Published in the Seattle Times online on Aug. 26, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Aug. 29, 2021
Old Sol came alive in Bob Hale’s wild art on early Seattle TV
By Clay Eals
Many of us ride a media treadmill, ingesting recorded events that we re-run at our command. But the most astonishing stuff of life often is ephemeral, solely in the moment. In other words, “You have to be there.”
Like the weather itself, Bob Hale, Seattle’s original cartooning TV weatherman, once wove such momentary magic. Maple Leaf-based historian Peter Blecha, though just a tyke at the time, was “there” to revel in it. He methodically collects all things Hale to keep his hero’s legacy alive.
Early TV weather reporting, Blecha says, was retrospective, documenting yesterday’s rain with only a touch of Farmer’s Almanac-like prediction. Hale helped change that. A commercial artist who left Bellingham for Seattle in 1938, Hale began doing illustrated forecasts for KING-TV’s fledgling news shows in 1955.
Hale’s magic derived from delivering jokey meteorological details while drawing wildly comic cartoons with personified characters such as Sammy Seagull. It was all live, in real time. Adults and kids alike couldn’t take their eyes off him.
His personal appearances, ad work and zany products (cans of “Pure Puget Sound Air”) ballooned. Clients ranged from Sunny Jim peanut butter to Seattle Rainiers baseball. His fame matched that of local TV’s other stars, from child-focused Wunda Wunda to sportscaster Rod Belcher.
A warm smile gave Hale a genial persona, while his eyeglasses and balding dome conveyed authority. But his calling card was a sharp visual style.
“He loved drawing people and critters in motion, Old Sol grimacing, shaking its fists, clouds angry with menacing eyes,” Blecha says. “It wasn’t just cutie-pie, easygoing fun. He was purposely adding drama to what otherwise could be a dry situation. He also was possibly projecting tensions from his own life.”
The tensions, Blecha says, included being a closeted gay man who battled alcohol addiction. His KING reign ended in 1963, the station eventually replacing him with cartoonist Bob Cram. Short stints followed in California TV and, in 1968-69, back in Seattle at KIRO-TV. Alcoholism recovery became a late-life cause. In 1983 at age 64, he died in obscurity.
Hale’s broadcast tapes do not survive, and he typically gave thousands of his KING drawings to kids. Undeterred, Blecha is preparing a cartoon-heavy Hale biography. It will reflect the quaint, in-the-moment sentiment of E.R. Babcock of Vashon Island, who, in a 1969 Seattle Times letter, lamented KIRO’s dismissal of Hale:
“In a world and area where protests, taxes, wars, politicians and you-name-it hog the news programs, it was a real pleasure to have a little humor on something, thank God, we mortals have no control of yet — and that is the weather.”
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Special thanks to Denise Frisino, Harry Faust, Barbara Manning, Libby Sundgren and Peter Blecha for their invaluable help with this installment.
We also present two special videos: (1) a 360-degree Bob Hale residential room mural from 1946 previously unseen until now and (2) an assemblage of images and footage of Bob Cram that was shared at Cram’s 2017 memorial service.