Urban Legends

Uncle Don

The Legend

In 1938, radio childrens' show host Uncle Don was thrown off the air permanently after making an incredibly embarrassing gaff. At the end of one show, after signing off for the afternoon but before the engineer closed his microphone, Uncle Don said, "There, that oughta hold the little bastards." His words were broadcast into households across the country, bringing the career of one of radio's brightest stars to an end.

Behind the Legend

This is one of radio's most enduring urban legends, but at its heart is nothing more than an unfortunate misunderstanding mixed with an equally unfortunate coincidence. Donald "Uncle Don" Novello was a kiddie show host for most of the 1930s, and drew a large following with his unusual antics (his "sidekick" was a clown who never talked and he was the only radio host whose kiddie show ran cartoons). Although unmarried, Novello loved children, and this is what makes the legend that has become associated with his name both unbelievable and hurtful -- he would never refer to kids in such a negative way.

What really happened on December 18, 1938 is more complicated than a mere insult to the audience. Uncle Don's pre-Christmas shows were legendary, and this one had gone particularly well. The week before he had closed the show by asking the kids in the audience to sneak out of bed that night, get their mom's purse, and mail him "some of those funny green pieces of paper with pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and their friends on them." The little prank had netted him more than $80,000, and he'd used it to, putting this in as gentle terms as possible, hire the services of a young woman who had been keeping him entertained for the last few evenings. As such, he was in a great mood and had given a great show.

Wrapping up the day's show, Novello was in a bit of a hurry since his (ahem) "lady friend" had arrived to accompany him home. Because he was rushing, Novello was a few seconds short of the program's official ending time, so the microphone was still broadcasting when he turned aside to his paid companion and said, "All right, baby; let's go make some little bastards." It was a crude remark, and quite shocking for the time, but not anti-child in any way.

Even though he had shown no malice toward the audience, network executives were not pleased. Novello was taken off the air immediately. However, that is not the end of his story.

In 1946, Novello, realizing that TV was the only way to go but knowing that his face was too tied to the "bastards" incident to be seen, rebirthed himself as a clown. Going by the name "Bozo," Novello started a local kiddie TV show in Los Angeles. It was an instant success. But once again Novello ran into trouble with language. A child from the Bozo studio audience was playing a game to win a barrel full of toys but, at the last minute, lost. Novello, in the form of Bozo, gave the kid a used towel as a gag consolation prize, but the kid just threw it back at him and, on live television, said, "Cram it, clown."

Nobody blamed Novello for the incident, but it haunted him just the same. He feared another incident like this would end his career once again and he couldn't take the pressure. Soon after, he gave up the show and sold Bozo franchises to stations across the country. This gave him enough money to retire, and in recent years he has made his living writing bizarre letters to large companies under the name Lazlo Toth and selling their responses in book form.

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