Sonny Fox in 2018
June 17, 1925
Brooklyn, New York
|Occupation||Television host, executive and broadcasting consultant|
|Known for||Host of Wonderama|
Early life, education and army experience
Born June 17, 1925, in Brooklyn, New York, Fox attended James Madison High School, in the Midwood/Madison section of Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in a traditional Jewish family. Fox is a World War II veteran and, as a POW of the Germans, witnessed the heroism of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds who saved Fox' life by saying, "We're all Jews" when the Nazi officers demanded that all Jewish POWs be pointed out.
Early years: 1954-1955
Fox's first experience in children's programming came in 1954, with a St. Louis program, The Finder on KETC-TV, a children's news and travelogue program. His first national exposure came when CBS brought him aboard in 1955. For three years he co-hosted the children's travelogue, Let's Take a Trip..."Taking two children on sort of an electronic field trip every week--live, remote location, no audience, no sponsors," Fox himself described that show, during interviews for PBS's The American Experience.
The $64,000 Challenge
Fox became the first host of The $64,000 Challenge, the game show spinoff of The $64,000 Question, in 1956. In his first appearance he was called "Bill Fox," presumably because "Sonny" did not seem professional enough, but by the second program he became "Sonny Fox" because the name "Bill Fox" had been registered by another entertainment personality. Fox was fired a few weeks into the series and replaced by Ralph Story, reportedly because he simply was not as funny or bright hosting the game as he was in person, according to producers. Fox himself admitted later (in the same PBS interview, as well as at a 2012 book signing in Stamford, CT[original research?]), that he was so awkward he "had a predilection for asking the answers."
Fox's brief tenure on the show may have been the biggest break of his career. He escaped any taint from the coming quiz show scandal, though he told The American Experience he had been horrified by some of the testimony to Congress—including that of child star Patty Duke (who once played The $64,000 Challenge), who eventually admitted in tears that she had been coached to lie to Congressional investigators. By that time, Fox's involvement in game shows went no farther than occasionally filling in for the original host of The Price Is Right, Bill Cullen, or Beat the Clock host Bud Collyer.
It turned out that the job for which he was suited best came the year the quiz scandals accelerated. Independent television network Metromedia (born from the former DuMont Network) hired Fox to host Wonderama on its New York flagship station, WABD (soon to become WNEW-TV), succeeding the team of Bill Britten and Doris Faye. Hiring Fox ended what some called the "musical-hosts syndrome" that Wonderama had for its first few years. The show had been created as well as originally hosted by actor-comedian Sandy Becker, who became a New York children's program star in his own right. Fox became Wonderama's sole host for eight years, from 1959 until August 1967.
Suave, witty, and congenial, Fox juggled the slapstick and the serious, turning the marathon Wonderama (during Fox's tenure the show ran four hours Sunday mornings) into a weekly academy at which anything could happen and often did; whether Shakespearean dramatizations, guest celebrities, magic demonstrations (customarily by legendary magician James "The Amazing" Randi), art instruction, spelling bees, learning games, or other elements.
Fox was deft at turning a potential haphazard hodgepodge into a seamless whole, and he was consistent in never talking down to his young guests or viewers, treating them with legitimate respect and tolerance. The result was that Wonderama was rarely if ever known to have bored either the children who appeared on the show (the segments showing the weekly 25 or 30 children waving cross-armed, leading in and out of commercial breaks, were as much a signature as Fox himself) or those who watched it.
Just for Fun
For a few years it seemed Fox owned children's weekend television in the New York metropolitan area. In the same year he joined Wonderama, he reached back to the "color war" team competitions he knew as a child in summer camp to create and host Just For Fun, a two-and-a-half hour Saturday morning show involving two teams of kids in blue and gold jumpsuits to compete in contests ranging from the mildly athletic to the wildly bizarre. One mainstay was the Treasure Chest competition where one contestant from each team would be placed in front of a locked chest and 1,000 keys. When the winner found the key to open their chest, a siren would sound, and whatever was happening at the time (be it cartoon, commercial, skit, etc.) was interrupted. The winner would stand with arms outstretched and a towering pile of board games and toys would be placed in his or her arms.
On Your Mark
A year later, Fox hosted ABC's first original Saturday morning show, On Your Mark, a game show in which children ages 9 through 13 answered questions about various professions. Because Sonny Fox was under "exclusive" contract to WNEW-TV, On Your Mark aired on Channel 5 in New York, instead of WABC-TV channel 7 ABC's owned station. On Your Mark lasted one season, but the lively Just For Fun lasted until 1965. Fox left Wonderama in 1967; his successor, Bob McAllister, continued the show both locally (in New York City), and in national syndication through the 1970s. Fox gradually withdrew from television work (he'd also played Mr. Prim in the 1966 film The Christmas That Almost Wasn't), spending time in theater and other entertainment while raising his own four children. He spent one year (1977) running children's programming for NBC (and taking one more stab at hosting, with the short-lived, California-based, Way Out Games in 1976), while spending time concurrently as a lecturer at the State University of New York at Stony Brook campus in the 1970s.
The New Yorkers
Fox also co-hosted a daily talk/variety show for adults titled The New Yorkers on WNEW, with co-hosts Penelope Wilson and Gloria Okon, plus newsman Stewart Klein. Airing weekdays during the 1967 TV season, the series was not a hit and was canceled after one season.
Fox's last venture in children's TV was as the co-executive producer of the short-lived Chuck McCann's Fun Stuff. The series was seen weekday mornings locally on KHJ-TV Ch. 9 in Los Angeles from September 18, 1989 until October 13, 1989.
Fox featured Wonderama at the New York City theme park Freedomland U.S.A. A number of live appearances at the park's Hollywood Arena before hundreds of children and adults were filmed and broadcast on Sunday mornings on WNEW-TV. Fox explained his connections to Freedomland in the book Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History (Theme Park Press, 2019).
In the 1970s, Fox received a call from David Poindexter who urged him to get involved in global issues as a leader in the entertainment industry. Fox was president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences at the time, and invited Poindexter for a meeting. Impassioned by the minister's request, Fox then organized so-called "Soap Summits"where he united the heads of television networks, soap opera writers and public officials. He later joined and became the chairman of the board for Population Communications International, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to improving family planning issues through popular media. PCI's work included working with U.S. and international soap opera producers, helping them develop "more healthful" family planning story lines, as a newspaper article described it in 2002.
In September 2012, Fox published his memoirs, titled But You Made the Front Page! Wonderama, Wars and a Whole Bunch of Life.
- U.S. Public Records Index Vol 1 (Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc.), 2010.
- Hia, Rivka (26 October 2015). "From Brooklyn To Broadway, And Back Again". The Jewish Week. Retrieved 23 November 2016.
- Lipman, Steve (27 April 2016). "We Are All Jews Here". The Jewish Week. Retrieved 23 November 2016.
An estimated 2,000 descendants of those 200 POWs are now alive. One of them was Irwin “Sonny” Fox, host of the 1960s “Wonderama” children’s television program, who says that Edmonds “saved our lives.”
- "The American Experience: Sonny Fox on 'The 64,000 Challenge'". PBS. Retrieved July 11, 2016.
- "The American Experience | Quiz Show Scandal | Sonny Fox on The 64,000 Challenge". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
- "The Free Lance-Star - Google News Archive Search". news.google.com. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
- Mark Jacobson (1 December 2007). American Gangster: And Other Tales of New York. Grove/Atlantic, Incorporated. pp. 162–. ISBN 978-1-55584-655-8.
- "On Your Mark". skooldays.com. Retrieved November 15, 2017.
- "Thanksgiving Day on "The New Yorkers"". sonnyfox.tv. Retrieved November 15, 2017.