I spent a lot of birthdays with John Rovick, who passed away Saturday at the age of 93, although only a few of them were mine. There was a birthday party every day on “Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade,” the Los Angeles kids’ show Rovick hosted on KTTV for 17 years (alongside another show, “Sheriff John’s Cartoon Time,” he hosted for 18), which is to say there were birthday wishes read out to young viewers by name, there was a cake, which never got eaten, and there was a song.
That song, which begins “Put another candle on my birthday cake” and ends “I’m another year old today” -- in between there was “pie and sandwiches and chocolate ice cream, too” -- is one of the few things in this world I know by heart. (“The Birthday Cake Polka” is its name, though that never came up at the time.) I also vividly recall an instruction to tell mom to buy Maggio carrots (with the “twistem seal,” because who wouldn’t want something that came with a twistem seal) and a starred checklist of good behavior for daily review. He was a sheriff, after all.
Rovick was one of the three great Los Angeles children’s television hosts of my childhood, along with “Engineer” Bill Stulla (on KHJ, now KCAL) and KTLA’s Tom Hatten, who dressed in sailor whites, showed Popeye cartoons and drew pictures from “squiggles” that viewers sent in. There were others, less illustrious perhaps, but each with a claim on a corner of my consciousness: Hobo Kelly, Chuck Jones the Magic Man, Billy Barty, Chucko the Birthday Clown, Beachcomber Bill and the hipsterish “Shrimpenstein” team, who taught me something about satire.
Their kind is gone now, because commercial local television, except for the news and the news-lite, no longer exists; only public-access cable and some non-commercial public broadcasters carry that flag now. It is all cartoons and sitcoms in kiddieland now; some of them are excellent. But they are a world apart from the person on TV who knows it is your birthday, and says your name.
Huckleberry Hound and Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone and their alliterative animated like were important to me in my early youth; they were even mentors, in their way. But it’s not as though I ever felt I had a relationship, even an imaginary relationship, with them. They were not going to show me kindliness or concern. We remember Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo and Sheriff John -- human beings who looked you straight in the camera’s eye -- the way we remember favorite old teachers. Indeed, a show like Rovick’s, which began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance, was a kind of rehearsal for going to school.
Rovick had a long, open face, with soft eyes and ears that stuck out a little -- it was a kid’s face, in a way, trusting and trustworthy. As a sheriff, he was no Old West gunslinger but a New West ranger, rather, a civil servant, in a white Stetson, crisp khakis and a necktie, easygoing but authoritative. He was a man with a bulletin board. I imagined his “wood-paneled” office being not too far out of town, where the houses got farther apart and the fields still held their ground.
And out of town was not too far, then. He was a neighbor. He might come to your school, to your supermarket.
With nearly two decades wearing the hat and the badge, he belonged to more generations than mine. Indeed, by the time I can remember watching him, he was halfway through his run. After “Lunch Brigade” and “Cartoon Time” were canceled in 1970, he stayed on at KTTV for another 11 years as a staff announcer: a voice that continued to sound like home.