Recently I ran across a classified advertisement in this newspaper publicizing the “Mr. Knozit Estate Sale.”
Now I’ve always been a bit fascinated with Mr. Knozit, the longtime kiddie television show host whose real name is Joe Pinner and who also has worked for years as Columbia’s consummate weatherman and good guy, espousing local festivals and anything else around the state that needed his astonishing amount of positivity.
The sale at Joe and Peggy Pinners’ lakeside home near Blythewood drew the usual yard sale crowd intent on finding old tools, antiques and vintage Corningware Cornflower casserole dishes. (Peggy had a slew of them.)
Then there were the folks like me, drawn from their comfy Saturday morning sofas just to see what they could see at the estate sale of a man who’s as much a part of Columbia’s persona as the summer heat, the State Fair’s rocket and the trains balling up traffic on Assembly Street.
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Just inside the front door of the Pinner home, on an artist’s easel, was a portrait of Joe in a green jacket and a red tie.
“You have to bow to Joe’s picture first,” said Nora Womack, helping to operate the estate sale.
And then Nora and I chatted it up for a while.
“One of the kids in the neighborhood came over and asked if Joe’s motorized bathtub was for sale,” Nora said.
Joe, as you may have seen, is still showing up on television commercials riding around in a bathtub on wheels for a company called Bath Fitter.
“Another neighbor came to the sale and asked if Joe’s gorilla suit was for sale. I guess Joe jumped out at kids in his gorilla suit when they came trick-or-treating at his house.”
Well, you gotta love a guy who dons a gorilla suit at Halloween time and rips around in a rolling bathtub at the ripened age of 81.
And, with the estate sale, you gotta wonder where he is now.
Well, Joe and Peggy recently moved to smaller digs at a retirement community called Laurel Crest, on the banks of the Congaree River.
It’s a lovely place and I met Joe in a main lobby where, true to form, he talked with everyone he came across. His enthusiasm, his grasp of names, his sheer energy as we walked down a hallway to a quiet place where we could have a conversation was, well, classic Pinner.
And having a conversation with the man reminded me of the silver ball in a pinball machine; it went every which-a-way.
So here are some samples of that recent chat.
Joe grew up in New Bern, North Carolina. He said his mother “was a mother” and his father was a sea captain, a train conductor and owner of a small grocery store.
“I was an only child. My first public appearance was as a jack-in-the-box in a play in the first grade. I loved coming out of the box. So that was it. The bug hit me. I loved the performing thing. I loved getting a laugh.”
Joe started working in radio at the age of 15. He was a DJ for a two-hour record show, playing Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and the like. “WMBC out of Morehead City! I haven’t stopped talking since.”
Joe attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but returned to work in radio after one year of the collegiate life. He lived with an aunt in Jacksonville, Florida, where he worked with “WMBR-AM, FM and TV.”
And that’s where he met his wife of 59 years, Peggy. “She was singing on a statewide singing program. We were both getting over lost loves.”
In 1957, Joe “got a letter from Uncle Sam and reported for duty in January 1958. Basic training at Fort Jackson. I was the manager of Fort Jackson’s radio station, WFJX ... It was a hospital radio station only heard in the hospital.”
After serving in the military, he returned to Jacksonville. In May, 1963, Joe got a call from John Wrisley at WIS-TV in Columbia.
“Wrisley wanted me to do TV and I said, ‘But John, I’ve always loved radio.’ John said, ‘Well Joe, there’s an opening in TV and if you get it, we’ll work you into radio.’ ”
So I guess the rest of the story is the stuff of a community legend.
A man who never met a stranger whether he was doing a live feed from the Okra Strut or the State Fair.
A man who gladly brought news of the weather, sometimes running over his allotted time to the chagrin of the television station’s sportscasters whose shortened segments followed his.
A man who once posed as South Carolina’s governor at the airport when a Russian prima ballerina arrived there, expecting the governor to greet her. Joe, working, was dressed in suit and tie and looked every bit gubernatorial, so Lee Herbert, director of the Township Auditorium at the time, and where the ballerina was to perform, convinced Joe to “just be the governor.”
Which he did, with some protestations but typical Pinner aplomb too. “(The ballerina) deplaned and through conversation, I welcomed her as governor!”
And the man with the funny stage name – Mr. Knozit – who lit up the faces of many, many children for many, many years.
“Shortly after I had started at WIS they asked me, ‘How would you like to do a children’s show?’ I said I wanted to be a poor man’s Mr. Wizard. They asked me what kind of name I wanted. I said, ‘How about Mr. WIS-dom?’ But they didn’t like that. We eventually came up with Mr. Knozit.”
The Mr. Knozit show was a live broadcast with a group of 18 to 30 children.
“On live TV you’d have children who would get excited and wee-wee,” Joe said, chuckling.
He also recalled a friend, Jack Hancock, with the S.C. Wildlife Department, who brought a small alligator on the kiddie show.
“I started rubbing its stomach and all of a sudden a stream of water hit me in the eye. It was peeing. Jack was in hysterics. The kids were in hysterics. But I’m telling you, it burned like battery acid. That’s when you crank up the cartoon machine.”
Joe said he and Peggy estimated that some 125,000 children appeared on the Mr. Knozit show and seldom a day goes by, Peggy said, that someone doesn’t come up to her husband and say he or she was on the program.
On a much more serious note, and one that speaks to Joe’s remarkably intimate relationship with television viewers, there were difficult occasions during his career when troubled people reached out to him. A man who was contemplating suicide by jumping off the Blossom Street bridge asked police if he could talk to Mr. Knozit.
“I talked to him. He came off his perch and went to a restaurant to eat before he was taken to a place where he stayed several weeks before living with us for several months.”
Joe said he “semi-retired” in 2000. Occasionally he does live feeds for WIS and of course, there’s his commercial gig, riding around in the bathtub.
“It’s been the most incredible journey,” he said, adding that he plans for his epitaph to read, “He Finally Took A Cue.” Meaning, he said, “I finally shut my mouth.”
But in the meantime, Joe and I walked back to my truck. I needed to get home. We met an elderly lady pushing a walker in a hallway of Laurel Crest. Joe, of course, knew her name and introduced me. The woman smiled; she’s in charge of the retirement community’s singing group.
Joe is a member. And while he loves to talk, he also loves to sing.
The lady grasped my arm and told me she’s thrilled to have Joe in the choir.
“He sings a lot and he sings loud.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. Ms. McInerney may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.