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13 First-Class Facts About Shining Time Station

For almost a decade beginning in 1989, the human and locomotive characters of Shining Time Station delighted PBS viewers with stories of friendship, overcoming challenges, and plain old wackiness. After three original seasons, the series continued on in re-runs through 1998. Even if you spent countless afternoons recreating Thomas’s adventures on your own wooden train set, there are probably a few things you don’t know about this classic program’s characters, its creator, and the mythical, magical Island of Sodor. 

1. IT’S BASED ON A BRITISH SHOW CALLED THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE & FRIENDS.

The long-running series first hit UK televisions in 1984, and its 4.5- or 9-minute segments were repackaged with additional material as Shining Time Station for American viewers beginning in 1989. Between the UK and U.S. versions, direct-to-DVD releases, and other repurposing of show footage, the franchise has had seven different narrators, including Ringo Starr, George Carlin, Alec Baldwin—all of whom also portrayed Mr. Conductor—and Pierce Brosnan (whose narration can be heard in this fan reenactment video). In 2003, the British series became known as Thomas & Friends.

2. THE SERIES IS BASED ON WILBERT AWDRY'S BOOKS, WHICH HE WROTE WHEN HIS SON HAD THE MEASLES.

The character prototypes for Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends were born in 1942, when Anglican cleric Wilbert Awdry—better known as Reverend W. Awdry—was entertaining his bedridden son, Christopher, with stories about very special steam trains. Awdry took to writing the stories down because his son would correct him when they weren't told exactly the same way; the tales were published in 1945 as The Three Railway Engines, the first of 26 books in The Railway Series that Awdry penned (after which his son picked up the torch). 

3. THE ISLAND OF SODOR AND ITS TRAINS ARE ROOTED IN REAL LIFE.

In a 2010 interview with NPR, Christopher Awdry explained that his father’s lifelong fascination with trains brought a lot of reality to the engines of Sodor—and to the fictional island itself. Many of the steam-driven characters are based on specific trains that made an impression on the Reverend when he was young, especially the Billington E2 Class 0-6-0T locomotives built for the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway between 1913 and 1916. "They are all based on original prototypes of locomotives that are run in this country," Christopher Awdry noted, " … and Father wanted them right."

The younger Awdry also said that his father, a dedicated minister, was inspired to create the Island of Sodor’s pastoral paradise after traveling to a Sunday school festival on the Isle of Man:

[My father] discovered that the bishop [at the Isle of Man] is actually called the Bishop of Sodor and Man … On the way back, in the airplane from the Isle of Man to Liverpool, he realized that there was a wide-open space of sea between the two places and had the idea that if he were to create an island, he could call it Sodor—and he could give the bishop of Sodor and Man the other half of his diocese back.

4. RINGO STARR ENJOYED BEING MINUTE AND MAGICAL AS MR. CONDUCTOR.

The former Beatle was charmed by the fact that his character, whose scenes were shot separately and superimposed into those with his young co-stars on the American Shining Time Station, was so tiny. "I'm miniaturized—that really appeals to me—and I do just appear and disappear like Mr. Magic, so I like magic," Starr said in 1989. He enjoyed his two-year stint as the narrator of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and his one year as Mr. Conductor for more significant reasons, too. “Doing a children's show ... keeps you in tune with children," Starr said. "And I am a grandfather now, so I have to keep in tune." 

5. GEORGE CARLIN SURPRISED AUDIENCES WITH HIS “SWEET” PERFORMANCES.

When Ringo Starr left the show in 1991 due to unspecified “scheduling problems,” comedian George Carlin took over as the narrator and miniaturized lead for the show. After getting the gig, Carlin joked to the Associated Press, “I’m the anti-Pete Best!” (referring to the original Beatles drummer that Starr replaced). In reality, though, Carlin wanted to play the Conductor because the show was so high-quality. "There's usually a theme that runs through a show which respects, I think, a child's ability to follow," Carlin explained. "And yet there is an interesting, broken quality to the run of the show. It doesn't linger anywhere too long." 

Nevertheless, fans and critics alike needed time to warm up to Carlin as Mr. Conductor. According to a 1992 review of the show by Entertainment Weekly, Carlin’s first few episodes of filling Starr’s teeny shoes were “awkward and self-conscious ... Where Starr narrated the Thomas tales with a lilting, conversational murmur, Carlin puts a cutesy archness into his delivery that’s condescending and annoying.” By the end of his first season on Shining Time Station, though, Carlin proved he could tune his famous bark down to a gentle purr; in 1992, the Associated Press cheered Carlin’s signing on for another season as the "sweet, elfin Mr. Conductor" (however, the service did caution comedy audiences not to expect to see a guy onstage who's "mellowing," but rather one who is "angrier than ever"). 

6. MR. CONDUCTOR HAD AN EVIL TWIN.

Carlin got to play both the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde versions of his character in two episodes. This mischievous, distinctly unhelpful version of Mr. Conductor shows up in “Double Trouble” and “Mr. Conductor’s Evil Twin.” 

7. THE SHOW WAS PACKED WITH OTHER ESTABLISHED AND RISING STARS, TOO.

Starr and Carlin weren’t the only showbiz heavies in the Shining Time Station cast. The renowned Canadian First Nations actor and philanthropist Tom Jackson, for example, played the wise engineer Billy Twofeathers, while seasoned character actor Lloyd Bridges stepped in as Mr. Nicholas. Didi Conn of Grease fame made station master Stacy Jones unforgettable, and Leonard Jackson, after memorable roles in The Color Purple and The Brother From Another Planet, played engineer Harry Cupper in the show’s first season.

The show featured a lot of creative talents, too. Jason Woliner, who played Stacy’s nephew Matt, went on to become a well-known comedy writer, director, and producer who has worked with Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Bob Odenkirk, among others.

8. THE JUKEBOX BAND EXISTS BECAUSE OF A NATIONAL LAMPOON WRITER.

Found inside a 1937 Wurlitzer 616-style jukebox, The Jukebox Band and its totally rockin’, semi-educational tunes were among the most celebrated of Shining Time Station’s features that built upon the original British program. However, according to Flexitoon founder Craig Marin, who helped lead the the puppets’ development, direction, and storyboarding, the band wouldn’t have gotten together in the first place if it weren’t for a tip from tenured comedy writer Sean Kelly. Marin explained in a 2008 interview

We were working with eccentric National Lampoon writer Sean Kelly on various projects, and he called us up and said he was over at WNET-THIRTEEN [PBS] and that "the producers were working on a show that needed puppets, and they need the Flexitoon puppets but they just don't know it yet." So we packed up some of [our puppets and marionettes ... and went over to meet the producers. This was on a Friday. They called Monday and said that "the other puppeteers said they could bring something different to the party, and we were the only ones who proved it." 

9. RENOWNED ARTIST WAYNE WHITE DID THE PRODUCTION AND SET DESIGN.

The production and set designs (and, in Shining Time Station’s first season, the voice of Tex) were courtesy Wayne White, “a major creative force behind the Eighties gonzo kiddie show Pee-wee’s Playhouse … [and whose] design work featured prominently in game-changing videos like Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ and the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Tonight, Tonight,’” wrote The Austin Chronicle. Overall, the show’s unique look reflected White’s style—“a ribald mix of grotesque and burlesque.”

10. "STACY JONES" IS A HAT TIP TO CASEY JONES, A FAMOUS RAILROAD ENGINEER.

STSEpisodeCentral,Youtube / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Word on the streets of Sodor Island is that Stacy Jones, Shining Time Station’s inexhaustible station master, is named in honor of Casey Jones, a real-life hero of railrord lore. The show makes ample reference to Mr. Jones, too: In the episode “Billy’s Runaway Trains,” the station regulars organize a play about the famously brave engineer, and the Jukebox Band’s “Ballad of Casey Jones” is among the best versions of the song. 

11. THOMAS AND CREW HAVE HELPED PROMOTE STEAM TRAIN PRESERVATION IN THE UK.

Shining Time Station isn’t the only medium through which Thomas and the other engines have helped promote history. As writer Melanie Wentz explained, diesel-powered trains had already been steadily replacing steam-powered ones (like Thomas) on UK rails by 1945, and Reverend Awdry’s books about sweet-tempered engines “became a voice for preservation” shortly after their publication. Wentz writes, “Today, with more than 100 preserved railways run by volunteers all over Britain, Thomas and all his fellow steam trains have no more worries about being left on the sidings and forgotten.” 

12. REVEREND AWDRY DIDN’T HAVE ANY FAVORITE CHARACTERS.

With the help of their toys, perhaps, many Shining Time Station fans felt special connections with particular characters. Even Christopher Awdry “vividly remembers the day back in August 1952 when he was allowed to stand on a locomotive for the first time [on] the type of engine after which Toby was modeled … as ‘a very special thrill,’” NPR noted. However, his father refused to show any favoritism. "Father always used to say that he didn't have favorites … because the engines were all his family, and in a family you don't have favorites," the younger Awdry recalled.

13. THERE WAS A MOVIE.

BBC News described Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000)—featuring Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin, and child star Mara Wilson—as a “misconceived mess,” and it only just made back its $19 million budget between both domestic and international sales. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert reflected,

What a lugubrious plot. What endless trips back and forth between the Isle of Sodor and the full-sized town of Shining Time. What inexplicable characters, such as Billy Twofeathers (Russell Means), who appear and disappear senselessly. What a slow, wordy, earnest enterprise this is, when it should be quick and sprightly ... This is a production with “straight to video” written all over it.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless noted otherwise 

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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No One Can Figure Out This Second Grade Math Problem
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Angie Werner got a lot more than she bargained for on January 24, when she sat down to help her 8-year-old daughter, Ayla, with her math homework. As Pop Sugar reports, the confusion began when they got to the following word problem:

“There are 49 dogs signed up to compete in the dog show. There are 36 more small dogs than large dogs signed up to compete. How many small dogs are signed up to compete?”

Many people misread the problem and thought it was a trick question: if there are 36 more small dogs and the question is how many small dogs are competing, then maybe the answer is 36?

Wrong!

Frustrated by the confusing problem, Angie took to a private Facebook group to ask fellow moms to weigh in on the question, which led to even more confusion, including whether medium-sized dogs should somehow be accounted for. (No, they shouldn’t.) Another mom chimed in with an answer that she thought settled the debate:

"Y'all. A mom above figured it out. We were all wrong. If there is a total of 49 dogs and 36 of them are small dogs then there are 13 large dogs. That means 36 small dogs subtracted by 13 large dogs then there are 23 more small dogs than large dogs. 36-13=23. BOOM!!! WOW! Anyone saying there's half and medium dogs tho just no!"

It was a nice try, but incorrect. A few others came up with 42.5 dogs as the answer, with one woman explaining her method as follows: "49-36=13. 13/2=6.5. 36+6.5=42.5. That's how I did it in my head. Is that the right way to do it? Lol I haven't done math like this since I was in school!"

Though commenters understandably took issue with the .5 part of the answer—an 8-year-old is expected to calculate for a half-dog? What kind of dog show is this?—when Ayla’s teacher heard about the growing debate, she chimed in to confirm that 42.5 is indeed the answer, but that the blame in the confusion rested with the school. "The district worded it wrong,” said Angie. “The answer would be 42.5, though, if done at an age appropriate grade."

Want to try another internet-baffling riddle?


Here's the answer.

[h/t: Pop Sugar]

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