To many, “ees da sa sussaway” would simply be syllables, but generations of Philadelphia children know differently. They know that these are the magic words of Chief Traynor Ora Halftown, beloved children’s entertainer and Philadelphia legend.
Chief Halftown began broadcasting his self-titled children’s television program in September of 1950. Originally intended to be a simple cartoon show, it grew into the longest running local children’s program in the history of television. For nearly 50 years, Chief Halftown was a part of the lives of Philadelphia children.
Chief Halftown was a full-blooded Seneca Indian born in upstate New York. His parents were both born on an Indian reservation near Buffalo and his grandfather had toured with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. He moved to Pennsylvania with the hopes of becoming the next great crooner and enjoyed moderate success until after WWII. While those dreams were never to be fulfilled, he did find his way to fame. When his children’s show began broadcasting, he had to rent his own costume from a shop on Chestnut St. Throughout the years, he always appeared on camera in native headdress, beads and buckskin. These signature marks were not just an aesthetic choice but also a teaching tool. His show, which began as a cartoon show, grew into a place to showcase the talent of local children and to teach about Native American traditions and culture.
In 1950 Chief Halftown was battling a prevalent stereotype. On television and in movies, there were very distinct depictions of Native Americans, generally as so-called savages or sidekicks. John Wayne and Jimmie Stewart both starred in films about Native American wars that year. If there were good roles for Native Americans, such as Cochise in Jimmy Stewart’s Broken Arrow, they were generally not portrayed by Native American actors. Fortunately, Chief Halftown refused to play to stereotype. He famously claimed, “I had no idea what it would come to, but I vowed that I would be myself. I wouldn’t talk like a Hollywood Indian…I made it clear that I was an Indian and no one was to tell me how to be an Indian.“
Chief Halftown’s formula worked, making him an incredibly popular part of the Channel Six lineup here in Philadelphia. In addition to his television show, Chief Halftown made lots of appearances in and around the city. On the weekends each summer he could be found at Dutch Wonderland, a family amusement park in Lancaster, entertaining and educating children in person. He not only entertained children though. He also visited senior centers, schools, store openings, and charity events. When his show went off the air in 1999, Chief Halftown was 82 years old but that didn’t end his career. He continued making public appearances for several more years. He moved to Brigantine, NJ in 2002 to be near his children and passed away there in July of 2003.
Chief Halftown didn’t live an outlandish existence. He never considered himself a celebrity, yet he was a part of the lives of children here in Philadelphia for nearly half a century. Never pandering and always staying true to himself, he succeeded in the local television market in a way that is no longer possible. As national networks have increased their children’s programming, local shows beyond the news have died away. Chief Halftown was a pioneer. While he and his show may be gone, memories of his teachings will remain for years to come.
Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Website – http://www.broadcastpioneers.com/chief.html
TV Party: Philly Local Kids Shows – http://www.tvparty.com/losthalftown.html
WHYY Website: Philly’s Favorite Kids Shows – http://www.whyy.org/tv12/kidsshowhosts/index.html