A Dreamy History of Teen Idol Magazines, Just for YOU!

waycoolstuff, eBay
waycoolstuff, eBay

The editors at Super Teen had some ironclad rules about the profiles of teen idols featured in their pages each month. An actor or musician’s bad behavior was never discussed; long-term relationships were barely mentioned. Most importantly, there was a permanent ban on chest hair.

"If they have hairy chests, you’ll see them with their shirts buttoned up," Bob Schartoff, the magazine’s creative director, told the New York Daily News in 1982. Facial hair was also verboten. When a reporter offered a hypothetical—say Scott Baio grew a beard—Schartoff said the Joanie Loves Chachi star would effectively be excommunicated from his pages.

Super Teen, Tiger Beat, Bop, 16. From the 1960s to the 1990s, these glossy, primary-colored magazines that looked like the inside of a 13-year-old girl’s locker door sold hundreds of thousands of copies each month and provided gleefully superficial insight into the non-threatening sex symbols of their respective eras. Jason Bateman was photographed cradling a Teddy Ruxpin; Matt Dillon could be seen eating pizza like any normal person. Readers were often referred to in the second-person to better help them visualize an innocent evening with their celebrity crush. ("Are YOU the Kind of Girl Adorable Tim Hutton is Looking For?")

At times, the magazines anticipated the evolution of dimpled pin-ups into actual marquee stars (Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox). Other times, there was a lot of ink spilled over the internal workings of Menudo. All of it was meant to entice their demographic of 11- to 14-year-old girls, which some editors were rather blunt about diagnosing.

"The typical reader … is shy, self-conscious, quiet, afraid of boys, and not into dating," Schartoff said. "They’re 'B' students and not the prettiest one in class."

Kirk Cameron poses for a February 1989 issue of 16 magazine

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The idea of pandering to fans of clean-cut performers with breathless magazine prose can be traced back to Elvis Presley. In the late 1950s, magazines like 16 went from printing song lyrics to relaying details of what it might be like to date the King, crooner Pat Boone, or actor Tab Hunter. When the Beatles arrived stateside in 1964, the ensuing pandemonium flowed into what was quickly becoming a subgenre of publishing—teen idol worship.

Charles Laufer took notice. A journalism and English teacher at Beverly Hills High School, Laufer thought a magazine devoted to teen interests would be a success. He launched Coaster, a regional publication for Long Beach locals, in the 1950s. It didn’t succeed until he realized his mistake: Boys didn’t want to sit down and read about celebrity lifestyles. Girls did.

Laufer renamed the magazine Teen and watched it grow into a hit before leaving to start Tiger Beat in 1965. His timing was fortuitous: The Monkees were just beginning to explode in popularity, and Tiger Beat saw its circulation rise when it profiled the fun-loving group. Laufer sold Monkees fan club memberships, posters, and books before he sold Tiger Beat itself to the Harlequin romance house in 1978 for $12 million.

The magazines—which began to number in the dozens and eventually in the hundreds—were usually cyclical in nature, their sales rising and falling depending on who happened to be in favor with teen girls at any given time. In the '70s, John Travolta and Erik Estrada moved copies. In the '80s, it was soap star Jack Wagner, Scott Baio, Rick Springfield, and Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron, who was such an ideal of non-threatening sexuality that he became a cover fixture.

Typically, editors would get stacks of photos from publicity departments—like Don Johnson standing next to an inflatable alligator—and hope that a competing magazine wouldn’t be running the same shot that month. Interviews were dependent on a star’s level of fame. Some, like Eight is Enough heartthrob Adam Rich, sat for interrogations with editors; others, like Tom Cruise, largely shunned any personal involvement, fearing they’d be typecast in juvenile roles. If a star did consent to an interview, their conversation would likely be parsed over several months to make it last.

Negativity was a killer. When Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio got married in 1987, editors told fans he "needs your support," rather than, say, trying to take down the woman who dared to take Macchio off the market. When a celebrity made a less-than-flattering impression—like the time the 13-year-old Rich told his publicist to "shut up" during one Super Teen sit-down—it was never disclosed. When John Schneider walked off the set of The Dukes of Hazzard over a pay dispute, fans wrote in to express their disappointment. Financial strikes broke the fantasy, and Schneider-related pin-up sales slumped.

The adulation could be mortifying for actors trying to take their careers seriously, particularly when they were surrounded by the kind of Trapper Keeper collage and single-syllable vernacular favored by the publications. (Pictures were "pix," facts were "fax.") Others—or their publicists—saw the teen mags as a vehicle to promote themselves. Rick Springfield was said to have hung around 16’s New York offices looking for a mention before his big break. In 1979, Kevin Spacey showed up for a cattle call to find a new “teen idol” for Tiger Beat. (He never joined the ranks of Cameron and the rest.)

The table of contents for the August 1992 issue of Tiger Beat
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At its peak in the 1970s, Tiger Beat and its sister publications reached roughly 2 million readers a month. Others got by on as little as 135,000 paid copies sold. The 1990s diversified with titles like Teen People and Sassy, publications that brought a stronger editorial voice to readers and eased up on the kind of copy that didn’t exactly enable feminism. ("Sail Away with RALPH MACCHIO!")

In the 1990s, the popularity of the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC helped keep Tiger Beat and the others afloat, but not for long. The internet and social media excised the middleman, allowing stars to control their exposure and deliver calculated glimpses into their lives without Teen Beat interfering. Many enduring titles folded. Tiger Beat sold to a group of investors—which included Nick Cannon—for $4 million in 2016, with plans to modify the brand for a digital era.

The tens of thousands of magazines once revered like pop culture gospel are now relegated to recycling bins, basements, or eBay, with one cover or interview largely indistinguishable from another. All readers wanted was some gossip, some advice, and to find out whether or not Corey Haim liked pepperoni on his pizza.

"Actually," Teen Star Photo Album editor Lori Bernstein told the Palm Beach Post in 1988, "they all kind of say the same things."

Weird Science: The Mr. Wizard Story

NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, it was unusual for television programs to address the topic of sex. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy. Both were forbidden by network standards to even use the word pregnant. (For all viewers knew, Little Ricky was the product of an immaculate conception.) Teens on sitcoms rarely investigated anything other than chaste dating.

But for the juvenile audience of Watch Mr. Wizard, viewers got what may have been television’s earliest widespread discussion of sex. More specifically, the gestation period of hamsters.

Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible. A revolving cast of kid assistants, none of them particularly interested in science, stood at Herbert's side and marveled at how Newtonian laws influenced their day-to-day existence.

Hebert was so popular that NBC gave him free rein to blow things up or discuss hamster sex. And then, nearly 20 years after Watch Mr. Wizard's cancellation in 1965, Herbert was given the opportunity to captivate a brand-new generation of kids with Mr. Wizard's World, which made its debut on the fledging Nickelodeon cable channel in 1983. Forget Bill Nye: For millions of viewers, Herbert was the original "science guy."

 

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show.

But acting, while promising, wasn’t foremost on Herbert's mind. He enrolled in the Army Air Forces in 1942, eventually piloting a B-24 bomber in 56 bombing missions over Europe. He was also involved in the invasion of Italy. Herbert was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his contributions. (His dual role as war hero and kid show host may have been the origin of the infamous myth about Fred Rogers being a sniper.)

After arriving back home, Herbert's love of the arts led him to Chicago, where he felt he might be able to find a way back into the entertainment industry.

Eventually, he did.

Don Herbert appears in a publicity photo for 'Watch Mr. Wizard'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Herbert agreed to begin hosting a science-oriented show for WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate. Just a few years after the introduction of the atom bomb and with Americans troubled by reports of Soviet space technology like Sputnik, the time seemed right for a series that focused on the scientific laws governing the world. An ad executive thinking of sponsoring the program wanted to call him “the Wizard.” Herbert, feeling that was perhaps too pretentious, added a “Mr.” to the title.

Watch Mr. Wizard premiered in 1951. Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen. His first assistant was 11-year-old Willy, Herbert’s real-life next-door neighbor.

Herbert was adamant that science not be confined to sterile lab settings. He reasoned that by using everyday household items to conduct his experiments, kids would be able to replicate them at home.

“Milk bottles are your flasks,” Herbert said. “Glasses your beakers, and the whole house your laboratory.”

There was no barrier between a child and their curiosity. Herbert would present situations—a rising cake, blowing wind—and then explain the “trick.” He considered entertaining his audience to be his primary job, not educating them, but was thrilled if he could succeed at doing both.

“I do a kind of educational television but the difference between what I do and educational television is like night and day,” Herbert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961. “The primary purchase of educational television is to teach and the primary purpose of Mr. Wizard is to entertain, to stimulate, to intrigue.”

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers [PDF]. While the audience was not as sizable as a primetime hit, it was a substantial number for an educational program. (Though it was ostensibly for kids, half of Watch Mr. Wizard's viewers were adults.) His audience was also devoted, with 5000 fan clubs springing up across the country that eventually claimed 100,000 members. Herbert’s notoriety helped him sell 200,000 copies of various science books.

In 1965, NBC announced it would be canceling Watch Mr. Wizard. The show had run its course, the network claimed, and audiences were increasingly looking at television as an empty-calorie prospect—not an educational tool. Even so, a 14-year run was something only a handful of shows had ever achieved. But Herbert wasn’t done.

 

Though NBC briefly revived Watch Mr. Wizard in 1971, Herbert felt his skills were best-suited to areas outside of weekly half-hour television. He produced 18 films that were meant to be screened in classrooms; the National Science Foundation helped fund a series of 80-second segments titled How About for local newscasts across the country. Though most of the footage didn’t use the “Mr. Wizard” name, Herbert was often introduced with that moniker regardless.

The news spots led to renewed interest in Mr. Wizard. After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere. More than 30 years after his television debut, Herbert was back, once again dispensing with the confines of laboratory settings.

For Herbert's Nickelodeon series, the pace was much quicker, with eight to 10 segments per episode. The kid assistants, he later said, were savvier about molecules and computers than their 1950s counterparts. But most everything else remained the same.

In both incarnations of the show, Herbert refused to cater to gender stereotypes. Girls were by his side as frequently as boys, and Herbert remarked they were probably better equipped to get into the sciences. He had a cutoff age of 13 for the boys. After that, he said, they “became know-it-alls.”

Mr. Wizard’s World ran through 1990, at which point Herbert largely disappeared from public view. Though he had never expressly set out to teach science and even believed television was a poor fit for educational purposes, his relaxed approach to the subject proved to be a huge inspiration nonetheless.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."

The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith

Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images
Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube—until now. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
Getty Images

Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
Matt Campbell/Getty Images

To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. But at least one survived: In October 2018, a YouTube user named "Nancy Thomson," a nod to the Heather Langenkamp heroine who appeared in several of the Nightmare movies, shared the video in its entirety.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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