Tampa kids TV pioneer Mary Ellen dies in Hawaii at 87
Tampa station WTVT-Ch. 13 had barely been on the air two years when a trim, focused housewife and mother came calling with a unique idea.
Mary Ellen Sussex had already hosted kid-focused TV shows in Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio. So when daughter Gail’s whooping cough gave the family an excuse to move to the Tampa Bay area’s warmer climes in 1957, Sussex wanted to move her TV show, too.
Turns out, WTVT was thinking about buying the rights to a couple of hundred old Popeye cartoons, anyway. “I talked with her for five minutes and knew she was right for the show,” WTVT operations manager Robert Olson told the St. Petersburg Times back in 1957.
In a flash, Fun Farm, later known as Popeye Playhouse with Mary Ellen was born, sandwiching three cartoons into a half hour program featuring the woman who would soon become local television’s most popular children’s show host.
Over seven years, Mary Ellen would welcome area children, aided by a live parrot named Poopdeck – an occasionally troublesome bird who loved to chew on pencils and sometimes lived up to his name, depositing droppings around the set. There were also a couple of puppets on hand and a dozen or so kinds in the studio audience.
The names for her shows would change, becoming Popeye’s Navy, Giant Kids Matinee and the Mary Ellen Show. And the cartoons would also shift, from Popeye to Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound, along with Bugs Bunny and Dick Tracy.
But Sussex’s sunny attitude and focus on having fun while introducing the dozen or so kids in her studio audience to the sponsors’ food products rarely wavered.
“She became a second mom to Tampa Bay area youngsters who were attracted by her on camera style,” wrote Mike Clark, a former employee of WTVT who runs a website dedicated to the station’s history, www.Big13.com, in an email to the St. Petersburg Times. “Mary Ellen had that rare ability to talk to children without talking down to them and this endeared her to thousands of (Tampa) Bay area boomers.”
Daughter Gail Morales, who was about 8 years old when they moved to Florida, remembered finding her mother’s notoriety occasionally annoying, as parents and children stopped her often to talk about how often they watched the shows.
“In school we were known as Mary Ellen’s kids; nobody really knew our names,” said Morales, who also remembered helping her mother set up for the personal appearances she would make at different spots around the area with Poopdeck, who became a family pet. “We didn’t really think of it as ‘what a great things she’s doing.’ She was just my mom and this was her job.”
One more thing Gail remembers: Her mother’s focus on natural and healthy foods, decades before it would become common among parents, led her to refuse to endorse any products she felt were “junk food.”
“She always ate everything organic and natural,” Morales recalled. “She would always say, unless they were nutritious products, I’m not going to put them on my show.”
Clark said a turn toward syndicated talk shows, game shows and newscasts led WTVT to drop the Mary Ellen Show in 1964. Sussex retired from TV then, spending time raising her family as husband Clyde Sussex developed a career as a home builder; they both moved to Hawaii in 1980.
Clyde Sussex died in 2007; Mary Ellen Sussex passed away on Thursday of age-related illnesses at age 87 in a hospice on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The family plans a memorial there, but has not scheduled it.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Photos courtesy of Mike clark and WTVT-Ch. 13