The Small Fry Club

Let’s go back in time together.

Back before Netflix and Hulu, before satellite dishes and cable providers, back even before a plethora of available local stations like Fox and PBS. Back to the 1940’s, when television was in its infancy and there were only 3 networks. Three! ABC, CBS, and NBC.

And the only thing they played were shows for adults.

It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Children’s programming is such a hot market, there are now entire channels dedicated solely to entertaining kids (though whether this is a good or bad thing is a discussion for another time). I’m old enough to remember a time without these channels but, even at my age, it’s still mind-boggling to think of only having three stations from which to choose. We didn’t get satellite until I was in middle school, but I still remember having at least 10 local channels.

But, before 1945, three channels was the reality…until a man by the name of Dr. Allen B. DuMont decided to change that.

DuMonth was a scientist and founder of DuMont Laboratories, which began operating in 1931 from his garage. The lab became known for producing a superior type of cathode ray tubes, essential in the operation of a television set, and eventually for making televisions themselves. In fact, DuMont Laboratories became the first company in the United States to make television sets. But, after conquering the hardware, DuMont decided to try his hand at the software, or programming, side instead.

The DuMont Television Network began experimental broadcasting during World War II, but the first scheduled series, “Serving Through Science,” didn’t begin officially airing until August 15, 1946. It was the first of what would be DuMont’s major legacy-low budget programming done with imagination and even with a touch of style. The main income source came from television set sales, unlike ABC, CBS and NBC, which had radio stations to help subsidize television. It aired virtually no filmed programs during its history; much of the network’s lineup was broadcast live from the network’s studios at Wanamaker’s Department Store in New York City. 

And yet one little low budget show set a course to change history.

“The Small Fry Club,” which aired for the first time on March 11, 1947, became the first networked children’s television program. Initially a weekly offering, its popularity grew such that it soon aired five days a week and, eventually, seven. Hosted by Bob Emery (known affectionately as “Big Brother Bob”), the 30 minute show sought to teach kids about good manners, self-discipline, and respect for others. Bob often sang and played the banjo, while also offering up cartoons, demonstrations, and short animal sketches encouraging good behavior and healthy habits. Puppet shows such as “Peggy the Penguin”, “Honey the Bunny”, “Mr. Mischief the Panda”, and “Trina the Kitten” were also popular. In addition to the program, the network offered an actual Small Fry Club for kids who watched the show. Among other activities, they could submit artwork and written material and participate in contests. More than 10,000 children had joined the club by the end of 1947. Three years later, the number of members had reached 150,000.

Children’s programming, it seemed, had a market. And other networks began to notice.

Soon, a plethora of kids’ shows began beaming into American homes, including “Cartoon Teletales” on ABC, “Foodini the Great” on CBS, and perhaps the most famous, “Howdy Doody” on NBC.

“Small Fry” ended in 1951 and the DuMonth network itself ceased operations in 1956, causing some to refer to it as “the forgotten network.” But its pioneering legacy lives on through its ground-breaking children’s programming.

Something to remember as you’re watching yet ANOTHER ‘Peppa Pig’ re-run this afternoon. 🙂

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