Don Kennedy, known as Officer Don on the long-running Atlanta children’s TV show, “The Popeye Club,” in the 1950s and 1960s, died Thursday at age 93.
Kennedy was suffering from dementia following a stroke in 2015, according to his daughter Rebecca Maple, who confirmed his death Friday.
No memorial service is planned, Maple said.
“He raised an entire generation of Atlantans,” said Aron Siegel, who appeared on the show twice as a child and posted “Popeye Club” specials on YouTube a few years ago that he digitized from a 1987 VHS tape he found at a Blockbuster in the 1990s.
“He had a special way with children,” Maple said. “He didn’t talk down to them. He treated them like they were intelligent.”
Bill King, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who got to meet Kennedy as a child, then interview him as an adult, said while Kennedy often acted like a “wacky overgrown kid” on the show, he would unfailingly call the boys and girls “sir” and “madam.”
Kennedy grew up in Beaver, Pennsylvania, and had an early love for radio, working at a local station as a teenager. He pursued communication studies at nearby Geneva College.
After working at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the Army during the Korean War, Kennedy landed a job at WSB-TV in 1953 doing voice-over work, news reading and booth announcing.
Management in 1956 drafted Kennedy to take over as host of a children’s show called “The Clubhouse Gang,” which he didn’t actually want to do, telling them he didn’t like kids. Kennedy also inherited the policeman’s uniform from prior host Gary Stradling, who was known as “Officer Joe.”
“They wanted to dress me in a leopard skin, but I prevailed on them to keep OfficerDon,” Kennedy recalled in 1983 to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Eventually, it became “The Popeye Club,” showing Popeye cartoons between live bits, and quickly became a top-rated local program for 13 years that aired live for 60 minutes every weekday afternoon from a studio in WSB’s White Columns building.
From a ratings standpoint, it became one of the most popular local kids’ shows in the nation. Parents reserved their kids’ appearances in the studio a year in advance. Kennedy became a local sensation, booking weekend personal appearances, often at movie theaters and shopping centers, before more than 50,000 kids a year.
Like many shows of that era, he used puppets, one of which became a breakout hit: Orvil the Dragon, who loved playing practical jokes on Officer Don, featuring pies in the face or raw pizza dough on his head. He was created by teen puppeteer Terry Kelley starting in 1963.
“Orvil was part of the reason the show stayed on so long, because he put new life in the show,” Kennedy said in a retrospective video he did in the 1980s. Kelley died in 2003.
Credit: AJC FILE PHOTO
Credit: AJC FILE PHOTO
One of the show’s most popular bits was the Ooey-Gooey Bag, a sort of Russian roulette game where multiple bags spun on a turntable. Blindfolded, kids would stick their hands in one of the bags and grab whatever was in it — most of which had a prize like a cupcake, but one had a mix of gross gunk.
“The Ooey-Gooey Bag was one of my favorite things,” Kennedy told the AJC in 1998. “We used to fill it with whatever we could find in the prop room or outside White Columns, like dirt or chocolate syrup or an egg or two.”
Clark Howard, the consumer rights advocate who grew up in Atlanta, watched the show obsessively as a child every afternoon and ended up on the show three times. “I once got the Ooey-Gooey Bag,” he said, “and another time I won a pair of PF Flyers sneakers.”
Kennedy did well enough financially that he partnered with two other men to purchase an FM radio station in 1960, WKLS-FM at 96.1 and played easy-listening music. It would eventually become the legendary 96rock station after he sold it in 1970. He also started Georgia’s first statewide radio news network and for a time owned an independent UHF TV station WATL/Channel 36, where he aired a lower-budget version of “The Popeye Club” for a time.
At the station, he provided legendary radio host Ludlow Porch airtime and mentored Steve Whitmire, who would become a puppeteer for both “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street.”
“He saw the best in people and encouraged them and was truly interested in the people he interviewed,” said Terri Tingle, who worked at Channel 36 in 1976 when he purchased it.
He also spent 25 years hosting a syndicated radio show “Big Band Jump” out of his Buckhead studio until 2013 and did voices for early Adult Swim shows like “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”
Dave C. Gibson produced his radio show for a time: “My favorite days were those when I’d worked on the show all night at his studio on Piedmont, and he’d stroll in and say, “Let’s get some breakfast.’ He’d take me to the White House Café on Peachtree, and we’d sit there for hours taking about all manner of things. Such a loss! He was a pioneer, a father figure and a really decent man.”
Long after he was off the air as Officer Don, he told the AJC’s King that he had grown used to people coming up to him to remind him how they used to watch him as kids. Did he mind? “Only when I’m in a bar trying to pick up some chick and a guy comes up and called me ‘Officer Don,’ " he joked in the early 1980s.
“He was a character and loved the city,” said Andy Parsons, who worked with Kennedy at Channel 36. “He liked cigars. He enjoyed various libations. He was fun to be around. As much as he said he didn’t like kids, he sure liked doing that show!”
Kennedy is survived by his wife Ann Kennedy and his daughter Rebecca Maple.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.