TV critic star-struck during encounter with childhood hero from 'Rocketship 7'

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A long, long time ago, in a place that seems far away, children could turn on TV sets in the morning and be greeted by a trusted friend.

Sometimes these friends were in every neighbourhood across the country, like Mr. Rogers, Mr. Dressup, Captain Kangaroo, or The Friendly Giant.

Often they were local friends, TV hosts who were weathermen or sportscasters at night, hosts of children's shows by day.

It seemed there was at least one in every neighbourhood across North America. In Toronto, growing up in the ‘60s, there were many: names like Kiddo the Clown, Jungle Jay Nelson, Uncle Bobby, Grandpa Schnitzel and Big Al.

Toronto kids also had a window on Buffalo, N.Y., and from "somewhere on the Niagara Peninsula" we would find "Commander Tom," starring Tom Jolls, as well as Dave Thomas from "Rocketship 7."

It was the height of the space race, and if you were seven, rockets and robots ruled. Thomas, in what passed for an astronaut jumpsuit, stood next to a stack of cardboard boxes with epaulets known as Promo the Robot. Mr. Beeper was their puppet pal. Cartoons, like the stop-motion curiosities "Gumby" and "Davey and Goliath," were part of the daily ritual.

"Rocketship 7," with calming influence Thomas at the helm, ran weekday mornings on Buffalo’s ABC affiliate, WKBW, from 1962 to 1978. It blasted off for good when Thomas left his native Buffalo for Philadelphia’s WPVI, where he became weatherman Dave Roberts. (His actual name: David Thomas Boreanaz.) He retired from that station 31 years later, in 2009.

Flash forward many years. I'm at a Fox Network press tour party in Los Angeles. I spot David Boreanaz, star of "Bones." So I ask him a question he gets a lot from Lake Ontario boomers: "Is it true your dad is Dave Thomas from ‘Rocketship 7’?"

Boreanaz says yes, and takes in the goofy look he gets all the time from guys like me.

Six months later, at the next Television Critics Association press tour, Boreanaz is at the Fox party again, but this time he brings his dad.

For a jaded TV critic, suddenly a real rock star is in the house. I practically knock down the kids from "Glee" and shove aside the "American Idol" judges to get to Thomas.

Sometimes you don't want to meet your childhood heroes, but Thomas, 77, could not be nicer.

"You know what I get a kick out of?" he asks. "Of course, meeting guys like you, people that have watched the show, which is great, but I also get a kick out of all the hockey players that used to watch."

Turns out Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert, the famed "French Connection" that powered the Buffalo Sabres in the mid-‘70s, are "Rocketship 7" fans. It wasn't just kids watching, apparently.

Thomas remembers crossing the border on visits to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

"I always made it a point to go and do stuff up there," says Thomas, recognized for his volunteer work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He and the man inside the robot, Johnny Banazak, would get into Thomas' station wagon and put a big blanket over Promo.

The customs official would demand to see under the blanket. The robot suit would always get laughs.

"It got to the point that, when we'd cross, the custom guys would just go, ‘Hey Dave! How's Promo?' and wave us through."

Where is Promo today?

"Actually, there were two of them and I don't have the complete story," says Thomas.

When the show went off the air, the original sat in a prop room for a while. When WKBW moved to a new building, the robot costume was rescued from the trash by a guy on the crew who put it in his garage. Eventually it was fixed up and, for a while, put on display at a toy museum.

The fate of the shows themselves — thousands of hours of children's programming — is even sadder. Very little exists today.

Most of those early, local children's shows were shot live and if they were on tape erased or thrown out. Back then, few saw the need to archive copies for future use like DVD collections or specialty channels.

For Thomas and his aging fans, however, there will always be the memories. The birthday greetings, for example, could sometimes get a little dicey.

"We used to get notes from guys saying, 'I’ve got a surprise for my girlfriend if she would go upstairs…' I’d say: 'you gotta be kidding me!'"

Boreanaz, who followed his dad to the set as a youngster, has his memories too. He snuck Dave senior into the background in a "Bones" episode he directed. "I was on for one-point-five seconds," says Thomas.

Another episode, Boreanaz's character — special agent Booth — can be spotted looking at a still from "Rocketship 7."

"Hey — I loved that show as a kid," he said.

He wasn't the only one.

___

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

Organizations: The Friendly Giant, Fox Network press, Television Critics Association Buffalo Sabres Torontos Hospital for Sick Children Muscular Dystrophy Association

Geographic location: North America, Toronto, Buffalo, N.Y. Niagara Peninsula Buffalo Los Angeles Lake Ontario Brampton

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