The year was 1978, and one man in blue tights, a cape, and interstellar space goggles ruled the airwaves on local television station WCCB. Sonic Man, as he called himself, was a peace-loving superhero from the planet Utor who hosted the station's afternoon kiddie shows, all while teaching good character, playing educational games, and gesturing his white-gloved hands about wildly.
Utor, for those of you without an intergalactic star map handy, is the center of our Flortex, where - to use Sonic Man's words - everyone supports "loving acceptance, mental stimulation, and unlimited exploration."
And if Sonic Man's voice sounds familiar to a modern-day audience, it's because it belongs to the one and only Larry Sprinkle, who played the character way back before he became Charlotte's longest-serving weatherman on WCNC.
Until recently, Sonic Man was an obscure bit of Charlotte trivia with little online presence. In fact, there had been no known video footage of the show left in existence. But now, nearly 40 years after Sonic Man's television debut, UNC Charlotte has acquired a trove of old memorabilia from the show including photos, original footage, and even the original costume.
It all began with Lynnsy Logue, a longtime resident of south Charlotte, who was just getting her start as a television consultant when she thought up the character in the summer of 1978. The station had failed to get the rights to use Spider Man as an afternoon host, so she improvised. Over the Fourth of July weekend, she pulled together a costume from stuff lying around the house, and she created an inventive 'sonic' language for the character to speak.
And as imaginative as she is, Logue never could have anticipated what happened during Sonic Man's first day on air.
She had come up with a game for Sonic Man to play on air called "Gotcha!," in which a question would be posed, like 'Who wrote the Star Spangled Banner?" and the caller to get it right would win a fabulous prize.
Logue remembers sitting in the studio with her colleagues for that first broadcast as Sonic Man's sidekick, Earth Man 18, asked the first question. Station officials were worried no one would call, so they were ready to dial Sonic Man themselves if needed.
Instead, as Logue recalls, "All of a sudden, all the phones lit up. And they kept lighting up and lighting up and lighting up. And that went on for hour after hour."
Impressive, sure, but what happened next cements Sonic Man's debut as one of the most remarkable in local TV history.
"The FBI came in because we had blown the telephone lines between Charlotte and Atlanta. And we said, 'You're kidding.' And they said, 'No, ma'am, we're not kidding, now we have to stop this, because you're blowing the lines.'"
Later, The Charlotte Observer reported that operators across Charlotte were swamped that day with untold thousands of kids trying to get through to the weird costumed dude on the TV. And local telephone equipment was jammed in 14 other places across the region. The station, of course, was thrilled.
The Keys To The City
Almost overnight, Sonic Man won over the heart of the city. Kids liked him for his goofy persona and his sonic words. Adults liked him because he was a virtuous role model. Larry Sprinkle - who by the way has never publicly spoken about his days as Sonic Man - agreed to talk with us for this story about the character.
"You know, I would give advice," Sprinkle said, "I would say things like, (in Sonic Man voice:) 'When you're with your friends, and maybe there's a disagreement, instead of being violent or invasive to them, be nice and kind, because you must respect people. On Utor, all of us come here with our respect to you. Show respect to everyone.' You know, that's the Sonic way."
Note to web readers - we strongly recommended listening to audio story to truly appreciate Sprinkle's delivery.
By September 1978, then-Charlotte Mayor Kenneth Harris was handing Sonic Man the keys to the city, and a city holiday was declared in the superhero's name.
But Sonic Man's time on the air was as momentous as it was short lived. About a year after that day the station blew out the area's telephone lines, Logue left the station after a disagreement with management over whether to further commercialize the character. Sprinkle left with her. Still, Sonic Man never really left the public's consciousness. For years after, people would see Sprinkle out on the street, and they'd shout, "Sonic Man!"
"Obon Paxis!" he'd reply, with booming Sonic Man bravado, "Let us all megulate. Ken-hi!"
And fast forward to the present, he still gets notes.
"At least once or twice a month, and that's not an exaggeration," he says, "there's somebody that asks me about Sonic Man. They'll ask me, 'Do you have any of those Sonic Man dictionaries? Do you have a picture? Do you have a poster? Is there any way you can sign something in Sonic Man?'"
Logue, who's approaching eighty, was spurred to donate her collection to the university after a recent bout with cancer. For the last several decades, she had kept the dictionaries, the photos, the news clippings, the assorted fan mail, and everything else stashed away in boxes in her south Charlotte home. She said as she advances in age, it's become important to her to see the collection preserved.
"I wanted to know that things I loved were in good homes. I didn't want to see them on folding tables for fifty cents," she said. After all, she adds, "this is not only my history, but it's the history of Charlotte."
That history is now being catalogued by the university's special collections team, and is being made available to anyone - from any planet - for years to come.