Over coffee with Bob 'Gertrude' Newman

When former television icon J.P. Patches announced last month that his longtime sidekick, Gertrude, was retiring from personal appearances, it was a pie in the face to tens of thousands of Northwest native baby boomers.

For 42 years, Gertrude, a hefty former Marine also known as Bob Newman, dressed like an oversized Raggedy Ann doll with a 5 o'clock shadow. He pursued the Mayor of the City Dump, Julius Pierpont Patches, with futility and lovesick falsetto.

"Ohhh, JUUUUU-lee-ussssssssss!"

Their Emmy-award-winning television show, which lobbed enough jokes over the heads of children to keep Mom entertained, ran from 1958 to 1981. It was KIRO-TV's first live broadcast. At its height, the show had 100,000 viewers, sending children to school in the morning and welcoming them home each afternoon.

Newman, who did 12 other characters on the show, retires at a time when the demand for J.P. and Gertrude to make personal appearances is greater than ever — and so is sentimentality.

"There have been times when grown men have burst into tears — scary, scary," Newman said last week at the Nickerson Street Saloon, where this reporter, a former Patches Pal, was so excited about meeting a childhood hero she forgot to buy him a cup of coffee.

Wearing stylish black glasses, his gray hair clipped short and definitely no lipstick, Newman, 70, talked about living with multiple sclerosis for 35 years, why he retired and how much fun he had working with Chris Wedes (J.P. Patches), the man he reverently refers to as "The Clown."

Q: I know you're from Mercer Island, but you weren't one of the original Mercer Girls, were you?

A: I tried, God knows I tried. I would have made a great Mercer Girl (laughs). I grew up in the country on Mercer Island when there was a ferryboat and 200 or 300 people.

Q: Feliks Banel over at the Museum of History & Industry really wants your dress. But there are rumors you're going to sell it to the highest bidder on eBay.

A: I'd like to believe it's worth $100,000, but be real. I'll probably give it to Feliks. If I give it to Feliks then J.P. will probably give his stuff to Feliks, too. When will the clown stop? I don't know. He's working three and four days a week as J.P.

Q: I've heard you and J.P. are like a polished vaudeville act, a couple of old pros who've worked together for years. Is it going to be hard to end such a long, creative partnership?

A: We always stay laughing. The clown knows exactly what I'm going to do and I've got an idea of what he's going to do. I can step in anywhere and he's got an answer for it. But as I told him, I put this dress on for 42 years and I'm not going to do it anymore. I get too many guys winking at me as I go down the street.

Q: And the real reason?

A: The reason I stopped the Patches Show — and this is the truth — is I'm always out in the audience, always moving around, yelling and screaming, because you've got to keep up with the clown. You are obligated to do the best you can for him because he's such a primary character. He is probably the most brilliant individual I've ever met. This guy, his mind is going 500,000 miles an hour all the time.

Thirty-five years ago, actually it was in the midst of all of this, I was queuing up some of the cameras and bang, I fell down. Well, it was the onset of multiple sclerosis. I'm a chronic progressive so I get a little worse each year. Of course, Chris was really great to me. He never at any time told me I couldn't work with him. But when they have to help you on and off the stage and when your balance is ... that borders on pitiful. And pitiful is for someone else, not the Patches Show. We don't do pitiful.

Q: How does it feel to be surrogate parents to a whole generation of children?

A: It's kind of crazy because we really were. People will come up to Chris and say, "My mom and dad were broken up and we didn't have much stuff and you were all we had." I had kids, he had kids and so we knew what was going on in the kids' section. It's not that we taught school, but we never talked down to kids.

Q: How did you become Gertrude?

A: I was doing part-time work at the Patches Show. He would have different characters come on but nobody ever saw Gertrude. He'd pick up the telephone and say, "Hi, Gertrude, send me down a ham sandwich and a Coke, I'm going to have a picnic." Well, the telephone got all screwed up and fell on the floor. I was standing right beside it on the set with the microphone right there and so I just answered (in falsetto voice): "OK, Julius, I'll send it right down." And that's about it.

I ended up doing 13 or 14 characters — Ketchikan the Animal Man, Boris S. Wort, the world's second-meanest man; Officer Paddy O'Wagon; the Swami of Pastrami. It wasn't that I was so outstanding, it was the fact that I was quick and easy and dirty. In those days, we got paid $7.50.

Q: $7.50 an hour?

A: A show!

Q: Is that why you say you have more fame than fortune?

A: That's why we made so many outside appearances. In the old days, we were the only entertainment in town and so at Christmas we'd do 60 and 70 appearances. But we'd never take things too seriously.

Q: You spent 42 years as a City Dump telephone operator in pursuit of unrequited love. Do you consider your career a success?

A: I've had a great life. I've met skillions of people. I have a bright yellow Corvette and as I drive along, people are always saying, "Hi Gertrude! Hi, Bob!" But now it's time to go. All doors have got to shut.

Q: What do you want on your tombstone?

A: Other than pepperoni and cheese? How about: "Mechanically perfect? Not enough. Soul? Right in there."

Sherry Stripling: 206-464-2520 or sstripling@seattletimes.com.

The next Gertrude?

Tim Eyman? Jay Buhner? While no one will ever really replace Gertrude as J.P. Patches' longtime pal, the Museum of History & Industry seeks tongue-in-cheek nominations of people you'd like to see with a mop and in a housedress. Entries have been extended through 5 p.m. today with the winner — who will receive deluxe J.P. and Gertrude prize packages courtesy of MOHAI — to be selected this month. "Gertrude Nominations" may be sent via e-mail to contest@seattlehistory.org; by fax to 206-324-1346; or by leaving a message at 206-324-1126, Ext. 21.