Sonny Fox, the one-time host of "Wonderama" and among the best-known figures in the history of New York television, has died, his daughter confirmed in a statement Thursday. Fox, who was 95 and had been living in an independent care facility in California, died Sunday night after a short illness related to COVID-induced pneumonia, his daughter, Meredith Fox, said.
A Renaissance man whose long career spanned radio and TV — including, briefly and memorably, as host of "$64,000 Challenge" — Fox found lasting fame at "Wonderama," a Sunday morning children's television program that originally aired on WNEW (now WNYW/5) from 1955 to 1977. (The show was revived from 1980 to 1987, and again in 2017.)
Produced on a tight budget, Fox's "Wonderama'' — which he hosted from 1959 to 1967 — was molded in the host's expansive interests. A studio audience of children might be directed to perform Shakespeare dramatizations in one segment and then, after the commercial break, compete in a spelling bee.
Fox — lanky and 6'3" — would wander among audience members, while his only deference to their youth was a slight stoop as he bent over to ask questions. He treated them as equals, which was almost unheard of in kids' TV, where kids were expected to be kids, and so were the hosts.
"I found them fascinating," he said of his audience in an interview with Newsday last year. "The great thing about dealing with that age group is that you had no idea where [a discussion] would go. It took its whole natural course — what is it like to be your age? What turns you on? What turns you off? What makes you giggle?"
A 2017 profile in the New York Observer called his approach to hosting a "reflection of 1960s Jewish humanism" — secular, with an emphasis on the freedom and dignity of all people, young and old, and an unbounded curiosity about the world. As Fox told the paper, "Your kid has an interior life that you're not even listening to."
Over his eight seasons at "Wonderama," he became a superstar in the early world of New York TV, where the waiting list to get on his show stretched out five years. Besides Ch. 5, he often originated the show at the long-gone Freedomland USA theme park in the Bronx. There were a number of trips overseas too. Suring the "Wonderama" run, he also hosted a Saturday morning show, "Just For Fun."
Both restless and curious, Fox would last there just eight seasons, before leaving to host a short-lived talk show, then to launch other TV shows (including a series on Broadway songwriters). He briefly ran NBC's children's programming division.
After NBC, Fox then spent the rest of his career traveling the world as ambassador (and chairman of) Population Communications International, which embedded pro-social messages in soap operas and other entertainment programs.
But he never fully left "Wonderama'' behind, nor did his fans. Over the years, he contributed to various websites — including his own — and to Facebook groups devoted to it. He was also happy to oblige interview requests, like one with Newsday last year where he said that "the joy I had from 'Wonderama' came from chatting with the kids. I loved chatting with them, expanding their world. All of that fed into me so directly. It was a joy. It was also a living and livelihood, but I never got up in the morning and said, 'God, do I have to do that again?'"
Born Irwin Fox in Brooklyn — "Sonny" was a childhood nickname — he attended James Madison High School, then just after graduation, enlisted in the U.S. Army. His unit shipped out to France long after D-Day, Fox writing years later that "by the time I arrived at Omaha Beach they had built a wharf. But as I walked up the hill [troops] had to take under heavy fire … I marveled that the landing, though costly, succeeded."
In December, 1944, his unit — Company E, 110th Regiment, 28th Division — was captured by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge and remained a POW for the duration of the war. But as he frequently recalled, "Sgt. Irwin Fox serial number #42022374" had been one of the lucky ones.
On Jan. 27, 1945, the prisoners were taken to Stalag 9A, then Staglag 9B in Ziegenhain, Germany, where Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was placed in charge of the camp's 1,275 POWs. Edmonds was ordered to separate the Jewish prisoners — of which Fox was one — but refused, saying "we're all Jews here." Fox later believed he and the other Jewish POWs had been saved by Edmonds, who posthumously received the Yad Vashem Medal, the highest recognition from Israel to non-Israelis for risking their lives to save Jews.
After the war, Fox went to NYU because it had a course in radio production then became a reporter for Voice of America. He later met "Candid Camera" creator Alan Funt, who gave him a job at "Camera's" precursor radio program, "Candid Microphone."
Then, TV beckoned. He got work at a new educational TV, KETC, in St. Louis that wanted to launch an afternoon show for kids, "The Finder." As he later recalled, "that gave me a whole new direction of where I could go and would go."
By 1955, he was back in New York, where along with two youthful co-hosts, Ginger MacManus and Pud Flanagan, he emceed a CBS travelogue called "Let's Take a Trip" which went to various cities around the country.
In 1956, CBS named him inaugural host of "The $64,000 Challenge" — which drew its contestants from the show it had been spun-off from, "The $64,000 Question." The pressure was enormous, and Fox accidentally gave a contestant the answer to a question, on live television. He was fired a few weeks in — fortuitous became the quiz show scandals enveloped the entire genre within a year.
Fox returned to New York, jobless, but not for long. Ch. 5 hired him for "Wonderama" in 1959, and by 1960, he had concurrently hosted short-lived shows for ABC and NBC too.
Later explaining his career, Fox said "there is not one thing in my professional life that I set out to do," but the POW experience had been pivotal: After his capture was like "going through the mirror to the other side, and I was curious as to what was on the other side [but] after [initial] curiosity came that will, or ability not to surrender. You might have to surrender physically, but not mentally or emotionally. That no matter what you are facing, you can say to yourself 'OK, this is something I can get through.'"
The $64,000" debacle was "pretty humiliating" but "I had dealt with the situation and had — at a crucial point — taken back control of my own life. That gave me a lot of confidence."
Fox said his only regret was the death of his son, Chris, in 2014. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 16, and had to be briefly institutionalized. Fox said that in recent years "we had lunch every week, sometimes talked to each other, sometimes he sat in silence, but I never missed a week until he died.
"Otherwise," he said, "I have no sense of unfulfilled dreams. I've lived a full life and what's remarkable is that my mind is still cogent. Tomorrow, I'll be jumping and leaping around."
Fox is survived by his daughters, Meredith and Tracy, a son, Dana, and seven grandchildren.