In 1968, broadcasting out of a small television studio in Montreal, Ted Zeigler regularly taunted his fellow Americans in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Burlington, Vt., for waging what he called a senseless war in Vietnam.
Using the call sign "Radio Free Canada," Zeigler delivered weekly body counts of children killed in Southeast Asia. Eventually, viewer protest caused the station manager to decide that body counts and chiding Uncle Sam had no place on noon-time kiddie TV--not even on a production as off-the-wall as "The Johnny Jellybean Show."
The show was low-tech Pee Wee Herman. And, says Zeigler, now 61 and living in Studio City, "If a spiteful production manager hadn't wiped the tapes, it would probably still be running."
Appeared on American TV
Zeigler went on to appear frequently on "The Andy Williams Show," "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour."
Today, he narrates the new "Truth or Consequences" (Channel 9) and does voice-overs for animated children's shows such as "Heathcliff," "GoBots," "Galtar" and "Richie Rich."
For the most part, however, few ever manage to tie the name to the face or voice. Zeigler never broke through to stardom. Those who recognize him on the street tend to be Canadian expatriates weaned on Johnny Jellybean and his bizarre pantheon of invisible guests: Maury the Mailman, Enzio Pesta, Byrd, Myrt and switchboard operator Jet Crash, and the ever-present Tumy the Duck.
In 1950, after receiving a BFA in direction and production from the Goodman School of Drama in his native Chicago, Zeigler became part of a two-man comedy team with classmate Harvey Korman. "Harvey was the straight man," he recalls.
Zeigler never fancied himself an actor or comedian, preferring to write. But friends encouraged him to act, and one of them, a TV producer, liked what he saw. He asked Zeigler to consider daytime children's fare. As the 11th child in his family, Zeigler had spent his entire boyhood among a large group of children. "You either come out of that with an affinity for children or they lock you away," he said.
After a three-year run on WGN-TV in Chicago as "Uncle Bucky," Zeigler left to work in Australian television. He returned to Chicago in 1962 and was soon asked to audition for Johnny Jellybean in Montreal.
The concept was loony, even by the standards of children's TV in the early 1960s. Zeigler rejected the clubhouse concept made popular by the Mouseketeers, offering instead an insider's look at a jellybean factory. Wearing a red-striped jacket, an oversized bow tie and a beanie cap, Zeigler would cavort for an hour each day like a demented monkey on a stick.
On Johnny Jellybean, off-the-wall ritual abounded. Zeigler would rhapsodize over the joys of drinking milk, which, when poured down his throat, sounded as if Niagara Falls had been piped into the studio. Then he would bash the "Squawk Box" suspended overhead, and it would expire with a grand rush of ghostly noise. Sometimes he would show photographs of himself picketing the American consulate with a placard denouncing the war.
And, on an especially good day, he might regale his viewers with the exploits of Jet Crash, fighter pilot and consumer of "Puffed Grass," the only breakfast cereal with chlorophyll. "Ahh have a green mouth," Crash would lament.
Zeigler's fans, among them college students who like to sit with the preschoolers in the studio audience, were of the die-hard variety.
"I used to do a number of hospital visits as Johnny Jellybean," he recalls. "One day I got a call from a woman who told me her son had been in a bicycle accident. I asked what hospital he was at so I could see him. She said, 'Oh no, he's not in the hospital. He's lying on the sidewalk. What should I do?' "
Zeigler branched out into national Canadian TV in 1968. He left Canada in 1970 after the protracted military confrontation in Montreal between the Canadian government and a French Canadian terrorist organization.
Not 'My War'
"My kids were forced out of their schools into subzero weather three times because of bomb threats," he recalls. "It wasn't my war--I fought mine in the Navy during World War II."
Arriving in Los Angeles in 1970, Zeigler called Korman, who arranged an interview for him with Canadian producer Chris Bearde.
"Bearde had never met me. And he kept leaving his office and peering at me strangely. I figured I'd never get a job.
"After calling me in, he told me to talk about myself. Convinced that I didn't stand a chance, I told him I had spent the last eight years as Johnny Jellybean."
Bearde slammed his desk. "By God, that's who you are!" He called his Canadian writers over the intercom. "For God's sake, it's Johnny Jellybean."
Bearde hired him as a series "irregular" on the "Andy Williams Show," starting him at $350 a week. In 1971, he transferred to the "Carol Burnett Show," and then to "Sonny & Cher."
But Zeigler never broke through to genuine star status. He had never hired an agent to hype him, and was content to act when he could and write when his producers would let him.
"The spot I was in only hit me later, after the show was canceled. I was too busy being tossed out of windows to realize that no one knew who I was.
"The Sonny & Cher Show" was canceled in 1974. Zeigler appeared intermittently on other shows, such as "Tony Orlando & Dawn" and "The Shields & Yarnell Show." But he was stricken with a brain tumor and dropped from sight until about three years ago. The tumor was benign, but its size and location was such that he required radiation treatments, resulting in the loss of his hair and other side effects.
Today, Zeigler and his 30-year-old son, Bob, work together as personal managers for a number of television writers. Their clients include Andrew Nicholls and Darryll Vickers, two young Canadians now providing Johnny Carson with "Tonight Show" monologues and desk spots.
Zeigler and his son also manage comedy and game-show writers Richard Blitt, Meg Staahl and Hennen Chambers. Their non-entertainment writers include Laurence J. Peters, author of "The Peter Principle." Their company, Highest Common Denominator Productions, just signed Mickey Rooney to a TV series pilot tentatively called "Shuffle Off to Buffalo."
These days, Zeigler is a grand and great uncle to nearly as many children as watched him as Uncle Bucky or Johnny Jellybean. His 11 brothers and sisters have children and their children have children. Recently, he became a grandfather.
"People who remember me from those days often try to get me to admit that I don't like kids," he said. "If it were true, I wouldn't be active in the Childrens' Defense Fund. I love them."