coop!”

They were married in 1948 and took up residence on the 2400 block of North Arlington Place in Chicago. It was a third story cold-water walkup and the newlyweds’ first refrigerator was an apple box out on the balcony. Bruce began post-graduate studies at the Art Institute of Chicago but soon found himself with a job offer from WGN to work as a producer on the Chicago pre-show of The Today Show, called “The Tom Wallace Show,” where, along with Claire, he did writing, stage design, acting, puppeteering and the weather. It was that show that got Bruce to revisit his parents’ attic in Michigan and dig out his old marionettes.

The 1950s were years of great growth and freedom in television. As a new medium, it was wide open for innovation. It was a perfect time for the strongly artistic couple who had each played with puppets as children. They waded into the challenges of live television with zest and delight. “There was no one to learn from, no schools to go to for television,” Claire recalled. “If it had to be done, you had to do it yourself.” “And it was all live,” Bruce added. “If you made a mistake, it went out there, to Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, you name it.”

In 1952 Bruce was asked by WBKB-Channel 4 to co-host a Chicago children’s show with Cincinnati radio personality Frazier Thomas. Thomas had a sock puppet he called Garfield Goose and an idea that a television show could be developed around it. In short order, the dingy sock creature and an early marionette of Bruce’s called “Li’l King Magic” were morphed into the snow-white clacking and swooping “king of the United States”, complete with tiny crown and very large ego. The show was named “Garfield Goose and Friends” and became a Chicago institution. It was here that Bruce’s hours spent practicing drawing out on the fire escape at the Chicago Academy paid off. One of the regular features was a “paint-to-music” interlude which had Bruce rapidly sketching a scene on a long roll of paper, to the accompaniment of an organist and singer. Another feature was “Professor Newton’s Class of Practical Knowledge” in which “the professor” illustrated household hints live on the air. Weather was presented by Bruce and his puppet Cecil Centigrade.

Although the Newtons moved on to other programs, “Garfield Goose and Friends” ran for twenty-four years on WBKB and WGN. The Newtons called Garfield “our first baby” and the goose is unquestionably the most famous of the 278 “telepuppets” they still treasure from a long career in television.

In 1953 Bruce went to work for Channel 7, first doing visuals for Fahey Flynn’s nightly newscast and then creating and working puppets for “The Happy Pirates” children’s show. It starred singer and musician Two Ton Baker, and made a media figure out of Joe White, the little person who played Little Oscar for the sponsor of the show, Oscar Meyer. After “The Happy Pirates” went off the air, Bruce worked on “The Smile Club,” “Princess Mary’s Castle” with Mary Hartline and “Playhouse with Angel Casey.”

But television in the 1950s was not entirely telepuppets and children’s shows. In 1956 Bruce was asked to work on the late-night Saturday “Shock Theater,” which quickly became a cult hit. He wrote, built sets, and performed as “Shorty,” a monster character in skits which followed screenings of old Universal horror movies. Bruce wore special shoes to make himself seven feet tall, and an elaborate mask. Terry Bennett, a ventriloquist and host of a children’s show in the daytime, played the host, Mad Marvin. The show was produced at the State Lake Building right across State Street from the Chicago Theater, and became a magnet for celebrities performing at the Chicago. These stars would drop by after their performances across the street and in the freely creative spirit of the times, were often incorporated on the spot into “Shock Theater.” Bruce’s favorite story is about the night Sammy Davis, Jr. dropped by and agreed to do a bit where he would wander alone onto the spooky set only to be “attacked” by the monster. With no script and no rehearsals, the gag was going along fine on live TV until Bruce crept up from behind and grabbed the diminutive Davis. “I didn’t realize he only weighed about a hundred pounds,” he said. “I swung him so high in the air he nearly hit the lights.”

Bruce and Claire also worked for Chicago gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet as studio producers, greeting the Hollywood stars, celebrities and politicians who flocked to be interviewed by Kup on his show “At Random.” “So off the elevator steps Eleanor Roosevelt, at that time the American ambassador to the United Nations and one of the most recognized women in the world, Bruce remembered with a smile. “I went up to her, feeling very intimidated already, and blurted out ‘Mrs. Roosevelt, I presume?’ You should have seen the look she gave me. I could feel my face turning to fire as I stood there. Then I proceeded to give her the questions Kup would be asking that night, and wouldn’t you know it, on the air he changed them all.”

In the mid-fifties Bruce helped produce “A.M. In Chicago” for ABC, the name and time spot of which were later taken over by Oprah Winfrey. He read the weather and managed the visuals, working from meticulously-typed scripts where the timing was plotted out to the second. Even so, he remembers the pressure of live broadcasting, rushing down the hall with just-acquired photographs from the war zone in Korea, for instance, to thrust before the camera during news breaks.

Bruce enjoyed a reputation as a “gizmo man,” someone who could create Rube Goldberg contraptions and supply visuals and objects to shows like the Peabody Award-winning “Mr. Wizard” with Don Herbert and Burr Tilstrom’s beloved puppet show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” with Fran Allison.

Until about 1965, Claire stayed home in Aurora to raise the couple’s five children, Sandy, Darry Linn, Kim, Robin and Tammy. Her creativity, however, was hardly stifled by motherhood. She was often Bruce’s at-home collaborator. He would bring projects home from the studio, working on them until long after midnight, and then Claire would rise at 2:00 a.m. to finish them, sometimes rocking a baby with one arm and drawing, painting or lettering with the other. She was, understandably, a favorite resource for her children’s classroom teachers. To top everything, using her mother’s sewing machine, she stitched up matching outfits for all seven in the family, creating a visual impact on those who encountered them around town that must have been as bold and theatrical as anything she might have put in front of a television camera.

When Claire returned to full-time work, she joined Bruce at WCIU-Channel 26, an ultra-high-frequency station willing to take risks in its programming to attract an audience. One of those risks was the urban dance show “Soul Train,” a new and untested concept that was the brainchild of African-American newscaster Don Cornelius. Bruce and Claire made the set for the show in their dining room in Aurora, cutting and painting furiously with the help of their children. Every morning Bruce would take the train into the city in order to be at work on time, and Claire would come later in the family station wagon, hauling pieces of the set. The show eventually moved to the West Coast and went into syndication, with historic results.

The mid-sixties was also the time the Newtons bought their house on historic West Park Avenue in Aurora. Built about 1894, the house had eighteen rooms and was filled to overflowing with a serious agglomeration of antiques and collectibles. Ever the stage designers, Bruce and Claire turned rooms, closets and mere crannies into set-pieces like a fully-equipped old-time ice cream shop, barber shop, dentist’s office, seamstress shop, lawyer’s office, general store, and naval radio shack. There was a drivable Model T (1926) and Model A (1930) in the garage.

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 Pioneer television producers and performers  Puppeteers