'Uncle Bruce,' that is!
Pastor Bruce Rodrick on a lifetime of Ministry, Television, and Puppetry
BY Mike Clark
Pastor Bruce Rodrick hosted
two programs on WFLA, Channel 8: "Kid's
Bible Club," and "The Uncle Bruce Show."
Shining through all of Rodrick's efforts was a concern and caring for the young
viewers. There was plenty of laughs
and adventure on "Uncle Bruce," but a little chicken soup for the soul
Bruce Rodrick was born in
Des Moines, Iowa. His father was a career man in the U.S. Army,
and served bravely during World War 1. Rodrick's mother kept the family firmly
grounded with regular visits to church and home Bible readings. Bruce developed
in interest in performing and puppetry very early in life.
interested in ventriloquism and puppetry when I was a little boy.
It all began with listening to Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen on the
radio. They had cutouts of Bergen's
characters on the back of cereal boxes so that you could make your own
ventriloquist figure, and things like that got me all wound up.
remember the first puppet I ever found was in a novelty store in downtown Des
Moines. I was a teenager by then,
and it was the first puppet I bought. Then
I got some books on the subject including a great one by Bessie Fickland on
puppetry. Then, I began to make my
World War II, my father was called back from his retirement into the Army.
He served as commanding officer of an Iowa State Guard unit.
They had motorcycles and that was where I learned to ride at age 15.
was a junior in high school, around 1946, and they offered credit towards
graduation for military service. All
those John Wayne movies had their effect on me and my friends.
A large number of us enlisted together and joined the Marines.
I trained in California at Camp Pendleton.
I was already an accomplished motorcycle rider when I joined the Marines,
and that's why they put me in the motorcycle M.P. (Military Police) unit.
My dad was extremely proud of my time in the Marines.
He was present in uniform and
assisted with the graduation
boot camp in San Diego. They
took a picture of us
and featured it in the
Marine Corps magazine.
the Marines, I returned home and a preacher in the Christian Church, who was
very good with young people, encouraged many of us to attend a Christian
college. I went to a Christian
college in Minneapolis, and the decision to preach came at the end of my first
year, although I'm sure my mother's influence had something to do with it.
My father, who was proud of my Marine service and my choice to be a
minister, died about three months after I began preaching and got to hear me
just once. I
had my first ministry in a little country church in Canby, Minnesota, and was
there for five years."
It was during this time
that Rodrick realized that the use of puppets and ventriloquism was an effective
way of reaching young people. His research
into the subject lead him to read a book by the top ventriloquist of the
'Little Mike' took one year to make
read Paul Winchell's book "Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit," and used
the information to make my own figure. It
took me about a year to put 'Little Mike' together.
I modeled him from clay, made a mold, and lined the mold with plastic
wood. Today, he's still pretty much
the same guy, except with a nicer hairdo. Mike
is heavier than he should be…that's always been a problem.
But he got so well known in so many places I couldn't bear to go with
Bruce married and began
serving the ministry with a life on the road.
used to have these big revival meetings that were very popular, especially in
the south. Sometimes they would go
on for two or three weeks. We
traveled all over the United States doing that, and I used the ventriloquism and
the puppets as part of my program. I
was a guest on a whole bunch of children's TV programs across the country to
talk about the revivals. Usually
they were glad to have us, because of the ventriloquism. We held meetings in
Tampa around 1959, and I was a guest on The Mary Ellen Show.
We got on to promote the meeting, and I had "Little Mike" with
Bruce and his wife knew
that the time had come to make a change in their busy lifestyle.
The pause also gave him time to solidify the concepts for a new
and I had a son, David, who was getting to be of school age. We decided to stop traveling and had an opportunity to move
to Tampa and serve a church.
were plenty of Christian programs on TV at the time, but not many for children.
I had this idea for a long time about a Sunday morning children's Christian
program. Because I'd had many
contacts with the television industry, I had all these thoughts forming for a
show from a Christian point of view. I
took it Channel 8 and they picked up on it right away, and in just a few weeks
we were on the air with "Kid's Bible Club."
Story Time on "Kid's Bible Club"
Club" was recorded at WFLA's studio every Tuesday night, so that Pastor
Rodrick would not have to appear and work on Sunday mornings (except at his own
always invited children to come in. There
would be two groups of 3 or 4 kids each, representing their local churches.
We had them set up as teams, and as part of the half hour we would have a
Bible quiz, and reward the winners with a trophy.
We always did a Bible story, and had some young singers as well.
"Little Mike" and I were hosts and would sometimes have a
little sketch. We also used some
puppets on stage and did our own Bible dramas.
We did versions of "David and Goliath," or "Daniel and The
Lion's Den". I made these
small hand puppets in the same way I made "Little Mike," and they got
to be pretty elaborate."
Club" actually drew a good-sized audience, and management at Channel 8
realized that with Rodrick, they had a good host warming up in the Sunday
Faraghan was the program director of Channel 8, and he approached me and asked
me about doing a daily program. They
needed something because of Mary Ellen and all the other shows."
Rodrick had to do some
soul-searching before taking on the challenge of a daily program.
got so excited over this chance to be on TV every day, and I talked it over with
the church. They were very
encouraging because they said I had this opportunity, and I ought to go for it.
It was a difficult decision, and I don't know if it was the right one.
I felt like in the long run that it shortchanged the church…bless their
hearts…they were great people. I chose
at that time to go with TV in the hope of using it as a special ministry to
youth. We started in June of 1961
on the Bible Club, and went on the air with "Kid's Carousel" in
September. They changed the title
to "The Uncle Bruce Show" later."
Warming up the Uncle Bruce peanut gallery
Entertainment was always
the most important part of "Uncle Bruce," but Rodrick was determined
to give his young viewers some sugar-coated lessons along the way.
were always very important to me, and I did want to try an encourage kids in
that direction. I couldn't do a
whole lot from the Christian point of view during the week, but I had that
Sunday program for that. On the
weekdays, we'd try to have elements that taught Christian principles without
getting too involved. In a sense,
you could do more without offending, and I didn't get any static about what we
were doing, but I tried not to be too obvious about that during the week."
Rodrick's home-built cast
of puppets were there as the vehicles for tales of friendship, trust, and
"Bushy" the Squirrel
was a big, beautiful tree and 'Bushy' the squirrel lived in it.
He was a great character that I made in one day, and he became one of my
favorites. Above the cuckoo clock,
there was a crow named "Zookey," and he would always come on and
announce the beginning of the show. I
had a dragon named "Albert" who could actually spit fire.
It used a chemical bought at the magic store, and when spit across a
candle would create a small fireball. It
was terrific, but I was very careful to talk afterwards about not doing anything
like that at home."
Rodrick's wife Marj had
always supported his efforts in his ministry, and continued to do so on
wife Marj was terrific, we had her doing so much behind he scenes.
She worked the puppets and I did all the voices.
"Zookey" and "Albert" had moving mouths, so we had to
stay together on making the voice and the mouth move at the same time.
Later on, we had these two little guys, "Clyde" and
"George" the Moonmen. Marj
made them more like the Muppets are constructed now, out of foam, cloth, and
And what kid's show would
be without its share of on-camera disasters?
Lion on the loose!
were a lot of crazy things. Some guys came on with a full-grown lion, and people
were supposed to be able to pet the lion. I looked at the owner and he had all these scars on him!
It was almost time for the show, and just as went on the air the lion
decided to jump up on my counter, which was on wheels.
It rolled the table back and into the toy shop set and the whole set fell
down. I said something like 'hold onto your hats…we've got a wild
time, some guy brought in rattlesnakes, and one of them got loose and started
crawling across the floor. The
camera guys jumped up on their pedestals, and I was terrified because one of the
snakes was crawling towards some parents sitting off to the side.
The guy got him.
a fellow brought in a possum, and when I held him the crazy thing chewed on my
arm and there was blood running down. A
penguin once dropped his calling card on the top of the table while we were
Rodrick discovered his
future co-star amongst the WFLA cameras.
Barney Bungelupper joins the team
(Jerry Martin) was a floor director when I first met him, but there was
something about his mood and attitude that gave me the idea he would be a great
clown. I tried to pattern him after
"Freddie the Freeloader" on Red Skelton, and the classic clown Emmett
Kelley. I had that idea in mind and
Jerry was incredible. He was a
natural. It really was great.
He was a big boost to the show.
started filming the adventure stories, starring Uncle Bruce, Barney, and 'Little
Mike,' and it was about that time that the ratings started to shoot up.
I bought a 16mm camera, and Marj and I did all the filming.
remember doing several adventure stories with cliffhanger endings…tune in
tomorrow to see how things work out. We
did one about auto racing at Daytona Speedway, and an underwater adventure at
Weeki Wachee. Barney starred in one
we did at Cypress Gardens. We did
one called "Showdown at Six Gun Territory," and Clu Gulager was in that one
with us. When both of us were on
camera, Marj would be the camera operator.
In Daytona, we had her hanging out of the back end of a car, going down
the track…it was incredible. Marj
even learned to scuba dive at one time. She
had a great time, and said many times that she never dreamed she'd have such an
Rodrick's son David also
joined the act.
impersonated 'Little Mike' in one adventure.
Mike was playing a detective in a raincoat, and we dressed up Andy so
that Mike could 'walk.' You'd
see Mike walking away from the camera, but it was really my son.
Then we had to rush back and beg them to process our film along with the
film shot that day by the news department."
In his heyday, "Uncle
Bruce" was extremely popular and made many personal appearances.
A downtown Tampa parade when McDonalds hamburgers were 12 cents!
were in all the parades, everywhere that Channel 8 could be seen.
McDonalds was our sponsor, and we were always on their big, beautiful
float. They were our best sponsor,
and nice people."
In November of 1963, there
was excitement in Tampa because of the impending visit of then President
remember we got some JFK masks and kidded around on the show about his being
there. My director, Frank Stringer,
did a very good impression of him. The
only vivid thing I can remember is going to the station in the afternoon to
prepare for the show, and someone came out to me on the curb and said 'The
Presidents' been shot'. After
that…it was kind of a blur. On
Tuesday, when we were back on the air, I tried to talk to the kids about what
happened. We were all so stunned,
but I tried to give them a little perspective about what was going on."
Although Rodrick is not
clear on exactly when the daily show ended, it was probably within a few months
of Mary Ellen's departure in February of 1964.
were still on Sundays after the daily show went off, and Channel 8 said not to
worry, we could stay as long as we wanted. I went to a Christian Convention over
on the east coast of Florida, and there was a speaker on the program that really
struck me…his presentation and the message that he gave.
It was a powerful sermon calling us to be faithful in what God had called
us to do. And I felt like I ought
to go back to preaching…that was what I was supposed to do.
Maybe it was the Lord speaking and he knew what the future held in
television, because at the time I felt secure, but the way everything turned out
later on I'm not sure it would have lasted.
So, I think by God's grace I got out of there at the right time."
Rodrick accepted the
pastor's job with a church outside Atlanta.
Some local commercials brought his talent to the attention of a kid's
show host on Channel 4, who invited Rodrick and "Little Mike" for some
just had a little segment and did stories and comedy routines.
The host there was a fellow named Buddy Farnon, and he was very gifted.
He also managed a large amusement park called "Funtown."
His show was like a big, half-hour commercial for the amusement park.
Just like Walt Disney and his "Disneyland" show. He had seen me do some commercial stuff, and asked me to join
went from Atlanta to serve a church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I did commercials
there for Cloverleaf Creamery, a dairy outfit, on Channel 4, the CBS affiliate.
I used the same puppets all through the years in all my ministries.
I got a job with a Christian publishing company in Cincinnati.
They were the nations' largest producers of Vacation Bible School
materials. I would travel all over
the country promoting them and I also wrote scripts for the puppet plays.
It was a wonderful experience for us."
Little Mike gets a new 'do for 1980's
By the late 1980's, Rodrick
and Marj returned to Minnesota.
served in a church Albert Lea, Minnesota. I
was going to retire there and then found out I couldn't afford to.
My old church in Canby, where I first started, was looking for a
minister, and I came back about four years ago."
Rodrick's wife Marj suffered a stroke in 2001, prompting him to retire and concentrate on her care. In 2008, Rodrick moved into the nursing home with Marj. The staff discovered Rodrick's background as a minister and ventriloquist and asked him to assist with the spiritual needs of the other residents. It was something he was glad to do. Marj passed away in late 2008 and will always be remembered for her loving support of the Rodrick family and Bruce's ministry.
I asked Pastor Rodrick to
comment on the bygone days of local kid's shows
nothing local anymore. I don't care
for the content of much of today's programming, although in our era Daffy Duck
and Bugs Bunny were just beating each other up.
Channel 13 got static when they had 'The Three Stooges.'
missing today is the local hero, someone you could identify with…who was close
by, and you could see in person. The
kids can't come down to the studio and take part like they used to.
That's sad. I cling to the
old ways, and so I may not be fair in my judgment, but I miss all that.
We had something to offer that's gone."
"Big 13" thanks the gentleman from WFLA-TV, 'Uncle Bruce" Rodrick, for sharing memories and observations from his long career in the ministry and television.
A special WTVT/WFLA reunion dinner was held at the now-defunct Malios in 2003. Among the guests were Channel 8's Bruce Rodrick, his wife Marj, and 'Lil Mike.' It was the first time in almost forty years that Bruce and Mike had appeared in Tampa. Here's a photo:
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