There are few things that can take us back to our childhoods quite like the kids’ TV characters we grew up watching. Spanning from the dawn of the small screen right up to the multi-channel era of the early 21st century, here’s a look at 20 all-time favorites. Get ready for a trip down memory lane.
20. Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob
Regarded as the daddy of American kids’ TV, Howdy Doody premiered on NBC back in 1947 and remained on air for the following 13 years. Set in the Wild West, it was presented by Buffalo Bob Smith and the titular character, a marionette with a freckle for each of the 48 U.S. states at the time. Smith, who got his break singing on the radio, and his co-star both wore cowboy outfits while hosting a mixture of music and sketches.
19. Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney
Of course, Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody weren’t the only ventriloquist double act to make an impression at the time. Paul Winchell and his dummy Jerry Mahoney were regular faces on network TV throughout the 1950s, too. An eponymous NBC prime-time show, which twice changed its name, saw the pair entertain audiences for four years with a mixture of dramatic skits, comedy sketches and quizzes. The wisecracking Mahoney and eternally exasperated Winchell continued to perform together until the early 1970s.
18. The Lone Ranger
Long before Armie Hammer got on the horse, everyone’s favorite masked former Texas Ranger was played by Clayton Moore. Alongside Jay Silverheels, aka Native American sidekick Tonto, the actor guided The Lone Ranger to the top of the ABC ratings in the early ’50s. Renowned for his “Hi-Yo Silver, away” catchphrase and for battling Wild West outlaws, the character became a hugely popular cultural icon over the course of 221 episodes.
17. Bozo the Clown
In the wake of the It reboot, Bozo would perhaps be considered too terrifying for today’s young audiences. But back in the post-war era, he was one of America’s best-loved entertainers. After making the move from children’s albums and read-along books to TV in 1949, the character was franchised out to numerous local networks and eventually several different countries. The most famous actors to don the clown suit were Pinto Colvig and Larry Harmon.
16. Mr. Wizard
Don Herbert didn’t just entertain millions of viewers across America in the 1950s as the host of Watch Mr. Wizard, he also instilled in them a passion for science. In fact, more than 100,000 viewers had signed up to Mr. Wizard science clubs by the middle of the decade. Although the titular character’s experiments initially seemed difficult to set up, the majority were easy enough to be replicated by the show’s loyal audience.
15. Mister Rogers
Airing from 1963 until 2001, Mister Rogers was once crowned the longest-running series in American children’s TV history. Renowned for his kind-hearted nature, Fred Rogers was the eponymous star of the show, which was largely targeted at kids aged between two and five. Using a blend of music, presentations and puppet segments, Rogers helped to educate and entertain audiences on a variety of often difficult subjects including death, divorce and war.
14. Mr. Green Jeans and Dancing Bear
Mister Rogers took the longest-running kids’ show mantle from Captain Kangaroo, the weekday morning hit that combined stories, stunts and star guests in one charming package. Co-creator Bob Keeshan took the titular role, but it was two of its supporting characters who often stole the limelight. Played by Hugh Brannum, Mr. Green Jeans was the Treasure House’s handyman, famed for his farmer’s overalls and inquisitive nature. The Dancing Bear, played by Cosmo Allegretti, was the most popular puppet creation.
13. Lamb Chop
Captain Kangaroo gave this beloved children’s creation its TV debut in the mid-1950s. And a few years later, sock puppet Lamb Chop and its puppeteer Shari Lewis landed their own network show. But the double act didn’t receive widespread acclaim until three decades on. First airing on PBS in 1992, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along became an instant kids’ favorite, picking up an Emmy five years straight. Following Lewis’ death in 1998, her daughter Mallory picked up the Lamb Chop mantle.
12. Lady Penelope
With its innovative mix of marionette puppetry and scale-model special effects, Thunderbirds became an international phenomenon after first airing in the mid-1960s. And with a style inspired by the pages of Vogue magazine, Lady Penelope proved to be one of its most popular creations. Voiced by co-creator Sylvia Anderson, International Rescue’s British agent was considered ground-breaking for being a female character who was just as capable in the field as her male counterparts.
11. The Banana Splits
Partly influenced by Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Banana Splits was one of the most psychedelic kids’ shows to emerge during the Swinging Sixties. Created by Hanna-Barbera, the hour-long mix of music, live action and animation was hosted by a fictional and anthropomorphic rock group inspired by The Monkees. In just 31 NBC Saturday morning episodes, guitarist Fleegle, drummer Bingo, bassist Drooper and keyboardist Snorky became four of America’s weirdest but most beloved children’s characters.
10. H.R. Pufnstuf
The Banana Splits was also credited with paving the way for another cult favorite, H.R. Pufnstuf. Created by the Krofft brothers, the NBC show was launched during a Splits hour-long special and remained on the schedules for the next three years. The title character was a kind-hearted anthropomorphic dragon who made friends with a shipwrecked youngster and his talking flute. They all lived on an island where everything from clocks to castles came alive.
9. Pee-wee Herman
Famed for his quirky mannerisms, manchild personality and suit-and-bow-tie combo, Pee-wee Herman initially came to prominence the 1980s. Played by Paul Reubens, the character first emerged on the stage before landing his own HBO special and a 1985 big-screen venture. But he’s perhaps best-known for the Emmy-winning Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which aired on CBS for five years. He’s recently staged a successful comeback with the Netflix original Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
8. Punky Brewster
The story of an abandoned young girl saved from a life in an orphanage by a grouchy old man, Punky Brewster was one of the most memorable kids’ TV shows of the mid-1980s. Soleil Moon Frye played the titular tween cruelly deserted by both her parents, while George Gaynes starred as the widowed photographer who became her unlikely savior. The show ran for four seasons and even spawned a cartoon spin-off in which the live-action cast reprised their roles.
Voiced by Jerry Nelson, Gobo Fraggle was the most level-headed main character in Jim Henson’s magical puppet show. Indeed, whereas the four other main Fraggles reveled in chaos, Gobo was a practical and strong-minded creature who enjoyed being in charge of a situation. Gobo was also famous for playing the guitar, his expeditions to Fraggle Rock’s undiscovered tunnels and his purple hair, orange skin and yellow sweater/brown vest combo.
Rubber-faced comic creation Ernest P. Worrell first gained attention in a series of TV adverts for the likes of Coca-Cola, Taco John’s and Chex. And he subsequently became a multimedia sensation, starring in a number of TV specials, feature films and his very own CBS show. Airing for just one season in 1988, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest saw actor Jim Varney pick up a Daytime Emmy nomination for his performance as the hapless janitor.
5. Zack Morris
NBC’s Good Morning, Miss Bliss may have been an ensemble affair, but everyone knows that Zack Morris was the true star of the show. Played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, the forever-scheming high school student dominated the sitcom throughout its four-year run, largely thanks to his on-off relationship with Kelly Kapowski. Morris also went on to appear in the original Saved by the Bell and its spin-off, The College Years.
“Super dee-duper” purple Tyrannosaurus Barney was undoubtedly one of the most iconic kids’ TV characters of the ’90s. The dinosaur was renowned for his love of singing, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and marching bands. He proved to be a huge hit with children aged from one to eight, including Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Indeed, both future pop superstars appeared on the show as youngsters.
3. Cory Matthews
Played by Ben Savage, Cory Matthews was the boy in ABC’s coming-of-age sitcom Boy Meets World. Viewers watched the character grow from pre-pubescent high schooler to married college student over the course of seven seasons in the 1990s. But although his relationship with childhood sweetheart Topanga often took center stage, his bonds with brother Eric, best pal Shawn and mentor Mr. Feeney proved to be just as touching. Cory later returned as a father-of-two in recent spin-off Girl Meets World.
2. Kenan and Kel
Nickelodeon’s Kenan and Kel was based on the mischievous exploits of a grocery store-working high school student and his orange soda-guzzling best friend. Starring Kel Mitchell and future Saturday Night Live player Kenan Thompson, it lasted for four seasons and a TV movie in the late ’90s. The series was perhaps most famous for its multiple catchphrases, including “Aww, here it goes,” “WHYYYYYY!?!?” and “Who loves orange soda? Kel loves orange soda.”
1. Lizzie McGuire
The show that launched Hilary Duff to fame, Lizzie McGuire helped pave the way for everything from That’s So Raven to Hannah Montana. Following the titular teenage heroine as she navigates high school, the Disney Channel series also featured animated scenes designed to represent her emotional state. Despite only lasting for two seasons, Lizzie McGuire proved to be a huge hit. Indeed, it even spawned a feature-length movie that grossed over $55 million worldwide.