This one hurts.
Throughout our travels, we’re advised and reminded of how brief our lives are, how our time in this world is nothing more than a multi-colored vapor. We hear it, we try to absorb it, but it usually seems a little flat, like a two-dimensional theory in some dog-eared textbook.
It’s something to which we pay lip service—“You know, from now on, I’m going to thank the universe every morning that I’ve been blessed with another day”—because somewhere in our DNA lies that crazy notion that we and everyone we love are gloriously immortal.
And then, with profound predictability, we’re rocked again. A grandparent dies, a mother or a cousin, a friend or a co-worker leaves us and we’re jarred yet again into accepting our finite engagement in the material world.
It hurts in a fashion that is simultaneously uncharted and familiar.
Chris Wedes died Sunday. Please, even if you’re not both between the ages of forty and sixty and were raised in the Pacific Northwest, bear me out because this man epitomized so much about the potential goodness of the human spirit.
Known to most as J.P. Patches, Mr. Wedes relocated from Minneapolis to Seattle in 1958 to launch a children’s show on Seattle’s local CBS affiliate, KIRO. A bygone era where such heavyweights as Howdy Doody, Bozo the Clown and Kaptain Kangaroo commanded kids’ eyeball time, J.P. also faced the worthy rivalry of local stalwarts like Wanda Wanda, Brakeman Bill and Captain Puget.
Not even close. Patches ruled.
And forget about shows like Blues Clues or Dora the Explorer. Even Sesame Street wasn’t yet a gleam in Jim Hensen’s eye when J.P. hit the airwaves in vivid black and white during the Eisenhower administration.
At the height of the show’s popularity during the early 1970s, it actually aired twice daily: once between seven and nine in the morning and again at 3:30 for a quick thirty-minute fix of my favorite clown.
Yes, he was a clown. I know what you’re thinking—creepy dude with stupid gags and something to hide from his past, like finding out that his mom was his cousin and his dad liked getting to know people whose canoes ran aground in Appalachia.
He wore the make-up, but that’s where any skeezy factor ended. J.P. never insulted the intelligence of even his youngest viewers, and he somehow found a way to make my mom giggle from the other room in response to one of his “this one’s for your parents” one-liners. In between screenings of Warner Brothers cartoons, he and his cohort, Bob Newman, improvised the funniest, most irreverent two hours an aspiring toddler comedian could imagine. Wedes actually admitted in his biography, J.P. Patches, Northwest Icon, that the two men dreamed up each day’s show while having their make-up applied in the mornings.
Wedes’ work with Seattle’s Children’s Hospital under the auspices of J.P. Patches was legendary, as were his tireless community appearances on evenings and weekends. Any kid in the Puget Sound region could count on a J.P. showing at his or her local I.G.A. or Albertson’s grocery store at least once a year.
And oh, great Jehovah, was little, four-year-old Tim beside himself at the prospect of seeing Mr. Patches face-to-face at the Auburn Thriftway one summer day in 1967. I recall standing in line inside the store, which snaked down one of the aisles. My mom, sister and I found ourselves situated somewhere between the peanut butter and mustard when down marched J.P. Patches himself, shaking parent’s hands and ruffling children’s hair.
I was so electrified as he approached that I darted out of line and hugged his leg, gaining a perspective of his floppy right clown shoe that I’ve not attained before or since. He placed his white gloved hands on my shoulders to stabilize me, looked down and said, “Are you here with your mom to pick up some decaf?”
My sister and I entered every contest the man pitched, and finally, in kindergarten, I hit paydirt. A fairy godmother had been appearing on his show during the holiday season, so the show promoted a “Draw the Fairy Godmother Contest.”
Already tipped off that I had won in the six-year-old category, my parents packed our entire family into a ’65 Chevy wagon for a trip to a Seattle department store on a Saturday morning, as my mom spun it, to “just see who won. It’ll be fun then we’ll have lunch somewhere.” We joined the crowd of other families anxious to see the famous clown and his sultry consort, the Fairy Godmother.
I was so stunned when J.P. announced my name as the winner that my mom had to raise my hand for me. I should have known that something was up when I was ordered to wear my fancy yellow turtleneck somewhere on a Saturday morning.
A month from turning fifty as I write this, it was an experience so exhilarating that I place it up there right behind my wedding and the birth of my daughters. Wow, typing this out, I can still feel it.
J.P.’s show ended in 1981. Rising production costs and shifting demographic preferences rendered the format outdated, giving way to cable television and national broadcasts. But by this time, Chris Wedes had built so much goodwill, so many rich memories for three generations of “Patches Pals,” that his popularity held for the next thirty years, and he maintained his tireless schedule of public appearances and philanthropy efforts into his eighties.
My last personal encounter with J.P. Patches wasn’t too personal, but hey, at least it was funny. Approaching him at one of his public functions, my sister requested that he sign a photo for me.
“Well, why isn’t he here to ask for it himself?” he asked her.
“He’s at work right now, “ she replied.
“Where does he work?”
“Oh, um, he works at Nordstrom.”
J.P. jotted something on the card, handed it to my sister and thanked her for stopping by. She made a beeline for my office, excited to present me with this unexpected treasure.
She handed me the card and I scanned the black and white smiling photo of J.P. with the hand-written words:
“To Tim. I shop at the Gap. All the best, J.P.”
Rest in peace, Julius Pierpont Patches.