The Mighty Hercules — Fraser man recalls playing a Greek hero on TV
FRASER — If you grew up watching local TV during the early ‘60s, you may know Fraser resident Don Kolke.
From September 1963 to December 1964, Kolke earned local fame as CKLW-TV’s Hercules.
“I welcomed it,” said Kolke, 72, of being cast as the muscular, square-jawed strongman. “I wanted to be on television, and I figured I could have fun with this.”
Kolke, then just a 23-year-old with an athletic build and some on-camera experience, received a huge break in what was then the nation’s fifth-largest TV market when he was hired by Windsor-based CKLW to write, produce and act in the live-action portion of the Hercules show.
Each weekday, Kolke was solely responsible for filling 15 minutes of live TV in between commercials and short, syndicated Hercules cartoons. Hercules ran in the 4:30-5 p.m. time slot.
At the time, The Mighty Hercules cartoons were being syndicated by Trans-Lux in the hopes of capitalizing on the Hercules mania that followed a popular Hercules film series.
Beginning on Sept. 16, 1963, Kolke’s Hercules joined the lineup of clowns, cowboys and sailors that made up CKLW’s afternoon block of children’s programming.
“All of Detroit TV was basically live,” said Ed Golick, an expert on early Detroit TV. Golick, then only 8, was one of the about 300,000 children and teens who tuned in daily to watch Hercules.
“These guys, I considered my friends because I could sit in front of my TV set every day, you know, in my underwear and eating my Cheerios, and these guys would come into my home,” he said. “I felt like they were relatives; I got to know them. They came over more often than my real relatives. You watch the shows and you get to know them a little bit.”
All told, about 449,000 people watched the show in the Windsor and Detroit area — about 40 percent of the people watching TV from 4:30-5 p.m., according to the American Research Bureau. Hercules was rated first in its time slot for 46 of its 52 weeks on air.
Kolke came to the University of Detroit on a football scholarship. After a cartilage tear in his right knee cost him his spot on the team, he went on majoring in communication arts.
After graduation, he took jobs hosting a 15-minute news magazine show, and then another promoting TV Guide and Seventeen magazines on local Detroit shows, like Bill Kennedy’s Showtime and Rita Bell’s Prize Movie.
When he was hired to produce Hercules, Kolke was basically given free rein. He naturally combined G-rated versions of Greek myths with lessons on physical fitness — taken mostly from calisthenics he learned while playing football.
He also voiced Hercules’ centaur sidekick and comic relief, Newton, who never appeared on camera, but was represented by a shaking tree branch that Newton was supposedly hiding behind. Kolke would pre-record Newton’s parts, leaving pauses for himself to respond.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Kolke went on air that day to sum up the loss, comforting children with some of the good things Kennedy had done.
The show’s lineup of weekly guests, who usually spoke on safety and fitness, included exercise guru Jack LaLanne.
But perhaps the most fulfilling moment of the Hercules experience came from a piece of fan mail. “I have braces on my legs, but I have to do exercises every day. I hate to do them, but when you do them and our family does them, it’s fun,” one little girl wrote. He still has the letter.
“I felt if I never did anything else worth while during the rest of my life, I’d helped at least one person do something good for her,” he said.
And when he was off camera, Kolke made numerous personal appearances as Hercules at children’s gatherings. He even had a magic act featuring feats of strength and lessons on safety. There were Boy and Girl Scout meetings; mall events; autograph-signings at businesses, including the opening of the first Little Caesars; and parades, the largest being the 1963 J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day parade.
“The whole idea is not to talk down to the kids, which is why I didn’t call them ‘kids’ or ‘children.’ I called them ‘my young friends,’” Kolke said. “When I signed autographs, I signed them, ‘Your pal.’”
Finally, in September 1964, Kolke’s tenure as Hercules came to an end when CKLW-TV’s parent company, RKO General, dropped all of its children’s shows in lieu of more adult programming.
While he enjoyed doing the show, Kolke felt it was time for Hercules to move on. He resumed the role again for a series of 90-minute Saturday shows advertising toys; the series ran from September through December. “Hercules’ Last Hurrah” ran on Dec. 19, 1964, according to Golick’s website, Detroitkidshow.com.
“And then, that was it; he was gone from TV forever,” Golick said. “There’s really basically nothing like that to compare with today.
“There were no scripts, basically. … It didn’t really matter if it didn’t work. Everything was live, and if it didn’t work, there was tomorrow’s show.”
Hercules had aired during a time when most daytime programming was locally broadcast, before TV stations found that just airing syndicated shows was an easier and cheaper route. Nowadays, outside of local news stations, TV programming is largely syndicated.
Kolke never acted again, knowing he would have had to take “a few steps” down to a lesser job in a much smaller television market. It was a tribute to the opportunity he had been given as Hercules. After all, not many 23-year-olds get their own television show, he said.
Plus, he now had the responsibility of a wife. Shortly after the show ended, he married fiancée Judy Sullivan, and they moved to Fraser. The couple has been living in the same house since 1968, and they have five children and 12 grandchildren.
Kolke continued in the advertising business after that — writing, editing and taking photographs for the Jefferson Chrysler plant’s newsletter, and then selling and buying billboard, radio and television advertising until he retired.
Nowadays, the man who once taught children the value of exercise continues to stay active himself, playing pickleball, tennis and golf with his wife.
“I enjoyed the show,” he recalled. “I’m pretty much a person who enjoys anything I do.”
For more information about Hercules and other early Detroit programs, visit Golick’s website, Detroitkidshow.com. He also chronicled early Detroit TV in the book Detroit Television, which was published by Arcadia Publishing.