“Corky the Clown” is gone.
Clif St. James — known to countless St. Louis area baby boomers as the big-eared jovial clown who hosted a children’s cartoon show for three decades — died Friday (Dec. 9, 2016) of pneumonia at St. Luke’s Hospital. He was 91.
Mr. St. James was a longtime resident of Webster Groves.
“I don’t think I ever heard him say a bad word about anyone,” said his son, Chip St. James. “And in the TV business, that’s saying something.”
Mr. St. James was born June 3, 1925, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., the oldest of three children. His family moved to Honeoye Falls, N.Y., where his father owned a small advertising agency.
He joined the Army in 1943, serving with the 591st field artillery battalion of the 106th Infantry Division in northern France and Germany, including the Battle of the Bulge.
“I was 18 years old, and I was assigned to be radioman for a forward artillery observer,” Mr. St. James said in an interview in 2001.
“It was an awfully scary thing, especially when your observer is killed on your first night out,” he said. “I learned what it is like to have it be open season on you. You were fair game for the enemy.”
In Germany, he also helped put on shows for the troops and found that he loved performing. So when he was discharged in 1946, he enrolled at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
While at Eastman, he met his wife, a St. Louis native named Nance Babcock. They were married in 1948 and for a time, they did a husband-wife routine on the air.
Nance St. James, who survives her husband, also was a popular voice for years in St. Louis.
In the early 1950s, he came to St. Louis to work at KWK and KSD radio stations. Two years later, he took a job as a freelance announcer at KSD-TV, the only TV station in town at the time.
Mr. St. James began hosting “Corky the Clown” in 1954 and stayed until 1980. It was one of the highest-rated local children’s shows in the U.S. In 1966, it became “Corky’s Colorama” and was the first show in St. Louis to be broadcast in color, which is why Corky sometimes had a green or blue face.
Station executives didn’t want to experiment with color on the news broadcasts, “so they gave it to a clown” to lead the way, Mr. St. James noted in a past interview.
Also, it’s likely he was the first, and only, person in St. Louis television history to do the weather in full clown regalia.
Corky’s show was televised from 4 to 4:30 p.m., followed by the news at 5 p.m. St. James needed at least 20 minutes to get out of his clown makeup and costume, put on a coat and tie and rush down the hall to the newsroom studio.
But TV during the 1950s was live, and sometimes shows ran longer than scheduled. When that happened, viewers watching the news would sometimes see Corky appear instead of Mr. St. James on the weather segment.
After leaving KSDK in 1981, he worked in promotions and community relations for Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. until 1989.
He also continued doing TV and radio appearances, and was one of the most in-demand voice talents in the St. Louis market.
In 2014, Mr. St. James was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame.
Frank Absher, a radio veteran and executive director of the St. Louis Media Foundation, noted that the Corky theme song was played for Mr. St. James when he was inducted.
“Everyone in the room could tell how much he savored the fact that his work was so important to an entire generation of kids,” Absher said.
Along with his wife and son, Mr. St. James is survived by two daughters, Stacy Physioc of Kansas City and Lori Doll of Dallas; five grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.
Another daughter, Pat St. James Roberts, who made many appearances at the Muny during a long stage career, died in 2010.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Mr. St. James donated his body to medical research.
“Dad really did live his life according to Corky’s motto: ‘Be careful, be cheerful, nobody likes a grouch,’” his son said. “He was a lovely man.”