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Skipper Chuck passes away


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BY ROBERT L. STEINBACK

 

rsteinback@MiamiHerald.com

Chuck D. Zink, known to hundreds of thousands of South Florida baby-boom kids as ''Skipper Chuck,'' has wished his fans ''Peace, love and happiness'' for the last time. Zink, 80, has died at a Boca Raton hospice, following a stroke.

 

A lifelong entertainer, Zink was best known as the spirited host of the Popeye Playhouse morning children's show on the old WTVJ for a nearly a quarter-century, from 1957 to 1979. At one point, the waiting list to be one of the 30 to 35 kids who got to enjoy the show live in the studio reached two years. In 1972, an estimated 49 percent of Dade, Broward and Monroe county televisions regularly tuned to his 7 a.m. broadcast.

 

In a Miami Herald Tropic interview that year, Zink attributed his success to his genuineness.

 

''You sure as heck will never last in the kid business being anybody but yourself,'' he told writer Robert A. Bonin. ``Kids can spot a phony a mile away -- and they'll tell you if you are.

 

''I'm a guy I hope these kids like to look up to,'' he said. ``I suppose as Skipper Chuck I can be sort of a hero to them -- and we all need a hero. I've never tried to be a father image or a big brother. I've just tried to be me.''

 

OTHER VENTURES

 

Although rare was the day in Zink's life that he wasn't greeted by ''There's Skipper Chuck!'' children were not his only audience.

 

Zink spent 12 years as an announcer for The Jackie Gleason Show and hosted Miss Universe pageants around the globe for CBS. He also hosted 22 King Orange parades, 24 local broadcasts of Labor Day telethons, and several quiz shows and travel programs.

 

He even once tried to host the Orange Bowl Parade on radio after he was booted from the annual TV broadcast to make way for younger talent, recalled his co-host at the time, current WLRN/Miami Herald News anchor Rhonda Victor.

 

''There was an outcry from a lot of traditionalists who were unhappy to see Chuck go,'' said Victor, who twice as a child was among the Popeye Playhouse studio audience. ``WKAT, thinking it could capitalize, decided Chuck and I could co-host that Orange Bowl Parade on radio. It wasn't the best executed plan ever, but we had a ball.''

 

Listeners to WJNA 640-AM heard Zink as disc jockey of his daily Lunch Bunch radio program featuring music of the '40s and '50s, which he hosted until last autumn. And in recent years he was a familiar television pitchman for the Century Village communities.

 

He was always brimming with new concepts to pursue, said Doris Bernhardt, who produced Zink's children's show in its later years and worked with him on many other projects.

 

BELOVED

 

''Right up until the last time I saw him around Labor Day, he was planning three different shows that he wanted to do, and I was putting the proposals together for him,'' Bernhardt said. ``He was the kind of guy who made friends, was full of ideas, wrote music and was very outgoing. People loved him.''

 

Zink, an only child, was born in South Bend, Ind., and grew up as a farm boy. He spent five years in the Marines, and served as a sergeant in the South Pacific during World War II, receiving a Bronze Star for bravery. He later worked in a variety of radio jobs in Pennsylvania, from disc jockey to program director, before making the jump to television as a newscaster.

 

He came to Miami in 1956 and began as a weatherman for WTVJ. The following year, he was asked to write and host a children's program.

 

23-YEAR RUN

 

''It started out and I thought it might last six months, and it went 23 years,'' he said in an interview with Miami-Dade TV in the late 1990s.

 

As Skipper Chuck, Zink employed occasional set-pieces, but mostly he and his longtime sidekick Scrubby, played by Richard Andrews, followed an ad-lib format. Zink opened each show with a three-finger wave, and another standby was the song, Peace, Love and Happiness. The live audience was filled with children who sat in bleachers, cheered, played games and chatted with Skipper Chuck, Scrubby and the show's other characters.

 

''It was completely spontaneous; we'd get together an hour, half hour before the show,'' said Andrews, who joined the show in 1962 in addition to his duties in the WTVJ mailroom. Andrews also was the voice of Limbo the Lion and other puppet characters.

 

Zink ''was wonderful to work with,'' Andrews said. ``We were like, symbiotic. I would know what he was going to say and vice versa. I don't know how. We're not socially close, we never were. But we worked together very well. It was easy. I don't think we ever had an argument.''

 

MORAL STAND

 

Zink didn't claim to be broadcasting educational television -- ''I'm not an educator. I'm an entertainer,'' he once said. But Zink took a courageous moral stand in the 1950s when he insisted that in-studio audiences for Skipper Chuck's Popeye Playhouse no longer be racially segregated. This was unprecedented for a southern TV station of the day -- which earned Zink national praise.

 

In its early days, Zink said, the playhouse had been playing either to all-black or all-white studio audiences. One day, he heard the program's reservation-taker asking a phone caller, ''Are you colored?'' Incredulous, he ordered the person ``never to ask that question again.''

 

The show went through ''pure hell'' making the policy stick, Zink said.

 

The show also went on to win two regional Emmy awards.

 

`HAPPY GUY'

 

Zink and his wife, Clarice, never had children, a fact that Zink said gave him ``greater patience with kids than if they were my own.''

 

At the end of the interview with Miami-Dade TV, which was filmed when he was 72, Zink reflected on his lengthy career and broad appeal.

 

''Nobody could have had a better life than I did,'' Zink said, his impish grin filling the television screen. 'I get up every day and I just say `Thank you, God. I don't know why, but you made me a very happy guy.' ''

 

 

 

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