TV’s ‘Uncle Gus’ dies By PAT HAMMOND Sunday News Staff
“Uncle Gus” Bernier, the TV friend of a generation of New Hampshire children in the 1960s and ’70s, died peacefully in his sleep yesterday at his home in Hawaii.
“He had only been dead about 10 minutes when we found him at 8:45 a.m.,” his wife Doreen said in an interview last night. Hawaiian time is seven hours ahead of Eastern time.
“He had been well,” Mrs. Bernier said. “He was 85 and we swam every morning.
“We were going garage-saling today,” Mrs. Bernier said. “It was the biggest joy in his life. He couldn’t wait for Saturday morning.”
During the telephone conversation, Mrs. Bernier reconstructed her husband’s life while occasionally pausing to welcome a visitor to Gus Bernier’s final home.
He was born in Little Rock, Ark., on Jan. 13, 1920, to Gus and Helen (Keane) Bernier.
He grew up in Little Rock, started high school there, and the family moved to Hope, Ark. After the family moved back to Little Rock, he graduated from the Little Rock Catholic High School.
He worked in the hotel his father owned in Little Rock until 1940, when he entered the Army Air Corps. He was sent to Boston to go to school, then on to Houlton Air Base in Maine where he met his wife, Doreen, whom he married in 1944.
Bernier was going to ship out to England with his unit. Instead he was sent to Grenier Field in Manchester to play drums in a band in the Special Services Division of the Army Air Corps.
After he left the service, he remained in Manchester. He went to work for WMUR radio in 1944, then became the regular announcer on WMUR-TV. Bernier was the station’s Atlantic Weatherman and Santa Claus and of course starred in the Uncle Gus Show, retiring 20 years later, in 1980. First, radio
In his 1993 book, “Granite and Ether: A Chronicle of New Hampshire Broadcasting,” author Ed Brouder wrote that the Uncle Gus Show began as a fluke in 1959.
It ran for 20 years and made Bernier “perhaps the most familiar broadcast personality in state history.”
Years after the show went off the air, he remained an instantly recognizable figure in Manchester’s collective memory. In 1993, more than a decade after his TV career closed, he served as a grand marshal for the city’s Christmas parade.
In 1992, Bernier, then 73, had retired to Cudjoe Key, Fla., when he reminisced in an interview about how it all began.
After the war, he clerked at the A&P on Elm Street, before being hired by WMUR radio as a trainee in 1947. In 30 years, his assignments there would include delivering the news, weather and sports, his seasonal stints as Santa Claus and his long-running role on the Uncle Gus Show. The Uncle Gus era
”We were running some cartoons on the air one afternoon and some kids were walking through the studio, so a manager named David O’Shea asked me to put on a funny beanie and entertain the kids, so I did,” Bernier said.
“Later on, they put the camera on me, and I said if any kids wanted to come on down, they could watch in the studio. Well, the next day, a little girl came in and she was staring at me through the plate glass window. She came back four or five days in a row.
“Gradually, other kids came, so we started talking to them on the air between the cartoons. After about a month, there was a flood of them, so we set up shop to handle about 25 kids a day. Within a couple years, we had a waiting list 18 months long. It was phenomenal,” Bernier said, in talking with Union Leader-Sunday News columnist John Clayton.
“The kids were the stars,” Clayton wrote of the carefully arranged seating chart that was Bernier’s trade secret.
“That distinguished the Uncle Gus Show from Boston competitors like ‘Big Brother’ Bob Emery, Frank Avruch’s Bozo the Clown, Major Mudd and his marching ants . . . even Rex Trailer and Pablo.”
Said Bernier, “We had our share of accidents on the chairs and the gaffes that come when children speak on live television, but I’d be willing to bet the kids enjoyed themselves.” Retired to the tropics
The Berniers went to live in the Florida Keys, 18 miles from Key West, for almost 20 years before moving to Hawaii in 2000. They lived in Waikoloa Village on Kona Coast on the big isle of Hawaii.
Columnist Clayton turned to Bernier often over the years, most recently just six weeks ago when writing about New Hampshire soldiers returning home.
Bernier recalled the time in the 1940s when he was in Reykjavik, Iceland, touring with Marlene Dietrich, and he got a priority radio message from headquarters. It read:
“ATC Band, Meeks Field, ATTN: Sgt. Gus Bernier. Material requisitioned nine months ago arrived this headquarters today. STOP. Material and container in excellent condition. STOP. Material arrived without an extension. STOP.”
Using Armed Forces radio for personal messages was taboo, but Bernier’s captain had told him that if the “material . . . without an extension” arrived he would find a way to let him know.
The message had announced the birth of a daughter, Michele Ann Bernier.
Bernier leaves his wife Doreen of Hawaii; two daughters, Michele Bernier, a school counselor in Kona on Hawaii, and Kathryn Woods, a dispatcher for the police department in New Durham; two sons, Steven Bernier of Sunapee, and Brett Bernier, an Alaska Airlines pilot who lives in Silverdale, Wash; a sister, Helen Carter of Cabot, Arkansas; five grandchildren; nieces and nephews.
As of last night, funeral services had not been arranged.