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'Ben Cartwright' visited region for 'Bonanza Days'

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

Celebrity sightings of Yesteryear are often the focus of attention among readers of The Valley Independent.

A case in point is a question from a Monessen woman who insists that actor Lorne Greene, who starred as patriarch Ben Cartwright on the hit NBC-TV show “Bonanza” (1959-1973), was in the city as part of “some type of celebration in the early 1960s.”

She's right.

Greene headlined an all-star cast of entertainment personalities that took part in Bonanza Days, a glittering promotional event 53 years ago – on Oct. 27, 28 and 29, 1960 – in downtown Monessen.

The festivities were sponsored by the Merchants Division of the Monessen Chamber of Commerce and television station WIIC in Pittsburgh. WIIC eventually evolved into its current designation, WPXI-TV.

In addition to Greene, the lineup included these Channel 11 celebrities: Captain Jim, star of the popular children's show, Popeye Club; cooking guru Kay Neumann; multi-talented Bill Cardille, and sportscaster Ed Conway.

All events were held on the Donner Avenue level of the city's Parking Plaza in the heart of downtown Monessen.

Captain Jim's appearance was scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 27, at 7:45 p.m. and was billed as, “A homecoming for Monessen's Captain Jim ... returns to Monessen, his hometown, to visit his young friends.” Unfortunately, there were no stories as to which actor was portraying Captain Jim at the time of his scheduled visit to Monessen. The TV character was originally played by Jim Saunders, who was later replaced by Ted Eckman, who also is identified on some Internet sites as Ted Eckman Niemi. (We would welcome any information that might clarify that mystery).

It made little difference, however, because Captain Jim became ill and, according to an Oct. 27 ad in The Valley Independent, was unable to “appear either in Monessen or on his regular program.”

Barnacle Bill, the captain's “son” on Popeye Club, did an admirable job in filling in for the star.

A story in The Valley Independent on Oct. 26 also called attention to the dilemma, saying “Captain Jim is in Sick Bay and will not be able to come to Monessen.” Noting that Barnacle Bill would take the captain's place, the story said the replacement “... bears a surprisingly striking resemblance to another WIIC personality, Bill Cardille.”

Neumann, the star of two of Pittsburgh television's most popular shows of that era – Kay's Kitchen and Kay Calls for Cash – basked in the spotlight from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28.

She participated in a benefit bake sale sponsored by the Monessen Lions Club and the Peoples Natural Gas Company.

Women of the Monessen area were invited to bake their favorite pie or cake and submit it in the contest, which offered “three valuable prizes in each category and a grand prize drawn from all those who enter.”

Neumann and home service representatives of the Peoples Natural Gas company were the judges, but there is no record of the results of the competition.

Money accrued from the bake sale was used by the Monessen Lions for their annual Christmas Baskets for the Needy program.

Greene made his long-awaited appearances on Saturday, Oct. 30.

Greene was on hand in the afternoon to review the costume contest open to children from the area. Those youngsters were invited to pick their favorite programs on WIIC and dress like characters from those shows. Prizes were awarded to the winners.

An evening program at 8 brought Greene back to the Parking Plaza, much to the delight of the hundreds of area residents who jammed the Donner Avenue site. Greene signed autographs, posed for pictures and helped with the drawings for more than $500 in valuable prizes and gift certificates. The top prize was $100 in Bonanza silver dollars.

“He was such a handsome man and very friendly,” the woman whose question sparked this column said in recalling Greene. “He talked to us, signed autographs, shook hands and posed for dozens and dozens of pictures. It was a big thrill to see him and the other TV personalities in person in our hometown.”

The celebration culminated with a major record hop hosted by Bill Cardille. He played the “latest tunes” from 9 to 11 p.m.

Other highlights of Bonanza Days were “Bonus Buys” and other bargains offered by participating merchants, who were open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. all three days.

Among the savings offered to shoppers were these:

Gaudio's Store for Men – Jackets from $6.90 to $10.90, and pants from $2.90 to $7.90; Gribben's – Purses, $3.99; gown and negligee sets, $9.95; Sabrina Shoppe – Skirts, $5.99; blouses, $2.00; Stern's – Hollywood head boards, $5; bathroom heaters, $6.98; Krasik's – Maple chest of drawers, $12.88; Edmund's Jewelers – Electric skillets, $14.88; spun aluminum cannister set, $3.88; onyx rings, $12.88; Harold B. Cramer Smart Men's Wear – Famous-make gabardine coats, $29.90; knit sport shirts, $3.29 and $4.29;

Also, John G. Check Furniture Co. – Brass-plated gossip benches, $8.88; Foam rollaway cot, $18.88; Thrift Drug – Peanut brittle, 29 cents a box; Penney's – Reinforced athletic socks, three pair for $1.25; Dependable Sales – Westinghouse Ambassador 30-inch range, $228; Kiddieland (Next to Stern's) – Preston paints, 66 cents; vinyl dolls, $9.99.

Windows of many downtown stores were enhanced for the festivities with colorful art work showcasing the talents of distributive education students at Monessen High School.

Throughout the event, special crews of television personnel were operating cameras at various downtown locations. This, the newspaper explained, “made it possible for shoppers to see themselves as they actually would look on TV screens.”

Some of the Monessen scenes were carried on regular WIIC newscasts.

A photo of Greene appeared on Page 3 of The Valley Independent on Monday, Nov. 1.

Given the smiles on the faces of the six young women in the front row, he obviously delighted the crowd – and created lasting memories for the one who wrote.

Now, if someone could solve the mystery of Captain's Jim real identity and his ties to Monessen!

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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