Children’s TV star legend Gene London talks to the city

4 minute read
Gene London sits with recording artist and performer Denise Montana. (Photo by the author, Suzanne Cloud)
Gene London sits with recording artist and performer Denise Montana. (Photo by the author, Suzanne Cloud)

Once upon a time, right here in Philly, a brilliant young storyteller and artist named Gene London made baby boomers swoon the minute he was hired by WCAU Channel 10 to work in the Cartoon Corners General Store “for 3 1/2 cents” in 1959. Now, at age 88, it’s evident that London never lost his core audience. They were on hand to hear him tell stories again about Bette Davis, Grace Kelly, Tyrone Power, Leslie Caron, and, especially about Minnie and Izzy Yulish, his beloved parents who emigrated from Russia to Cleveland, Ohio, and who were determined to be real Americans.

Until August 11, London is on hand to personally delight “his kids,” who are now in their 60s and 70s, at his Golden Age of Hollywood Fashion Exhibit at the Tangier Outlets, suite 320, next to Levi’s Outlet at 119 North Arkansas Ave in Atlantic City, NJ, at 1pm and 4pm. Doors open at noon and close at 7pm Thursday through Sunday at this free exhibit.

Come as you are

Gene London has been showing his extensive collection of gowns and costumes for many years, restoring many to their former glory with the help of his partner John Thomas, and taking his show on the road all over the globe. On display are Edith Head creations from the film To Catch a Thief, Cecil Beaton’s dress from Gigi, Orry-Kelly’s Queen Elizabeth dress for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Walter Plunkett’s party dress for Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, and these are just a fraction of this extensive and beautiful collection.

As lavish as the costumes are, the biggest attraction for these starry-eyed boomers is London himself. He greeted us with, “You all look different than I remember you!” This immediately reduced the senior citizens to giggles as they turned their rapt attention to the storyteller of their youth who filled their head with dreams and ideas, just like his head was. The years were peeled back on every face as they looked at him, the child shining clearly through the wrinkles and sagging jaw lines.

He started out with a story about the strong-willed, no-nonsense star Bette Davis, that she “never wanted to fake anything. She always wanted to tell the truth” as he gestured to the Donfeld dress she wore in Dead Ringer. But as the story unfolded, London, started to cry, unafraid to show his feelings to his fans. In fact, he reminded us that he was “the first man you ever saw cry.” And he was right. He was. Post-WWII kids rarely saw their fathers cry or express affection in any way: daddys then were bottled up, absent, always aloof.

Myths, dreams, and other stories

Later, Gene London did a great Katherine Hepburn imitation and my eyes were drawn to his feet as he was perched on a director’s chair. At that moment, I remembered how his feet bounced at his easel back in the day, keeping his dream time, as he drew his characters and told his stories whether they were from Greek myths, Chinese legends, or bittersweet Hans Christian Anderson tales.

As a surprise, at the end of his talk, singer Denise Montana was on hand to show him a photo of herself, at 16, playing Dorothy Gale on his show, when he brought The Wizard of Oz to his TV fans. Gene London had played the scarecrow. This short reunion 52 years later had everyone smiling and eventually breaking into singing the theme song of London’s show.

Gene London, smiling, wondered aloud why we all loved him so much. Of course, everyone knew why. Kids can spot a phony coming down Broad Street (Happy the Clown?). Gene London was authentic; he loved children and respected the innocence he knew they would eventually lose. But until then, he asked them every day to “Let’s Pretend that it’s Story Time, and I’ll tell a tale to you . . .”

What, When and Where

Gene London’s Golden Age of Hollywood Fashion runs through August 11 at Tangier Outlets, Suite 320, next to Levi's Outlet, 119 North Arkansas Avenue, Atlantic City, NJ. Admission is free. The venue is wheelchair accessible, but make sure you park close to Levi’s Outlet.

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