Before there was cable, satellite TV and video on demand, television viewing choices were limited. But every week, one show – Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom – took viewers to the far reaches of the globe for a close-up look at animals in their natural habitat.
Jim Fowler, who traveled the world as a field correspondent and host of the show, was in Marianna on Wednesday with a rusted old Jeep that transported him on some of those TV adventures.
Fowler, who's now 80 years old, is one of the world's best known naturalists and a true television pioneer. Nearly 50 years after Wild Kingdom premiered, the sidekick of original host Marlin Perkins still has eyes on the natural world. "How we treat this earth is what it's all about," he said.
But on this day, it's how that battered old 50's era Willys Jeep is being treated that tops his agenda. "Boy it brings back a lot of memories," said Fowler, as he sat behind the wheel of the vehicle parked in the Automotive Technology Lab at Chipola College. "I'm so excited."
Fowler is excited that his friend Bob Pforte, a Marianna automobile dealer, is coordinating the restoration of two Jeeps by the 30 students enrolled in the automotive program. "This is a very historical vehicle," said Fowler. "It was used in World War Two at the end of the war [and] we had this on quite a few Wild Kingdom shows."
Instructor John Gardner isn't yet sure what he and the students are up against. The vehicle was delivered to their shop on Tuesday and they haven't had time to pinpoint its date of manufacture. They do know, however, that the Jeep is a military-issue, four wheel drive vehicle with a four-cylinder, overhead valve internal combustion engine.
But Gardner said his students are up to the challenge of working on a vintage vehicle in the electronic age. "All of the theory is going to be the same," he said. "Everything will blend over to today's technology so it's going to be phenomenal for the kids... and that's what we're here for, to teach them and get them employable."
Wild Kingdom premiered in January 1963 and aired on network prime time television until 1971, when it went into syndication. During its run, the show was recognized with 41 major awards, including four Emmys.
Fowler, who was the wildlife correspondent for NBC's Today Show and a regular on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, continues to serve as an authority on wilderness issues and designs wildlife parks. He's proud of Wild Kingdom's pioneering role and isn't impressed with some of today's nature shows. "I've seen quite a few shows they call reality programs on television today [and] I don't see anything real about them," he said. "But Wild Kingdom was for real."
Michael Bramblett, an automotive student from Sneads, had his photo taken with Fowler and understands the significance of the class Jeep restoration project. "I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on it," he said. "It's a piece of history… it's a piece of art."
Fowler plans to put the Jeep back into service at his safari ranch in Albany, Georgia and feature it in promotions for Wild Kingdom's golden anniversary – if the Chipola students can get it running again, that is.
"I hope we can get it back because it was a wonderful design... very practical, very functional," he said.
And one heck of a wild ride through nature's wild kingdom.