Laughing Up a Storm

Forget the satellite data and high-tech Storm Alerts. Seattle’s first weathermen needed just a sketch pad.

By Rolin Miller December 13, 2008 Published in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met

ON A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT in September 1951 (or maybe it was clear and balmy—no one seems to remember), a balding, bespectacled man wearing Dickies work togs and shaking with stage fright stepped before a boxy camera, lifted an oversized felt-tip pen, sketched seagulls and rain clouds—and became a star. TV weather had come to Seattle.

Bob Hale had his doubts. Why was a guy like him—a sign painter who drew sweat plops and toothy grins on every subject—being beamed into people’s living rooms? Lee Schulman, the young manager of Seattle’s even younger KING-TV, convinced Hale it was easy to be a television celebrity: There were no rules or competition. KING was the only signal west of Minneapolis and north of Los Angeles, and just a few thousand Seattle families huddled around eight-inch black-and-white screens to see what it could deliver.

Schulman scrambled to entertain this tiny audience and reassure the station’s rookie owner, Dorothy Bullitt, who had recently lured him here from New York. He launched popular kiddie shows—Wunda Wunda, Sheriff Tex, and, in 1955, KING’s Klubhouse with Stan “I Get a Kick out of Corn” Boreson—and the region’s first newscasts. But the infant station needed more draws. What did people talk about, fret about, pride themselves on in this climatologically challenged corner of the country? The question answered itself: the weather. Computer animations, satellite data, even Velcro maps and scantily clad weather girls weren’t yet on the horizon. But in New York, a cartoonist was wowing audiences by drawing the forecasts. Schulman stole the idea and recruited Bob Hale.

Seattle’s first weatherman never got over his stage fright; sometimes he’d brace himself at the Dog House up the way. But viewers loved the sketch-pad avatars he created: sunny Old Sol, leering for a really hot day; a fearsome polar bear when winter blasted; and Sammy the Seagull, a long-suffering everybird who shivered through each soggy forecast.

After 12 years, Hale packed his easel off to a San Diego station, and Schulman wooed another cartooning Bob—Bob Cram this time. Cram also started nervously, but he blossomed before the camera, joking and ad-libbing as Hale never could. To gain some meteorological chops, he read a couple atmospheric sciences textbooks, then gave up. “From then on I concentrated on being an accredited cartoonist,” Cram told me. He created his own weather totems: Milli Bar, landlady at the boardinghouse of the stars; Onshore Flo, frumpy harbinger of clouds and storms; and Flo’s nemesis Big Hi, beaming goofily over rising pressure and sunny days. He shot arrows at a forecasting target, and laughed along when the crew made an unscripted bonfire of his sketch board: “We treated the weather report like the comic page in the newspaper.” Viewers didn’t mind; they were in it for the laughs. “And anyway, we were right 50 percent of the time.”

Two years later, Bob Hale, bored with drawing endless California sunshine, returned. Sammy the Seagull and Big Hi now alternated, and weather reports proliferated across KING’s schedule. Then, in 1966, a new Bullitt generation ascended and KING took on the gravitas of a proto-NPR. Schulman was sacked, and Boreson, Hale, and founding news anchor Charles Herring bailed out. Cram hung on till 1971, when he was told to bag the blazing easels and become a serious weatherman. He walked, with no regrets: “I felt I had gone about as far as I could drawing noses on clouds.”

Today KING’s weather reports have much slicker apparatus: high-tech analysis, white-knuckle Storm Tracker First Alerts, Jeff Renner at the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Doubtless they’re more accurate. But they don’t have Sammy the Seagull, or even Milli Bar.

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