Two things distinguish a certain generation of Puget Sound native. You stick an s on the end of Boeing when you say it. And you fondly recall J.P. Patches.
Chris Wedes, the beloved iconic television clown who entertained decades of Boomers and Gen Xers as they rubbed their eyes and dressed for grade school, died this week. He was 84.
With his hat and coat stuck full of buttons and his outlandish getup, Julius Pierpont Patches was not merely the mayor of the Seattle City Dump. He was the king of local children’s television. Yes, every channel had its kiddie host, stitching together the moments between terrible cartoons and syrupy commercials. There was uncle-y Brakeman Bill and his crazy donkey, Stan Boreson and his musically challenged Basset hounds. Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers were oh-so-kindly, and oh-so-dull. No one matched J.P. in his revolving retinue of drop-in weirdo guests—Boris S Wort, Ketchikan the Animal Man, Gorst the Friendly Furple—and his wild, frenetic energy. Where others were merely kindly, J.P. was also kindly, and—like the best of your friends—boisterous and rude.
He was the least clownish of clowns, and that made him droll and comical.
The shows were live and spontaneous. Nothing was scripted. Beyond weekday exhortations to wash your ears, no deep lessons were transmitted. And if something went wrong—some set piece tumbled over, or some exotic animal peed, some pratfall was unexpectedly painful, or something off-color slipped sideways in a children’s world of black-and-white—the lighting crews just snorted and snickered, J.P. or Gertrude would lose it and recover (or not) and the show rolled on.
At his peak, The J.P. Patches Show had more than 100,000 daily viewers and was broadcast in the morning and afternoon. It debuted Feb. 10, 1958, and when it went off the air in 1981 it was the longest-running locally produced children’s show in the United States.
Like so many thousands, I met him in person as a child, at the opening of a new Albertson’s grocery in Burien, at the height of his powers, doing his slapstick farce with Gertrude. I confess I wasn’t quite sure of Gertrude’s transgendered status and found her five o’clock shadow a bit terrifying up close.
Testament to his comedic powers, years later J.P. was knocked down by a careless motorist at Seattle’s crowded SeaFair parade. Children were horrified. And while all Patches Pals everywhere sat awake in terror, fearing for their beloved clown, I recall some of the show’s most hilarious stunts the show’s co-host, Bob Newman, made up as J.P. roamed the halls of Harborview in a be-buttoned and backless hospital gown, performing merry mischief that let us know our favorite friend was on the mend.
I met him again shortly after his show was canceled, and I shared a drink with J.P. Wedes was still working for KIRO as a floor director and camera operator, and I was working for an ad agency running ads on Seattle television. His teeny-tiny postage-stamp-sized set, his office at the city dump, was still assembled in a darkened corner of the studio (it always looked so large and bright on teevee!). Wedes himself was at a bar near the Pacific Science Center and, by the time I caught up with him, pretty sloshed. At the first glass, he said something droll about his ICU2TV schtick. He was a masterful and funny storyteller. Then, he abruptly burst into tears.
“I’m just a forgotten old, washed-up clown,” he cried.
I suddenly understood his long years of peering out at all his fans through his ICU2TV was just as moving and marvelous to him as it was to all of us.
You’re never washed up, J.P. You’re never forgotten, and you’re never gone as long as some part of us remain Patches Pals.
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