Sonny Fox on Wonderama
Dear Commons Community,
As a child growing up in the 1950s, I used to watch “Wonderama” on Sunday mornings. It was first hosted by Sandy Becker and afterwards by Sonny Fox, a native New Yorker and World War II veteran who died last week of Covid pneumonia. As his obituary in the New York Times mentions: “Fox was not a comic or a clown, just a smart and genial TV host who for almost a decade spoke to children, not at them.”
“Mr. Fox was a veteran of television when he was hired for “Wonderama” by the New York station WNEW-TV (now WNYW). He had hosted a live local educational program in St. Louis and “Let’s Take a Trip,” on CBS, on which he took two youngsters on a field trip each week.
In 1956, CBS named Mr. Fox the M.C. of “The $64,000 Challenge,” but he was fired a few months after accidentally giving a contestant an answer. He was not embroiled in the scandal that emerged two years later when it was discovered that several quiz shows, including “Challenge,” had been rigged by their producers.
No such problems existed at “Wonderama,” where Mr. Fox’s mission was to tack away from the silly show it had become under previous hosts. But he was too serious at first, focusing on subjects like space exploration. Ratings began to fall.
“I became so ponderously educational that the kids who had been watching turtle races” — under the previous hosts — “had no idea what I was doing,” he said in a Television Academy interview in 2008.
The show, which was taped before an audience of about 50 youngsters, soon found its footing. It became a dazzling mixture of cartoons, spelling bees, games like “Simon Says,” joke-telling (by the children), contests, dramatizations of Shakespeare plays and magic. In 1964, the show held a mock Republican convention. Mr. Fox also interviewed newsmakers like Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and opened the floor to questions from the children.
“Do you think all the money that we’ve been spending on this nation’s space program should be spent on this or on poverty bills and such?” an earnest boy with glasses asked Senator Kennedy in 1965.
“We can make the space effort,” Mr. Kennedy said, adding that both could be done: “If there’s ever an unknown, man will search the unknown.”
Mr. Fox was not a comic performer like Chuck McCann, Sandy Becker or Soupy Sales — stars of their own daytime children’s shows on WNEW at the time — and did not wear funny costumes. He was a smart and genial host who wore a suit and tie.
He viewed the children in the studio not as passive observers of “Wonderama” but as integral to it, whether they were trying to stump him with a riddle or delivering news segments.”
I enjoyed Mr. Fox and Wonderama.
May he rest in peace!