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Typecast: Mavis Beacon, The Typing Teacher Who Never Was, Is Turning 30

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When Software Toolworks co-founder Joe Abrams went to the software convention Comdex in early 1988, he was greeted by industry colleagues offering their congratulations. He had somehow been able to secure famed typing instructor Mavis Beacon to endorse his company’s typing tutorial, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

“We’ve been trying to get her for years,” one said. “How did you do it?”

Abrams shrugged. It had been easy to get Mavis because Mavis didn’t exist. Abrams and his partners had invented her.

“She was not a real person, and we never said she was,” Abrams tells Mental Floss. “A kind of cult developed around this fictitious character.”

In Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, people struggling to adapt to the growing number of personal computers in circulation were led through a series of exercises and lessons intended to improve their typing speed. Other programs had existed prior to Mavis Beacon, but none had bothered to give their sterile software an identity. With Mavis, Software Toolworks developed a digital Betty Crocker—a cheerful, patient, good-humored persona that stood out on retail shelves. By 1998, 6 million copies had been sold.

The company was amused to receive calls requesting interviews or personal appearances by Mavis, a sure sign she was resonating. But before the typing icon became one of the PC industry’s biggest success stories, Abrams discovered that not all retailers would warm to the idea of a woman of color—even a fictional one—endorsing software.

A screen shot from 'Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing'
Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks was the name programmer Walt Bilofsky decided to give to his modest software enterprise in 1980. Selling programs that offered type-to-text features uncommon in those days, Bilofsky built up a business around a small circle of personal computer hobbyists in need of productivity programs. Presentation and marketing was not a priority.

“We sold programs in Ziploc bags,” Bilofsky tells Mental Floss.

By the mid-1980s, working together with his cousin Joe Abrams, Bilofsky was ready to move into more commercial pursuits. Another company, Software Country, solicited his help in putting together a home gaming bundle. When Bilofsky wrote a game called Chessmaster 2000 for Software Country’s Les Crane, the two companies merged, and Crane (who died in 2008) became a partner.

It proved to be a perfect coupling. Bilofsky and his small stable of programmers knew software, while Crane—a former talk show host—knew marketing. For Chessmaster 2000, Crane went to considerable effort and expense to imagine a “chess wizard” who would personify the game for players. They wouldn’t be playing a faceless algorithm, but a wizened old pro who appeared on the game's box. With the photo shoot alone costing $10,000, it was a far cry from the plastic bags of Bilofsky’s past.

“Les’s marketing was huge,” Bilofsky says. “I was aghast he spent that much. But he was right.” Chessmaster 2000 was a huge hit for the company. Their next major effort, a typing tutorial, would eclipse it.

According to Abrams, the company was a “wave rider, not a wave maker.” Chess programs were popular, and Abrams saw opportunity to anthropomorphize it with a mascot of sorts. The same proved true for typing programs, which were numerous but often paid little attention to user interface.

“We wanted to pick something where we could make that interaction different than anything that had come before,” Abrams says. “The difference was immersion.” If someone missed a word while “driving,” a bug might splatter on the windshield. If the user wanted to take a break, the software wouldn’t fight them.

“This was before Windows, when pop-up menus were not the norm,” Bilofsky says. “The user could drive the program. You didn’t need to have the manual open in order to use it.”

Perfecting the software was only half the battle. At the time, the computer industry was getting more invested in personalizing their marketing. Celebrities like Bill Bixby and Isaac Asimov endorsed hardware from IBM and Tandy, respectively, but few human faces appeared on software boxes. Abrams thought some kind of industry typing standard might exist that could be licensed, but came up short.

“The other typing programs at the time, like Typing Tutor or MasterType, had very vanilla names and packaging,” he says. “They didn’t grab you. What we wanted was something to make people go, ‘Woah.’ We wanted people to pick the box up, turn it over, and read it.”

One day, Abrams and Crane went to Saks Fifth Avenue near their offices in Beverly Hills so Crane could buy his fiancée a present. At the perfume counter, they were assisted by a saleswoman who seemed to pique Crane’s interest. “He turned to me and said, ‘This is the person we should have.’ I thought he was crazy.”

The employee, Renee L’Esperance, was Haitian with limited English and 6-inch long fingernails. Abrams observed this incongruous feature as being contrary to what a typing master might opt for, but Crane was insistent. “He said it didn’t matter.”


Software Toolworks

The two went back the next day and offered L’Esperance $500 and a new suit in exchange for doing a photo shoot for the company. The photography took less than a day near the Century City towers, with Abrams’s 5-year-old son walking hand-in-hand with the faux typing teacher. Crane chose a fictitious name, Mavis Beacon, after singer Mavis Staples and the beacon of light she represented to clumsy typists everywhere.

The software had its face. Abrams, however, had no idea not everyone would welcome it. “We really didn’t understand the implications of putting a black woman on the cover of an educational product,” he says.

A screen shot from 'Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing'
Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks began taking orders for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in 1987. As with Chessmaster 2000, interest in a product that humanized a computer program was high. But when the company began circulating materials featuring L’Esperance, Abrams was shocked to see advance orders plummet by 50 percent.

“When they saw the package, orders got cut,” he says. “Even though this was 1987, people were afraid to carry an educational product with a black woman on it. They said people just wouldn’t buy it.” In New York, a major mail order and retail giant refused to carry it, citing a glut of typing product.

Opinions changed after The New York Times ran a glowing review of Mavis Beacon in its November 17, 1987 edition. “I got into the office and the phones were lit up asking where to get it,” Abrams says. “I decided to tell them to go to that retailer. By 11 a.m., a buyer for the company asked where he could get 150 copies immediately.”

From that point on, Mavis Beacon became an unstoppable force in software. Although the company never created a fake biography for Mavis or implied that she was a real person, a kind of mass delusion overtook both the media and the buying public. Teachers would call asking for her; Software Toolworks was inundated with requests for speaking engagements. L’Esperance, who had returned to the Caribbean shortly after the photo shoot, was the most famously anonymous woman in software.

“I thought I read somewhere that she had won a big typing contest, or that she ran a school, or something," a customer told The Seattle Times in 1995. "There really is no Mavis? I can't believe it."

Mavis Beacon would continue to be updated over the years, both in and out of the package: L'Esperance got regular Photoshop updates to upgrade her clothing or hairstyle. In 1994, The Software Toolworks was sold to the Pearson group for $460 million. “They were really interested in the educational side of the business,” Abrams says. “Mavis Beacon was our bestselling product, so you could make the theoretical statement it was a driving force behind the purchase.”

Abrams went on to invest in Intermix, the company behind the pioneering social network hub Myspace. While that’s an impressive milestone, he’s most often asked about the famed typing teacher he helped bring into the burgeoning home computer industry.

“To this day, people will say to me, ‘Why did Mavis disappear?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, she never really appeared.’”

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One Small Leap: The Enduring Appeal of Mexican Jumping Beans
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In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."

Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.

THE BEAN MYTH

In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.

Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.

A Mexican jumping bean store display
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).

The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.

CHEAP THRILLS

It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.

“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”

Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.

BEAN PANIC

There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)

You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.

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Michael Jackson's Moonwalk Turns 35

“What the hell was that?” For a moment, members of the production staff monitoring the stage at California's Pasadena Civic Auditorium forgot about the control panels in front of them and exchanged puzzled looks with one another. As the team charged with overseeing the ABC special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a celebration of the famed record label’s silver anniversary, they were typically too focused on their jobs to become starstruck. But what they were witnessing was something else entirely.

Onetime Jackson 5 bandmate Michael Jackson had taken the stage solo to perform “Billie Jean,” which was already the number one song on the Billboard Top 100 chart. In between all the twisting, contorting, and spinning, Jackson took a fleeting moment to glide backwards on his feet. It had the smooth kinetic energy of someone skating on ice. It lasted barely a second. The crowd erupted.

Jackson had not used the dance move in rehearsals for the show. It was a surprise to everyone, including the live audience and the 33.9 million people who would watch the tape-delayed event on television on May 16, 1983. Jackson was already a superstar, but his moonwalk would take him to another stratosphere of fame. And although many assumed Jackson invented the gliding step himself, he was simply following in the footsteps of dance giants from the past.

Usually referred to as the back slide or the back float, the seemingly weightless backward slide had touched down across a number of decades and performers before Jackson's interpretation debuted on March 25, 1983. Famed French mime Marcel Marceau performed an act he titled “Walking in the Wind,” in which he seemed to be bracing against imaginary gale forces, his feet trying to find purchase on the ground. Jazz singer Cab Calloway pulled it off in performances; so did tap dancer Bill Bailey (as seen above) in the 1950s. James Brown incorporated the move into his stage shows, as did Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson. David Bowie performed a more economical version of it during the 1973 tour for his Aladdin Sane album.

While Jackson credited Brown and Marcel as being particular influences on his performance style, he first learned of what he came to call the "moonwalk" after seeing two break-dancers appear on a 1979 episode of Soul Train. During the show, Geron "Caszper" Canidate and Cooley Jaxson performed a routine set to Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night.” The singer remembered the performance and asked his staff to arrange a meeting between him and both men in Los Angeles while he was preparing for the Motown special in early 1983. Jackson asked them to teach him the back slide, which he practiced until he was satisfied he had it down. (Cooley would later express disappointment that Jackson never credited the duo directly. The singer wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalker, that the move was a “break-dance” step created on street corners. While that could be true, it was Cooley and Jaxson who gave Jackson a tutorial.)

Although it may look like an optical illusion, the step is the result of weight-shifting. Dancers begin on their right foot, heel raised, and weight bearing on the right. As they lower the right heel, the left foot moves backward until the toes are aligned with the heel of the right. The left heel is then raised, weight is shifted to the left, and the process repeats itself. For those who are not particularly agile, it can look clumsy. For Jackson, who had been dancing practically his entire life, it was seamless.

For the Motown special, Jackson reportedly agreed to appear with his brothers, the Jackson 5, only if Motown owner and show producer Berry Gordy allowed him a solo performance. Jackson’s Thriller album had been released in November 1982 and was on its way to becoming one of the most successful releases of all time. It’s likely Jackson didn’t feel like he needed the appearance, and some accounts relate that Jackson was initially reluctant to do it because he feared being overexposed. Gordy’s producer, Suzanne de Passe, convinced him the show wouldn’t be the same without the Jackson 5.

Whatever got Jackson on stage that evening, he was clearly prepared for the moment. Short pants and white socks drew attention to his feet; he insisted a stage manager rehearse the placement of his hat following the Jackson 5 performance so that it would be within reach when he segued into his solo performance.

“I have to say, those were the good old days,” Jackson told the crowd after finishing with his brothers. “Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot … but, especially, I like the new songs.” It may have sounded off the cuff, but Jackson’s mid-performance speech was actually written by Motown 25 scriptwriter Buz Kohan.

With that, Jackson got down to business. “Billie Jean” was the only non-Motown song performed during the special, and it felt like a jolt of energy in a sea of nostalgia. Jackson, who was 24 years old at the time, moved effortlessly. Tossing his hat to the side and mouthing lyrics into the microphone, the contrast between Jackson in the middle of a medley with his brothers and then alone on stage was striking. Though he was two solo albums deep by this point, the performance helped cement that he was out on his own.

Jackson spent nearly three and a half minutes singing before debuting the moonwalk. It lasted barely a second but seemed to send the crowd into a mania. With 20 seconds to go, he took another few brief steps backward. After the song played out, Jackson received a standing ovation.

When the performance aired several weeks later on ABC, Motown 25 was a ratings hit. Jackson’s reputation as a live entertainer benefited from a broadcast network audience, and the moonwalk became linked to his routine. Fred Astaire called to congratulate him, a gesture that Jackson—a huge Astaire fan—could never quite believe.

Jackson’s fame led to an untold number of people trying to perfect the moonwalk, with varying degrees of success. Anyone who thought it included some camera or visual trickery may have been dismayed to find it simply required some lower-limb dexterity. Those who got the hang of it were able to impress friends. Those who didn't probably felt a little disappointed at their lack of coordination, especially when they heard that Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, learned to do a variation of it.

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