Remembering Sonny Fox

Sonny Fox — the longtime Weston resident who, as host of New York Channel 5’s “Wonderama” and “Just for Fun” gave countless tri-state baby boomer boys and girls their first chance to be on television, and gamely rode herd over them for several hours every weekend — has died. He was 95 years old, and lived in California.

The shows ran from 1959 to 1967. Under hot lights, on a small set, kids watched magic demonstrations, did art, competed in spelling bees and games, met (D-list) celebrities, and (for long periods of time) fidgeted.

I know, because I was one of those youngsters. So were many others. Sonny Fox looked out for his neighbors, and his friends’ children.

In fact, in 2012 when Sonny Fox — he was always called by both names — spoke at the Westport Library about his book “But You Made the Front Page! War, Wonderama and a Whole Bunch of Life,” he asked how many people in the audience of 75 or so had ever been on his shows.

A substantial number stood up.

That “war” part of his book is not an exaggeration.

Born Irwin Fox in Brooklyn when Calvin Coolidge was president, and a child of the Depression, he was a sergeant in World War II. Taken prisoner of war (serial number 42022375) in Germany, his life was saved when an American clerk at the camp deliberately and falsely identified him as Protestant, rather than Jewish.

Other Jewish soldiers were sent to a slave camp. Many never returned.

Sonny Fox did many things in life before his kids’ TV gigs, of course. Starting in 1947, he was a radio host.

And after: He emceed “The $64,000 Challenge,” produced movies for TV and specials for PBS, served as vice president for children’s programming at NBC, chaired the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and profiled composers like Alan Jay Lerner, Yip Harburg, Burton Lane and Fred Ebb for CBS.

But in Westport and Weston, Sonny Fox was a guy who took the train into New York to work in television. He was an avid tennis player.

And he made sure that hundreds of children — now in their 50s and 60s — sat somewhat still, played for a while, and made their parents and grandparents proud.

Sonny Fox, in action.

(Hat tip: Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

21 responses to “Remembering Sonny Fox

  1. Rebecca Hayward

    Thank you for this. My dad also was a Jewish POW in WWII and was saved by his fellow soldiers in a similar manner. Don’t have a lot of memories of Sonny Fox as I am a bit too young but I do remember some.

  2. Linda Pomerantz Novis

    My parents were friends with Sonny & Gloria in Weston during the early 1960’s; Gloria & my late mom (Jane Pomerantz) close friends mid- 1970’s; my sister & I went to Weston schools with their two older kids.
    A special early memory for me was Sonny coming to Weston elementary school .(when I was about nine and he knew I played piano),he was then working on pilot show similar to Wonderama & he & his camera crew then selected two of my classmates & I to appear in an opening montage of the pilot show.(I still remember playing an upright piano, at school, looking upwards
    into a large camera lens. 🙂
    My Condolences to Gloria,Chris,Meredith ,Dana & Tracy.

  3. My younger son, Johnny, was on his show when he was about 4. At one point during the filming, his father walked into the room. Johnny shouted out — “there’s my Daddy!” It was kept in.

  4. Thanks Dan. Warmed my heart and saddened it too to read this. I was on Wonderama and won a “revolutionary” 2 track, yes 2 track and basically useless tape player trying to compete with 8 track, but it was the top prize. Kids brought “unusual” things and Sonny chose the top unusual item as he saw it…I won with a can of Kangaroo Tail Soup which my mom and I found at a long gone retailer “Foods of All Nations” in Manhasset. I guess it was a bode to my future as my wife turns out many years later is from Australia…

  5. I was glued to the TV when Wonderama and Just or Fun were on. I also have fond memories of Soupy Sales, Sandy Becker, Officer Joe Bolton and Captain Kangaroo. Both my older sisters were on the Shari Lewis Show and they won a dog-naming contest which came with the dog in question as the first prize. Chiller Theatre was strictly night time fare.

  6. Sonny and family lived at Slumber Corners before they moved to Davis Hill. On Halloween, Sonny made you earn your candy by having you do tongue twisters, and other games.

    Yes, I was on Wonderama too, except on my particular visit, I and the rest of the kids there were short changed, in that Sonny wasn’t there and some guy named Bob McAllister was filling in as host. Bob succeeded Sonny a few years later. The Amazing Randi (who passed away in October) was the guest. Off camera, I attempted to show Randi a card trick (poorly), and Randi showed me the trick and a few others. One of the contests that day was they hung reels of old video tape from the ceiling/lighting bars, and had three contestants pull the tape from the reels (de-reeling). The first to unspool their reel, won a prize. Archivists are shuddering at this game. The one game on every show was contestants were seated with a small treasure chest and a mound of keys. They would try to open the chest by trying each key. If they opened the chest, they won a bunch of prizes.

    Sonny also hosted “Just For Fun,” a young adult program, too, that aired on Saturday mornings, too. Boy he was busy guy.

    I knew his son, Chris, in high school, along with his daughter Meredith (now a TV exec in her own right). Chris, I, and a few other Weston High School classmates got into some mischief in those years (I haven’t changed all that much).

  7. Michael Pettee

    I still remember these regular tongue twisters from Wonderama:

    Unique New York (three times)
    Rubber baby buggy bumpers
    The big black bug bled black blood

  8. Jonathan Maddock

    He was great at” Simon Says”

  9. He was brutal at Simon Says. :^)

  10. Ashton Robinson

    I knew Sonny Fox when I was a child. He always gave us permission to fish along the Saugatuck when he lived on Slumber Corners then he moved up the river on Davis Hill Rd.. I fished from his land between the years of 1958-1966

  11. Sonny was a dear and treasured friend for many decades. He was also a colleague from our TV days in LA.. We were proud to have him as our house guest whenever he visited Westport, and thrilled when he drew standing-room-only crowds at his Westport Library events. A heartfelt loss. for a one of a kind man

  12. J. (Jack) Wandres

    I lived in Weston from 1942 to 1953 — Mostly on the east side: Lyons Plain Road, Redding Road. I know where Davis Hill Road is. Where is/was “Slumber Corner”?

    • Slumber Corners is off of Goodhill Road about eight tenths of a mile from Weston Road.

  13. Dan…50’s and 60’s? His ‘ Wonderama’fans are now in their 70’s and 80’s.

  14. Between the ages of 8 to 10 yrs old I was so thrilled to meet and greet Sonny Fox twice at Temple Isreal events in Westport. He was a big celebrity in my kid world!

  15. What a great guy he was! I, too, was at that talk at the library and remember raising my hand as one of the many who’d been on one of his shows.In fact, my cousin was a Wonderama contest winner who got to be “Princess for a Day” — complete with a chauffeured limo, tiara, necklace from Tiffany’s and a weekend stay (with her parents) at the Plaza.Of course all this was way back in 1966 or so. But she really was treated like royalty. May he rest in peace.

  16. Thomas D Neilly

    Sonny Fox’s daughter Meredith and I were friends in the same grade and grew up in Weston together. I remember that for my fifth birthday, my mother brought me into the living room of our house and suddenly Meredith popped up from behind a chair to surprise me. To this day, I have no idea if there was anyone else at the party!

  17. Sonny Fox encouraged children to be generous with their time. We had a show in our backyard in Fairfield… with a bedspread as a curtain hung on a clothesline. It was a benefit for muscular dystrophy. We were thanked on air by Sonny Fox and sent a prize! Lunch on the Connecticut shore some where. Great life lesson…still involved with charities.