Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ahoy, Ahab!

Long Island's Channel 67 has been around awhile, with incarnations as a shopping channel, low-rent music video channel, and Wometco Home Theater outlet. It began, however, as WSNL, a station meant to cater to Long Islanders who wanted local news and broadcasting. Debuting in 1973, that programming ideal only lasted about two years. I was too young to be fiddling with the UHF dial, so I don't recall any of their programming.

In my effort to keep the peculiar and obscure around, I'd like to commemorate Captain Ahab, WSNL's kiddie show which enjoyed a run from the station's inception, Thanksgiving week 1973 until its demise in June of 1975. His eponymous weekday show was described as "Ahab hosts a dockside cartoon fest," and Saturday's Wonderama-style megashow (this one called "Ahab and Friends") was "cartoons, puppets, games, birthdays and songs."

I'll let a 1974 Newsday TV Line question-and-answer column fill you in on the identity of Captain, thanks to the curiosity of C.H. of Hauppage and E.M. of Coram. (Click on the pic to see it larger than actual size.)

" [Captain Ahab is] George McCaskey, a member of the board of trustees of the Northport-East Northport School District, where he has lived with his wife Lydia and daughter Pamela (a ten-year-old aspiring actress) since 1957. He is a volunteer counselor, board member and vice president of the Narcotics Guidance Council and operates smoking control clinics. Born and raised in New York, George graduated from Long Island University, attended law school and studied at TV Workshop. He has appeared in TV and stage productions, is a former police officer, news reporter, news photographer and insurance investigator. At one time he even taught elementary school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant School District. Channel 67 tells us George walked in looking for a slot on the news team and he fit the qualifications for the Captain Ahab role so well that he was signed on the spot." (I'm wondering if by saying he "fit the qualifications," they really meant the costume, like Greg Brady getting the Johnny Bravo gig...)

McCaskey had a half-hour every afternoon and then a three-and-a-half hour program on Saturday mornings. I'm guessing it was a mixture of restless tots, public domain cartoons and Wonderama-type games and guests. In the fall of 1974, the Captain was joined on the line-up by Mary Kelly's Puppet Party, and after a while his marathon Saturday show shrank to a meager thirty minutes.

McCaskey died on February 8th, 2008. (To my knowledge, he was not buried at sea.) I learned of McCaskey's passing from an obituary written by his daughter. I contacted her and she was kind enough to offer these reminiscences, slightly edited by me:

Capt. Ahab was a three-hour children's show as you may have mentioned. The Good Captain, played by George T. McCaskey, was a total pissa on the show. He always had a great sense of humor.

The set was a remake of Ahab's sailing ship. Captain Ahab would welcome all of us to his show, which ran live out of the WSNL studio. He had guests, cartoons, puppets, bubble-blowing contests and many other things to entertain his guests at the studio and at home.

As his daughter, I did happen to master the bubble-blowing contest. He gave out large amounts of Bazooka gum. The winner had to blow the biggest bubble first. The trick was to suck out as much as the sugar as possible, as quickly as possible. The end result was a beautifully round bubble that often popped on your face and hair (which created other issues). The winner would get great prizes donated by our sponsors--action figures, food items, gift certificates, etc.

Every show he would have fun music playing in the background and greet and interview everyone who came to the show. That segment was called "Meet the Crew." That was always a treat because Capt. Ahab would speak to each child on the set and in the audience. He would ask their name, age, likes and dislikes, sometimes asking if they were married and getting a huge laugh from the crowd. The facial expressions were priceless.

Here is a picture of Capt. Ahab with his bird on his shoulder...

The bird had a very tiny little chain on its foot so that he would not fly away. It was attached to Georgie's vest. We had to dry clean his fancy vest almost every day due to the bird droppings on his back.

The show was directed by Andy Wayman, who went on to CBS or NBC and did many daytime dramas along with other stuff.

Growing up as the daughter of Capt. Ahab was really cool. There was lots of excitement, not only on the Ahab set but also around the rest of the studio. There was a cooking show
[that would be "Chef Nicola," hosted by Nicola Zanghi], so the studio always smelled of something good. Then after my Dad's show the "Home Handyman" came on. He was David G. McDonough, who now represents District 19 in the New York State Assembly, which comprises communities located within Nassau County, New York. He and George became good friends and also business associates. Dave worked for my father for years at his collection agency, which is now owned and run by my husband and I.

I wish I had a copy of his actual show. We used to have them but they were on these huge reel-to-reel tapes that are ancient by now.

Thanks for taking me down memory lane!!

And any Long Islanders with memories of the show (or WSNL), please leave some comments...
[8/6/18 add: I just found this reminiscence from a former staffer, originally printed in November of '83, on the New York Times' website.]