Roger Awsumb was just 26 years old when he first rolled into the lives of Twin Cities kids. Today, decades later, he's still remembered as a friend. From 1954 until 1972 he entertained youngsters with cartoons, silly comedy bits, songs, live commercials, birthday greetings, and banter with sidekicks.
Awsumb died early Monday, reportedly of heart failure. The 74-year-old had recently started treatment to fight cancer of the esophagus. He had suffered a stroke in February. One of his sons says he had suffered seven heart attacks during his lifetime.
To many, he seemed born to be Casey Jones, but he got his start as a radio announcer in Detroit Lakes.
A craft he learned at Macalester College where he counted Walter Mondale and future kid's TV host John Gallos — the man millions knew as Clancy the Cop — among his closest friends.
After a brief off-air stint at Channel Four he moved up the dial to the brand new Channel 11 in 1953.
A year later he came up with the idea for Casey Jones based on the simple idea — that kids like to wave at engineers.
"I was hired as a floor man and as an announcer and a director, but I always wanted to be on TV. So I just sold them on the idea of giving it a try," Awsumb recalled in a 2002 interview.
His first sidekick was Joe the Cook, played by Chris Weddes.
But it was Awsumb's partnership with the late Lynn Dwyer, playing Roundhouse Rodney, that pushed the creative envelope for Twin Cities TV.
He turned everything upside down
People still talk about the episode where Casey and Roundhouse Rodney turned the world upside down. It was a bit of camera magic — building an updide down set and flipping the bulky camera — that trick nobody else had tried.
"Those were the experimental days of television, there were no books, there were no courses. You just did it." Awsumb said.
At their peak, Casey and Roundhouse were on the air three hours a day. The top rated "Lunch with Casey" plus a morning show called "Wake Up with Casey and Roundhouse," and another hour after school.
One of Casey's most famous skits had him dressed in a red wool union suit, scratching and singing, "Valkin in My Vinter Underwear" to the tune of "Winter Wonderland."
The skit was first performed in November of 1967. The next week, Casey read on the air, a scathing letter from a woman who was offended by the routine. He followed with an apology, but a week later received more than a thousand letters of support.
"He had this kindness, and this appeal, this warmth and the kids bought it up like that," says
Allan Lotsberg who played Willie Ketchem on WCCO's "Clancy the Cop."
In the end, it was a ban on commercials by kid's TV hosts that derailed Casey after 18 years on the air.
"I'm really kind of a corny guy and I care about kids," a defeated Awsumb told the Minneapolis Tribune. "I really tried to do a good job and I feel I let the kids down."
Awsumb was a survivor.
"I was really lost there for a while and didn't know what I wanted to do," Awsumb recalled.
He went into and out of the restaurant business and even attempted a comeback on Channel 29.
Then, in 1986, he settled back into radio on KLKS, in Breezy Point Minnesota. He left the Twin Cities for a cabin he built himself on a lake near Brainerd.
Last fall, Awsumb was inducted into the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
That same season he appeared as Casey at the Minnesota State Fair — still drawing fans by the hundreds and like a good engineer, he was still waving.
He summed up his life for reporter Boyd Hupert.
"I've made a lot of good friends, I've had a very interesting life, and I've loved my work all my life so I'm a lucky man."
We've put together a special page for folks to email memories of Roger Awsumb and his Casey Jones character.
Funeral services for Roger Awsumb will be held Thursday at the Presbyterian church in Cross Lake and Friday at Macalester college in St Paul. More details on these services are expected Tuesday.
(Copyright 2002 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)
(Portions Copyright 2002 by Pavek Museum of Broadcasting. All Rights Reserved.)