Lorenzo the Tramp was required morning viewing for children watching WJZ-TV in the 1960s, when an actor named Gerald Wheeler charmed local audiences by dancing across a set while his young studio audience went crazy.
Dressed in ragged clothes and a brown slouch hat (the same hat lasted 17 years), Wheeler put on a putty nose and drew on sad eyebrows. As Lorenzo, he did not speak.
"He was a sad tramp who was at the same time happy all the time," Wheeler, 82, said the other day from his home in Santa Monica, Calif., where he moved 11 years ago to be closer to his two screenwriter sons, William and Tom, and his grandchildren.
These days he's writing his memoirs and walks three miles a day.
Wheeler was born in Salado, Ark., and worked in Little Rock (where Lorenzo made his debut), Tulsa, Okla., and St. Louis. He came to Baltimore's Channel 13 in 1962. He said Lorenzo got higher ratings here than The Today Show and Captain Kangaroo.
Wheeler left Baltimore in 1970 to do a similar show for a Philadelphia station. He returned to Baltimore's airwaves after a while. He commuted from Philadelphia to tape his old show, which prompted Channel 13 to launch an ad campaign using the slogan "Lorenzo's back." He claims to have shaken about 15,000 hands in a single day during an event at the Philadelphia Zoo. He left television in the mid-1970s and did local live theater in Philadelphia for a while.
His wildly popular theme song was known in Baltimore as "The Lorenzo Stomp." He danced to "Yakety Sax," an instrumental hit created by a buddy, Nashville saxophonist Boots Randolph.
Wheeler also created other characters in speaking roles -- Clarence the Country Boy (bad teeth and a straw hat); Nevada Ned, an Old West type; and Percy the Pirate.
He lip-synced songs -- and responded to a questioner, often announcer John Mason and later Jerry Turner.
"We're very proud of him," said his son William Wheeler, screenwriter of the Richard Gere film The Hoax. "I drew a lot of inspiration from my dad because in the early days of television he did everything -- he acted, wrote, produced and often directed."