The Original Cousin Tuny TV Show
Series: The Cousin Tuny Show
Original Time Slot: 4-5:45 p.m., M-F
Station: WDXI-TV/WBBJ-TV, Jackson, Tn.
Years on Air: 1956-68
Doris Freeman had been in radio from the age of seven but when she was asked to file the papers for the FCC license of Jackson, Tn.'s first television station in 1955, she went to her boss and brother-in-law. "We need to have a show for children on this station," she said. "Something which can teach them at the same time we entertain them." That set in the works the premiere of The Cousin Tuny Show.
The show began in Setpember 1956 as a one-hour, 45-minute Monday-through-Friday offering on WDXI-TV, west Tennessee's first CBS affiliate. The station had bought the rights to a package of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers theatrical westerns. During the break, Doris---as Cousin Tuny, in her $1.98 hat and red-checkered dress and pantaloons, would dish out her daily fun in large doses. "I wanted to teach the children five things---respect of country, love of people, healthy habits, laughter, and love of God," Tuny remembers today. "We said the blessing before we had our meal. In some places today, they'd throw you off television and send you hate mail."
Russ Morgan's "Doll Dance" was the theme song which let every child within 75 miles of Jackson know Cousin Tuny was on the air. "We had 20 kids a day at first in the studio until we established the Birthday Club. We kept it to 12 a day then to have the birthday parties for children," says Tuny. Her legendary "our cousins have a birthday...we're so glad" song is still a fond memory for thousands of adults who were on Tuny's show. Children waited between six months and a year for tickets. Yet, birthday parties were free, unlike charges made by other stations around the country. "We had a deal with our sponsors and no child's parents ever paid a red cent for a birthday party," recalls Tuny.
Eventually, the show would move to its own theatre, an old quonset hut film palace in downtown Jackson, where live audiences of up to 100 a day would watch as the kids and Tuny bonded. "I told the parents before the show to stay in the audience and let the kids have their day," says Tuny. "I wouldn't have any stage mothers. This show was supposed to be fun...and it was."
Once, in the late 1950s, fire broke out in a downtown store across from the theatre. Cameras were lifted off their pedestals and cables run into the street in the middle of Tuny's show. "I did what was probably the first live news report of any kind, in my full costume, before anybody ever thought of a live truck," says Tuny.
Tuny was handling 75 radio sales accounts and doing a half-hour of Bingo on WDXI-AM every day before changing into her hillbilly togs for the day's TV show. Yet, she says she was never uptight. "I couldn't be," she said. "I didn't want the kids to be nervous."
In the 1960s, the show left behind the western flicks for Terrytoons cartoons (Deputy Dawg, Heckle and Jeckle) and the show telescoped to an hour. "We called them cartoonies," says Tuny. "I also would have a time every day where I'd read the children stories. We'd do a book over the course of a week." Tuny's gentle education supplemented their school days for more than a decade.
Through the years of the series, Tuny appeared with country stars Minnie Pearl and Eddy Arnold, Jackson native and game show host Wink Martindale and Duncan (Cisco Kid) Renaldo, among dozens of celebrities.
Yet, one of her most poignant memories came during an unexpected response when she was interviewing a six-year-old live one afternoon. "I'm the man of the house now," the boy said. "My daddy died last week." Fighting back tears, Tuny said to him on the air, "You're going to have to be the one to look after your mother now, because she'll be looking after you. Just remember---you're nose to nose with God because He loves you, too."
Many legends have floated as to how the Cousin Tuny character was created. However, Doris Freeman credits its origination to her sister, Agnes. "I used to sing this song, 'I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch,' Tuny says. "I was going to call myself Cousin Petunia. Agnes said, 'That's too long. Why don't you just pull it down to 'Tuny.'" In the early years, the name was misspelled 'Tuney' on the set of the series.
Doris blacked her teeth out in the early years for the children. She painted false freckles across her nose. The makeup made her a hit on the hillbilly shows she did weekends. The hat and exaggerated makeup has disappeared but the checkered dress and pantaloons remain.
The Cousin Tuny Show featured Sealtest milk and ice cream, Brundage hot dogs, Coca-Cola, and cakes from local bakeries for the many on-air birthday parties. She well remembers the day she offered a Brundage frank to a child, who promptly looked into the camera and proclaimed, "We eat Frosty Morn (a major Brundage competitor) at our house."
Yet, the story of Tuny's landing Sealtest for the show is a legend. "They were only sending one truck a week up to Jackson from Memphis," says Tuny. "The show had been pitched to another dairy, which turned it down. I wanted Sealtest as a sponsor, so I made the trip to their office in Memphis. They asked me why I wanted them. I said, 'I use Sealtest. I have four children of my own. My daughter Connie was a baby when we went on the air." Sealtest agreed to the sponsorship and all of its executives from Memphis came up from the premiere. "They were all nervous," remembers Tuny. "Not me. It turned out to be a pretty good deal for them. They started having to send three trucks a week to Jackson because so many children told their parents they wouldn't drink anything but Sealtest milk."