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5 Beastly Secrets Behind Wild Kingdom

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Fifty-eight years ago today (May 28), Zoo Parade premiered on NBC. For its first five seasons, the show was broadcast from Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. The series' host, Marlin Perkins, also just happened to be Lincoln Park's director. By the time Zoo Parade went off the air, Perkins was thoroughly convinced that television was in desperate need more wildlife programming, and Wild Kingdom was born.

1. Marlin Perkins Slayed the Abominable Snowman
Picture 14.pngBack when TV was limited to the networks and a handful of local stations, before there was an Animal Planet or a Crocodile Hunter, Wild Kingdom was the only place average Americans could see polar bears or hippopotami in their natural habitat from the comfort of their living rooms. The program was typically aired right after family-friendly fare like Hee-Haw or The Lawrence Welk Show. White-haired Marlin Perkins, who looked more like an insurance salesman than the zoologist that he really was, hosted Wild Kingdom during its original syndicated run from 1963 to 1985. Prior to television stardom, Perkins had gained a small amount of fame for debunking the myth of the Abominable Snowman. On an excursion to the Himalayas with Sir Edmund Hillary, Perkins deduced that the Yeti's "large" footprints were actually made form a series of tracks made by foxes and other small animals. The tracks melted together in the sun, turning into larger shapes.

2. The Moment Everyone Remembers that Never Actually Happened

Picture 51.pngTalk to Baby Boomers who grew up watching Wild Kingdom and many of them will breathlessly recall the episode where Marlin Perkins was bitten by a poisonous snake. True, Perkins was a reptile aficionado and had kept snakes as pets since he was a child. He also never hesitated to handle non-venomous snakes on-camera in an effort to show that the slithery creatures were as harmless as kittens. Back when he was still hosting Zoo Parade, Marlin did ill-advisedly pick up a timber rattlesnake during the pre-show camera blocking. The rattler nipped Perkins on the finger and he spent three weeks in the hospital recuperating from the bite. However, all of this happened off-camera and was not filmed. Yet Perkins reported in his 1982 autobiography that he regularly met Wild Kingdom fans who reminisced about watching in horror on TV that fateful day when that rattlesnake sank its fangs into his hand.

3. Jungle Jim Fowler "“ The Guy Who Did the Grunt Work
Picture 2.pngJim Fowler graduated from Earlham College with degrees in zoology and geology. The naturalist was a well-known expert in predatory birds when he teamed up with Perkins to co-host Wild Kingdom. Jim had studied animals in the wilds of Africa and South America, and had years of experience filming them. Yet, no matter how impressive his credentials, it was always clear that he was the worker bee while Perkins ruled the hive. Perkins, nattily dressed in a safari jacket and pith helmet, rarely got his hands dirty or broke a sweat as he poked his head out from the safety of his Jeep and earnestly set the scene ("Let's watch while Jim attempts to circumcise this rabid wolverine.")

4. How Man-Eating Pythons Helped the Insurance Business
Picture 41.png No, the Bushmen of New Guinea didn't start taking out huge policies"¦ V.J. Skutt, then the CEO of Mutual of Omaha, was a conservationist at heart and he agreed with Marlin Perkins that providing TV viewers with a realistic look at animals in their natural habitat would inspire folks to get interested in ecology and wildlife preservation. Skutt decided to sponsor Perkins' new brainchild, Wild Kingdom, and the show's instant popularity surprised everyone involved. It was one of the very few syndicated series ever to be nominated for an Emmy award, and "“ more importantly "“ it made the previously little-known insurance company a household name across the country. Mutual of Omaha's annual premium income grew into the billions of dollars.

5. All Was Not What It Seemed
During those early years of Wild Kingdom, most viewers were naïve in the ways of wild animals and it never occurred to us to ask "Just how did that baby moose happen to get stuck in the mud pit at the same time a camera crew was nearby?" In 1982, the producers of the CBC series The Fifth Estate (sort of a Canadian 60 Minutes) aired an episode titled "Cruel Camera," which examined the treatment of animals in the entertainment industry. The show's host, Bob McKeown approached an 80-something Marlin Perkins for an impromptu interview, asking whether Wild Kingdom had ever interfered with nature for the sake of drama. Perkins (whom most of us still remembered as the mild-mannered man responsible for such awkward segues as "Just like the mother bear protects her cubs, Mutual of Omaha is there to protect your family"¦") first demanded that the cameras be shut off, then proceeded to punch McKeown in the face when his request was denied.

The Fifth Estate recently aired a follow-up to "Cruel Camera," and it breaks our collective heart to report that despite the supposed supervision of the American Humane Association, all these years later animals are still being exploited and abused in the name of entertainment. WARNING: This video is heart-wrenching in parts and difficult to watch, but is an important statement on behalf of those creatures who cannot speak for themselves.

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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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