The news of "Sheriff John" Rovick's death last night hit me like a well-aimed tazer to the genitals. This is it, the end of an era. "Sheriff John's Lunch Brigade" was the "American Idol" of my generation. He had the X Factor.
He was the A-Lister among grade-school kids, and he was never a no-show. There was no trip to rehab after a tearful confession to Dr. Phil, only field trips to local museums or visits by Tom Hatten to see how Hatten drew Popeye. Sheriff John would never racially profile, he would never bless beatings of L.A. County Jail inmates, he would never round up Latinos for deportation.
Sheriff John would look into the camera with a wink and a smile. He would wish you a happy birthday by name. Holding a glass of milk in one hand, he would use the other to conduct an invisible orchestra that played "Happy Birthday." He would sing to you, Tommy, Veronica, Juanita and James.
Sheriff John's genuine pleasure was teaching us our pleases and thank-yous, and why we cross on the green. You would never find Sheriff John pleading no contest to indecent exposure.
Curse you, Pee-wee Herman.
I grew up watching Sheriff John. He was part of a team of television personalities who were beyond reproach. Engineer Bill, Hobo Kelly, Mr. Wishbone, Billy Barty, Chucko and Bozo. Their audience consisted of local boys and girls, as opposed to Captain Kangaroo's huge national demographic. They didn't need the vacuous and silent personage of a Bunny Rabbit or Dancing Bear to allow time for a cigarette break or a quick call to a bookie.
In a mere half-hour punctuated by Cal Worthington and Don Adams Ford commercials, our good behavior was not so much rewarded as it was vindicated. Green light, drink your milk -- red light, stop. There was no childhood obesity, no talk of sexual predators or Amber Alerts or grief counselors. We didn't need them. We had our Kinescope heroes who assured us that staying in school and obeying your parents was all that we needed to do. We learned to depend on ourselves. They taught existentialism better than Dostoevsky, Camus or Kafka.
Sheriff John was part Clark Gable, part Mickey Spillane. His deep baritone was like a warm blanket, his countenance like that of a favored uncle. The only skeletons in his closet were hauled out for the Halloween Special.
If Mr. Rogers grew a pair and carried a badge, he'd almost be like Sheriff John. Ward Cleaver was make-believe, Sheriff John was a cold dose of reality that quenched the thirst of my generation.
I remember a guy named Mr. Wishbone. My mom got me on his show along with a neighbor's kid. Mr. Wishbone had received a drawing I did for a contest based loosely on Hermans Hermits' "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter." My mom advised me to draw it on poster board so that it was larger than the other letter-sized entries. Every week I could see it laying on his set, half visible under a stack of other kids' drawings. I had toiled on this for days, yet there it lay, never pulled out to show his TV audience.
My mom was so pissed that she contacted KTTV and demanded that they show it. They did her one better and invited me on the show. Jack LaLanne shared the studio with Mr. Wishbone, and during a break when Mr. LaLanne took his dog Storm out to relieve himself in an empty Metromedia executive's parking space, he had my mother hold his cigarette. Mr. Wishbone, seeing my obvious pride that my mother was chosen as Mr. LaLanne's personal ashtray, knelt beside me and whispered, "Don't ever smoke, it's a nasty habit."
And I didn't. I've never smoked a cigarette -- although other nasty objects of burning effluence have perched on my underbite, I've never ever smoked a cigarette. Thanks, Mr. Wishbone.
They were a dying breed, and we'll never see their likes again. We were Hobo Kelly's Mischief Makers, we drank milk a'staccato with Engineer Bill's "Red Light! Green Light! game. We learned about little people under Billy Barty's stern admonitions. I remember one small girl asking Billy, "Why are you so short and stupid?"
Billy responded in a soft and loving way: "Because God made me this way honey, and just because you are a dwarf, it doesn't mean you are stupid."
For the 18 years he was on the air, Sheriff John went out every day singing the song "Laugh and Be Happy." I leave it with you in the memory of Sheriff John Rovick -- an icon of a better time.
Come on now,
Laugh and be happy and the world will laugh with you.
When people see you smiling they can't help smiling, too.
When you look out the window to a dark and gloomy day,
Break out a smile and in a while the gloom will go away.
So laugh and be happy with a merry melody,
A song will make a hat rack look like a Christmas tree.
Get rid of worry in a hurry, chase the blues away.
Just laugh and be happy all the live ... long ... day.
- Sheriff John
- Billy Barty