Cartoon Town was a children’s television show broadcast daily in Chicago from 1969 to 1974. Host Bill Jackson (who also wrote and produced) introduced animated shorts, sketched cartoons, and sculpted town monument “Blob” into a new form each day. But the big draw was the serialized adventures of BJ’s puppet friends (all constructed and voiced by Jackson), who had to contend with Martians, monsters, and the machinations of Dr. Doompuss.
This all sounds quite quaint until you lay eyes upon the most nightmarish collection of puppets this side of Marionette Hell.
I mean, just look at them! Even the good guys are grotesque! The villains just ramp it up to the next level. And if their appearances weren’t scary enough, the nature of the baddies made them even more disturbing.
The worst were Frankenweird and Wolf-Wally. They were dead ringers for two of the good guys, Wally Goodscout and his best friend, Weird. Except they never spoke. And they transformed into hideous creatures when bathed in the light of the moon. The idea that your friends and family could be replaced by silent lookalikes patiently waiting for moonrise to unleash their true, monstrous nature… gah! I had recurring nightmares like that because of the show.
The Lemon Joke Kid was another doppelganger of Weird, an identical twin cousin who was obsessed with telling the worst jokes in human history. He would pose as his friendly cousin to get close to targets and hand them a lemon with an awful riddle written on it. These jokes were so sour that the victim pucker up and pass out. While that doesn’t sound so bad, all the other characters were absolutely terrified of falling prey to the Kid and that fear rubbed off on the audience. Yes, I was scared crapless of the Lemon Joke Kid. I was five.
By all accounts, Jackson was a heck of a nice guy and I don’t think his odd-looking puppets reflect some repressed inner darkness. But they’re still creepy AF. My brother checked out the exhibit of Jackson’s puppets at the Museum of Broadcast Communications and confirmed they were even more unsettling in person. His then-girlfriend was dumbfounded that they were considered acceptable for such a young audience.
Midway through its run, Cartoon Town was retitled to the name most Chicagoans remember it by, The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show (which sounds like the punchline to a cocktail napkin joke). After the series finally wrapped in 1974, Jackson and his cast of characters resurfaced the following year with a new program, the nationally syndicated Gigglesnort Hotel. Gigglesnort ran for another three years and reruns still turn up in the oddest places. If any of these puppets look familiar to you, that’s probably where you know them from.
Despite all the trauma it induced, my kid brother and I never missed an episode of BJ and Dirty Dragon and it remains a beloved childhood memory for millions of messed-up Gen Xers. God help us.