2006-02-11 23:54:07 UTC
February 10, 2006
BY SHAMUS TOOMEY Staff Reporter, Sun Times
John R. Conrad was the straight man to an elephant, and he loved it.
As host and ringleader of WNBQ-Channel 5's "Elmer the Elephant" TV
program in the 1950s, Mr. Conrad entertained scores of Chicago-area
kids who would gather around the television in the afternoon to watch
For six years, the kids laughed along as Mr. Conrad took a pie to the
face or got squirted by water while the rascally, papier-mache elephant
puppet just rolled an eye or rang a bell.
Mr. Conrad, who went on to become a businessman after Elmer packed up
his trunk, died in California Tuesday after suffering from kidney and
heart problems. He was 86.
"In the late '50s and early '60s, when Channel 5 was the dominant
television station in Chicago, 'Elmer the Elephant' was a mainstay of
the station, along with 'Uncle Johnny Coons' and 'Ding Dong School,' "
said Bruce DuMont, president and CEO of Chicago's Museum of Broadcast
Communications, which has long displayed the original Elmer costume and
Mr. Conrad's outfit.
"To say John Conrad was one of the pioneers of early children's
television is not an overstatement."
Mr. Conrad was born and reared in Blue Island. He briefly attended
Thornton Junior College before taking a job as a radio station page boy
at the Merchandise Mart.
It was there he was bitten by the radio bug and decided he wanted to
make broadcasting a career, said his son, John C. Conrad.
In the early 1940s, he got a job at KTSM, the NBC affiliate in El Paso,
Texas. While there, he met his future wife, Lydia Chapman, the sister
of KTSM general manager Roy Chapman.
In 1942, before they were married, Mr. Conrad enlisted in the Navy and
served on an aircraft carrier based in Pearl Harbor. He married Lydia
Chapman during World War II, and, after the war ended, returned to
Chicago. He took a job as a staff announcer at WNBQ alongside such
stars as Mike Douglas, Hugh Downs and Dave Garroway.
Filmed in Merchandise Mart
In 1950, Mr. Conrad auditioned for an Oscar Mayer-sponsored children's
program. It was originally to be called "Homer the Horse," but the
meat-packing firm balked, preferring "Elmer the Elephant," John C.
The show was shot live on the 19th floor of the Merchandise Mart and
went on the air in Chicago in 1951. The half-hour show aired at 4:30
p.m. on weekdays, and brought in high ratings. It was patterned after
Laurel and Hardy, Mr. Conrad told his family.
Elmer was really a partial costume of an elephant with its operators
concealed behind a barn door. The show for a stretch also featured a
female elephant, Elmira. In addition to his banter with the speechless
elephant, Mr. Conrad would show films such as "Our Gang" and bring in
guests, including Roy Rogers.
After NBC decided to base its programming in New York, the show went
off the air in 1956, John C. Conrad said. It briefly returned in 1960.
Mr. Conrad later hosted the game show "Tug-O-War."
After that went off the air, Mr. Conrad returned to his job as a staff
announcer. In 1968, the Conrads moved to California and opened a Dollar
Rent-A-Car franchise in Hollywood. Mr. Conrad also started an
air-purification firm and marketed hand cream to medical professionals,
his son said.
In 1995, he published a novel titled Come Back For Me.
"His fondest memories were of when he had the kids program, that and
working in radio when radio was king," his son said. "Even years after
["Elmer the Elephant"] was off the air, we'd be at a restaurant and
someone would hear my dad's voice and come up and say, 'Your voice is
very familiar.' "
Mr. Conrad is survived by his wife, Lydia; two other sons, Lance and
Lee; two daughters, Pam Van Liew and Penny Pozulp, nine grandchildren
and one great-grandchild.
Services will be Sunday in Westlake Village, Calif., Mr. Conrad's home
for the past 38 years.