Sheriff John relishes all those cakes
For Southern Californians who grew up watching television in the 1950s and ‘60s, the death of “Engineer Bill” Stulla last week at age 97 sparked memories of another beloved Los Angeles children’s TV-show icon: “Sheriff John” Rovick.
A staff announcer for KTTV-TV Channel 11 when the station first went on the air in 1949, Rovick began portraying the badge- and khaki-uniform wearing Sheriff in 1952 as the host of “Cartoon Time,” a live, late-afternoon show that won an Emmy Award in 1953 for outstanding children’s program.
By then, KTTV had added a new midday show to its schedule, “Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade,” which remained on the air until 1970.
“Come on now, laugh and be happy, and the world will laugh with you . . . ,” Rovick would sing in his friendly baritone, lip-syncing as he came through the door of his Sheriff’s office at the start of each show.
Along with showing cartoons, he’d offer up a mix of safety tips and patriotism (he led viewers in the Pledge of Allegiance), have chats with occasional visitors and, of course, offer birthday wishes to his young viewers and sing “The Birthday Cake Polka” (“Put another candle on my birthday cake . . . “).
Now 88, Rovick lives in Boise, Idaho, where he moved after retiring as a KTTV staff announcer in 1981.
“I came up here on a vacation trip and did a little fishing and liked the area and the people and wanted to get out of L.A. in the worst way,” said Rovick, who lives in “a quiet little neighborhood” about 20 blocks from the state Capitol.
Rovick said he’s still occasionally recognized in Boise by transplanted Southern California baby boomers who watched his show and continues to receive occasional letters from former members of the Lunch Brigade.
He looks back fondly on his days as Sheriff John.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” he said, offering this explanation for the show’s appeal: “I didn’t preach down to the children; I think that was a plus. And I tried to use common sense. I spent a lot of time on good manners and safety and things like that. It was popular, of course, with the parents at the same time, and I ‘raised’ a lot of kids over 18 years.”
For much of that time, Stulla was hosting “Cartoon Express” on KHJ (now KCAL) Channel 9 as “Engineer Bill.” Rovick said that after their TV shows ended, they occasionally saw one another when they made personal appearances together.
“Bill was a real nice guy,” said Rovick.
For a noontime show called “Lunch Brigade,” Sheriff John naturally had lunch along with his viewers -- “I had a sandwich, usually, and a glass of milk.” But before taking a bite, he’d say a four-line nondenominational prayer:
“Heavenly father, great and good. We thank thee for our daily food. Bless us even as we pray. Guide and keep us through this day.”
Rovick acknowledged that a contemporary TV station would not let him get away with saying grace on camera.
“Oh, they’d fight me tooth and nail today,” Rovick said. But at the time, he said, he never received a single complaint.
“Isn’t that amazing?” he said. “That was when everyone was trying to prove that God was dead, and I was out to prove he was alive, and I won.”
Rovick, who had studied singing and voice after graduating from Michigan State University in 1941 and considered a career in light opera before going into broadcasting, recorded 12 children’s records for Imperial during his Sheriff John heyday, including “The Birthday Cake Polka.”
His offering birthday wishes to dozens of viewers each day and singing the birthday song was one of the most popular segments of the show.
Rovick recalled once receiving a letter from a mother, whose young son had said to her, “I wonder how old Sheriff John is?” She said, “I don’t really know.” The boy then said, “He must be hundreds of years old. Every day, he sings, ‘I’m another year old to-day.’ ”
For the record, Rovick will turn 89 on Oct. 2.
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