If you watched weekday afternoon TV children’s programs on Springfield’s Channel 10 back in the 1960s, you knew his face.
But you didn’t know his name at all.
He was called “Ten-Ten the Clown,” but in fact he was Don Spradling.
Ten-Ten expired a half-century ago, but Donald Robert Spradling continued on until last month, when he died at age 78.
His life was an amalgam of highs and lows, humor and pathos, laughter and tears. But as word of Don’s passing spread among friends and fans, both of present-day and long-ago, the memories were accompanied mostly by smiles — real ones, not a grin drawn in greasepaint like Ten-Ten wore.
Some of the earliest recollections came from David Fly, who was a 14-year-old freshman at Monett High School when he first met Don, only 10 at the time. Fly, today a retired Episcopal priest living in St. Louis, had seen an act on network TV that featured actors comedically lip-synching to recorded material. Fly bought some albums — Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, Homer & Jethro — and tried the technique himself.
“I was on our front porch practicing, and Donny walked by,” Fly recalls of that day in 1954. “He stood there and watched me, and then he said, ‘Hey, can I come up there and do that with you?’ He came up and we started rehearsing, and pretty soon we were trying out for the Lions Club talent show.”
That debut spawned a youthful career for the lads, billed as “The Spider and the Fly.”
“We performed together until 1960,” says Fly. “We went everywhere in the four-state area, to Lions Club meetings, Kiwanis clubs, parties, talent shows — you name it, we were there. One year we put on 236 shows. And we were on Red Foley’s show to a national TV audience twice, in 1956 and ‘57.”
Sam Jones met Don in 1961 when the Spradling family moved from Monett to Mt. Vernon. The two teens became classmates as high school juniors and competed together on the speech and debate team. Jones, who later served as prosecuting attorney and associate circuit judge in Lawrence County, has fond memories of both doing well in a major 1962 tournament at Springfield Parkview in which Don took first-place honors in the after-dinner speech category.
However, Jones had known of Don years earlier. “I remembered seeing him in a ‘Spider and the Fly’ performance in 1954. He made an impression on me when I was 10 years old, and I’d never forgotten it.
“Don was a terrific actor. I told him once, ‘Don, if scene-stealing were a felony, you’d be doing life in the pen!’ He was really good on stage, and those skills served him well in speech and debate also.”
It turned out that his abilities worked in a television studio, too.
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Ten-Ten the Clown replaced Ten-Spot on Channel 10 show
After high school, Don enrolled at what was then Southwest Missouri State College and reconnected with former partner Fly, who was working his way through SMS as “Ten-Spot the Clown” on Channel 10 — KTTS-TV at that time, now KOLR.
Fly says that as he was leaving Springfield to enroll in seminary in Wisconsin, he told the TV station bosses: “You might want to take a look at Don Spradling as my replacement. We worked together for several years, and he’s a really funny guy.”
As a result of that reference, Don was hired and Ten-Ten was born in 1963.
For the next couple of years, Don was before the cameras weekday afternoons, hosting his own “Kartoon Karnival” children’s program and occasionally appearing on another popular local kiddie show that featured Wayne Grisham as “Captain Briney,” accompanied by his sometimes ill-mannered monkey Salty.
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Ten-Ten also made appearances at local children’s birthday parties, in parades and at special events for kids at the Shrine Mosque and other venues. On weekends out of costume, Don did other jobs around the Channel 10 studio, from answering the phones to acting as floor director during news and weather reports.
Frank Shipe knew Don during those years. Shipe was on the Channel 10 news staff 1963-65, and he also hung out with some of the same SMS theater department crowd that included Don. Shipe especially recalls an off-campus gathering spot for theater folk and friends — an apartment above a boat dealership located on Campbell Avenue a couple of blocks south of Sunshine Street, aptly christened The Boathouse.
“It was open anytime, day or night, a very free-floating environment,” says Shipe, who went on to a career as an editor for Rolling Stone magazine and other publications before returning to Springfield. “Don would show up there. He was naturally very funny.”
However, Shipe notes, “Don often wore the most woebegone expression, like he was about to cry, like he was perplexed at life. We all thought that surely he’d end up in film and be nationally known someday. But Don didn’t have the requisite self-confidence — he just didn’t know how good he was.”
Don certainly was good enough to earn key roles in Springfield Little Theatre productions as well as at SMS — until, as Jones recounts, “his theatrical career was interrupted by the Selective Service board. He got drafted into the Army and was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was trained as an artillery fire direction specialist. Then he was sent to Korea.
“There, one day he saw a notice on a bulletin board that advertised for singers to join an Army Special Services unit headed to Vietnam to entertain troops in the war zone. He signed on as a baritone, and made the trip to Vietnam with the 2nd Infantry Chorus.”
After service, Spradling chose the Ozarks over the East Coast
When his military service concluded in 1968, Don returned to Springfield. A former Army buddy, aware of Don’s stage chops, tried to lure him to the East Coast to star in a production of the play “Charley’s Aunt” that was being mounted. However, Don chose to stay in the Ozarks and move back to Mt. Vernon to help his parents, Joe and Pauline Spradling, expand their service station operation to include a novel innovation for that time — a convenience store.
Among those who knew him then was Maggie Corry.
“We were a match for a while,” she recalls. “He had piercing eyes. He was gentle and gracious and quiet and warm and very, very funny. He quickly empathized with people, and was helpful in any way he could be.
“But at the same time, Don just seemed to have a kind of general sadness about him. I attributed it to maybe his just having come back from Vietnam. Whatever the reason, he was self-effacing to a fault. He always believed less in himself than others did. He acted unworthy.
“He reminded me of Charlie Chaplin — you know, an underdog that you root for. He really was funny in a dry, droll sort of way. But I don’t think he believed that of himself. It puzzled me.
“But,” Corry emphasizes, “Don was such a wonderful person. I have very warm memories of him.”
Another acquaintance from that era, Joan Wray, recalls Don as “a lovely man, especially with children. He was very smart and could be very funny. I really admired him.”
In the following decades, Don held a variety of jobs, including managing the Walnuts Motel in Mt. Vernon that his parents’ owned and driving a milk delivery route. He also was involved in education, ranging from working as a custodian for the Pierce City school system to serving as a substitute teacher in area schools.
“I think his favorite job was with the Head Start program in north Springfield,” says Jones. “He was the bus driver — picked up the kids in the morning and drove them home at the end of the day — and he was one of the teachers during the day. He said he really enjoyed working with those kids.”
Jones kept in touch with his old high school speech and debate teammate through the years. In recent times, he dropped by Don’s modest apartment to share food left over after the Wednesday noon meetings of the Mt. Vernon Rotary Club.
Another constant in Don’s life in his later years was his involvement as a parishioner at St. Susanne Catholic Church in Mt. Vernon. He was a faithful attendee at the 6 p.m. Saturday service each weekend, and sometimes on weekdays.
The only other outside activity regularly pursued by Don was Saturday night bingo games put on by the Lions Club in Miller, Mo. “That is, if he could find someone to give him a ride,” says Jones. “He said the problem was that few wanted to wait until Mass was over to take him. So he would often miss the bingo.
“Those were his only two pastimes — going to Mass and playing bingo.”
Jones recalls a heartwarming episode a few years ago that started with Don’s need for a ride to another destination.
Don had shown up at Jones’ office one morning and said he’d ended a relationship and had moved out of the place where he’d been living. “So, where are you living now?” Jones said he asked Don.
“I’m living under a tree over by the old American Legion hall,” Don replied. “I could get into one of the low-income apartments, but I have to have proof of my income. I need to go to Springfield to get that.”
Jones said he arranged for his nephew to drive Don to Springfield. Then, Jones said:
“I walked back into the courthouse and into the circuit clerk’s office. Now, all these people knew Don. And I said, ‘OK, folks, here’s the deal: Don Spradling is living under a tree. He can get into an apartment later today. What do we have that he can use?’ And in 24 hours, those ladies in the circuit clerk’s office had that apartment completely furnished. That was one of my favorite days.”
Jones and others say they welcome the chance to share memories of Don because they suspect that Springfieldians and Ozarkers of a certain age, who were entertained by Ten-Ten and other characters that Don portrayed as a young man, will be interested to learn who was behind the clown makeup.
And also, they say, it is an opportunity to inform those who don’t remember Don’s heyday on television that he wasn’t always who he might’ve appeared to be in recent years. As Jones puts it:
“I’m glad that Don is getting some recognition so that neighbors who didn’t know his background will see that he wasn’t just this little guy they saw walking to Mass and back. It gives my friend Don some dignity.”