For many of us baby boomers who witnessed the emerging days of local TV kiddie shows, we were family because we all shared the same uncle. Roscoe Grover, the portly, kind and multi-talented gent known to us as “Uncle Roscoe,” was asked by KSL TV in 1950 to establish a children’s program on the fledgling local TV station. Those were the days when we kids would anxiously turn on the Motorola at 6:30 AM and watch the test pattern for 30 minutes until programming began.
Uncle Roscoe’s program, “Playtime Party,” as I vaguely recall, was broadcast, logically, every day after school. Grover was the pioneer in producing shows specifically for children some years before the likes of other kiddie show hosts, Engineer Ron (Ross), Captain K.C. (Bernie Calderwood), Fireman Frank (Ron Ross again), Kimbo the Clown (Jack somebody), Captain Scotty, and a number of others who were willing to don a goofy hat or red nose and captivate a new generation. All the while, of course, our mothers were telling us not to sit too close to the TV or we’d go blind.
Patrons at the Hotel Utah Coffee Shop (oh, where are those rolls when you really need them?) were entertained by Uncle Roscoe on occasion when he would migrate from table to table, drawing caricatures of the kids, and signing their souvenir menus. He would make guest appearances at various events along the Wasatch front and would, according to his former Virginia Street neighbor, Jean Sorensen, hold court in his backyard with all the kids in Federal Heights and elsewhere, making crafts, drawing, sculpting, and anything that they could imagine. Sorensen said that Grover introduced children to art on Mondays and Fridays from 10 to 12 in his backyard “studio.” Sorensen also remembered that Grover would draw caricatures of the kids in 20 seconds flat.
Born in Nephi in 1901, Roscoe Grover was educated at the University of Utah, studying art under J.T. Harwood and a few others including Mabel Frazer, Florence Ware, LeConte Stewart, and Arnold Friberg. Grover also attended New York University, and Columbia, where he later attended grad school and taught. As an LDS missionary in New York, Grover assisted with producing the first Hill Cumorah Pageant, and with the dedication of the Angel Moroni monument at that location. My mom told me once that the model for that Moroni statue was her uncle, James H. Moyle.
In the early 30s, Grover taught classes in radio and speech in New York, and appeared in some of the early television shows produced there. There, Grover and his wife, Arlene Harris, daughter of former BYU president, Franklin Harris, remained until 1945 when KSL offered him a position managing KSUB in Cedar City, where he remained until he was transferred to Salt Lake in 1950 to become “Uncle Roscoe.” Later, Grover would become KSL program director and announcer for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
But what about the visual arts? Grover’s hobby was creating portraits, especially from photographs, for private commissions and also producing likenesses of LDS Church leaders, as well as famous Americans and Utahns. His portraits of Mark Twain, |2| Truman Angell (architect of the Salt Lake Temple), |3| John Wesley Powell,|4| and Maude May Babcock |5| are quite accurate depictions from photos, although most don’t acquire Grover’s own style or interpretation (many thanks to Lila Abersold and Laura Durham for putting up with my questions and agreeing to email some of the images of the paintings that belong to the Utah State Fine Art Collection accompanying this column. I’m sure they were glad to see me leave).
Grover befriended fellow “Block” artists, Mahonri Young and John Held, Jr., the latter a flamboyant illustrator of note (watch for a future column about Held) who spent most of his professional life in New York. Grover once asked Held what his favorite color was. “Plaid,” came the answer.
Of more interest to me are three landscapes by Grover, one of which keeps me company in the local Ward offices |0|. The other two are owned by Jim Jensen. Who’s Jim Jensen? Grover’s nephew—one of the few who can truly call him “Uncle Roscoe.” My research turned up precious little for a man prolific in the fountainhead of early Utah broadcasting and who produced hundreds of portraits and landscapes. One of the few specimens to turn up at the Historical Society was an old invitation to a one-man show of Roscoe Grover’s paintings at Dan and Marianne Olsen’s Tivoli Gallery in 1970. A beautiful watercolor of a French street scene graces the invitation. When I talked to Jensen on the phone, he told me a story about a glorious urban French painting that he had purchased from his uncle. |6| Turns out the featured Tivoli painting and Jensen’s painting are one and the same. I noticed the inscription on the back of the original, written in Grover’s hand: “I remember this day, August 23, 1930. I was in Paris, painting in Montparnasse. At the end of the day a strong yellow light bathed the streets and buildings which was a dramatic effect I had not anticipated when I started painting the roofs of Paris and the chimney pots.” |7| So impressed was Jensen with the painting and the story, that he paid his uncle $500 for it—at a time, Jensen offered, “when I was single and studying linguistics and English at the U.”
An additional tidbit that Jensen supplied was a note in Grover’s handwriting addressed to a relative: “I’d like to trade a painting for a beef or a lamb or a pig ready for the deep freeze—or two or several paintings for a garden spot in the east part of town…” Grover wasn’t alone in bartering art. Henri Moser, among other earlier Utah artists, frequently used paintings for everything from dental work (from Jeanette Woolley’s father) to goiter removal (Alice Merrill Horne’s son, Dr. Lyman Horne). Maybe you artists still do the same thing. Anyone interested in trading a side of beef for a little art history?
When Roscoe Grover passed away in 1984 at the age of 83, an article appearing in the Tribune suggested that “Uncle Roscoe was one of those rare people whose wide-ranging talents were constantly used to brighten the lives of others; service to his fellow beings came as naturally as breathing. In a world with all too much hostility and conflict, he will be sorely missed.”||
Next month’s column will feature The Templeton Building and its artists. If you anecdotes or images contact Tom firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Alder, a Salt Lake City native, left a 30-year mortgage banking career in 2009 to open Alderwood Fine Art, specializing in early Utah art. He held an MA in Art History, taught at the University of Utah, and served on various boards in the cultural community. He died in 2018.