Gene London, 88, the former children’s TV host known to a generation or more of Philadelphians, died Sunday, Jan. 19, in Reading. The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage after a fall Friday, according to his family.
One of the last to be lost from a pantheon of local stars that included Sally Starr, Captain Noah, Pixanne, and Chief Halftown, Mr. London — born in Cleveland as Eugene Yulish — hosted a show on WCAU (Channel 10) from 1959 to 1977 that aired under a variety of titles, including Cartoon Corners and The Wonderful World of Gene London.
After the TV show ended, he went on to work in the fashion industry as a designer in New York for Broadway shows, television, and films, as well as for private clients. Fashion was also his hobby, and he regularly exhibited selections from his 60,000-piece collection of Hollywood costumes and accessories.
A recent exhibit at the Allentown Art Museum, “Designing Hollywood: Golden Age Costumes from the Gene London Cinema Collection,” included the Cecil Beaton costume that Leslie Caron wore in Gigi and a costume Morton Haack designed for Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Mr. London was planning future exhibitions when he died.
But it was as a TV host that Mr. London will best be remembered by those who grew up with the Cartoon Corners theme song:
Come right on in to the General Store,
We’ve got licorice, gumdrops, sourballs;
Anything that you’re hankering for
You’ll find in Cartoon Corners General Store.
There's lots of stories and songs that you know,
Toys to build and a big pot-bellied stove;
Lots of fun with your favorites, so...
Let’s ring up the curtain on this show!
Something else I’ve forgotten. Let’s see ...GENE LONDON ... that’s me!
“In this time of darkness, Gene truly was a light to so many people,” John Thomas, Mr. London’s husband and his partner of 39 years, said Tuesday. The couple, who married in 2016, met through mutual friends in 1981.
“I had grown up in Jersey outside of New York, so I had not been familiar with his show. I had just met him as a person, and we clicked on the old movies and the costumes," Thomas said. “He had fond memories [of his TV career], but he didn’t live in the past. He was the type of person who was always planning his next adventure.… He lived in the here and now. But he did enjoy reminiscing, and he loved it when he would be with fans and take a selfie or give someone a hug. He was truly touched by the outpouring of love.”
“At his events, people would wait in line for an hour to get three minutes with him just to share their personal story of their relationship with him, watching him on TV,” said Mr. London’s niece Sheri Brenner. “He was a storyteller. He was the same storyteller throughout his life that he was on the show.”
Her uncle made a point of being current, she said, talking about subjects on his children’s show that viewers might not have heard discussed elsewhere. "He always said he never talked down to them. He treated them like fully realized human beings, and they appreciated that because they didn’t get that at home.”
Charles Yulish said that as good as his brother had been on television, he was “electric” before a live audience.
“Gene was a magic person, and I think anybody in Philadelphia would endorse the use of that word,” said Yulish, who, while calling Amtrak’s reservation line to try to get to Reading after his brother’s fall, happened to mention to the agent that his brother was Gene London.
“What! Gene London? I love him!” he said she told him. “And that’s not unusual,” he said.
In 2009, Mr. London was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame. Gerry Wilkinson, who headed the group until retiring last week, got to know the former host through the Pioneers. Mr. London was featured on a 2007 WHYY12 program for which Wilkinson was a consultant, Philly’s Favorite TV Kids Show Hosts.
His favorite memory? Mr. London had told him he was a fan of the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants and watched it all the time.
“I loved the guy to death for that,” Wilkinson said.
In an email to Wilkinson that’s posted on the Broadcast Pioneers’ website, Mr. London recounted his beginnings in TV, noting that the character “Gene London” was created in New York City, where he had appeared on a show called Johnny Jupiter as Philip London. He was “puppeteer Gene London with Shari Lewis” on a weekday morning show called Hi, Mom, and appeared on NBC’s Today, then hosted by Dave Garroway.
But it was as “a very young counselor at Summerdale Day Camp that Philadelphia’s Gene London was really born,” he wrote. “Sam and Ruth Browne, owners of the camp, became my mentors. They steered me to Philly TV, so I would be near them. Dave Garroway ... also made some calls on my behalf.”
After the general manager of Channel 3, then the NBC station in Philadelphia, promised him a TV show in a month’s time, “I went to WCAU-TV and did an in-office audition. It won me a TV test. Cartoon Corners ... was born, which was a great success from the start. Within months, I was on seven days a week and twice on Sunday. The overflow commercials created a demand for additional kid programming, and thus Pixanne was born.”