“Put another candle on my birthday cake, we’re gonna bake a birthday cake. Put another candle on my birthday cake. I’m another year old today.”
“The Birthday Cake Polka” was a favorite song performed by much-loved “Sheriff” John Rovick, who emceed the daily show Cartoon Time from 1952 to 1970 on KTTV 11 in Los Angeles.
The pioneer children’s TV host died Saturday morning in his sleep at a Boise, Idaho nursing facility, his wife Jacqueline said. He was 93.
An immediate hit with tots, Cartoon Time won an Emmy Award in 1953 for outstanding children’s program.
The previous year, KTTV had received a lot of old cartoons and was looking for a host for a daily 5:30 p.m. kids’ cartoon show. Rovick dreamt up the persona of Sheriff John.
He had known longtime Los Angeles County Sheriff Gene Biscailuz, “and I had been an honorary sheriff before I started the show because I was interested in law enforcement work,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. So “I put on a khaki uniform and a badge and got a big white hat, sat at a desk and showed cartoons,” Rovick remembered.
His performance led several other children’s hosts around the United States to appear on TV under the guise of law enforcement officers.
Rovick also hosted Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade, a parallel program which stayed on KTTV until 1970. It aired from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
One father wrote a thank-you letter, telling Rovick him how his young daughter learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance: “…with liberty and justice for all, and now to our first cartoon.”
Born on October 2, 1919 in Dayton, Ohio, he spent his early years in Toledo and studied speech and dramatics at Michigan State University. While in college, he started singing Saturday afternoons with an eight-piece student band at the student union. The university radio station aired the shows.
Rovick later said: “I got the feeling I liked broadcasting.”
He then began working occasionally at a local radio station. Following his graduation in 1941, he became as a staff announcer on a Toledo radio station — but only for a short time.
The following year, he flew 50 missions as a radio gunner on a B-25 with the Army Air Forces. He was then commissioned as a second lieutenant and served temporarily with the transportation corps on a Liberty ship.
Rovick returned to his old radio station job after the Second World War. A colleague who had worked in Los Angeles inspired Rovick to make an audition record and drive west in 1949.
That year, he landed a job at KTTV when the station first went on the air.
“Come on now, laugh and be happy and the world will laugh with you,” Rovick would sing in a smooth baritone. He would start the show by — among other things — leading his young viewers in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We talked a lot about safety, courtesy, manners and things like that,” he told the Idaho Statesman in 2005. “We often had firemen or police officers as guests, and I’d warn the kids not to do things like play in the street or get into refrigerators or play with matches.”
The children’s show was mainly aimed at 4- and 5-year-olds. Sheriff John would read the names of dozens of viewers who were having birthdays. He’d then sing the ubiquitous “The Birthday Cake Polka” — as a large cake revolved on a lazy Susan.
“The kids always came first,” he said in the 2005 interview. “To some of them, I was a father figure. That was the best thing about being Sheriff John. A lot of those kids loved me.”
KTTV canceled Sheriff John’s Lunch Brigade to “save money,” he said in 1978. However, Rovick remained with the station on as a staff announcer until his 1981 retirement, when he moved to Idaho.
In 1998, Sheriff John appeared on the 1998 Emmy Awards. He was introduced by longtime fan Michael Richards, a resident of Culver City, California.
Rovick continued to be recognized by his viewers.
“I had a heart attack five years ago, and the Boise doctor who saved my life turned out to be a Sheriff John fan,” he said in the 2005 Idaho Statesman interview. “My dentist is a fan, and so are three of the people at the clinic where I get my eyes checked.
“I was walking into a store the other day, and a woman gasped and said, ‘Sheriff John!’ It just doesn’t stop. It’s amazing that it’s been so many years ago and people still remember the impact the show had on their lives.”
John Rovick was separated for many years from his wife, Jacqueline, with whom he had daughters Wendy Maceri and Sandy Kaiser. He is also survived by five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.