A Sonny walk down memory lane for Fox's 'Wonderama' fans

Irwin "Sonny" Fox was born when Calvin Coolidge was president and he grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the Great Depression.

Sgt. Fox, serial number 42022375, survived prisoner of war status in Nazi Germany where an American clerk at the camp deliberately and falsely identified him as Protestant rather than Jewish. That clerk probably spared Fox's life because other Jewish soldiers were sent to a slave camp and many never returned.

The quick-thinking clerk allowed Fox the chance to live, return home and stumble into an accidental career as a television host, TV executive and broadcasting consultant. It also allowed him to enrich and influence the lives of the many children of the 1950s and '60s who watched him host the weekly "Wonderama" program -- a funny hodgepodge of dramatizations, magic demonstrations, art instruction, spelling bees, learning games and celebrity appearances. Fox hosted the show from 1959 to 1967.

"This is my childhood. I grew up watching Wonderama and (Just for) Fun. This is a thrill. It really brings back a lot of great memories," said Paul Kupperberg of Fairfield, who credits Fox, in part, with his choice of career. Kupperberg is a comic book writer and a former editor of DC Comics. "It's guys like him that opened up kids' imaginations. He made it OK to be imaginative," said Kupperberg, one of about 75 people who came to the McManus Room of the Westport Public Library on Sunday to hear Fox talk about his work in the television industry.

Fox, 87, a former Weston resident who now lives in California, showed clips from "Wonderama" and read a passage from his new memoir, "But You Made the Front Page! War, Wonderama and a Whole Bunch of Life."

He said the experience of writing the book "has taken me on a most complex and unexpected journey of life ... My entire professional life seems to have been lived at the intersection of the impossible and the inevitable." His "unpredictable and extraordinary" life and career have taken him from East 9th Avenue in Brooklyn into the digital age. The book follows his career through the early days of television and into the 21st century -- "A century to which I wasn't even invited actually, but I'm doing the best I can."

"I've had so many wonderful adventures along the way," Fox said. His library appearance Sunday was a journey for many in the audience back to their childhoods.

Gerri Sobell of Stratford altered her vacation plans to make sure she was home for the Westport appearance just so she could meet Fox. "When I was a little girl he was the host of the Wing Ding Parade in Bridgeport. He was the first celebrity ever I saw, the first person from television I ever saw live. I never thought you would be able to see anybody live," she said.

"Sunday morning (I) couldn't wait to get up to watch `Wonderama' and when he left the show I stopped watching," Sobell said.

"Every Saturday and Sunday in the morning we would be glued to the tube, myself and my two brothers. We would watch his shows. It was a big part of our childhood," said Reference Librarian Margie Freilich-Den. She was an 8-year-old third grader when she appeared on "Just for Fun." A few years later her younger brother Jay was on "Wonderama." "He was 7 years old ... He won a bike and this was a kid who was afraid to get on a bike. He got the bike and he learned to ride it because of Sonny Fox," she said.

Jeff Ford of Westport wanted desperately to be in the audience for "Wonderama." "My parents tried to get me tickets to get on the show because I really, really wanted to get on ... I wanted to be one of the kids with the stack of gifts and toys in my hand. Sonny was my hero," said Ford, who never got his tickets, but his childhood fantasy was fulfilled in a more interesting and personal way.

"Coincidentally, a year or two later, I'm in Norwalk Hospital and Sonny's son is in Norwalk Hospital. We're having our tonsils out and we're in the same room," he recalled.

Ford's father figured out who Fox was and convinced the TV host to put a cardboard box on his head. "My dad cuts out an opening to make it look like a television set and Sonny comes up to my bedside and performs `Wonderama' at my bedside," said Ford, who learned years later that there was far more to Fox than television.

"There's the side of Sonny that we, who grew up worshiping him knew, the TV host, but none of us had an idea (about his humanitarian work). He went from being an icon in the '60s, a hero to many kids, to doing charity work around the world," Ford said.

Julie Belaga, a former state representative from Westport, said she had hoped Fox would talk about some of his humanitarian efforts, but he didn't. "The man is such a history lesson for all of us. He hardly touched on the wonderful contributions be made to society. When you look at what this man has done it's truly astonishing," Belaga said.

Fox did talk about his work with actress Colleen Dewhurst and his friendship with U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, who appeared on "Wonderama several' times. "That's Senator Kennedy at his most human," Fox said after showing a clip of Kennedy interacting with the children on the set.

After his presentation, Fox signed autographs and listened to the reminiscences of his audiences from decades ago. Fox said being remembered is flattering, "but the vividness of those memories is quite extraordinary."