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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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11 Brilliant Gifts for the Young Explorers in Your Life
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If your favorite kids can’t stop asking “why,” if they love running their own experiments, and if they never stop learning new things, these 11 gifts are a great place to grow their curiosity even further.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. FLACK KIT; $300

Imaginations will soar as high as this DIY airplane once it’s assembled. This kit comes with everything necessary to build this RC airplane, from the radio to the charger. All they'll need are a few simple tools, like a screwdriver, and your enterprising young engineer can pilot their first plane. No soldering of parts required.

Find It: Brooklyn Aerodrome

2. WONDERHOOD GRAND HOTEL BUILDING SET; $60

This deluxe building set from Wonderhood Toys—a company devoted to helping foster the next generation of women architects—includes 24 illustrated panels. The pieces can be connected together in different combinations in order to create a hotel building, complete with an elevator. The STEM-friendly kit also comes with two figurines, so that kids can play with their creation once they’re done designing and building it.

Find It: Wonderhood Toys

3. FIRE TABLET; $50

It might be too early give the younger set in your family a smart phone. Fortunately, the Fire Tablet is the perfect middle ground between allowing the curious kid in your family space to learn and explore on their own and being able to keep a close eye on what they’re doing. Amazon Freetime can be downloaded onto the budget-friendly Fire Tablet, which is a subscription program that only grants kids titles they’ve been given access to and allows parents to set daily screen time limits on the tablet.

Find It: Amazon

4. SOLAR SYSTEM EXPLORATION BOARD GAME; $29

Designed by a NASA scientist who has led a major space mission, this award-winning board game introduces kids to space science ideas and concepts. As they compete, players tackle the in-game challenges of developing and launching various space missions. Other players may sabotage your space exploration attempts with government shutdowns and hardware memory swipes, reflecting the real-life struggles of launching a successful mission to space.

Find It: Amazon

5. THINK & LEARN CODE-A-PILLAR; $31

Future coders and programmers can get started early with this caterpillar-shaped toy from Fisher Price. Kids learn while rearranging code-a-pillar’s body segments and figuring out what combination will make it move forward or backward, left or right.

Find It: Amazon

6. SOLAR PHOTOGRAPHY KIT; $15

Help a young artist harness the power of the sun into prints. The instructions for this budget-friendly kit are simple: Set an object or transparency on the sunography fabric included in the kit, let the sun shine down, and then remove the object for the coolest tan line ever.

Find it: Uncommon Goods

7. LITTLE PASSPORTS SUBSCRIPTION BOX; $18 per month or $180 per year

Take your favorite adventurer on a once-a-month trip around the world without ever leaving home. This subscription box service introduces preschoolers to geography through themed lessons. (There's also an option for older kids.) The first box comes with an orange suitcase, world map, an activity booklet and passport stickers, and every monthly box after that contains activities and souvenirs surrounding that month’s theme, such as art, food, landmarks or celebrations.

Find It: Little Passports

8. DA VINCI MINIMAKER 3D PRINTER; $168

It may be small, but this miniature 3D printer can whip out 6-in. creations at 100mm/second. It’s also easy to use, thanks to its 9-point calibration detection, which assures a level print bed. Your curious kid will also have access to loads of resources, like online courses and 3D modeling software specifically designed for beginners. Of course, if they want to hit print right away, there are thousands of 3D models available on the company’s website.

Find It: Amazon

9. AUTHOR'S KIT; $44

As every writer knows, nothing is more exciting than seeing your name in print for the first time. With each author’s kit, your young writer creates a story and dialogue to go along with a wordless illustrated book. Then, the company prints it and sends a copy, complete with author’s bio, to your doorstep. Every author’s kit also includes writing games, an official author’s certificate, and an idea pad to get them inspired.

Find It: Write Brain Books

10. MECCANOID G16; $145

Every tech whiz kid dreams of building their own personal robot, and now they can. MeccaNoid stands 4 feet tall and includes programmable LED eyes, voice recognition capabilities, and 10 motors, which allow it to smoothly move its arms, head, and feet. Although young programmers have three methods for programming the robot, MeccaNoid also comes with 3000 preprogrammed phrases.

Find It: Amazon

11. PROPS IN A BOX; $60

Help budding actors and directors get their movie or play off the ground with whimsical backdrops and quirky costumes. Each box has props for two distinct characters, a backdrop to hang, and access to the Props in a Box moviemaker app.

Find It: Props in a Box

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40 Educational Facts About Sesame Street
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On November 10, 1969, television audiences were introduced to Sesame Street. In the near-50 years since, the series has become one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame Street facts.

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius.

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2".

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS's funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmire, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

Photo of Elmo from 'Sesame Street'
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24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame Street's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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