I’ve been away from WordPress for the past couple of days and I’m wanting to get back into the writing swing of things. Trouble is, I had been wracking my brain about something to write about. Then I came across an A.V. Club article about a certain Chicago television institution — Bozo the Clown. Oh, sure, Bozo may have had a presence in other towns (he was not so much a character as he was a franchise, and I’ll circle back to that term later), but to many in Chicagoland, he was as much a part of the city as the Cubs, the Field Museum, and whatever they call the Sears Tower these days. I imagine many natives of the city still believe this 16 years after Bozo’s show was cancelled by WGN, Channel 9 (another Chicago institution in some circles).
But this post isn’t about Bozo or Chicago. Rather, this is about a little something A.V. Club included in its article from way down deep into the Wikipedia wormhole (their term): In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was something called TV Powww, and it was literally a video game played over broadcast television. So what, you say? Well, the premise was this: A contestant watching TV Powww would be on the phone with the station, either as a random caller or as a name drawn from a barrel of entrants, and play some sort of a “target shoot” variant of video game they saw onscreen. Special prizes were the reward if they were the top winner of the day, reached a certain score, or whatever rules the station set.
Since this was the late 1970s and early 1980s, the game technology used on TV Powww was rather primitive compared to what you’d find on your computer, gaming system, smart tablet, or smartphone these days. If you must picture it in your mind, think less the 3D sophistication and vivid visuals of something on PlayStation and more of the oh-so-very simple design of Pong, only “in living color.” How the contestant played the game was rather primitive as well: Instead of a joystick in their hand, they had their phone receiver, and when they sensed they had a clear shot of the moving target broadcast to their screen, they would shout “Powww!” to fire at the target. Hitting one moving target earned a score and an advancement to the next target, depending on the type of game being played.
At this point, you’re probably asking, “Gee, Allison, did you call in to play TV Powww?” Well, no, I didn’t. I was never the competitive type as a kid; I was one who would prefer to just take part and not get into a heated competition with anyone, whether it was in the world of video games or not. And besides, and I was too modest and far to shy of a kid to even have my face on television, let alone have my voice say “hello” to thousands of viewers in our little corner of TV Land.
But my sister, however…
Yep, my sister was a TV Powww contestant, and that A.V. Club article’s reference to it helped trigger my memories of her experience. Sis and I were in the 9-to-10-year-old range around the time one of the TV stations in our part of Wisconsin adopted TV Powww and added it to their schedule. As I noted above with Bozo the Clown, TV Powww was a format syndicated across the country to stations who would use it as they saw fit. And it was perfect for this particular station, whose late afternoon lineup at that time consisted of cartoons and children’s programming (running opposite comedy reruns and old movies on the other two stations we regularly picked up).
As I mentioned, my interest in TV Powww (or Clubhouse Powww! as this particular station billed it) was far more passive compared to my 10-year-old sister’s. And in the summer of 1980, Sis asked Mom and Dad to mail her name and phone number to the station for consideration as a contestant. One July afternoon, while Sis and I were in the backyard pulling weeds in our mother’s garden (she needed the help since she was 6 months pregnant with our little sister), Mom came running out of the back door and told Sis, “It’s Channel 11 on the phone! They selected your name to play Clubhouse Powww! They’ll call us back this afternoon!”
The setup was this: The TV station had three half-hour kids’ shows every weekday, and in the middle of each was a live Clubhouse Powww! segment hosted in a studio with a clubhouse-like setting by a very genial host (who, as his obituary from a few years ago noted, had several roles at the station, including serving as its master control operator and… wait for it… Bozo the Clown). The host would converse briefly with the caller (one player in each segment) before laying out the ground rules and having the caller turn to shouting “Powww!” at each moving target. Whichever of the 3 players each day hit the most targets within their 30-second turn earned a $50 gift certificate from the show’s sponsor, the McDonald’s restaurants in the area (because back in 1980, nobody thought much about fast food leading to childhood obesity).
So, here we were all gathered in the living room tuned to the TV and waiting for Sis to have her shot playing Clubhouse Powww! (by luck of the draw, Sis played in the first of the three segments). But halfway through the McDonald’s commercial that was to precede Sis’ big turn… ABC News cuts in for a “special report” from the White House; I think it had to do with Billy Carter selling beer to Libya or something.
Thankfully, the ABC News bulletin didn’t pre-empt Sis’ big shot completely; it only delayed things by 10 minutes making us all a bit nervous and antsy to get things over with. After ABC was finished and Channel 11 reset things, Sis finally played Clubhouse Powww! The design of the game, as mentioned above, was extremely primitive compared to the eSports games of the 21st century. This YouTube video has some great examples of the games TV Powww utilized over the years (and is a great chronology of the format as a whole); the “moving target” game Sis played that day in 1980 is similar to what you’ll see around the 6:23 mark. And, yes, all Sis had to do was yell “Powww!” over the phone in order to fire missiles at the moving target, with the target position changing after each successful hit.
Oh, of note: The game was supposedly voice-activiated, and it sure seemed to be that way when we watched it and when Sis played it. Heck, even a faint “P–” would lead to a missile fire. These days, however, I tend to think it was nothing more than just some teenager at the station wearing headphones to hear the phone audio and firing whenever they heard the “Powww!” from the contestant. (“Gnarly, Man! I’m getting paid to play video games on TV! My friends are gonna be so jealous when I tell them.”)
Sis didn’t do too badly playing Clubhouse Powww! that day, hitting 3 moving targets in her 30-second turn. After that, we waited for the other two contestants (9 or 10 years old, just like Sis) to have their turns, hoping Sis’ score would hold up when all was said and done. And it did!
My sister: 3
Contestant #2: 2
Contestant #3: 1
A couple of days later, Sis would receive in the mail the $50 McDonald’s gift certificate from Channel 11 as her prize for winning Clubhouse Powww, which merited a drive into town to spend some of it. I can’t remember if we were all treated to some Big Macs or whatever, but I’m sure Sis received the lion’s share (she deserved it after all). Oh, I just remembered that the runners-up received… wait for it… Clubhouse Powww! t-shirts. That makes me think that they received the bigger reward. A Big Mac and fries gives only short-term pleasure, as I’m learning in my weight loss program at the moment, but something like a t-shirt from your youth can give memories that last much longer.
It’s been 37 years this summer since my sister’s TV victory. Though it took a little bit of a mind jog, I remember it. But I wonder, though, if Sis remembers it, or the rest of my family for that matter. We’re set to have our Easter get-together this Saturday, and I’m tempted to bring it up. One thing’s for sure if I do: My sister’s daughters will get a kick out of hearing about how their mom won a $50 fast food gift certificate just for yelling “Powww!” into a telephone.