Sail on, Sailor 

With his new documentary, Sailor Bob Griggs is strong to the finish. 

click to enlarge art05_sailor_bob_now_300.jpg

During his regional television show that aired from 1959 to 1969, Sailor Bob periodically looked into the camera through binoculars and said, “I see Davy in Short Pump” and “I see Suzy in Dinwiddie.”

Did he ever look into the lens and say, “I see a regional kids' show produced on a shoestring, spawning a near-cult following and a 90-minute documentary 50 years from now”?

“Absolutely, no,” says Bob Griggs, from his home in Chesterfield County. “At the very least I was hoping someone one day would approach my son and say, ‘Wasn't your dad Sailor Bob?' After all, every dad wants his son proud of him. But I never expected so many people to remember me.”

“We all underestimated the power of the [television] medium.”

On Friday, Jan. 9, 1959, at Richmond's fledgling WRVA Channel 12 (now WWBT-12), a program manager approached Griggs, a part-time cameraman and Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) commercial art student. He asked Griggs if he'd be interested in being the host of a children's program featuring “Popeye” cartoons that was airing from 9 to 9:30 a.m. and 5 to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“All the other station announcers were tied up with other projects,” Griggs says. He couldn't dance, sing or even swim, but he was telegenic, self-effacing and a terrific visual artist, so he agreed to the gig, spending a weekend creating the Sailor Bob concept to introduce the syndicated 1930s-era package of “Popeye” cartoons that was secured by the Richmond station.

“I put together a sailor outfit from A&N, and created an 8-foot-square backdrop,” he recalls. “Later we built the schooner stage with the portholes.”

Sailor Bob wasn't the first nautically related “Popeye” cartoon host: Norfolk had Poopdeck Pappy; Los Angeles had Skipper Tom Hatten; and Miami had Skipper Chuck Zink.

“I was not really aware of other ‘Popeye' hosts at the time, and it's probably a good thing,” Bob says. “I had nothing to base my character on.”

click to enlarge Sailor Bob, with Gilly Gull. - BOB BROWN
  • Bob Brown
  • Sailor Bob, with Gilly Gull.

“Popeye and Friends” debuted right after “Captain Kangaroo” (“a great lead-in,” he says), with no demographic or marketing studies, no script and very little competition from the other two channels. Everything was seat-of-the-pants and kid-friendly. Bob was a plain sailor, not a fancy officer. He was on a schooner, not a battleship. There were no guns or torpedo tubes, but a treasure chest. There were no threatening, Bluto-like antagonists, only goofy hand puppets named Gilly Gull (voiced by Dave Davis), Squeaky Mouse, Mr. Bluebird and an off-camera assistant called “Bryant,” who was Don Johnson.

“The station manager talked about having a live audience, but the show did not lend itself to one,” Griggs says. So he spoke right into the camera on that tiny set, scribbled off some amazing cartoons and created a trusting, individual intimacy with the kids watching at home. A Saturday rerun hour soon appeared a few months later in order to cope with his popularity.

He was soon every viewing child's best friend. At his peak, Sailor Bob received more than 8,000 pieces of mail per month. “Dear Sailor Bob,” a fan identifying himself as “Deane from Richmond” wrote in 1969, “When I am sick I watch your TV show and it makes me feel better.”

Live appearances became well-behaved mob scenes; a 1965 stop at the Waynesboro's Wayne Theater packed the house, as did appearances at Southside Mall and Willow Lawn; he later made stops at schools and in parades.

“The live appearances were more fun than the show,” Griggs says. “We appeared on the Nolde's Showboat, and handed out Nolde's cupcakes and cookies. Some kids would drag their parents from one shopping center appearance to another on the same day.”

Approximately 900 former shipmates attended Griggs' most recent live appearance — at the Byrd Theatre's Jan. 22 premiere of “The Sailor Bob Story.” Just before the movie, a murmur spread through the crowd, with folks looking back up into the balcony. Suddenly a woman shouted, “We love you Sailor Bob!” and the entire crowd turned, stood and gave a rousing standing ovation to the friendly and familiar white-haired gentleman, who — just like he did 50 years ago — acknowledged the adoring crowd with smiles and waves. There were also a few handkerchief dabs to his eyes.

“They broke the mold with Sailor Bob,” says Leslie Custalow, producer of “The Sailor Bob Story.” She says that Tom Griggs came to her company, VGO Productions, in 2007 with reels and tapes of archival footage of his dad's show, wanting to transfer them to digital format. “My engineer Guy Spiller had the resources to transfer all that old footage,” she says. “As he worked after a year or so we kept thinking there was a movie there to be made of all that tape. Soon, with director Paul Roberts, photography director Tim Wright and Tom's help we started on the documentary.”

Sailor Bob's run ended in 1969. He worked for three years as a weatherman, then as a producer of syndicated educational films. He resurrected Sailor Bob at WXEX-8 from 1973 until 1975. Today he's retired from his job at Southside Builder's Supply.

Sailor Bob was part of an innocent period of television, well-suited to the host's gentle humor and his fresh-faced “12 rules for good shipmates” — such as take a nap every day and eat some nutritious Nolde's bread. Sailor Bob was the personification of early television's Good Practice Seal that guaranteed wholesome programming.

“I don't want my program to just be a video baby-sitter,” Sailor Bob wrote in a 1959 WRVA Telelog newsletter, “but an entertaining and worthwhile experience for kids of all ages.”

Television misses him. S

“The Sailor Bob Story” will air Feb. 8 on WCVE Channel 23. Check local listings for show times.

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