30 Fun Facts About The Voyage of the Mimi
Thirty years ago this month, 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. IT 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 Dept. 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. ...AND WAS THE BRAINCHILD OF EDUCATIONAL ENTERTAINMENT HEAVYWEIGHTS.
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’ 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. FORMATIVE RESEARCH FOR ANOTHER SHOW INFLUENCED THE TOPIC OF THE SERIES.
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 SHOW 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. IT 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 IT.
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 CAST FIRST.
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 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. EVERYTHING WAS 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. THEY FILMED THE PILOT … AND 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.
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. IT WAS SHOT WITH A VERY SMALL CREW.
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. THE MOST CHALLENGING SCENE WAS A SNAP TO SHOOT.
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 EVEN THEN.
“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.
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 WITH 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.
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. IT 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 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 “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 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 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 FIRST 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.
“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 WOULDN’T FUDGE THE SCIENCE FOR ONE SCENE—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 show 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.