ON THE FIRST DAY OF JULY JERRY HAYNES will have hung up his skimmer, candy-striped jacket, and magic cane, bringing to a close his long run as Mr. Peppermint, one of the founding fathers of children’s television. Retiring too is his partner, producer, and puppeteer, Vern Dailey, with whom Haynes worked at WFAA in Dallas beginning in 1961 and with whom he created Mr. Wiggly Worm, Captain Candy, Muffin the Bear, and the other characters who lived at Peppermint Place. Bridging the black-and-white era of Romper Room and Icky Twerp to the modern age of Barney, Peppermint Place baby-sat three decades of children in Texas and across the country (at its peak, in 1993, the program aired in 108 markets nationwide). Although the 69-year-old Haynes will continue to make appearances as Mr. Peppermint, he’ll concentrate on his acting career in entertainment for grown-ups (he plays Faye Dunaway’s husband in an upcoming CBS made-for-TV movie). But, as he told me before signing off, he will still be Mr. Peppermint, in life and in reruns.
How would you describe Mr. Peppermint to someone who hasn’t seen the show?
He’s a happy person. He is quiet and friendly. He is always himself and never forces the moment. He presents a program that is like a good book on the shelf. It’s there for the taking. And yet with this quiet comes a bright costume and a magic cane. A striped magic cane that has always enabled him to turn out the lights, make a telephone call, see great distances, and make colors appear.
Where did you get the name Mr.Peppermint?
It was early March, 1961. I was driving to work two weeks before the show was to begin. The costume had been decided upon, but I didn’t have a name. One of our directors had a habit of giving away red-and-white star light mints. Peppermints. I was at the corner of Garland Road and Buckner Boulevard when I said the two words that would change my life forever: “Mr. Peppermint.”
Tell us about your characters and what made the show different.
Mr. Wiggly Worm was a face on the index finger of a yellow glove. A green hand puppet was named Jingles the Dragon. These were thought up by Vern. My wife, Doris, had a German-made wooden puppet with a beard. He became a pirate named Captain Candy. There was my adviser in the sky, named Miss Morning Star. Mr. Postman delivered the mail. Mr. Wiggly didn’t talk, I talked for Captain Candy, Jingles made compressed air popping sounds, and Mr. Postman whistled his conversation. So for the first nine years, it was basically a monologue.
To open the show, I did a dance to a song called “High Time.” It was a Henry Mancini march from the Bing Crosby—Fabian movie of the same name. And in the march I used my magic cane. So kids all over grabbed brooms, golf clubs, anything resembling a cane, and did the march with me. I taught them songs. They sang along. I played finger games and they joined in. I conducted French lessons and we learned French together. One young girl told her schoolteacher that she studied French with Mr. Peppermint. It was an audience participation show, with a plot and cartoons to go along with the participation. I pretended to sell candies from my shop—candies such as Sweet Sarahs, Blue Northers, Toasty Teds. I grew peppermints on a tree, and Pokey the Peppermint Pest would raid the tree when I wasn’t looking. My viewers were named Gumdrops, and each morning Mr. Postman delivered the Gumdrop Gazette. I would read birthdays, call out sick-abeds, and read about happenings around Goodtown. I would hum “Happy Birthday to You” on the musical comb. All this went on for years, five days a week, and the kids who were three and four and five are now pushing forty.
Tell us about children’s shows when you were on the air.
My show has been on in two segments. It was live from 1961 to 1970. At the same time it was playing, other stations were carrying Amanda Possum and Mickey Mudturtle, Officer Friendly, and Icky Twerp’s Slam Bang Theater. Rom-per Room was still popular when I started. Some of the shows had a live audience. My show never did, being on at seven-thirty a.m. And our on-going plot line would not have worked with children in the studio. And CBS had Captain Kangaroo from eight to nine a.m. We competed my last half hour and his first half hour.
How did you do in the ratings?
I always won. I had cartoons.
Why was it taken off the air for a time?
It had had a nine-year run. But early-morning talk shows were sweeping the country. It was replaced with a news talk show. In 1975, after the Federal Communications Commission suggested more local children’s programming of the educational variety, it was brought back on with the name Peppermint Place. New puppets were added. We kept Mr. Wiggly and Jingles. Captain Candy had retired and was living on Gingerbread Island. Muffin the Bear was added along with G.G., Henrietta Cluck, and Sherbert the Dog, again all created and operated by Vern. Cartoons were dropped and commercials were added. Peppermint Place became a half-hour, magazine-formatted show. And it was taped.
What were some of the funniest, most embarrassing, or most dramatic moments doing the show?
Embarrassing? A group of monkeys cartwheeling in circles around me and a pretty movie starlet, and one of the monkeys develops an acute case of diarrhea. Live! Scariest? An interview with a police officer about his attack dog, who was by his side. I ask, “How do you cue the dog?” He says, “Like this,” and whispers something to the dog. The dog goes for my throat, and I am saved by the length of the leash on the dog. The officer knew the leash would stop the dog, but I didn’t. Funniest? It was a setup. The director and Vern planned it. We were taping a scene making ice cream, and Vern, in the role of Muffin, asks in that back-of-the-throat voice, “Mr. Peppermint, is it true that if you eat too much vanilla ice cream, your penis will fall off?” I didn’t quite hear him, or didn’t want to. I bent down and muttered, “What?” He repeated it. I let out an expletive. The director stopped the tape, and we laughed for half an hour.
What about serious moments?
Oh, I used to give “heart-to-heart” talks with the viewers at the end of the show. I’d sit down and give them suggested ways to behave—an encouraging word, you might say. Then I’d get up and cue the closing theme by saying, “Now let’s turn out the lights together.”
What about the time surrounding the Kennedy assassination?
I had been at the scene that day. Our program director, Jay Watson, and I walked over to see the president and Mrs. Kennedy. When the motorcade came down Main, we waved and yelled and watched their car go one block north on Houston and turn left in front of the depository. We were reveling in the good feeling of the moment when the shots rang out—bang, bang, bang. By the time we got there, President Kennedy’s car had sped away. I ran three blocks back to the station, and Jay got some eyewitnesses and brought them over. He and I were the first to go live on local TV and report the terrible moment. I went home that afternoon, and Doris and I gathered our children around and discussed it as best we could. There was no direct discussion about it on Mr. Peppermint the next week. I didn’t feel qualified to counsel the viewers on it. We just behaved in a subdued and respectful manner.
What does being Mr. Peppermint involve?
He’s a public figure, so he has to behave as such. He has been to about a thousand birthday parties. Sometimes three a day, and that means cake and ice cream at every stop. He carries with him a couple of hundred songs, a hundred or so action games, the memory of ten years of guitar lessons, thirty years of voice lessons. He remembers his daughter’s reply to a friend who said, “It must be great to have Mr. Peppermint for a father.” . . . “Oh, it’s not so hot. All he does is get his guitar and go in his room, close the door, and vocalize.”
After all this time, what do you make of children’s programming today?
For the most part, I like it. Since I’ve been doing Mr. Peppermint out of my hip pocket for a long time, I haven’t taken the time to sit down and “judge” the output. My son Gibby is the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers. He’s been at it a long time and is very selective when it comes to passing on the music scene. The stuff he doesn’t like he calls “puke chunks.” The kids’ programming I don’t like could certainly fit into that category.
Will you miss the show?
Oh, sure. I already do. I remember a movie with Julie Andrews. She was a concert violinist and she died. But as she died she was able—through a little movie magic—to see it happening. She could see her friends “move on” without her. That’s been happening to me since the decision was made in March to stop the show.
What about your life? Any regrets? Your legacy?
The only “fork in the road” was in 1951. I could have stayed in New York and kept up my acting. Had I stayed, I probably would have devoted my life to “the Method” and developed into one of those slightly out-of-step weirdos who “live for their art.” Then there wouldn’t have been my life with Doris, whom I have loved and lived with since 1955. And no daughter Carla or sons Gibby and Andy, no Mr. Peppermint. Rogers and Hart can have Manhattan. I’ll take Peppermint Place. As to a legacy, I think of the adults who come up to me and say, “Thank you, Mr. Peppermint, for being a good influence on my life when I was young.”
So it’ll be okay if people continue to call you Mr. Peppermint?
Oh, sure. I wouldn’t have it any other way.