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Thursday, September 17, 2009

"All Aboard with Mr. Be"

Posted by on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 at 3:29 PM

MisterBe.jpg
Kids growing up in Memphis in the 1960s and '70s surely remember a popular show on Channel 10 called All Aboard with Mr. Be.

You don't remember it? Then stop reading right here, turn off your computer, and do something productive with your lives.

But if you do remember this show, then I'm going to tell you more about it, like it or not.

First of all, the main character's name was indeed spelled "Be." I know this because some time ago I talked to a nice gentleman named Holden Potter, who produced and directed the show, and he ought to know. Mr. Be himself was a local actor named Allen Bates, who dressed up like a locomotive engineer, and this kindly old fellow served as the host to the half-hour show, which featured films and puppets, including one called Ponce de Lion (a play on the name of the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, you see).

"This was in the days before organized kindergarten and day care," Potter told me, "so the show was designed to fill in for that." They went with an old-timey train motif because back then, in the 1960s and 1970s, everything was high-tech and plastic, and Potter says, "We wanted to convey that grandfather image, smelling of pipe tobacco and oranges, and trains had a certain romance. Kids knew that trains could take you anywhere you wanted to go."

WKNO built a huge plywood locomotive engine (a fake one, I mean) in the studios, which back then were located on the main campus of Memphis State University, but they used stock footage at the opening of the program to show a real train pulling up to a station.

The show was part education, part entertainment, and Potter remembered one time when they were doing a segment on the jungle. "Back then, you could buy these little monkeys in drugstores, and Katz Drugs loaned us a little spider monkey," said Potter. "Well, that guy did fine in rehearsals, but when we actually started taping and rang the train bell to start the show, he peed all over Mr. Be, and then scrambled out of there. It took us quite a while to get him down out of the lights."

Poor little guy!

Allen Bates went on to bigger and better things. After changing his last name to Hamilton to avoid any confusion with the British actor Alan Bates, he hit Broadway, where he starred in Death of a Salesman and other plays. He eventually moved to Minneapolis and became a member of that city's prestigious Guthrie Theatre Company.

PHOTO COURTESY WKNO-TV CHANNEL 10

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