30 Fun Facts About The Voyage of the Mimi

Bank Street College of Education
Bank Street College of Education

In 1984, The Voyage of the Mimi debuted on PBS. The groundbreaking educational science series, part of the curriculum of many elementary and high school students (including this writer!), captivated kids throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, spawned a sequel, and kicked off Ben Affleck’s career. Here are 30 things you might not have known about the show.

1. The Voyage of the Mimi was created because of a U.S. Department of Education proposal.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. Department of Education put out a request for proposals for a middle school multimedia science curriculum that would include TV, computer software, video disks, teacher guides, and other educational materials. “It was a time when two important trends were converging: the U.S. was losing its preeminent position as a world leader in science and math, and computer technology was in its infancy and people were beginning to think of it as a potential tool for education,” says Lorin Driggs, who at the time was working in the Publications Department of New York City’s Bank Street College of Education, which created Voyage of the Mimi. “The goal as stated by the Department of Education's RFP was to encourage more elementary-age students—including minorities and girls—to be interested in and pursue careers in science and math while also exploring/demonstrating the potential of microcomputing as an adjunct to conventional classroom teaching/learning methods.”

2. The Voyage of the Mimi was the brainchild of educational entertainment heavyweights.

Director and cameraman D’Arcy Marsh (center) and Peter Marston, the owner/captain of the Mimi who also played Captain Granville, between takes.

The late Richard Ruopp, then the president of Bank Street, put together a small team to create the proposal and recruited Children Television Workshop’s Samuel Y. Gibbon, Jr., a producer on shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, to help. At the time, Gibbon was working on the show that would become 3-2-1 Contact (then called "The Science Show") and was frustrated because “I couldn’t seem to find an entertaining way to design that show,” he tells mental_floss. “I just didn’t feel that the comedy variety format, which we’d used to good effect in Sesame Street and The Electric Company, was appropriate for science. I thought that we ought to be getting kids excited, and they ought to be encouraged to dive into the science, not stand outside it and be amused by it.” He jumped at the chance to work on the proposal, and when it was chosen, he stayed on as executive producer. Bank Street’s Driggs was also on the team, serving first as Gibbon’s special assistant and later as managing editor of the program’s educational classroom materials.

When the series got the greenlight from the Department of Education, Gibbon hired Jeffrey Nelson—a producer on director John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna—to serve as on-location producer, and recruited filmmaker D’Arcy Marsh to direct and shoot the episodes. Dick Hendrick, who Gibbon taught at Harvard while he was on a break from production with Children’s Television Workshop, was brought on to write the scripts.

3. Research done for 3-2-1 Contact influenced the topic of Voyage of the Mimi.

From formative research done at the Children’s Television Workshop, Gibbon knew that shows with a plot were more interesting to kids than ones without. “Even a comedy bit with a plot line was preferred over one that just had a bunch of jokes—and if it was a semi-serious story or a drama, that was the most appealing thing of all,” he says. “I was very struck by that, and it seemed to me to support the notion that we could teach science in a storyline.” The team decided that their proposal would be for a 13-episode series; each episode would be broken down into a 15 minute dramatic segment followed by a 15 minute documentary—later called “expeditions”—hosted by one of the young stars that would show real scientists at work.

But what would the show be about? Gibbon again drew on what he had learned at 3-2-1 Contact, this time from an idea for an article in the show’s magazine about a sick whale. Testing had shown that it "was far-and-away the most interesting story to kids,” he says. Plus, at the time, “there wasn’t a hell of a lot known about whales. Whale research had been done, but not very much of it. I found it very interesting, so I sort of inflicted it on my chums.” The dramatic portion would feature a multicultural cast and take place on a sailboat chartered by two marine biologists—a man and a woman—who were studying humpback whales. They'd be joined by two high school students, the captain’s grandson, and a deaf graduate assistant. “Frank Withrow, who was in charge of technology and education projects at the Department of Education, started his professional life as a teacher of the deaf, and was very eager for us to include somebody with a hearing disability,” Gibbon says.

4. The Voyage of the Mimi had a board of science advisors.

“We had consultants and an advisory board that met regularly throughout the project,” Driggs says. There were 18 total, including math consultant Magdalene Lampert, who recently wrote Building a Better Teacher; Ted Ducas, a professor at Wellesley College who taught a physics course on whales; Kristina Hooper, a cognitive scientist who later founded Apple’s Multimedia Lab; Bob Tinker, a designer of science probeware; and teachers and faculty at Bank Street.

5. The Voyage of the Mimi had a number of challenges unique to a kids' show.

Nelson was excited to book the Mimi job—and nervous. Most children's shows were filmed in studios at that time, but Mimi “would be shot at sea and on a remote island off the coast of Maine, with a cast that consisted mostly of children, and that was highly dependent on the cooperation of whales and weather, both of which featured prominently in the story,” Nelson says. “There were many scenes that involved whales, and we needed to have lots of good weather as well as a big storm at sea. What if the actors got seasick? What if the whales never appeared? What if there was no big storm? Or worse, what if we got a monster storm that would endanger the cast and crew? There were all these elements over which we had no control. These were not typical challenges for a children’s TV show.”

6. Marsh almost didn’t do The Voyage of the Mimi.

Ben Affleck and Marsh.

The filmmaker had to choose between doing second unit filming on Gorillas in the Mist—which featured a group of gorillas he had filmed five years earlier with primatologist Dian Fossey—or directing Mimi. Meeting with Gibbon convinced him that Mimi was the way to go. "Mimi ultimately seemed a much more important project," he says. (Marsh later worked on The Making of Gorillas in the Mist. Mimi turned out to be the right choice, for one very big reason we’ll get to in a bit.

7. Captain Granville was the first person cast for The Voyage of the Mimi

When he was looking for a boat for the series, Gibbon talked to some friends he had made while teaching at Harvard between producing The Electric Company and 3-2-1 Contact. His friends recommended he check out MIT professor Peter Marston’s boat, an old tuna trawler that had been converted into a sailboat. “I went up to see Peter and he was such an interesting character with his beard, and clearly a very experienced skipper—but also he had science connections,” Gibbon says. It wasn’t hard to convince Marston, a plasma scientist, to play the part. “We knew Peter had to come with the boat because he was the one who knew how to run it and knew all of its quirks," Gibbon says. "But then he’s also a wonderful character. He had done some performing—he would sing shanties around town, and he was part of a group that did theatrical productions. So he was accustomed to being visible, and it was a short hop, skip and a jump to his being Captain Granville.”

8. The Mimi in The Voyage of the Mimi has a strange history.

The 72-foot boat was built in Camaret, France in 1931, and was originally used as a cargo barge. In World War II, German soldiers used the boat to haul munitions. At some point, it was sunk in France and was basically a wreck when, in the 1960s, it was bought by a Frenchman who, with his family and two others, fixed the Mimi up with the intent of sailing it around the world. When they were converting the trawler into a sailboat, “they forgot to get the masts for the Mimi—and they had no money," Marsh says. "There was a national monument shipwreck that was sitting there rotting, so they got a chainsaw, cut the masts down and loaded them on a truck in the middle of the night, and had a car chase with the police. They were just filled with idealism and impracticality, but they did a great job fixing the boat up.” Still, it wasn’t long into their trip that the voyagers began fighting, and eventually, the owner sold the Mimi to Marston, who owned it until 1999.

9. Parts of The Voyage of the Mimi were run past real kids.

Gibbon believed in testing almost everything, from potential cast members’ audition tapes to the classroom educational materials to rough cuts of the documentaries. That work was carried out by people like Bill Tally, who joined Bank Street’s Center for Children and Technology (no longer a part of Bank Street) right after he graduated from college in 1983 (he's still a research scientist there). “As formative researchers, our role was to give the producers timely feedback about what, in their rough cuts, storyboards, scripts or software prototypes, was working and not working for kids, often in response to questions they had about which way was the best way to go with a particular set of design decisions,” Tally says. “What we did is to assemble small numbers of children, maybe 4 to 10 at a time, from Bank Street School for Children and often from nearby NYC public schools, and sit with them, while they watched, played with, and talked about a rough cut, or prototype.”

The researchers showed almost all of the expedition rough cuts to kids. “I would say we made tweaks in all of them based on those sessions,” Tally says. “Changes often included editing and re-sequencing of segments to make concepts and information clearer, the scientists more appealing, and provoke kids' curiosity more.”

In the rough cut of the expedition called “Boatshop,” for example, documents in Bank Street’s archives show that kids thought that the portions showing the boat makers bending wood were boring, and that, according to one kid, “everybody talked too much." ("It gets boring cause they just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk," another kid agreed. "Not enough action.”) In this case, the researchers recommended, among other things, “edit[ing] down the longer parts of the tape which are not critical to the structure or content” and adding “some more ‘humorous’ moments to ‘lighten’ up the documentary,” according to the document.

“The producers weren't always happy about our recommendations,” Tally says. “There's a built-in struggle between making appealing stories and making science concepts comprehensible to kids, and that led to a constant, fruitful and productive tension between the basement (production) and the 6th floor (research) at BSC. It was a lot of fun arguing and trying to make each piece better.”

10. After filming The Voyage of the Mimi pilot, they recast two parts.

In July 1982, the production filmed a pilot episode, starring Marston as Captain Clement Tyler Granville, future Batman Ben Affleck as his grandson C.T., Edwin De Asis as scientist Ramon Rojas, Judy Pratt as graduate research assistant Sally Ruth Cochran, Mark Graham as Arthur Spencer, and MaryAnn Plunket as scientist Ann Abrams.

Previously, Affleck had been in a low budget movie that Marsh had filmed; Mimi was only his second role. “When we were auditioning kids for C.T., D'Arcy suggested Ben,” Gibbon says. “Ben was absolutely adorable. He came from a family that knew a lot about film and he had some experience on camera. He was a natural. Nobody else we auditioned could hold a candle to him.” They had found Pratt at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The pilot took about a month to film. Afterward, the National Science Foundation agreed to help the Department of Education fund the full series, and production was slated to begin the next summer (to accommodate the kids’ school schedules). But they needed to recast two parts: One actress, who was playing a high school student named Rachel “was a sweetheart, but she became very self-conscious and it was difficult for her to act and to become naturally emotional,” Marsh says. She was replaced with Mary Tanner. Plunket, meanwhile, had to drop out when she replaced Amanda Plummer in Agnes of God on Broadway; Victoria Gadsden was hired to play Ann Abrams. After two weeks of rehearsals in Gloucester, The Voyage of the Mimi officially got underway in the summer of 1983 and filmed for two months.

11. Gadsden did her research to play a scientist in The Voyage of the Mimi.

Gadsden’s character was supposed to be fluent in sign language to communicate with her deaf research assistant, so “my biggest concern when I was in New York getting ready to go was learning sign language,” she says. “So I did what I could to learn sign language and then during the shooting, Judy Pratt had an interpreter named Jo with her at all times—even when you’re not talking to Judy, she needs to be included exactly the way everybody else is. Once we were all together, Judy and Jo taught me. I never got fluent, but I was able to communicate with Judy, and they taught me how to do my lines.” Gadsden also went on a whale watch with a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and picked his brain.

12. The Voyage of the Mimi was shot with a very small crew.

Cast and crew shooting a scene on Dyer Island, Maine.

Marsh directed and shot the series on 16mm with just a few people to help: In addition to a chase boat with its own camera crew helmed by producer John Borden, on the Mimi there was an assistant cameraman, a sound man, a lighting guy, a continuity person, and a producer. Then there was the crew, with the actors sometimes helping out. “You can't fit many more people than that on the Mimi,” Marsh says. “I shot handheld almost all of the film. The only time I used the tripod was when it was like getting long telephoto shots of the boat out at sea or something like that. I had a Bosun's [also called a boatswain] chair and I would go up and down while [the crew was] climbing in the rigging.”

13. What should have been the most challenge scene in The Voyage of the Mimi was a snap to shoot.

Tagging a whale.

Nelson thought the scene would be tricky to pull off: In it, fictional scientist Ramon would attach a transmitter to a whale using a crossbow. De Asis couldn’t do it, of course, so the plan was to fly in from California the only real scientist who was authorized to tag whales, dress him up like Ramon, approach a whale in a Zodiac, and use a crossbow with a suction-tipped arrow to attach the transmitter. “We needed a calm sea and a still or ‘lolling’ whale, and we needed to get a good shot of the scientist firing the arrow and attaching it to the whale, with the other characters watching from the Mimi in the background,” Nelson, now a senior curriculum/instructional design associate at the Center for Children & Technology, recalls. “I thought the chances of all of those things coming together successfully were slight, at best.” Jokingly, he called for extra calm weather and asked the whales to appear on set at 8 a.m.

He shouldn’t have worried: The day was calm, the whales were right on time, and the scientist had great aim. The sequence was completed by 9:30, exactly as the script had mapped it out. “We were stunned and exhilarated—and hugely relieved,” he says. “I thought it would be the most difficult scene of the entire shoot, and it turned out to be one of the easiest. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had on a set.”

For Gadsden, the day was a once in a lifetime experience. “I got to go with the scientist and really and truly drive the Zodiac and get an arm’s length away from a whale that he tagged,” she says. “What a day. What an incredible day.”

14. Ben Affleck was a total pro.

Affleck in the Mimi, listening for signals from the radio transmitter on the whale.

“I’ve worked with a bunch of people who’ve gone on to become celebrities, and they have something in common—this intense focus,” Gadsden says. “It’s completely logical that Ben is where he is. He was adorable, number one. And he had a very intense overdriving ambition—he was incredibly mature and focused and had a sense of career even then.” Affleck, who had been in the pilot, even filled Gadsden in on the history of the project and gave her advice. “He was a very sweet, fun kid, and he was really into us all hanging around and having fun,” she says. “I’ll never forget one time running into him on one of our days off, and he was coming out of a story, and he’d gone in and gotten us all name tags, like a waitress would wear. He thought it would be fun if we wore these cheesy name tags. That was just Ben.” The young actor—just 11 at the time—wrote to his classmates, Gadsden says, and to his brother Casey, “who was at home and bummed not to be included.”

15. Seasickness was sometimes an issue while filming The Voyage of the Mimi.

Marsh, a former camp counselor, knew that “like an army, kids travel on their stomachs.” So, on the cast’s first trip on the Mimi, he picked up a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins. “Everyone ate them in the car and they were all excited,” Marsh says. “We got down to the dock and we got in the boat and the harbor was flat, no problem. And we went out of Boston Harbor and as soon as we rounded the breakwater and we got in the open water there was some hurricane out in the ocean and there were huge waves and the boat was going up and down. Everybody got seasick,” he laughs. “So much for the Munchkins.”

One person who never got seasick was Gadsden. “Some people did suffer,” she says. “But I never did. During the big storm sequence, everyone ended up really sick except for me, Peter, Judy, and D’Arcy. At one point everybody else was puking, and we were up on the deck doing whatever we could.”

16. The Mimi's former owner returned to help film a crucial scene.

When Marston was acting, he had another skipper, a woman named Kate Cronin. “Of course, he was watching her like a hawk, and she was nervous,” Marsh says. “At one point she bumped into the dock and scraped the whole side of the boat!” But for a scene that required the Mimi to be beached and its crew stranded—which was filmed on a remote island off the coast of Maine—Marston called in the big guns: the Mimi’s former French owner. “He was fantastic—‘ah, it's no problem, no problem!’” Marsh remembers. “He brought the Mimi in on a high tide, and let the tide go out, and we had to shoot the whole thing between two tides. We filmed the whole thing, with the boat on its side—it's approximately 12 hours from low to high to low tide, so we probably had six hours to shoot in. But it never felt like a rush.”

17. The whales were very cooperative—and impressive.

“From the beginning we were saying, 'Sam, you know, there's very good chance that we're never gonna get any whales,’” Marsh recalls. “But it was an unbelievable summer, with the humpback whales all over the place.” Another crew, filming in a second boat, was able to get incredible close-up shots of the whales, while Marsh—who was shooting handheld—could get up in the rigging and shoot down on the cast interacting with the creatures. “We sailed out to where they were, and the whales came right up to the boat—you could see it in the film. It was just unbelievable. People could spend years trying to get shots like that.” Says Nelson, “There were many times when we’d be out at sea on a beautiful day, watching humpbacks breaching in the distance or swimming along right next to the boat, when I’d think how amazing it was that this was a job and I was being paid to do it. Seeing these magnificent animals close up is an experience I’ll never forget—and I’ll certainly never forget the indescribable stench of their breath when they exhaled just a few yards away.”

Even science teacher-turned-actor and New York City native Edwin De Asis, who played Ramon, found the experience incredible. “Native New Yorkers are not easily impressed,” he wrote in press materials. “Let me tell you, anyone, including New Yorkers, would be impressed when a humpback whale breeches—even the winos will give a deserving second look, and nothing impresses a wino.”

18. There was a love connection on The Voyage of the Mimi.

Marsh and Gadsden met on the Mimi set, and it wasn’t long before “D’Arcy struck up his romance with her during production in the Gulf of Maine. He was much envied by many others in the group,” Gibbon says, laughing. The pair later married.

19. The Voyage of the Mimi could have had a rock ’n roll soundtrack.

Gibbon wanted the series to have rock ’n roll music, but Marsh disagreed—he thought the show needed a more traditional score. So they did a test, putting both kinds of music over the scene were the Mimi shipwrecks on a deserted island and Captain Granville gets hypothermia. “One soundtrack was with flute and guitar and the other one I used the music from [the movie] Day of the Dolphin,” Marsh says. Everything in the episode was the same, save for the music; Gibbon and the researchers took it around to schools and showed it in two classrooms, then asked questions. "The kids who saw the [rock soundtrack] said, 'They come to land, Captain Granville collapses, and has hypothermia, and then they walk around and discover they are on an island,'" Marsh says. "The second group, which saw the movie music, said, 'They come to an island, Captain Granville collapses and almost dies, they find they're lost on an island, and then they save Captain Granville by keeping him warm, and he lives.’” The movie score helped the students better comprehend what was happening, so the movie score stayed.

20. The Voyage of the Mimis theme music was composed by Jeff Lass—with some guidance from Marsh.

As with the score, Marsh had some very particular ideas about what the theme should be: “’I said to Sam, ‘I think what we want is a theme that carries them through this journey.’ It’s got to get more and more exciting, and then they got to get to the top, and then they get to the other side and they get down. So that’s why the music is like going up and down hill.” Marsh gave that direction to composer Jeff Lass, who Marsh says was “a brilliant guy. He was fantastic—I came up with the idea of what the theme should be, and then he was very good musically.” The earworm of a theme song is one of the best-remembered things about Mimi.

21. The Voyage of the Mimi's “expeditions” were shot after the dramatic episodes were completed.

In each mini-documentary, one of the young actors—playing him or herself—would act as host, visiting real-life scientists who were doing research that connected to the content of the dramatic portion of the episode. “The initial impulse was to show some real science, lest kids think that everything was just wonderfully sexy and interesting and with beautiful people doing fascinating things all the time,” Gibbon says. “We needed to inject a little bit of reality into that. And we wanted to show real scientists at work, as opposed to just the fictional ones in our storyline.” Affleck, Graham, Tanner, and Pratt visited places like the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the New Alchemy Institute, and the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory. (Among the documents in Bank Street’s archives is a slip, signed by Affleck’s mother, giving Nelson and scriptwriter Hendrick permission to take Affleck there, who “take full responsibility for him during the course of that visit.”)

22. To test The Voyage of the Mimi's computer materials, researchers went analog.

Back when Mimi was being created, computers existed, but they were by no means prevalent in the classroom. In order to test the concepts of the software they were developing, Tally and his colleagues had to test things on paper before the software was built. “We would take the crude screen mock-ups that the programmer created and test them with students at Bank Street School—in the lobby before school, during lunch, and after school,” Tally says. “From the beginning, Sam's idea was to model in the classroom uses of the computer that reflected adults' and scientists' use of real tools: simulations, programming environments, modeling tools, data recording, and graphing tools.”

The formative research led to tweaks in the materials: “A good example of formative research influencing design in specific but significant ways was a session that involved the 'Rescue Mission' game,” Tally says. “In the early prototype, the narrative was that a ship was lost, and kids were trying to navigate toward a Target Ship. We found that while boys were really engaged, girls were far less so. When we probed them about why, the boys talked about 'hitting the target' and generally invoked video game language. We talked to the producers and decided to shift the story and graphics around slightly—making the ship a fishing trawler that had accidentally caught a whale in its net, and the players' job a 'Rescue Mission’—and girls were just as avid about the simulation, and navigation skills, as boys. Given the project's goal of helping avert the well-known drop-off of interest in science and math among girls as they approach middle school, this was an important change."  

In addition to "Rescue Mission," which helped kids develop geo-spatial mapping and navigation skills, other computer software included "Island Survivors," a Sim City-esque game in which kids used software to model an island ecology, set parameters, and try to survive multiple seasons, and "Lab Tools," which allowed kids to plug probes into the Apple IIe and “learn to measure and graph heat, light and sound data from their bodies and the environment around them, conducting experiments that compared their own world to the whale in its environment,” Tally says.

23. One episode of The Voyage of the Mimi was banned in some states.

In the episodes “Tracking the Whales” and “Shipwrecked,” the Mimi is damaged and begins taking on water, and Captain Granville is swept overboard. Although he is pulled back on board, he gets hypothermia; to save him, Ramon and Arthur strip to their underwear and climb into a sleeping bag with a nearly naked Granville. “We knew it was saucy, and that was why we wanted to do it,” Gibbon says. “It illustrated something about hypothermia and about heat flow and the fact that a fire isn’t the best way to warm up somebody who is suffering from hypothermia; you’ve got to have contact. It’s not just heat transmitted through the air, it’s actually flesh-to-flesh. So that was quite deliberate.” But the episode caused some controversy: According to Marsh, it was banned in three states, including Texas, because “people almost naked in a sleeping bag with kids was a big no-no.”

It caused some trouble with the educational materials, too: According to Gibbon, “When the salesman that had to sell the materials to Texas and other conservative southern states saw the illustration in the book, he said, ‘I can’t show this to teachers in the south. They will go crazy.’ When they said we had to replace that illustration, we were devastated.” Ruopp persuaded the distributors of the educational materials that the story had to stay the same, but that the illustration could be replaced. “The publisher had to pay for an additional painting to be done,” Gibbon says, “and they had to cut out that page in all of these books—which had been bound and were waiting in the warehouse to be shipped—and paste in another page with a less provocative illustration on it."

24. The Second Voyage of the Mimi was greenlit before The Voyage of the Mimi premiered.

The Second Voyage of the Mimi focused on Maya archaeology and incorporated social studies and language arts as well as science and math. “The decision to go ahead with number two—our decision to apply for funds for number two—was made very shortly after we finished production on the drama episodes for the first voyage,” Gibbon says. “We had done enough testing of those materials to suspect that [the show] was going to do alright.”

Still, the second Mimi almost never made it to the classroom. “The Reagan administration tried to defund the second Voyage of the Mimi,” Gibbon says. “We were on location in Mexico for the second Voyage, and they wanted to pull the project. But Frank Withrow [from the Department of Education] persuaded them not to do that.”

25. Affleck’s mom taught the kids when they were on location in Mexico for the sequel to The Voyage of the Mimi.

“Chris, she's a great teacher,” Marsh says. “The first class that she had when she got to Mexico was math class, and so the math class was you take U.S. money and change it to Mexican currency, back and forth. The second one was Social Studies—you go out and spend the Mexican money in a local shop. She could make any situation a teaching, a learning situation.”

26. Gibbon would not fudge the science for one scene in The Second Voyage of the Mimi—and it was worth it.

Margaret Honey, now the president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, came in after the first Mimi to do formative research for the second series. She remembers when the crew returned from filming a particular scene “looking a little worse for wear,” she says. “There was a lot of grumbling, and people were like ‘We went three days longer than we were supposed to, we went way over budget.’ And I’m listening to all this—I’m just a young thing in the office, kind of soaking it all up—and somebody says ‘Sam wouldn’t fake the science.’ So I’m like ‘What does that mean?’”

In the story in the second season of the Mimi—which deals not just with Mayan archaeology and the search for a lost city, but also a smuggling plot—the Granvilles and some archaeologists are trying to find a Mayan stele that they know exists because of stolen artifacts, which contain clues to the location of the lost city, that are showing up on the black market. The archaeologists discover the giant, half-buried stele on a dive, and realize that the clue to the location of the hidden city is on it—so they have to figure out how to raise the stele off the ocean floor. Which meant that the real production had to figure out a way to do it that made sense scientifically. A real stele would have weighed 5000 pounds; what the production used was much lighter, made of fiberglass. "What Sam wanted to do was have an authentic, plausible, legitimate way of how you would raise an object like this off the ocean floor,” Honey says. “What they settled on—and this is what caused them to go three days longer on the shoot and over budget—was, they ended tying rope around the stele and then inflating strong garbage bags with air from air hoses on the backs of divers.”

Though the production went over time and budget on the sequence, it clearly paid off. When Honey played the rough cut of the scene for students in a Harlem classroom, “the kids were riveted and they had a million questions,” she remembers. “It was clear that this episode hit a major league home run.” The next week, she returned to the classroom, and the teacher told her to go talk to a student named Jose. “Jose says ‘Margaret! You won’t believe what I did!’” she says. “He proceeds to tell me how he recreated that entire scene in his bathtub. I’m like ‘what did you use for the stele?’ He said, 'I used a brick and I used string.’ I said ‘What did you do about air?’ And he said ‘You know those bendy straws? Well, that didn’t work so well.’ And I’m like ‘Oh my god, Jose, that is so cool.’ And that, to me, exemplifies the power of Mimi.” (The fiberglass stele, by the way, is in the lobby of the Center for Children & Technology!)

27. There could have been a third Mimi.

It would have been about the Mississippi River, “from all points of view—geological, historical, engineering—and we were going to include the Indian settlements, the mound-builders along the river,” Gibbon says. The inspiration was John McPhee’s book The Control of Nature, about the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to reshape the bottom of the Mississippi River so it would stay within its banks. “It was just a ridiculous idea that anybody can control the Mississippi River,” Gibbon says. “But that effort, which the Corps of Engineers continues to this day, to keep the river in its banks and keep it from overflowing and flooding places and being navigable for its full length—that effort was so interesting and so fraught with difficulty that that became an inspiration for this third voyage. We wanted to do the biology of the river, the fluid mechanics of the river, the economy of the river, the history, and pitch it as an entire curriculum for a year of school. It makes me drool to think about it even now.”

Sadly, Bank Street couldn’t get the project funded. “I guess the [first Bush administration] was already in office, and they were not happy with spending money on educational television,” Gibbon says. “It’s expensive, and the Republican administrations were very interested in reducing government expenditures. So we were lucky that we came along when we did. Sesame Street and The Electric Company never would’ve hit the airwaves had it not been for the Johnson administration. There was sufficient acclaim for those shows and others like them that momentum carried us through the first two seasons of Voyage of the Mimi. But after that, the conservatives had their way.”

29. The Voyage of the Mimi has fans in some strange places.

Years later, Marsh was shooting a fishing series called The Salt Water Fisherman. "The fishing captain that we were going out with was a Portuguese guy from New Bedford—very, very tough," Marsh remembers. "He had won the equivalent of the Silver Star for saving people's lives during a hurricane ... and he had also gone to federal prison for smuggling drugs. He immediately told the story and said 'I didn't do it, it was a set-up, it wasn't me.' He looks and me and says, 'So what kind of movies you've done?'" Marsh told him that he'd done Spenser: For Hire and Mimi. "He said, Voyage of the Mimi? When I was in prison, we watched two shows: NYPD Blue and The Voyage of the Mimi. He knew everybody in Voyage of the Mimi."

29. The Mimi went on a tour.

In the early ‘90s, Marston spent a couple of days a week taking the Mimi to ports along the East Coast, where students who had seen the show could take a tour of the ship, learn about its history, and sing shanties with the Captain. (When the ship came to Philadelphia, I was there!)

30. The Mimi was eventually destroyed.

In 2010, two University of Vermont graduates named Joe Fraker and Dan Koopman, who had watched The Voyage of the Mimi as kids, went looking for the ship during a trip to Boston. They found the ship languishing in East Boston bay. The Mimi was in bad shape, its hull rotting. Experts determined that it would cost $1.2 million to fix the ailing ship, and the funds couldn’t be raised; in 2011, it was scrapped. Most of the wood was turned into mulch.

Many thanks to Jeffrey Nelson, without whom this story would not have been possible, and to Bank Street’s Lindsey Wyckoff for letting me spend an afternoon looking through the Mimi archives!

All images courtesy of the Bank Street College of Education.

This story was updated in 2019.

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

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