Today we continue our special series on the great legends of Chicago television by taking a look at a man who has been a best friend to many a child growing up in the Windy City throughout the 1960s and 1970s…
His name goes by one of Ray Rayner, and he was born Raymond M. Rahner in the Queens section of New York on July 23rd, 1919 and had been growing up there; He had attended the College of The Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and while he was attending night school at Fordham University, Ray began his very first media job working for WGBB radio in Freeport in Long Island.
During World War II, Rayner was enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving as the navigator if a B-17 when he was shot down over France on April 3rd, 1943; For 2-1/2 years he was a Prisoner of War(POW) in Stalag Luft III, and it was there that he had helped prepare the escape that would late be depicted in the film The Great Escape, but before that escape ever took place, Ray was transferred to another camp. He would soon discover his talent for entertaining people while still being a POW, which happened to be namely through his fellow prisoners as well as his German captors.
After the war, Ray Rayner would become a staff announcer in what was then WBKB would later become WLS-TV in Chicago; He later hosted a local morning program in 1953 called Rayner Shine, in which would be his first work with puppets, who were provided for the show by the Mulqueens.
In 1958, Ray Rayner had been asked by WBBM-TV to switch to a children’s program, and even though he had been reluctant at first, he began doing so with The Little Show, which would be very much like Ray Rayner and His Friends; It was on that version, however, that he would work with a duck puppet with the name of Havelock. The Little Show would run for two years; Then as a character named Chief Abernathy, Ray hosted Popeye’s Firehouse for another two years. And then, in 1961, he would make the move to WGN-TV…
It was while at WGN-TV that Ray Rayner got his first show gig, as Sergeant Pettibone, the host of a show that features cartoons of the beloved comic strip character, Dick Tracy… (I did NOT make this up, folks!). He would then join the cast as a country bumpkin clown in Bozo’s Circus; By 1965, his clown character was added to Larry Harmon’s Bozo coloring books, along with Don Sandburg’s character of “Sandy”. In 1971 Ray left the show to devote more time to other projects, but he would occasionally appear on the show as “Oliver O. Oliver” while he would be filling in as “Mr. Ray” for Ned Locke when need be.
Ray Rayner would become the host of a morning program that would become a favorite of all Chicago children; Though it was first titled Breakfast with Bugs Bunny, the title would soon change to what would become Ray Rayner and His Friends; The show was a mixture of various Warner Brothers cartoons, and an arts-and-crafts segment, in which he himself would often make something that would end up a mess of glue, and animals-Ray had a duck named Chelveston (he had been named after RAF Chelveston where Rayner had been stationed throughout WWII); Rayner was notably wary because Chelveston would bite on occasion! The duck would also bathe while a then top-40 song was played, as well as walk around the set.
Ray would also simulcast, from sister station WGN radio, traffic reports while stock footage of traffic along the Chicago-area interstates was played; he would also narrate highlights of the Cubs and White Sox games during the baseball season.
In later years, Ray Rayner would go on to a CBS affiliate named KGGM-TV in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1981; He cited that the harsh Chicago winters were a factor for the move. He then retired from television for good in 1989.
Ray Rayner later moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida right after the death of his wife from lung cancer in 1995; He passed away from complications from pneumonia on January 21st, 2004 at the age of 84.