The Inside Story of ‘Charley and Humphrey’—and the Brilliance of Pat McCormick

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Charley and Humphrey teaching the kids, back in the day.

One is a felt horse wearing a sea captain’s hat. The other is a rubber-faced bulldog in an Oakland Raiders shirt. And throughout the ’60s and ’70s, this unlikely duo dominated Bay Area children’s television. First on San Francisco's KGO-TV, then on Oakland's KTVU. Charley Horse and Humphrey Hambone haven’t had a regular show on the air since 1976, but they—and their creator, Pat McCormick—remain beloved by those who remember them. And a lot of people remember them.

Charley and Humphrey are one of the most-posted-about topics in Facebook’s wide variety of Bay Area history groups. Fans share artwork, places to buy Charley and Humphrey merch, and clips from the 1970s. One-minute-long PSAs featuring the characters often do the rounds in these groups—and it’s easy to understand why. These short TV segments remain a perfect encapsulation of how McCormick’s characters so deftly used goofy humor to help children learn, think independently, and do the right thing.

Humphrey was the wild one, always getting into scrapes and trouble, and Charley was the wise one, always there to assist and advise his friend.

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It didn’t always turn out well for Charley, but his mishaps sure made the kids laugh.

Charley and Humphrey had friends too. The Charley Horse Show featured Shagnasty the Friendly Bear, an impartial referee between Charley and Humphrey whose voice was modeled after Louis Armstrong. Then there was Pussyfoot, a yellow cat who played classical music on the piano.

The story of how Pat McCormick brought these puppets to life is as scrappy as the show’s sets, but it also reflects the puppeteer’s tenacity, creativity and oddball sense of humor.

McCormick was born in Myrtle Creek (a town of 1,700 people in southern Oregon), did a stint in the Air Force in his teens, then decided he wanted to break into showbiz. In 1952, aged 20, he moved to Hollywood and spent seven years bouncing around jobs on the bottom rung of the entertainment ladder. He worked in the mail department of Allied Artists, he chauffeured studio execs from Warner Bros. and Universal, and he worked in guest relations for CBS and ABC. For a time, he was an assistant film cutter at Disney. But it was a chance encounter at ABC that would change McCormick’s life.

It was there that McCormick befriended Jack Shaften, a respected puppeteer who had a cast of characters on The George Gobel Show and countless commercials. One day, Shaften showed McCormick the horse puppet that would go on to become Charley. Disney had created it for a movie pilot, but ultimately decided the horse didn’t fit in with their other characters. McCormick saw the puppet’s potential and bought it from Shaften. After he came up with Charley’s persona—he was loosely inspired by Chester Goode, the funniest character on the 1950s TV show Gunsmoke—McCormick co-designed and created Humphrey with Shaften. Amusingly, they originally imagined the bulldog with a high-pitched, squeaky voice.

In 1960, McCormick told the Petaluma Argus-Courier: “Humphrey was designed with the hope of obtaining at least two different expressions. We were amazed to find, when the puppet was finished, that Humphrey had virtually become a dog with a million faces.”

In the end, that expressive face would prove to be a bit of a burden for McCormick. He told the Arizona Republic in 1962 that while Charley was built to last, Humphrey’s head would wear out every six months, meaning repairs and replacements were needed on an ongoing basis.

McCormick’s big break came in 1959, after auditioning for KFRE-TV in Fresno. The Charley Horse Show was born, and became an overnight success—kids loved its humor and parents appreciated its positive messages and lessons. McCormick quickly perfected his puppeteering style.

“I sit on a movable Renault automobile seat under a large table and work the animals over my head,” he told the Arizona Republic in 1962. “I have a monitor set down on the floor in front of me, so I’m always able to watch how they’re projecting on the home sets.”

Word spread about the the show, and on Aug. 1, 1960, Charley and Humphrey came to San Francisco to join KGO-TV. They received a warm welcome right off the bat. “Welcome to town, Patrick,” one reporter at the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “and I hope your Charley Horse never develops a limp.”

McCormick and his characters initially helmed a weekday morning show, but half-hour evening and four-hour Saturday morning shows soon followed. In 1968, Oakland’s KTVU Channel 2 snapped up McCormick and gave him The Charley and Humphrey Show. It was at KTVU that Humphrey first acquired his Oakland shirt—a gift from Sonny Barger, co-founder of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels. KTVU also gave McCormick the opportunity to expand into other programming. He hosted telethons and the daily quiz Dialing For Dollars, and even acted as the nightly news weatherman for a while. But a sign over McCormick’s office was careful to give his characters credit for his success. It read: “Shagnasty Productions. Charles Horse, President. Humphrey Hambone, Public Relations.”

Meanwhile, in Arizona, McCormick’s Shagnasty Show and The Charley Horse Show began broadcasting in 1961. McCormick said the former was strictly for kids, but the latter was for the whole family. “I work in a lot of satire,” McCormick told the Arizona Republic. “I can’t express all these viewpoints as one person, so I do it through friends like Charley.” He continued, “I suppose there are many sides to my personality. I know I have many points of view on humor.” Elsewhere in the interview, McCormick objected to Charley and Humphrey being referred to as puppets. His preferred moniker was “the boys.”

McCormick and his characters enjoyed decades of popularity. By 1972, they were hosting KTVU's afternoon block of kids’ shows under the title The Charley and Humphrey Good Time House. “In addition to introducing the cartoons,” the Oakland Tribune reported, “they give brief news reports adapted for little ones; a nice idea.”

Courtesy of the 'Oakland History' group page on Facebook.

Little has been heard of Pat McCormick since 1995, when he retired to a five-acre wooded property in Gold Beach, Oregon with his wife Flora. In 2015, he re-emerged briefly when the San Francisco Chronicle falsely reported his death. McCormick immediately called KTVU to explain he was alive and well; he and his wife had faked his death as part of an ongoing feud with their son, Steve. Thoroughly convinced his father was dead, Steve he sent word to the Chronicle, which dutifully reported it.

“I want to emphasize, I recognize the absolute stupidity of [the incident],” McCormick told KTVU. “Whether [Steve] had exposed me or not, that was a dumb piece of business on my part. So what I managed to do is chalk it up to old age.”

Tom Hanks, who grew up watching Charley and Humphrey, was so relieved to find out McCormick was still alive he gave him a call. According to Wikipedia, McCormick is now approximately 88 years old.

Though McCormick has said in interviews he left his characters behind because he was “all TV-ed out,” he also admitted to SF Gate in 2008 that he missed Charley and Humphrey just as much as the public does. Perhaps even more so.

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“All the other things I did on television were just jobs,” he said. “It was my work. By contrast, Charley and Humphrey were my passion. They were me. I miss working with them more than I can describe.”