In the summer of 1959, KTRK-TV management was cooking up a plan. When a lifeguard came to the program director, Bill Wagner, looking for work, they kept him in mind.
A month later, Al Eisenmann was summoned back to the television studios. NASA's new headquarters were being planned for the Houston area, and KTRK management had a plan to capitalize on the idea. Imagine a children's show featuring a space cadet! Eisenmann interviewed on a Thursday, and by Monday morning "Cadet Don" was on the air.
Featuring a format consisting mainly of cartoons and educational films tied together, a Houston hit was born. Cadet Don entertained young viewers with songs and exercises, while special guests graced the program. Children celebrated birthdays with Cadet Don, forming impressions that, for many, last long throughout their lifetimes. Did Don tell you where your birthday presents were hidden? He added that special touch as an ad-lib, only pretending to be in the know. But after a time, mothers would write in so Don could reveal the surprise!
Ever wonder how Cadet Don's uniform came to be a nifty-looking flight suit? The television audience has Eisenmann's commitment to the Air National Guard to thank. And in an interesting turn of events, the Thunderbirds -- the Air Force's precision flying team -- asked if they could copy Cadet Don's special touches on the suit after a guest appearance on the show.
Al Eisenmman tackled a special challenge of teaching children, but without talking down to them or seeming preachy. For that, he needed an on-air assistant. A purple felt hand puppet with yellow button eyes, yellow yarn hair and a yellow tongue was created and Seymour the alien was born.
Over a period of weeks Seymour and his space ship were introduced to the Houston viewers. The curious alien wanted to learn about the rest of the cosmos, so he left his planet of Katark (the station call letters with a couple of A's added) and set off to 'see more' of the universe. Through his questions, Cadet Don helped children learn about how to handle their own situations.
Cadet Don was even labeled the children's Johnny Carson. That may have been thanks in part to a regular weekly visit from the director of the Houston Zoo. Young viewers got to see everything from an upset 16' python, to a 500-pound baby tiger and a camera-shy bird that preferred the studio's high ceilings to Don's company.
What's 'Don' up to now? You can check out Eisenmann's most recent in a list of achievements, a fictional novel he has authored! Want to share your own memories of Cadet Don's show? Visit our message board now!
Plus, check out these photos from Cadet Don's glory days. They may bring back a memory or two!
Much thanks to Al Eisenmann for sharing his memoirs as a source of great insight, and allowing us to use the photos from his personal collection.
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