From 1949 to 1953, the most popular TV program in Detroit was hosted by a statuesque blonde named Pat Tobin and a rotund radio disk jockey named Johnny Slagle. Pat ‘n’ Johnny was one of the earliest TV talk shows in the country, and Detroit’s first bona fide hit TV show.

 Pat Tobin had been acting and modeling since attending Grosse Pointe High School. At Stephens College in Columbia, MO, Tobin majored in radio and became production director of the campus station, where she wrote commercials and was a fashion commentator for retail stores throughout the area. 

 After college Tobin returned to Detroit, where as WWJ radio’s Gail Stephens, she offered “timely tips and incidental information on the business of happy and successful home management.” The young broadcaster also hosted Hudson’s Sketchbook, Detroit’s first regularly scheduled TV program, and Gals and Gab with singer Dottie Westray.

  Cleveland native Johnny Slagle was hired by WXYZ radio in 1935, where he announced on The Fact Finder, The Lone Ranger and other dramas. Slagle briefly left the station in 1946 for network shows in New York City, including On Stage America with bandleader Paul Whiteman. He returned to Detroit in 1947, just in time to witness the flickering birth of a new medium, television.

  In Johnny Slagle’s case, video didn’t kill the radio star- it made him an even bigger star. Slagle jumped into television feet first, landing a handful of TV gigs at WXYZ.

 Slagle was the ever-jovial auctioneer on Auction Night, a live audience participation show. Dressed as a sideshow pitchman, he auctioned off GE appliances, usually for the bargain price of $7.75 and a pair of old shoes. Wacky games and stunts livened up the proceedings.

 Know Your News tested the home viewer’s knowledge of Detroit’s personalities and events. Participants telephoned the show to answer trivia questions triggered by still photographs provided by the Detroit Historical Museum.  Moderator Slagle never appeared on camera, lending an air of mystery to the program.

 Wax Wackies featured Johnny Slagle as the owner of a fictional record shop. A trio of performers known as The Gay Deceivers (Chuck Bartholomew, Danny Hauf and Eddie Klump Jr.) played music salesmen who pantomimed to the records played by Slagle on the show.

 Pat ‘n’ Johnny was WXYZ’s first experiment with afternoon TV. In 1949, Detroit’s other TV stations signed on in the early afternoon with informational shows such as WWJ’s Homemaker’s Exchange, Jean McBride’s Homemaking Hints and WJBK’s Adventures in Sewing. Programming director John Pival figured that women had grown weary of homemaking programs, and would appreciate an afternoon of fun and entertainment.

  On December 12, 1949, from the fifteenth floor of the Maccabees Building, the Pat ‘n’ Johnny show hit the airwaves. The tiny 14x16 foot studio was carved out of an old dressing room. The studio’s audio equipment was housed in what used to be a shower. Fluorescent lighting and a single camera was used to keep costs down.

 For the first month the show was commercial free. Pival wanted to prove to prospective sponsors that afternoon television could be profitable before selling commercial time.

 And prove it he did. A cute baby contest drew 55,000 pieces of mail in five days. A telephone promotion jammed the station’s switchboard for hours, disabling phone service for a good portion of the city. After the first month, the ratings showed that 30% of Detroit’s 160,000 TV sets were turned on in the afternoon, and a whopping 90% of those sets were tuned in to Pat ‘n’ Johnny.

 What was the appeal of Pat ‘n’ Johnny? It was a combination of off-the-cuff conversation, the latest platters, gadget demonstrations, a menagerie of animals and interviews with both celebrities and the man on the street.

 Slagle would get things started by blowing on a bosun’s pipe while pointing at the TV screen. ”Don’t stop whatever you’re doing. When we think we have something interesting I’ll blow this whistle or Pat will ring her bell. Pat, ring the bell.”

 Anything could happen on the show, but at times, nothing happened. When Tobin and Slagle ran out of ideas, director Pete Strand aimed the camera at a fish tank, out the window overlooking Woodward Avenue, or focus on Rag Mop the guinea pig while playing the Ames Brother’s recording of Rag Mop, which was good for two minutes and forty one seconds of air time. The pair returned to the air once they figured out their next move.

 A nighttime version of Pat ‘n’ Johnny made its debut in September of 1950, marking five hours of Pat ‘n’ Johnny a day, six days a week.

 The show temporarily left the airwaves in the summer of 1951, only to return in December of 1952.

 In the fall of 1953, WXYZ president James Riddell announced a major housecleaning at the station, explaining that “a realignment of personalities and a new batch of program ideas are in order to match the aggressive bid being made for larger audiences by the network.” Gone were Coffee and Cakes with Johnny “Scat” Davis, Leonard Stanley’s Happy Hour, Hi There, Neighbor with songstress Betty Clooney and Pat ‘n’ Johnny.

  Pat Tobin left Detroit for Chicago, where she hosted a handful of radio and television programs. In the 1970s she became promotion-personnel director for Lane Bryant. She continued to do voice-overs for radio and television well into her 70s. Tobin passed away after a short illness in 2008.

 Slagle stayed with the station for another decade, hosting movies and wrestling matches and spinning records on WXYZ-AM. Programming director John Pival had tried for years to get Slagle to work in the station’s sales department, but the veteran announcer felt more comfortable in the announcer’s booth. As Slagle got older, his voice began giving him problems, causing Pival to let him go. Slagle spent the last years of his life selling boats at Jefferson Beach Marina, before his death in 1967.

 Perhaps the appeal of Pat ‘n’ Johnny had nothing to do with Pat Tobin and Johnny Slagle per se. Maybe the show worked because TV was so new that no one knew what to expect. To a generation brought up on radio, a snowy image of a guinea pig on a ten-inch screen in your own living room was nothing short of magic. Or maybe it was the chemistry between two people who genuinely liked each other. For whatever reason, Pat Tobin and Johnny Slagle were among the first true innovators in the industry and have earned their places in the Detroit Television Hall of Fame.

Copyright © 2011 Edward Golick Jr. All Rights Reserved.