Thursday, April 09, 2009

Remembering Wild Kingdom

Unless you're over 30, you may not remember "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

Actually, you might need to be over 40 to remember the show when it was a regular program on NBC. It premiered in January 1963 and continued until 1971, when it became a syndicated program, providing informative half–hour episodes on wildlife and nature.

"Wild Kingdom" literally traveled around the world to bring footage of animals in their native habitats to viewers. The program raised awareness of nature and the environment long before they were causes. It remained in syndication until 1988.

The host of the show was a zoologist named Marlin Perkins, who was in his late 50s when the show made its debut. His sidekick was a much younger fellow named Jim Fowler, who was in his early 30s. Perkins hosted the program until his retirement in 1985. He died of cancer the following year.

I can't say that my mother was much of a fan of prime–time television in the 1960s, but "Wild Kingdom" was one program that she enthusiastically encouraged my brother and me to watch, along with "The Wonderful World of Disney."

I am reminded of "Wild Kingdom" today because it is Fowler's 79th birthday. Yes, he is still living, which probably seems astonishing to most people who remember the show.

There were two features of the show that were so noteworthy that they inspired teasing from people like Johnny Carson, who often had Fowler on his show as a guest.

One feature was a tendency to link Mutual of Omaha's commercials to the subject of the program. For example, Perkins might say something like, "As the mother grizzly bear protects her cubs, you can protect your children with a policy from Mutual of Omaha," which then was followed by a commercial.

Well, it was Mutual of Omaha's show, after all.

I don't remember Carson making many jokes about that, but the other feature is one I distinctly remember Carson frequently mimicking in skits.

Simply put, Fowler was almost always the one who had to carry out dangerous assignments while Perkins remained a safe distance away and narrated. I remember once when Carson imitated Perkins saying something like, "While Jim wrestles with the alligator in heat, I'll remain in camp and make a pitcher of martinis."

As a veteran of television's pre–cable era, Fowler is probably amazed by how much things have changed in his lifetime. Today, there are cable channels devoted exclusively to providing the kind of programming on a 24/7 basis that he and Perkins did on their weekly half–hour program. There is far more awareness of animals and the environment today than Fowler and Perkins probably ever dreamed of at the height of their popularity.

But it might not have been possible without the groundbreaking work that Fowler and Perkins did.

Thanks, Jim. Hope you have a happy birthday.