Gene London, children’s TV show host and out gay advocate, has died

Illustration by Gene London, 1993

 Out gay man Gene London, the celebrated host of “Cartoon Corners” aka “The Gene London Show” from 1959-77 died Sunday, Jan. 19 in Reading at age 88. His family reported the cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by a fall. 

Born Eugene Yulish in Cleveland to Minna and Isadore Yulish, London hosted a decades-spanning, iconic children’s program that aired on WCAU-TV. “Cartoon Corners” began with London opening the door to his general store and turning up the sign “Open for Business.” A cherished television star, he would sing his theme song and tell stories using a large drawing pad to illustrate characters and scenes, delivering interpretations of classic novels and myths. The show changed over the years and eventually moved to the haunted Quigley mansion accessed via a secret tunnel, with stories and plots centering on the paranormal. 

London’s television career began when he starred in “Johnny Jupiter” as the character Reject the Robot, in the 1950s. He also appeared on “Kartoon Klub,” “Facts ‘n Fun” and “Hi, Mom.” He was the host of “Tinker’s Workshop” and appeared regularly on NBC’s “The Today Show” in 1959. 

But for the LGBTQ community, London was more than a children’s show host, he was an advocate and visible during a necessary time. In order to host PGN’s LAMBDA Awards,  London came out publicly as gay in 1993. At that time, he was already with his now-husband John Thomas, who London met through mutual friends in 1981. The two later married in 2016 and split their time between homes in Reading, Pennsylvania and Florida. Thomas survives London.

In 1993, the AIDS and HIV epidemic was still roaring, with conservative right-wing groups calling the crisis “God’s punishment.” That year, the third gay rights march in Washington, D.C., the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation drew an estimated 1 million participants, and the famous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy went into effect. It was a time when no presidential candidate dare speak of gay marriage or LGBTQ protections. Many LGBTQ folks were still closeted and being gay was still paraded as sexual perversion by the right-wing and others. 

The media was only beginning to accurately represent queer folks, and Ellen had not yet famously come out. It was unheard of for someone as loved and revered as London to be out, publicly hosting an LGBT-centered award ceremony. That he did was important to this community’s progress.

By the time London hosted the awards, his television career had ended and he was a dress designer operating a retro clothes shop called “Gene London: The Fan Club” on West 19th St. until 2001. He was later a fashion consultant and accumulated an incredible collection of couture and costumes worn by film stars — approximately 60,000 pieces in total. 

On May 17, 2003, he displayed his gowns at the 80th-anniversary celebration of the Old Academy Players in Philadelphia, with an exhibit that included a dress worn by Philly actress Grace Kelly in the film “The Country Girl.” His clothing collection toured the world and on Nov. 20, 2009, London was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame. His last clothing show closed in Allentown last month and was called,  “Designing Hollywood: Golden Age Costumes from the Gene London Cinema Collection.” 

Funeral services in Cleveland will be private. London will be laid to rest beside his parents. A public memorial in Philadelphia is in the works but has not yet been scheduled.