I belong to the generation of kids who grew up in the New York metropolitan area watching Sonny Fox host Wonderama, his four-hour Sunday afternoon show on WNEW-TV. He was as big a star to me – and to many others, I’d bet, given the space that his New York Times obituary devotes to the show – as were the hosts of Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room and other pioneers of children’s educational television.
So when I met Sonny in the late 1990s, through my work at the USC Annenberg School, I couldn’t help snapping back to the 1950s me, and being starstruck by him. I had the feeling that Sonny regarded my reaction as perfectly appropriate.
By that point, Sonny was more widely known for his work in entertainment-education than for looming large in young baby boomers’ homes. When, as director of the Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center, a CDC grant enabled me to launch Hollywood, Health & Society, our own e-e effort, Sonny inducted me into the Soap Summit community he had created, and he was always more than generous with his guidance and lore.
In his last decade, I had lunch with Sonny two or three times a year. When it was Sonny who made the date, his call followed the same script. “I’ve been puzzling about something,” he’d say, “and it occurs to me that you’re the perfect person to ask about it.” “It” was often what was going on in the presidential race. Or it was the studios, or USC, or the CDC, or the foundations that made e-e grants.
We alternated where we met, in the Valley where his office was, or on my side of the hill. And from the moment we sat down until we said goodbye, I don’t recall getting a single word in edgewise. Sonny would describe what was puzzling him, and then he took me on a long and fascinating journey winding through his time in the Army during World War II, his early years on TV, his work with Population Communications International, his take on current news about politics, higher education, Hollywood….
As we paid the bill (after ritual combat, we alternated), Sonny invariably said, “I’m so glad I thought to ask you to clarify this for me. It’s been really instructive.” I never knew whether my hmmms and nods had actually contributed to the conversation, or if he knew he was giving me a private screening of Wonderama, the chance to feel once again – perhaps for the last time; you never know – a 10-year old’s awe at a magician of the medium.
Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society
Director, The Norman Lear Center
USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism