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4 Infomercial Superstars (and Where They Came From)

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I've discussed the various products hawked on late night TV in a previous column; this week takes an in-depth look at some of those personalities who've invaded our living rooms with such regularity that they feel like family.

1. Mike Levey has an "Amazing Discovery"

Picture 101.pngMike Levey graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering, but after a stint as an advertising copywriter, he discovered that his true love was sales. He founded Direct Response Television in 1988, and a year later his infomercial brainchild, Amazing Discoveries, hit the airwaves. Armed with more enthusiasm than his Technicolor sweaters could contain and a compensated ($60 per person per show) studio audience, Levey spent the next several years convincing viewers around the world that they couldn't live without a stained glass craft kit or a vertical roaster. Levey's company sold billions of dollars worth of products, and the Sweaterman himself received fan mail from Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and several American prisons. In 1993 the Federal Trade Commission took a closer look at Amazing Discoveries and decided that a few of the products pitched were misleadingly advertised. Financial settlements were hammered out, Direct Response's stock price fell, and AD quietly went off the air. Mike Levey succumbed to cancer in 2003 at the age of 55.

2. Miss Cleo Senses Opportunity

During the early part of the new Millennium, Miss Cleo was the conduit between ordinary humans and the Fates. A self-proclaimed Jamaican shaman, Miss Cleo wore elaborate head wraps and broadcast her infomercials from a set filled with wicker furniture, candles and fake palm trees, which was evidence enough to convince insomniacs in Des Moines that she possessed supernatural powers. Miss Cleo was employed by Access Resources Services in Florida, which racked up $400 million in annual sales at the height of Cleo's popularity. But then those spoilsports at the Attorney General's office got involved and discovered that Miss Cleo was actually Los Angeles-born Youree Dell Harris, the daughter of American-born parents and who had previously gone by half a dozen aliases in various money-making schemes over the years. Luckily for her, when the lawsuits started flooding in, they were directed at her employer and not her personally, so she won' be doin' her readin's in prison, mon. In a 2006 interview with The Advocate, she came out as a lesbian, just in time to promote her appearance on VH1's The Surreal Life.

3. Billy Mays Cleans up his Act

If Billy Mays' onscreen sales technique reminds you of the "Step right up!"-style banter of a carnival barker, you're not far off the mark. Shortly after graduating from high school, Mays took a job selling a household device called the Washmatik on Atlantic City's Boardwalk. He then spent 12 years traveling the U.S. and selling everything from vegetable choppers to cleaning products at state fairs and home shows. Along the way he carefully studied the veteran pitchmen in neighboring booths and copied their shtick. In a nice slice of serendipity, Mays happened to be working across the aisle at a show from Max Appel, the founder of Orange Glo. Appel's microphone broke just prior to a presentation, and Mays graciously gave him one of his spares. The two struck up a friendship, which led to Mays becoming the national spokesperson for Orange Glo. That gig led to spots for OxiClean and Kaboom! and a recognition factor that automatically guarantees millions of dollars in sales for any product.
(nb: this video may be NSFW since Billy utters a discouraging word near the end.)

4. Anthony Sullivan: A HSN star is born

Anthony "Sully" Sullivan comes by that British accent legitimately "“ he spent the first 21 years of his life in Devon, England. Much like Billy Mays, Sully had an entrepreneurial spirit and eschewed college in order to study the street vendors in London. He soon developed a keen eye for the "next big thing" when it came to household gadgets, and started hawking products on his own. During a surfing vacation in Hawaii, he happened to discover a small company marketing a device that he immediately realized would be perfect for, say, scraping wet sand off kitchen floors. He got a job selling the Smart Mop at home shows, and was "discovered," Lana Turner-style, by the Home Shopping Network. Sullivan became an HSN celeb in his own right, but craved bigger and better things. He formed Sullivan Productions in 1999 and, like Mike Levey and others before him, scopes out the "next big thing" and pitches it with his own unique spin "“ mainly that authoritative accent.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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