Dear Vance: When I was a kid, one of my favorite television shows was Looney Zoo. What happened to the host of that program, a dapper gentleman named Trent Wood? — F.G., Memphis
Dear F.G.: Let me read you something: “He is natural in manner, at ease, has good diction, and as far as I’m concerned has no annoying mannerisms. I find him an extraordinarily pleasant young fellow.”
Now I know what you’re thinking — that is obviously someone talking about me. Perhaps one of the Nobel Prize judges, or certainly a member of the Pulitzer committee. But in fact, it’s Memphis Press-Scimitar columnist Robert Johnson, writing about a newcomer to the Memphis television scene (or screens) by the name of Trent Wood.
And this praise came back in 1952, when Trent had first made a name for himself as the host of a children’s show called Storyland. Looney Zoo, you see, would come a few years later.
Perhaps it would help if I first gave you some background on this gentleman. Trent was born in 1925 in Louisville, Kentucky. His family came to Memphis when his father, the Reverend Howard Thomas Wood, took a job as pastor of the old Linden Avenue Christian Church. (Years later, when the church moved to a modern campus at Union and East Parkway, the congregation decided to honor their much-beloved pastor by incorporating his name into the new church: Lindenwood.)
But back to Trent. The young fellow attended Fairview Junior High and then Central High School. He enrolled at Rhodes College, back when it was called Southwestern, but when World War II started, he joined the Army, where he served three years in Europe with the combat engineers. After the war, he came home and finished his education at Rhodes, where he earned a degree in — no, not theatre or drama, as you might think — but economics (more about that later).
Somehow he landed a job in television. I wish I could tell you how that happened, exactly, but I just don’t know. But he first started at WHBQ (Channel 13), then moved to WMC (Channel 5). Trent first hosted a kiddie show called Storyland and another program called Home Makers (sorry, don’t remember that one). The Press-Scimitar story I mentioned earlier noted, “His staff duties with the station called for a 40-hour week, but he has several shows on his off-day for which he is designated by various sponsors.” Even in the beginning, you see, Trent was much in demand.
Now here’s something that may surprise you. Trent was not the original host of Looney Zoo. The show had gone on the air in the early 1950s, hosted by a fellow named Harry Mabry, who had already teamed up with a character named Tiny the Clown, to present short movies and puppet shows and other entertainment for kids in the studio audience, as well as for a few lucky kids who got to join Harry and Tiny onstage.
But in 1957, Trent became the new host of Looney Zoo. Tiny, who played a shambling tramp of a clown on the show, was in real life Ray Hill, a talented Memphis actor and — it’s true! — a professor of theater at Rhodes College. Now I know what you’re thinking: Probably Trent met Ray in college, but Trent said their paths never crossed until they met at WMC.
It didn’t take long for Looney Zoo to became a hit with kids, and even their parents, and the two stars of the show quickly became famous. Trent certainly stood out, in his carnival barker striped suit and the occasional derby, and just as memorable was Tiny’s sad-faced hobo character.
“At one time, Looney Zoo had the largest audience of any children’s show on Memphis TV,” Trent told a Press-Scimitar reporter for a 1982 article, and Ray remembered, “Even without my makeup and costume, I would walk down the street and children would call out, ‘Hey, Tiny!’”
The show aired from 4 to 5 p.m. on weekdays and featured Trent talking with guests and kids from the audience, a series of “Looney Tunes” or “Merry Melodies” cartoons, and Ray performing as other characters in addition to Tiny, such as Ima Emu. Working with kids can be tricky, since you just never know what they might say on live television, but Trent enjoyed it. “We got to the point where we were having 100 to 125 people a day,” he remembered. “It never became tiresome, because it was a new group of children each day. You could see the excitement, the hero worship as you looked into their faces.”
Why, that’s the same way I feel as I toss coins to the orphans who clamor at the gates of the Lauderdale Mansion!
In the early 1960s, WMC aired a spin-off of Looney Zoo, called Tiny and Trent Present Film Funnies. Yes, you read that right — Tiny got top billing for this show, which aired Saturday mornings. I guess it mainly showcased cartoons, since there wasn’t a studio audience. There seems to be some confusion about how long Looney Zoo stayed on the air. I suppose I could check the TV listings in old newspapers, year by year, but that seems like a lot of work. Trent says the show ended in 1971, so that’s good enough for me.
Now you’d think a fellow with that much broadcast experience would move on to another job at the station, perhaps as a producer or something, but you’d be wrong. Instead, Trent left the world of television entirely, and took a job in the bond division of First Tennessee Bank, which just happens to be celebrating its 150th year in business in 2014 — in fact, the bank’s 150th birthday is this very month.
Trent sold municipal bonds in Memphis until sometime in the late 1970s, when he and his wife, Mae, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. He worked for a bank in Oklahoma City, commuting back and forth to Tulsa, I’m told, before retiring.
I’m sorry to tell everyone that Ray Hill, one of those people who seemed to make everybody smile, passed away in 1994 at the age of 72.
But Trent Wood is still alive and well in Tulsa, where I called him in January and chatted about Looney Zoo. “We had a great time doing it,” he told me. “Ray Hill was quite a guy. He worked with me as closely as he could and we cut up all we could, and showed up at different programs all over the city. We tried to be seen everywhere, and to be involved in Memphis in everything we could.”
It’s true. In fact, I found the somewhat grainy photos you see here of Trent and Tiny tucked away in a scrapbook for a 1961 annual convention of the Memphis Area Home Builders Association.
And like any “real” Memphian back then, Trent had an Elvis connection. It seems that back in the 1950s, he would sometimes host the super-popular wrestling programs that aired live from the WMC studios. Between acts, local performers would entertain the crowds. You see where I’m headed with this, don’t you?
“One night I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here’s a young man I’ve never seen before,’” Trent told me, “‘and he is going to sing for you.’ When I said, ‘His name is Elvis Presley,’ the place just went crazy. I went back and sat down and asked the people around me, ‘Who in the world is Elvis Presley?’”
But Trent and Elvis later became good friends. Trent laughed and said the King of Rock-and-Roll always insisted on calling him “Mr. Wood” even though he was only ten years older than the singer. “There couldn’t be a better guy,” he remembered. “We used to go out to his place sometime and just hang out with him” — “his place” meaning Graceland, of course.
After all these years, Trent Wood is remembered fondly by anyone and everyone who saw him on TV. He was well known for his good looks and dashing clothing; he told a reporter, “I owe it to the people watching me to be neat.” But he’s also remembered for being just one heckuva nice guy. “The most important thing is that people who hear me know that I mean what I’m saying, that I’m sincere,” he once told the Press-Scimitar. “I want to talk to them as though I’m looking at them and talking in a friendly manner.”
In our October 2013 issue, I wrote about Capn’ Bill Killebrew, and any mention of Memphis’ favorite television personalities invariably brings up Happy Hal, Wink Martindale, and of course Sivad. I’d certainly add Trent Wood and Tiny to that list. They made an awful lot of people smile.
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Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103