Sonny Fox, TV Host Who Connected With Kids on 'Wonderama,' Dies at 95

Courtesy Everett Collection

A POW during World War II, he also emceed the game show 'The $64,000 Challenge' and produced Tom Snyder's 'Tomorrow.'

Sonny Fox, the beloved pioneer of kids television who demonstrated an amazing one-on-one rapport with children as the host of the New York-based Sunday morning program Wonderama, has died. He was 95.

Fox died Sunday of pneumonia induced by COVID-19 in a hospital in Encino, his daughter, Meredith Fox, told The Hollywood Reporter.

A native of Brooklyn who was a prisoner of war during World War II, Fox also served as a wartime correspondent for the Voice of America; emceed game shows like The $64,000 Challenge and The Price Is Right; and was the inaugural producer on the groundbreaking late-night talk show Tomorrow, hosted by Tom Snyder.

In 1959, Fox was hired to replace Bill Britten and Doris Faye as the host of Wonderama on the Metromedia station WNEW-TV, Channel 5 in New York.

"We had an audience, maybe 50 kids in the studio," he recalled in a 2008 chat with Karen Herman for the TV Academy Foundation website The Interviews. "Just from keeping them from getting bored between takes, I started talking with them, doing some games with them, and then one of the guys said, 'Why don't you do that on the air?'

"I gradually began to understand what the show was about; the show was about me and the kids and about exploring their minds and getting to see where I could take them. Then the show began to be hugely successful. After about a year, I had [the kids'] trust, their loyalty."

Wonderama was on for four hours every Sunday when Fox was on board, and it also featured cartoons; games like Musical Chairs and Simon Says; magic tricks from The Amazing Randi; art instruction and spelling bees; and lots and lots of prizes. Parents pleaded to get their kids on the show.

Popular segments included Fox trying to guess the punch lines to kids' jokes, and guests included Sen. Robert Kennedy, who appeared for four straight years around Christmastime to take questions from youngsters in a news conference format.

He was called "the Carson of our elementary school years."

Fox stuck with the show until exiting in 1967 to co-host an adult talk show for Channel 5 in 1967, but it was his time on Wonderama that would remain unforgettable.

A half-century later, he was still getting emails "from my kids who are now in their 50s, and some of them are quite extraordinary. One came from a young man who said, 'I lived in a house where my father was cold and distant, and you were my father figure. I know you thought of it as a job, but to a lot of us, it was a lot more.' "

Born in his home in Brooklyn on June 17, 1925, Irwin "Sonny" Fox attended P.S. 217, Erasmus Hall High School and then James Madison High School, from which he graduated in 1942.

He intended to follow his father, Abe, in the textile business, but that changed when he took courses in radio writing and producing at NYU. "Halfway through the term, I said, 'Ooh, that's what I really want to do,' " he said.

Fox had to leave school when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and he was serving as an infantryman when he was captured in Germany in 1944 and held as a POW for about 3 1/2 months before being rescued. He survived even after insisting that he was a Jew.

Back home, Fox finished college and landed a job for $35 a week on Allen Funt's Candid Microphone — the radio forerunner of TV's Candid Camera — helped by the fact that his mother knew Funt's mother.

After writing for a radio comedy show and working in advertising, Fox joined the Voice of America as a correspondent. He traveled around the country "trying to explain the U.S.A. to the rest of the world" and covered the Korean War for a year.

In 1954, Fox moved to St. Louis to host and produce The Finder, a kids show on KETC, one of the first educational TV stations in the U.S. That in turn led him back to New York for a three-year gig as host of CBS' Let's Take a Trip, a live Sunday program that took the same two kids on a field trip to an iconic U.S. location every week.

While working on Let's Take a Trip, Fox was hired in 1956 to host the CBS game show The $64,000 Challenge, a new Sunday night spinoff of the Tuesday night ratings sensation The $64,000 Question. Even though the show was a hit, he never found his footing and was fired after five months, to be replaced by Ralph Story. "I was sort of relieved," he said.

Although he was never crazy about game shows, he did work occasionally as host of The Price Is Right, Beat the Clock, To Tell the Truth, I've Got a Secret and The Movie Game.

During his 8 1/2-year stint on Wonderama, Fox also created and hosted another Channel 5 kids show, the 2 1/2-hour Saturday morning program Just for Fun!, and hosted and packaged On Your Mark, an ABC game show for children.

On Wonderama, "I had four hours, so I could watch the kid after he said his first sentence, stop talking and keep on watching him or her, and then pause, and then the kid would start up again, and that's when the gold would come out," he recalled. "You had to have time for that.

"Remember, when I was doing it, to change the channel you had to get off the sofa, go over to the television set and change the bloody channel. Now the kids have the wands in their hands and everyone is afraid that if we take a breath, click, they're on to something else. So it has made silence, such as we had on my show, or time, such as we had on Wonderama, precious and almost nonexistent."

Fox left to co-host a daily 2 1/2-hour Channel 5 talk show called The New Yorkers, but that didn't last long. In 1976, he helped get Tomorrow, a 1 a.m.-2 a.m. on NBC, off the ground but quit after seven months.

He then ran children's programming for NBC in 1977; served as the president of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in New York; and produced telefilms and programs like The Songwriters and The Golden Age of Television.

His memoir, But You Made the Front Page: Wonderama, War, and a Whole Bunch of Life, was published in 2012.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include sons Dana and Tracy and grandchildren Shaun, Kelley, Corrin, Casey, Melissa, Rachel and Kelly. His son Christopher died in 2014.

Asked in his TV Academy interview about his legacy, he replied: "I'd like to be remembered as somebody who understood and appreciated the moments as they happened, not just in retrospect. I knew, as I was doing what I was doing, how special all of this was — because I assume I've been on borrowed time since a bullet went through my clothing at 19 and missed me."

Scott Feinberg contributed to this report.