WBAY at 70: 70+ stars of the CP Telethon

Kids bring donations for the United Cerebral Palsy Telethon to the WBAY auditorium to put in...
Kids bring donations for the United Cerebral Palsy Telethon to the WBAY auditorium to put in one of the "fish bowls" around Northeast Wisconsin(WBAY)
Published: Feb. 20, 2023 at 10:48 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2023 at 10:31 AM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - The CP Telethon is almost as old as WBAY-TV itself. This year, as WBAY marks its 70th anniversary, the CP Telethon observes its 69th. It’s the country’s longest-running local telethon that’s still airing on the same TV channel.

The annual tradition started with the United Cerebral Palsy Telethon, which did things differently than other telethons. United Cerebral Palsy Foundation started a grassroots effort that traveled from city to city -- cities that had TV stations, that is -- with a “Stage of Stars” from TV shows, radio and theater. Different cities might see different stars, depending on performers’ schedules.

Green Bay’s telethon premiered at 10 p.m. on Saturday, May 22, 1954 -- exactly 1 year, 2 months, 5 days, and 3 hours after WBAY went on the air. The show, broadcast from the WBAY auditorium, continued until 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon. Viewers could come to the WBAY studios Sunday morning to meet celebrities in person and children were promised a plastic model spaceship for coming down.

In 1978, it became a truly local telethon after Green Bay’s Cerebral Palsy Center separated from the national organization, allowing the local CP center to control its programs -- and it would receive all of the funds from the annual telethon (there were “Winnebagoland” offices in Outagamie and Winnebago counties still associated with the national foundation, but ultimately the funds raised in those counties during the local telethon in 1978 went to the local CP center).

The CP Telethon still brought in the stars. That tradition didn’t change until 2006, when CP Center refocused its efforts on promoting local talent -- which allowed it to keep more money for its programs benefiting the center’s clients instead of covering national performers’ fees.

Following is a list of some (not all) of the stars who’ve appeared on the CP telethon on WBAY-TV from its beginning. This is not the exhaustive list.

1954: Tommy Bartlett (of Wisconsin Dells fame) and Helen O’Connell, Capitol Records recording star, are co-masters of ceremonies

Bobby Wayne, Mercury Records singing star, performs

1955: The telethon airs from the Orpheum Theater (now the Meyer Theatre). Congressman John W. Byrnes introduces a special address from Vice President Richard Nixon. The master of ceremonies is actor Ben Alexander, Officer Frank Smith to Jack Webb’s Sergeant Joe Friday on “Dragnet” in the 1950s (before the better-known ‘60s series with partner Harry Morgan).

Performers include George Liberace, violinist and orchestra leader on “The Liberace Show” (the George in Liberace’s famous line, “I wish my brother, George, were here”); Johnny Desmond, an Oscar-winning musician; Margaret Firth, TV phys. ed. instructor (”It’s Fun to Reduce”) and comedian; Charlie Applewhite and Edie Adams, young stars of the CBS-TV Morning Show; and symphony orchestra guest Stephen Kovaks performs classical music.

1956: Western star Hoot Gibson appeared because he happened to be in Green Bay visiting friends. The official “Stage of Stars” included actor Victor Jory (”Gone With the Wind” and numerous TV playhouses); actors Felix Knight, Ken Carson, Judy Lynn and Roger Coleman; and Julann Wright, the future wife of Merv Griffin and the woman who came up with the idea of the game show “Jeopardy!”

The list of stars continued with Ted Devlet, the featured circus clown star of CBS’s Saturday morning children’s show, “Big Top,” with his sidekick “Sweetie,” who was his wife, Jan Crockett (Miss Florida, 1950).

1957: Early WBAY-TV star Charlie Hanson returned to Green Bay from Milwaukee to host the telethon.

The telethon was opened by Wisconsin Governor Vernon Thomson and Wisconsin’s first lady, followed by Green Bay Mayor Otto Rachals, representing the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s Green Bay affiliate, and Oshkosh City Council President Charles Fiss, representing the Winnebagoland offices. The Wrightstown High School Band performed the national anthem and “On Wisconsin.”

Devlet and another star of the 1956 show, entertainer Betty Ancona, returned in 1957. That year, Ancona had the distinction as an entertainer of appearing in more telethons since their creation in 1950.

1959: Kitty and Doc from “Gunsmoke,” Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone, are the mistress of ceremonies and master of ceremonies. Other stars include James Brown (Rip Masters on “Rin Tin Tin”) and Virginia Graham (hostess of “The Big Payoff” and “Strike It Rich”).

1960: Ilene Woods, the voice of Disney’s “Cinderella,” then a featured vocalist on Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and Arthur Godfrey shows, makes the first of at least four appearances. Another star is Vivian Dorsett, a TV, radio and theater performer and hostess of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV series. Broadway singer Judy Canova performs with her sister, Anne, as accompanist. The emcee is Mark Stevens from TV’s “Big Town.”

1961: Kirby Grant, star of “Sky King.”

1962: Mike Connors (“Tight Rope”) and Doug McClure (Trampas on “The Virginian”) are co-emcees. Marvin Miller (Mr. Anthony on “The Millionaire”) appears and Vivian Dorsett returns. The telethon also features Green Bay native Pepper Curtis, born Betty Jo Goracke, who had roles in “Gunsmoke,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” and “The Jack Benny Show.”

1963: Master of ceremonies is comedian Pat Harrington Jr., who would gain more fame in the 1970s as Schneider, the building super on “One Day at a Time.” The show also starred Jon Provost (Timmy from “Lassie”) and Shirl Conway and Zina Bethune from ”The Nurses,” the “Grey’s Anatomy” of its day. Green Bay Packers legend Paul Hornung made his first appearance after his NFL suspension.

1964: James Drury is “The Virginian.” Robert Reed is one of “The Defenders” and future father of “The Brady Bunch.” Donna Douglas is Ellie Mae Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Jay North is “Dennis the Menace.”

1965: “Smilin’” Jack Smith, host of “Queen for a Day” and “You Asked for It,” makes his first of at least 3 appearances. Milburn Stone returns with “Gunsmoke” co-star Ken Curtis, who played Festus Haggen (Curtis would return in 1967). Singer Skip Cunningham also makes his first of several appearances. Ten Green Bay Packers players and 5 coaches manned collection sites (called ”fish bowls”) in various cities, including: Bart Starr in Green Bay, Max McGee in Manitowoc, Fred Thurston at the Neenah-Menasha fish bowl, and Ray Nitschke in Fond du Lac.

1966: 40s heartthrob Van Johnson (”The Caine Mutiny,” “Brigadoon”) stars with Don Grady (early Mousketeer and Robbie on “My Three Sons”); soap opera actress Gloria De Haven of “As the World Turns”; and Ilene Smith, Miss Indiana 1965.

1967: Frank Sutton (Sergeant Carter on “Gomer Pyle: U.S.M.C.”) and Meredith MacRae (”Petticoat Junction,” “My Three Sons” and numerous 1970s and 80s TV roles).

1968: The hostess is Eileen Smith, but arguably the stars are Leonard Nimoy (Spock from “Star Trek”) and Bob Crane (Col. Hogan on “Hogan’s Heroes”), along with “Petticoat Junction” stars Linda Kaye and Mike Minor. One viewer shared with WBAY that Crane was an accomplished drummer and got behind the drum kit for a musical interlude.

1969: Ventriloquist Shari Lewis is joined by Lamb Chop and Hush Puppy. Lewis would return in 1971 and host in 1973. Another future host, Johnny Tillotson, winner of 3 gold records, makes his first appearance; he would host the telethon in 1977, 1978 and 1979). But the star of the show may have been child actor Johnny Whitaker from TV’s “Family Affair.”

1971: Ray and Jackie Nitschke are honorary co-chairs, and would be for 22 years. Stars included Mike Farrell (”The Interns,” later a star of “M*A*S*H”), John Banner (Sgt. Schultz on “Hogan’s Heroes”), Dennis James (”Let’s Make a Deal”), Buck Taylor (“Gunsmoke,” and an expert gymnast), and R&B singer Ruth McFadden. James returned in 1972. Taylor and McFadden both returned in 1973.

1972: “Laugh-In” comedian Artie Johnson, Tina Cole from “My Three Sons,” and singer Demetrius Trapp.

1973: Adrienne Barbeau (Carol on ”Maude”), Danny Bonaduce (Danny on “The Partridge Family”), and singer Bob Newkirk (who also had roles on “The Millionaire” and “Father Knows Best”).

1974: Barry Williams (Greg from “The Brady Bunch”) is on the telethon 10 years after his TV dad. Also actors Conrad Bain (Arthur Harmon on “Maude” and future dad on “Diff’rent Strokes”) and Don Stewart (Michael Bauer on “Guiding Light”). Conny Van Dyke, Motown’s first white recording artist and prolific actor to boot, makes her first of 3 straight appearances in the Green Bay telethon during her 25 years with the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation. Also featured is Miss America Terry Meeuwsen, a De Pere native, who would make more appearances on the telethon.

1975: Gavin MacLeod (Murray on “Mary Tyler Moore” and future Captain Stubing on “The Love Boat”). Jon Walmsley (Jason on “The Waltons”).

1976: Jamie Farr (Corporal Klinger on “M*A*S*H”), Liz Torres (from the “Mary Tyler Moore” spinoff “Phyllis,” later of “Gilmore Girls” and numerous TV credits), and Ralph Carter (Michael, the youngest Evans child on “Good Times”).

1977: Comedian Kaye Stevens; and “The Lawrence Welk Show” husband and wife singing team, Guy and Ralna Hovas. The Channel 18 Breakers Club of Green Bay collected telethon pledges over CB radio.

1978: Mary McDonough (Erin on “The Waltons”). Lyle Waggoner (”Wonder Woman,” “The Carol Burnett Show”). Ken Delo and Gail Farrell (”The Lawrence Welk Show”). The Southern Door 5th graders made their first appearance on the CP telethon in 1978 or 1979 (that’s as far as we narrowed it down so far) and have performed on the show ever since.

1979: Howard Hesseman (Johnny Fever from “WKRP in Cincinnati”). Maren Jensen (Athena on “Battlestar Galactica”). Victoria Mallory (Leslie Prentiss on “The Young and the Restless”). Jim Roberts from “The Lawrence Welk Show,” with Welk dancers Bobby Burgess and Barbara Boylan. Yogi Bear and Raggedy Ann and Andy staff the Green Bay “fish bowl.”

1980: Singer Pat Boone is master of ceremonies. This year also marks the debut of local talent and long-running telethon stars: vocalist and musician Dan Riley and singer, entertainer and future “Shopko Lady” Karen McDiarmid. This is at least McDiarmid’s second telethon; as Miss Green Bay at the age of 19 she sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

1981: Game show host Bert Convy (”Password Plus,” “Tattletales,” with roles in numerous 1970s and 80s TV shows and movies) is telethon show host. He returned in 1984. Singer Jeannie C. Riley performs her hit, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (you can watch it on our official YouTube channel). Susan Seaforth Hayes and Bill Hayes (Julie and Doug on “Days of Our Lives”) also star.

1982: Game show host Peter Marshall, best known for ”Hollywood Squares,” is show host with actors Kim Lankford (”Knots Landing”) and Lee Curreri (TV’s “Fame”).

1983: Actor George Lindsey (Goober from “The Andy Griffith Show” and its spinoffs). Nightclub entertainer and actress Carol Lawrence (the original Maria in Broadway’s “West Side Story”) is featured and would return in 1984 as show host. Judith Blazer (from Broadway and soap operas “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light”). Singer Tommy Roe (best known for his 60s hits “Dizzy” and “Sheila”).

1984: The telethon moves to the Masonic Temple for three years, the first time except for 1955 that it was broadcast from anywhere other than the WBAY auditorium. Carol Lawrence hosts and Bill Hayes and Susan Seaforth return.

1985: Game show host Gene Rayburn (”Match Game”) hosts, with singer Rex Allen Jr.

1986: Pound native actor Gene Edwards, born Gene Jashinsky, but better known to TV audiences as “Grizzly Adams,” makes his first of 3 annual appearances. He’s joined by “Grizzly Adams” costar Don Shanks, who played Gray Otter. Rex Allen Jr. returns. The telethon adds to its talent with David Seering.

1987: Country singer Mickey Gilley, who would return in 1992, and gymnast-turned-actress Cathy Rigby.

1988: Rita Moreno, the first woman EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner is joined by teen idol Fabian Forte (or just “Fabian”).

1989: Helen Reddy headlines the telethon with Lynn Herring (Lucy Coe on “General Hospital”) and Wayne Northrop (Detective Bill Ringstrom on “L.A. Law”). Herring and Northrop returned in 1990.

1991: Country singer T.G. Sheppard and the first of many appearances by Brenda Epperson (Ashley Abbott on “The Young and the Restless”).

1994: Actor and Ashwaubenon native Tony Shalhoub

1995: Actor/singer Gloria Loring (Liz Chandler on “Days of Our Lives”) and Michael Storm (Dr. Larry Wolek on “Days of Our Lives”)

1996: Tom Wopat (star of ”The Dukes of Hazzard” and Broadway’s “Annie Get Your Gun”), who would return in 2002

1997: A reunion, of sorts, with The New Four Preps, a supergroup with members of The Four Preps, The Association, and The Diamonds

1999: Singer B.J. Thomas

2000: T.G. Sheppard returns, with country singer George Hamilton IV

2003: Exile band (hits include ”Kiss You All Over”) performs in the same telethon with George Hamilton IV and his son, George Hamilton V

2004: Country singer Lee Greenwood (”God Bless the U.S.A.”). The telethon’s 50th anniversary on WBAY-TV also marks the first time pledges passed $1 million.

2005: Country singer Pam Tillis

2006: Local theater group “Let Me Be Frank Productions” is featured

2007: Hilbert native Jenny Thiel begins an eight-year run with the telethon

2008: The telethon receives a $10,000 donation from the “Oprah’s Big Give” reality TV series

2019: “Manitowoc Minute” comedian Charlie Berens joins the telethon, sharing hosting duties with Frank Hermans