TV Host, Hollywood Fashion Maven Gene London Dies at 88

Gene London circa 1962. (Jewish Exponent archives)

Gene London won the livelihood lottery: He found a job where he could put his natural talents to use and live out his dreams — twice.

Over 60 years, London, who died at 88 on Jan. 19 at his home in Reading, lived a professional life in two acts.

London was best known locally as the anecdotally inclined and artistically talented host of “Cartoon Corners” (later known as “The Gene London Show”), the Saturday morning children’s television show that aired from 1959 to 1977 on local CBS affiliate WCAU.

In his second career, London became a historian of studio-era Hollywood, a designer, a retailer, a collector and a curator.

His sense of childlike wonderment, family says, drew him to the fashions and costumes worn by the biggest stars of old Hollywood. Along the way, he amassed a collection of clothing from that period that included around 60,000 pieces, many originally worn by stars like Joan Crawford, with whom he’d later come to have a personal friendship.

In a 1993 profile, London told The New York Times that Crawford used to phone him late at night when she was “high on hootch.”

Born Eugene Yulish, London got his love for show business and classical Hollywood from his mother, who used to take him to the movies in Cleveland, Ohio, his hometown.

Early in his TV career, London played Reject the Robot on the DuMont Network’s “Johnny Jupiter,” where, according to niece Sheri Brenner, he received more fan mail than any of the actors playing human characters.

A lucky break came in the form of recurring guest spots on the original “Today Show with Dave Garroway.” It would be Garroway who’d introduce London to the TV executive who’d cast him in “Cartoon Corners.”

From what friends and fans recall, over the next 30 years, London’s show was like Philadelphia’s version of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” balancing animated entertainment while serving as a live-action vehicle for London’s singing, drawing and storytelling.

“He was the greatest storyteller most people have ever known,” Brenner said, “and he could take you on an adventure with him that, as a kid, you were just completely immersed in wonderment by.”

“Wonderment” and “magic.” These were the two words that Brenner and her daughter Jordyn, London’s grandniece, used repeatedly to describe him; it’s why, they say, he was able to “get” children so well — he never stopped being one of them.

“He was a child in his heart, always, and he never lost that sense of fun and adventure and wonder and gratitude,” Brenner continued. “He was like that his whole life.”

Nearly 57 years later, former child actor and longtime area musician Andy Kahn remembers performing on “The Gene London Show”; he’s got the 1963 clipping from the Philadelphia Jewish Times to prove it.

“The show was intellectual, educational, entertaining, with music — the whole thing,” Kahn recalled. “And (London) was very bright and very talented. I could recognize that at 11.”

Kahn appeared on London’s program twice in the summer of 1963 with fellow child actor Robin Goldberg.

“I remember the first time we were there, they said, ‘Make sure you’re well-rehearsed and know what you’re doing because this is live television; you don’t get a second chance.’”

Second chances might be rare while you’re on live TV, but once you’ve signed off, improbable opportunities abound, at least if you’re London. A fortuitous profile in The New York Times chronicling his penchant for collecting and design, just as he was about to transition away from television, kick-started London’s fashion career.

He opened in a retail shop in Manhattan’s Flatiron District and maintained a cavernous studio in Gramercy for his private collection. He dressed celebrities for the Academy Awards and provided wardrobe pieces for Broadway stars. For “Gone with the Wind’s” 50th anniversary, Ted Turner commissioned him to design replicas of the gowns worn in the film.

This wasn’t unusual; stars gravitated to London.

When he was on TV, Kirk Douglas or Lucille Ball might drop by the set for a guest appearance and, in New York, “on any given day, you might find Diana Ross stopping by to search for rare textiles,” Brenner recalled.

His life often didn’t outwardly resemble real life, but family insisted London’s successes anchored him to the one simple lesson he imparted to thousands of kids and ultimately his own beloved nieces and nephews: Believe in yourself.

“He taught me how to draw; he taught me how to paint; he taught me color theory; he taught me how to do everything. He always saw what I could do, and he really pushed me to achieve what he knew I could achieve, even when I didn’t know it yet,” said Jordyn Brenner, London’s grandniece, now an art director at Amazon Studios, who’s worked on marketing campaigns for shows like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“All of my inspiration for all of our campaigns came from him.”

London is survived by his spouse, John Thomas, brothers Charles and Morton Yulish, and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews, including Sheri and Jordyn Brenner.

A public memorial in Philadelphia for friends and fans will be announced at a later date.; 215-832-0737


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