A childhood hero of mine passed away recently: Sheriff John.
Emmy Award-winning "Sheriff" John Rovick — bedecked in a crisp khaki uniform, sheriff's badge and khaki Stetson — hosted a daily cartoon show for kids on KTTV (Channel 11) throughout the 1950s and '60s.
I started watching his 5:30 p.m. show, "Cartoon Time," in 1952 at the age of 7.
The following year KTTV introduced the midday (11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.) "Sheriff John's Lunch Brigade." It was geared for 4- and 5-year-olds.
I watched "Lunch Brigade" whenever I was home from school with the flu. Sheriff John showed cool cartoons, like "Crusader Rabbit" and "Porky Pig" — never those primitive 1930s "Felix the Cat" episodes.
Every day on "Lunch Brigade" he'd read a long list of kids' names who were celebrating birthdays. He'd sometimes include a personal message, like, "You have a present waiting for you under your bed," or, "Remember to eat your vegetables." The advice always carried special weight because it emanated from Sheriff John.
The highlight of the program was the singing of Sheriff John's birthday jingle after the names were read:
"Put another candle on my birthday cake / We're gonna bake a birthday cake / Put another candle on my birthday cake / I'm another year old today."
By the fall of 1958, "Sheriff John's Lunch Brigade" was much too infantile for this sophisticated ninth-grader and his buddies, Tom Rudd and Jim Jakes (names have been changed to protect the innocent). We were 13.
Sometime that fall, Jim celebrated his 14th birthday. Rudd and I plotted a practical joke. It took considerable preparation for two slightly obtuse 13-year-olds.
Three weeks before the birthday, we wrote a letter to Sheriff John asking him to read Jim's name during the birthday segment of his show. We signed the missive "Mrs. Jakes," and further requested that he please tell "little Jimmie not to forget to drink his milk."
On the day of Jim's birthday, the three of us got passes from school to eat lunch at my home.
We rode our bikes 10 minutes to my house and got there in time to bound through the door and turn on the TV.
I told the guys it would be a hoot to watch "Lunch Brigade" as we ate the sandwiches my mom had prepared.
Jim seemed to think the idea rather lame, but Tom and I stifled giggles because we knew what was about to happen. We arranged our TV trays in front of us, and soon Sheriff John commenced reading the birthday greetings.
He covered perhaps a couple of dozen names before finally getting to the one that mattered.
"A happy fourth birthday," Sheriff John read from his script, "to Jimmie Jakes of Costa Mesa." He then looked earnestly into the camera. "Don't forget to drink your milk, Jimmie."
Three-and-a-half seconds of unadulterated rhapsodic euphoria!
Tom and I leapt from our seats and howled with delight (at that time, as I recall, our culture was yet to introduce the ritual of the well executed "high-five"). We guffawed our heads off.
Jim remained in his chair holding his sandwich just below his chin, his mouth agape. He was stupefied.
He could take comfort from the fact that all of our friends were in school at that moment so no one had personally witnessed the landmark stunt except the three of us and several thousand preschoolers.
Minutes later, after consuming birthday cake my mom had made, we rode our bikes back to Costa Mesa High School. Tom and I felt like geniuses, having pulled off the greatest hoax since the "Piltdown Man." We couldn't wait to tell our friends.
Fortunately, "4-year-old Jimmie Jakes" eventually recovered. But the joke got bigger with the passing of each high school year. By the time we were seniors, the stunt had achieved legendary status — at least in our minds!
Reading John Rovick's obituary brought back warm memories.
Who could ever forget the classic line we fed him so long ago: "Don't forget to drink your milk, Jimmie"?
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.