It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears. Cincinnati is a small big town, which isn’t a huge problem because it’s a small world after all.
Thanks, Uncle Al, for all the great memories not only for me but for so many Cincinnatians here now, long gone and never forgotten. You’re gone now, too, even though we’ve been missing you for almost 25 years.
We’ll try to hold on to the good memories. There was so much we shared.
You had the biggest smile under your straw hat (I think Styrofoam in later years) with the ribbon of fabric wrapped around it just above the broad, flat rim. I remember those colorful jackets you wore, bouncing around a set full of children, many nervous that they were on TV, others oblivious to the fact. Kids in an adult world always made for funny entertainment.
We learned from you, too, with presentations by police officers and firefighters and with animals from the zoo.
You played the accordion — a goofy-looking instrument, perfect for kids — just like my grandfather did. He died almost two years before I was born, so we never met.
I sometimes imagined you were like him, even though you probably weren’t.
I was never on your show — both my parents worked, so finding the time to do that sort of thing was difficult — though I could easily imagine myself there. And I often did.
On our family trips downtown as a kid, we would get off I-75 at the Fifth Street exit, and the first thing you’d see were the WCPO-TV studios right across from the Cincinnati Fire Department’s headquarters.
I can still remember spotting the gold-colored “9” on the side of the light brown building. That was as neat as seeing Al Schottelkotte’s news helicopter in the station’s parking lot.
The Channel 9 building was torn down a few years ago to make way for an extension of the Cincinnati Convention Center, but back when I was a kid and we drove by on Fifth Street I tried to look real fast in the windows to see if I’d see you. Or the merry-go-round that kids would get to be on when it was their birthday.
I always wanted to do that — as much as I wanted to “do the twist” live on TV. And, like so much, there was a twist to the “twist” in order to do it the Uncle Al way.
You had to have your elbows cocked back, bend over at the waist and twist at the waist as fast as you could. I could do it the best, I was sure, and always wanted to show off on TV.
As I grew older, I was off to school. First grade meant going to school all day and missing your show that was on in the mornings after the bus came.
But I remember one day I was sick and stayed home from school. My mom hauled the big black and white TV — with the turn dial that took about five minutes to warm up — into my bedroom and put it on a chair so I could be entertained while I was in bed.
It was probably the early 1980s, and you were saying good-bye to one of your cast members, Larry Kinley, a guy I’d remembered for years. I was lying there crying as I watched everyone hug good-bye and then parade through the little gate as “It’s a Small World” played.
Ever since, that’s seemed like such a sad song to me.
As an adult I had a hard time reconciling your public persona with your personal one, which I heard could sometimes be not so nice and fatherly. I wanted to buy some Uncle Al memorabilia a few years ago from the WCPO Web site but learned you’d asked them to stop, and I wondered why you’d deny us this connection to you.
None of us are perfect, that’s for sure. I give you lots of leeway for living such a public life.
I’d like to remember you only as the man who made me happy, another reason I’m lucky to have grown up in this small town. Your lessons of kindness, silliness and laughter have stayed with me.
It is a small world, after all, and a short life. For too many it’s a world of tears, but thanks to you we had a lot of laughter, too.
CONTACT JOE WESSELS: firstname.lastname@example.org