The first was my parents deciding I was old enough to stop attending daycare before and after school (Mom and Dad both worked, I'd been in daycare since kindergarten). Now I would carry a house key and walk to and from school on my own, hopefully avoiding Stranger Danger on my way home to an empty house.
I had officially become a latch-key kid.
Second, my grade school switched to "double-sessions". The neighborhood was growing and there were too many kids for our one school to handle. So as a temporary measure while a new school was being built, they split the day into two sessions, with half the student body attending 7:00-11:30 and the other half 11:30-3:00.
I landed the much coveted 2nd session, which meant I got to sleep in every day, rolling into school just in time for lunch.
It also meant I was home alone for several hours each morning before school started. For the first time, I had unsupervised access to the TV, and a whole new realm of programming became available for me to explore: day-time television!
It was only a couple months into the school year when my exploratory channel flipping landed me on something I hadn't seen before: The Edge of Night. The title caught my attention, sounding vaguely suspenseful, possibly supernatural.
The reality is, The Edge of Night was just one of a dozen daily soap-operas with their doctors and lawyers and courtrooms and romances and convoluted plots that seemed to drag on forever without ever actually resolving.
But that October, 1980, I wandered into the beginning of an unusual, chilling plot-line.... the Monticello Clown Puppet Murders (Monticello is the fictional mid-western town where The Edge of Night is set).
Jody Travis (Lori Loughlin, Amityville 3D, The New Kids) is waitressing at a hip disco, The Unicorn, working for tips while avoiding the fingertips of her grabby, lecherous boss, Eliot Dorn (Lee Godart, Boardwalk Empire).
Also working at the club is Kelly Mcgrath (Allan Fawcett, Puttin' On The Hits, House of Cards), a puppeteer(!) who performs in a window near the dance floor. Kelly and Jody are friends who bond over mutual dislike for the boss.
Kelly is a nice enough guy, but there's something about his puppets that is vaguely off-putting in that Uncanny Valley-meets-Candle-Cove kind of way. This piano-player puppet isn't quite the stuff of nightmares, but it lives in the same neighborhood.
Later, after the club has closed and Jody is alone cleaning tables, a fox puppet appears in the window, seeming to watch her while she works.
Assuming Kelly is operating the puppet, Jody engages in some friendly banter, which takes a sudden lurid turn when the fox inappropriately suggests he'd like to join her in bed, and then offers to share a bottle of champagne in the office. The storybook scenario of a sinister woodland creature trying to lure a young girl into temptation lends a Grimm's fairy tale motif to the scene.
Offended by the offer, Jody tries to leave, and we discover the puppeteer is actually the loathsome Eliot Dorn, who proceeds to force himself on her.
Later that evening, Eliot is at the bar alone when a small clown doll quietly rises into the stage window, appearing to watch him.
The clown then grasps a knife between its little puppet hands, brandishing it in the light while Eliot is completely oblivious.
A few skin-crawling moments later, Eliot falls to the ground, a knife protruding from his back.
Later we'll see the bloodied clown puppet being hidden in a drawer, placed there by unknown hands.
To a kid home alone for the first time, this was terrifying stuff!
There was at least one other victim in the Clown Puppet Murders plot-line, which ran from roughly October 1980 to early January 1981. Of course Kelly, the club puppeteer who hated Eliot, was the most obvious suspect (and equally obvious, he's being framed by the real killer, although I can't recall who this was eventually revealed to be.)
The puppets were operated by Larry Engler, a professional puppeteer who still performs as Poko Puppets, and authored the kids book Making Puppets Come Alive (1973), which earned mention on the Awful Library Books site (or should that be... Awfully Cool Library Books?)
Clips from some of the Clown Puppet episodes have found their way to YouTube, and I've queued up a few choice scenes at the links below:
(The Piano Player Puppet)
(The Fox Puppet)
(Clown Puppet Murder)