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Hands Across America: 25 Years Later

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On May 25, 1986, over 5 million Americans linked hands to make a 4,125-mile human chain that stretched from New York City to Long Beach. They weren’t just big hand holding enthusiasts, though. They were participating in Hands Across America, a massive charity event and fundraiser that hoped to raise money for and draw attention to homelessness and hunger.

In the nearly 25 years since Hands was a national phenomenon, it has slowly faded in our memories. Let’s take a look at the story behind the big event.

Hands Across America was the brainchild of music promoter and charity activist Ken Kragen, who had previously played a lead role in putting together USA for Africa’s 1985 charity single “We Are the World.” Following the success of that project, Kragen trained his sights on the more ambitious task of forming a human chain across the country to raise money for charity. Kragen and his team billed Hands as “the largest participatory event in the history of the world.”

Coca-Cola kicked in $8 million to get the project rolling, but an event like this really needed celebrities. Hands assembled a real murderers’ row of stars. The event had four celebrity co-chairmen: Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers, Lily Tomlin, and Pete Rose. (Rose and his Cincinnati Reds teammates joined hands with Little Leaguers at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium during a road trip.)

What better place to grab the national consciousness than a Super Bowl commercial? That January, Hands made its first big splash when it ran an ad featuring its theme song during Super Bowl XX. The ad drummed up some nice publicity for Hands Across America, but it couldn’t compare to what followed: a star-studded music video featuring the event’s amazingly cheesy theme song. (Since this was 1986, of course the song’s backing band was Toto.)

Despite the terrific production values of this video, at least one celebrity was hesitant to participate. Just a week before the event President Ronald Reagan said, “I don't believe that there is anyone going hungry in America by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them; it is by people not knowing where or how to get this help." In other words, if anyone was hungry it was his or her own fault. Reagan eventually softened his stance just two days before Hands Across America and took a spot in the chain on the White House lawn.

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Other celebrities came out in droves, too. Prince kicked in a $13,200 donation. Jet reported that NBA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alex English joined with Olympic track star Edwin Moses to form a sports committee. Whoopi Goldberg, Harry Belafonte, Brooke Shields and Dionne Warwick joined in on the handholding.

Even with this Hollywood glitz, the whole “across America” claim was a little dubious. The participants couldn’t fully stretch from sea to shining sea given Hands’ circuitous route, so long ribbons or lengths of rope had to stand in for actual people for up to a hundred miles in areas like deserts. The Los Angeles Times reported that there were huge gaps in the line in some of the dodgier sections of East LA, and volunteers’ efforts to recruit people from their front porches to join the chain didn’t generate any interest.

What do you do with millions of people once they’ve linked hands? Why not have them belt out a few tunes? The chain stayed together for 15 minutes, long enough for participants to sing “We Are the World,” “America the Beautiful” and, naturally, the Hands theme song.

A human chain is nice and all, but how does it raise any money to feed the hungry? Participants weren’t just being asked to come out and hold hands. They were also supposed to cough up a donation of at least $10 apiece to join the chain. Between those donations and corporate sponsorships from companies like Citibank and American Express, Hands seemed poise to raise quite a bit of cash; the project’s coordinators wanted to gross $50 million that could then be dispersed to local causes through grants.

However, as anyone who’s ever tried to form a human chain across a continent can tell you, it’s no small task. As Hands’ national director told Time in an understated interview before the event, “It's like planning the invasion of Normandy and Hannibal's crossing of the Alps on the same day.” The organizers used a pair of giant computers located in Marshfield, WI, to manage the event and assign participants a place to stand.

Planning and promoting Hands required nine months and a staff of 400 people, which took a huge bite out of the event’s bottom line. On top of that, people were excited to hold hands but less enthusiastic about mailing in their donations. Hands only pulled in around $34 million total, and once the event spent around $17 million to pay its bills it only netted $15-16 million. Robert Hayes of the National Coalition for the Homeless told the New York Times that the event’s organizers “spent too much to raise too little and promoted a national extravaganza empty of content.''

At least one homeless family got a huge benefit from the events. Six-year-old Amy Sherwood had been living in a New York homeless shelter when she was picked to be in the Hands promotional video. Hollywood talent scouts decided the girl showed promise and inked her to an acting contract. Little Amy still took her symbolic place as the first link in the chain where Hands began in New York’s Battery Park even though she and her family had moved into a Brooklyn apartment.

Despite critics’ jabs that the event was more of a spectacle than a fundraiser, it would be shortsighted to just look at the raw numbers on how much Hands collected. The promoters pointed out that the event helped raise the profile of the homeless in the public consciousness, which likely led to more volunteering and donations to related causes. If the event really did raise awareness, then it’s easy to see why its organizers deemed it a success. And if it didn’t? At least it left a really odd blip on our cultural memory.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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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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