Jun 18, 2015

Spring 1979: Captain Ernie and His First Mate

Back before Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, Netflix, and DVDs, you got your dose of kids' tv in two places:

1. On a sugar-rush five hours of cartoons every Saturday morning.

2. Weekdays after school, on local kids' tv shows hosted by an army of clowns, hobos, cowboys, and pirates.

The Quad Cities was on the Mississippi River, so we had Captain Ernie's Cartoon Showboat.

The tall, commanding Captain Ernie (Ernie Mims) stood on the deck of the Dixie Belle, to announce Bugs Bunny and Hanna Barbara cartoons and Three Stooges shorts.  Then he opened his "Treasure Chest" and passed out prizes to the kids in the studio audience.

When I was in fourth grade, my boyfriend Bill and I were in the audience.  I got a plastic "pirate cape," and he got a cardboard sword.

The cartoons and prizes weren't the only attraction: Captain Ernie was cute, with squarish hands, a hairy chest, and a pleasant suggestion of muscle.

Sometimes he performed skits with his "First Mate," Sidney.

I didn't know what a "first mate" was, but it was obvious that Captain Ernie and Sidney lived together on the Dixie Belle, and neither had girlfriends or wives.  Obviously a gay couple!

I found out that they weren't really a couple in fourth grade: one of the kids in my class at Denkmann was Captain Ernie's nephew.  Turns out Ernie Mims had a wife and kids after all, and Sidney was just an intern, a student at the Palmer College of Chiropractic, up the street from WOC TV.

Still, many of the iconic moments of my childhood took place in front of Cartoon Showboat, or with Captain Ernie: a local celebrity, he appeared at the Celtic Festival, the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival, the Pow Wow, the annual Christmas parade, and various ribbon-cuttings and supermarket openings.

During the 1970s, our first PBS station brought the competition of the kinder, gentler Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and frenetic but non-violent Sesame Street, and in 1974 Cartoon Showboat was cancelled.  By that time, I was in junior high, too old to watch.

Ernie Mims went on to become the weatherman.

The last time I saw him was in the spring of 1979, during my freshman year of college  I was working at the Carousel Snack Bar when Captain Ernie -- not in character -- came up and ordered an ice cream cone.

As I passed it to him, our hands touched.

I wanted to say "Thanks for a great childhood," but I played it cool.