Thousands crowded into a Fremont plaza Sunday for the unveiling of a bronze statue of J.P. Patches, and his sidekick, Gertrude, the local slapstick team that made one of the longest-running children's shows on television.

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So many years ago, they were children, lying on carpets, faces in their hands, heads tilted to the television screen, waiting to see what silly thing J.P. Patches would do next. Now, finally, the famous clown stood before them.

They were older, and grayer, and so, certainly, was he. But when 80-year-old Chris Wedes, of Edmonds, otherwise known as J.P. Patches, asked the crowd of mostly middle-aged adults to say hello to his rag doll, there was not a moment’s hesitation.

“Hi, Esmerelda!” they yelled in a chorus.

Thousands crowded into a Fremont plaza Sunday for the unveiling of a bronze statue of J.P. Patches and his sidekick, Gertrude. The men stood in full regalia on stage, J.P with his yellow coat and tattered hat, Gertrude with her red hair and housecoat, the slapstick team that made one of the longest-running locally produced children’s shows on television.

“The nation had Bozo the clown,” said Rod Pete, 50, a mechanic from SeaTac. “We had J.P.”

The J.P. Patches Show ran from 1958 to 1981, airing weekday mornings and afternoons on KIRO-TV for several of those years. It featured J.P. Patches as mayor of the City Dump. At the peak of its popularity, the show, which was essentially comedy improv, drew as many as 100,000 viewers.

The clown called them Patches Pals. He would peer at them with the ICU2-TV, that miraculous machine that let him inside their homes.

Often, through the years, he stepped off the soundstage to visit them, stopping by Children’s Hospital in Seattle in his ragtag jacket, with that riot of buttons, soliciting all the smiles he could.

For all that and more, artist Kevin Pettelle, of Sultan, a Patches Pal himself, built the bronze installation, “Late for the Interurban” on 34th Street in Fremont. It’s a slapstick scene with J.P. and Gertrude rushing in different directions, arms locked, hair flying. Beside them, a model of the ICU2-TV, and a can for donations to Children’s Hospital.

The statue was built on the strength of donations from Patches Pals. And Sunday they were out in force, yelling thank yous at the stage, wearing red foam noses, chanting J.P.’s name. “Imagine having all those friends,” said Lucy Brady, 49, of Seattle.

Several mused about the meaning of the show in their lives. For Brady, it was the emblem of a happy childhood. She carries the memory of it to this day, the family crowding around the television every morning before school, waiting to see which characters would show up.

Gertrude, otherwise known as Bob Newman, played nearly all of them. And it was a much-debated question Sunday as the politicians were speaking, and the crowd was waiting, whether Gertrude would grace the stage, or whether another character would do that honor.

“There was such a rumor that Boris S. Wort was going to show up,” said artist Matt Bazemore, 50, of Seattle.

For many of the Patches Pals, it was simply the trip back through time they valued the most. Back to something simple, easy, safe — a clown slipping life lessons in with the laughter, a clown who seemed, really, to be their friend.

For some, he was their only one. There were stories of how J.P. Patches, with all his silliness, and all his imagination, had pulled children out of depression, or given them relief from tough times at home.

“The only thing they could count on every day was that show,” said 16-year-old Christina Frost, the granddaughter of J.P. Patches.

The clown had plenty of quips through the day. But his granddaughter’s speech stopped him. And he said it.

“I’m kind of speechless here,” said J.P. Patches.

Last year, Wedes was diagnosed with myeloma, a form of blood cancer. He canceled most upcoming appearances to focus on his health. Sunday, as the heat bore down, and he made his way through the crush of the crowd, Patches Pals tried to clear a path for him.

There were calls of “Make way!” and “Let him go!” Barbara Aqua stood by the side of his multicolored limousine, worrying he was not getting quickly enough out of the heat.

She felt protective. Just last year, when she was diagnosed with cancer, she wrote to J.P. Patches. He sent her a reply, saying he would be praying for her.

“He meant it,” she said. “He always means it.”

All year long, until she was recently pronounced free of cancer, Aqua kept a picture of J.P. Patches on her kitchen table. She would look at his smile, and believe, then, that she could smile, too.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com