5 Strange Facts about Classic Kids' Shows

I grew up in an era when parents didn't hesitate to use the television set as a babysitter. Back then, TV didn't rot our brains, it simply "kept us out of Mom's hair" for a few hours. How many of these shows kept you company as a child?

1. Sesame Street: The Surprising Rocker Behind the Numbers

Sesame Street was sort of the MTV of children's programming when it premiered in 1969. There were a few adult "regulars" in the neighborhood, but the true stars were the Muppets "“ Ernie, Bert, Big Bird, Oscar, et al "“ and the various animated shorts and comedy skits. I already knew my alphabet and numbers, so I was a bit older than the target demographic of Sesame Street, but I still watched it regularly because the A.D.D.-soothing, rapid-fire graphics were mesmerizing. Plus, the songs were catchy. One of my favorite recurring bits was the "Jazzy Spies," which featured a frenetic musical background while a singer repeatedly intoned the particular numeral being highlighted. The vocalist was none other than Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane/Starship), whose then-husband, Jerry Slick, actually produced those segments.

2. Zoom!: The show Michael Jackson was weaned on

If you break into song after hearing the Boston ZIP code 02134, you're obviously a fan of Zoom! The show ran on PBS from 1972 to 1978 and was hosted by a cast of "regular kids" that changed every season. The Zoom-ers also encouraged viewer mail with suggestions for plays, games and experiments for them to attempt on the air. (And you thought Mythbusters was original"¦) The cast members introduced themselves at the beginning of the show by first name only, accompanied by a brief video clip that "described" them. (Anyone remember Bernadette and her "arm thing"?) Leon Mobley's intro showcased his ability to play the drums, and years later, his skills were in high demand as a session drummer on various recordings. In the early 1980s, he was recording with musician Ben Harper in Los Angeles when he received word that an artist recording in the adjacent studio would be thrilled if he could meet "Leon from Zoom." That artist was none other than Michael Jackson.

3. How Spiderman got Caught in The Electric Company's web

Picture 23.png The Electric Company made its debut in 1971, intended for an audience an age group above Sesame Street. The program focused on phonics and grammar, and the cast included a "Who's Who" of future award-winning entertainers: Bill Cosby (who eventually used his tenure on the show as research for his doctoral thesis), Morgan Freeman, Irene Cara, Gene Wilder, and Rita Moreno (who bellowed "Hey, you guys!" at the beginning of each episode). Another recurring character on the show was Spider-Man, who was featured in a continuing series of skits called "Spidey Super Stories." Marvel Comics allowed the Children's Television Workshop to use their popular copyrighted hero free of charge. While the gesture seems altruistic, keep in mind that Marvel reserved the right to use The Electric Company logo and storylines in special editions of their Spiderman comics, a co-branding partnership that translated into huge comic book sales.

4. The Friendly Giant and the song that warms Canadian hearts

Millions of Canadian kids, as well as youngsters who grew up in border towns, remember looking up "“ waaaaay up "“ to watch The Friendly Giant. The story-telling tall guy was played by Wisconsin native Bob Homme, who was so low-key that he made Mr. Rogers look like a caffeine addict. "Friendly" always opened and closed his show by arranging the furniture in front of his fireplace to allow viewers to settle in "“ a rocking chair for those who liked to rock, and a large armchair for two to curl up in. The show's theme song, "Early One Morning," was voted the second-most recognized TV theme song in Canada, after "Hockey Night in Canada."

5. Romper Room: The Golden Arches of Children's Programming

Picture 13.png Let's face it"¦with a name like Kara, you knew the odds were pretty slim that Miss Sally would ever see you through her "magic mirror." But I still watched Romper Room daily, just in case. Romper Room was sort of the McDonald's of children's shows; Bert and Nancy Claster came up with the original concept of the show, in which a teacher read stories and directed games for a group of preschoolers. The first Romper Room aired locally in Baltimore, but the program became so popular that the Clasters sold "franchises" to various local TV markets across the country. By paying a fee and sending a host/teacher go through a training course, a TV station in any city could broadcast its own Romper Room and give it a local "feel."

John P. Johnson, HBO
10 Wild Facts About Westworld
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

The hit HBO show about an android farm girl finding sentience in a fake version of the old West set in a sci-fi future is back for a second season. So grab your magnifying glass, study up on Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, and get ready for your brain to turn to scrambled eggs. 

The first season saw Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her robotic compatriots strive to escape bondage as the puppet playthings of a bored society that kills and brutalizes them every day, then repairs them each night to repeat the process for paying customers. The Maze. The Man in Black. The mysteries lurking in cold storage and cantinas. Wood described the first season as a prequel, which means the show can really get on the dusty trail now. 

Before you board the train and head back into the park, here are 10 wild facts about the cerebral, sci-fi hit. (Just beware of season one spoilers!)


Though Westworld, the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, was a hit, its 1976 sequel Futureworld was a flop. Still, the name and concept had enough cachet for CBS to move forward with a television concept in 1980. Beyond Westworld featured Delos head of security John Moore (Jim McMullan) battling against the villainous mad scientist Simon Quaid (James Wainwright), who wants to use the park’s robots to, what else, take over the whole world. It would be a little like if the HBO show focused largely on Luke Hemsworth’s Ashley Stubbs, which just might be the spinoff the world is waiting for.


Ed Harris and Eddie Rouse in 'Westworld'

The HBO series pays homage to the original film in a variety of ways, including echoing elements from the score to create that dread-inducing soundscape. It also tipped its ten-gallon hat to Yul Brynner’s relentless gunslinger from the original film by including him in the storage basement with the rest of the creaky old models.


Speaking of Brynner’s steely, murderous resolve: His performance as the robo-cowboy was one of the foundations for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as the Terminator. Nearly 20 years later, in 2002, Schwarzenegger signed on to produce and star in a reboot of the sci-fi film from which he took his early acting cues. Schwarzenegger never took over the role from Brynner because he served as Governor of California instead, and the reboot languished in development hell.

Warner Bros. tried to get Quentin Tarantino on board, but he passed. They also signed The Cell director Tarsem Singh (whose old West would have been unbelievably lush and colorful, no doubt), but it fell through. A few years later, J.J. Abrams—who had met with Crichton about a reboot back in 1996—pitched eventual co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on doing it as a television series. HBO bought it, and the violent delights finally made it to our screens.


Thandie Newton and Angela Sarafyan in 'Westworld'

In season one, Logan (Ben Barnes) revealed that he’s spending $40,000 a day to experience Westworld. That’s in line with the 1973 movie, where park visitors spent $1000 a day, which lands near $38,000 once adjusted for inflation. Then again, we’re talking about 2052 dollars, so it might still be pricey, but not exorbitant in 2018 terms. But a clever Redditor spotted that $40,000 is the minimum you’d pay; according to the show’s website, the Gold Package will set you back $200,000 a day.


Once Upon a Time’s Eion Bailey was originally cast as Logan but had to quit due to a scheduling conflict, so Ben Barnes stepped in … then he broke his foot. The actor hid the injury for fear he’d lose the job, which is why he added a limp as a character detail. “I’m sort of hobbling along with this kind of cowboy-ish limp, which I then tried to maintain for the next year just so I could pretend it was a character choice,” Barnes said. “But really I had a very purple foot … So walking was the hardest part of shooting this for me.”


Eagle-eyed fans (particularly on Reddit) uncovered just about every major spoiler from the first season early on, which is why Nolan and Joy promised a spoiler video for anyone who wanted to know the entire plot of season two ahead of its premiere. They delivered, but instead of show secrets, the 25-minute video only offered a classy rendition of Rick Astley’s internet-infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up,” sung by Evan Rachel Wood with Angela Sarafyan on piano, followed by 20 minutes of a dog. It was a pitch-perfect response to a fanbase desperate for answers.


Amid the alternative rock tunes hammered out on the player piano and hat tips to classic western films, Westworld also referenced something from 5th century BCE Greece. Westworld, which is run by Delos Incorporated, is designed so that guests cannot die. Delos is also the name of the island where ancient Greeks made it illegal for anyone to die (or be born for that matter) on religious grounds. That’s not the only bit of wordplay with Greek either: Sweetwater’s main ruffian, Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), gets his last name from the Greek eschaton, meaning the final event in the divine design of the world. Fitting for a potentially sentient robot helping to bring about humanity’s destruction.


Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson in 'Westworld'

In season one, the show’s many secrets were kept even from the main cast until the time they absolutely needed to know. Jimmi Simpson, who plays timid theme park neophyte William, had a hunch something was funny with his role because of a cosmetic change.

“I was with an amazing makeup artist, Christian, and he was looking at my face too much,” Simpson told Vanity Fair. “He had me in his chair, and he was just looking at my face, and then he said something about my eyebrows. ‘Would you be cool if we just took a couple hairs out of your eyebrows, made them not quite as arched?’” Guessing that they were making him look more like The Man in Black, Simpson said something to Joy, and she confirmed his hunch. “She looked kind of surprised I’d worked it out,” he said.


One of the show’s most iconic elements is its soundtrack of alternative rock songs from the likes of Radiohead, The Cure, and Soundgarden redone in a jaunty, old West style. In addition to adding a creepy sonic flavor to the sadistic vacation, they also may wink toward Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, which deals with a dystopia of automation where machines do everything for humans, leading to an entrenched class struggle. The show’s resonant elements are clear, but Westworld also mentions that the world outside the theme park is one where there’s no unemployment and humans have little purpose. Like The Man In Black (Ed Harris), the protagonist of Player Piano also longs for real stakes in the struggle of life.


Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright in 'Westworld'

Anthony Hopkins’s character Dr. Robert Ford is an invention for the new series, and he shares a name with the man who assassinated infamous outlaw Jesse James (a fact you may remember from the aptly named movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The final episode of the first season flips the allusion when Ford is shot in the back of the head, which is exactly how the real-life Ford killed James.

Pop Culture
The ‘Scully Effect’ Is Real: Female X-Files Fans More Likely to Go Into STEM

FBI agent Dana Scully is more than just a role model for remaining professional when a colleague won't stop talking about his vast governmental conspiracy theories. The skeptical doctor played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, according to a new report [PDF] from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which we spotted at Fast Company.

“In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role,” the report explains. Previously, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the existence of a “Scully effect,” in which the measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything—inspired women to seek out their own science careers. This report provides the hard data.

The Geena Davis Institute surveyed more than 2000 women in the U.S. above the age of 25, a significant portion of whom were viewers of The X-Files (68 percent) and women who had studied for or were in STEM careers (49 percent). While the survey didn’t ask women whether watching Dana Scully on The X-Files directly influenced their decision to be a scientist, the results hint that seeing a character like her on TV regularly did affect them. Women who watched more of the show were more likely to say they were interested in STEM, more likely to have studied a STEM field in college, and more likely to have worked in a STEM field after college.

While it’s hard to draw a direct line of causation there—women who are interested in science might just be more inclined to watch a sci-fi show like The X-Files than women who grow up to be historians—viewers also tended to say Scully gave them positive impressions of women in science. More than half of respondents who were familiar with Scully’s character said she increased their confidence in succeeding in a male-dominated profession. More than 60 percent of the respondents said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM. And when asked to describe her, they were most likely to say she was “smart” and “intelligent” before any other adjective.

STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male, and governments, nonprofits, schools, activists, and some tech companies have been pushing to make the field more diverse by recruiting and retaining more female talent. While the desire to become a doctor or an engineer isn’t the only thing keeping STEM a boy’s club, women also need more role models in the fields whose success and accomplishments they can look up to. Even if some of those role models are fictional.

Now that The X-Files has returned to Fox, perhaps Dana Scully will have an opportunity to shepherd a whole new generation of women into the sciences.

[h/t Fast Company]


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