Steven Heller | Essays

Devine Intervention

We’ve all had childhood heroes. I had many. Some are still heroes years later. Among the biggest of them was Andy Devine, a rotund comic character actor with over 400 films, mostly westerns, to his credit. He was the quintessential sidekick, named Jingles, co-starring with the handsome Guy Madison on over 100 episodes of “The Adventures Wild Bill Hickok”. Devine’s trademark raspy voice, recognized throughout the 50s kid-world, the result of a childhood accidental fall with a popsicle in his mouth, gave his catchphrase its timbre. During each Wild Bill opening sequence — as the duo on horseback galloped to their next adventure — Andy frantically gurgled “Hey Wild Bill, wait for ME!!” What endeared him to the baby boom crowd, however, was as host of “Andy’s Gang.”

“Andy’s Gang” was a surreal experience. The Saturday morning show with a simulated live audience began with Andy sitting in a big easy chair, reading from a big volume of Andy’s Stories that were illustrated by film clips. His regular cohorts included Froggy the Magic frog, who would materialize in a puff of smoke each time Andy said “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!” Froggy would respond “Hiya, kids! Hiya, hiya, hiya!”; Midnight the Cat, a big black feline, who operated an organ grinder and also say “Nice” in a falsetto meow when asked what she thought about something. (I still use both Froggy and Midnight’s lines when I want to annoy people.) There was also Squeeky the Mouse (portrayed by a hamster), and Grandie the Talking Piano.

Although stock studio reaction shots were intercut throughout the show, Andy did his segments without a live audience, which allowed some limited special effects, such as when Froggy appeared or disappeared. Froggy was the wily trickster that keeps interrupting or making fun of other characters and disappears in a flash when he is about to be punished. “Andy’s Gang” followed the template of 50s kiddie shows only so far. The surreal interactions between Andy and his gang seemed to forecast what would later be transformed into postmodern art by Pee Wee Herman, whose remarkable Playhouse was such a hit among boomers with or without kids.

Andy always closed his show with, “Yes, sir, we’re pals, and pals stick together. And now, gang, don’t forget church or Sunday school.”

I met Devine when I was five. It was backstage at the Jones Beach water theater performance of “Show Boat,” on a real faux Mississippi riverboat. My parents’ friends were in the cast and they promised that after the show I could go backstage to meet Andy. Excited yet terrified, I was brought back to see and hear this six-foot giant. He was so imposing and I was so small. I hid behind my father’s legs. Andy bent down, looked at me with his droopy jowls and sad-dog eyes and said “don’t forget church or Sunday school, kid.” Well, I didn’t go to church or Sunday school, but I never forgot his wonderful words.

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