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NBC

Out of This World: An Oral History of ALF

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NBC

At any other time, NBC president Brandon Tartikoff might not have been inclined to meet with an unknown magician and puppeteer named Paul Fusco about a television series. Along with partner Tom Patchett (The Bob Newhart Show), Fusco was pitching ALF, a sitcom about an alien from the planet Melmac who crashes into the garage of the suburban Tanner family and proceeds to ingratiate himself into their lives.

On the surface, it was a primetime puppet series, a genre that had never been handled with any grace beyond Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show. But NBC had recently made history—all nine of their 1983-84 season pilots (including Manimal) had failed, a first for any network—and executives needed to prove their worth to their corporate parents at General Electric.

Fusco won their trust. Sort of. "I didn’t sell the show," he tells mental_floss. "ALF did.'

While ALF won over a conference room at NBC, critics had a mixed response: ALF was alternately referred to as "a Teddy Ruxpin bear that [looks like he] was horribly disfigured by a revolving door" and an "alien puppet dog." But viewers were captivated by Fusco’s performance and ALF became a cultural phenomenon. Dolls, backpacks, toothbrushes, and other licensed material rang up hundreds of millions in sales; the show reached the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings; the puppet took up a semi-permanent residence on Hollywood Squares.

But ALF’s ascension into sitcom history was not without its bumps. The cast was forced to navigate a set that contained trap doors for Fusco to work in while operating the puppet, turning the family’s living room into a war zone. NBC, which quickly understood ALF’s appeal to children, grew concerned that a beer-drinking, cat-eating alien might be a bad influence; Max Wright, a classically trained theater actor who portrayed the beleaguered Willie Tanner, became so disenchanted with the role that he was prone to storming off the set and later referred to his experience as "very grim."

Despite the difficult production, ALF continues to be a pop culture standard. In honor of the show’s 30th anniversary in 2016, mental_floss asked Fusco and other cast and crew members to discuss the show’s complicated logistics, the on-set rules for guest actors, and perhaps the greatest achievement of all: outselling Bon Jovi posters.

I: ALIEN LIFE FORM

NBC

A communications major, Paul Fusco worked his way through college by taking on engagements involving magic, puppetry, and ventriloquism. Believing television was made for puppetry—the screen acts as the stage, with the margins cutting off the illusion-breaking presence of human performers—Fusco made a deal with Showtime in the early 1980s for a series of specials. Coming out of their development was a character Fusco decided to set aside for later use—a rancorous, beady-eyed alien he dubbed ALF.

Paul Fusco (Co-Creator, ALF): I had the idea for the show and Disney wanted to buy it. If you worked for Disney, they owned everything. They owned you, lock, stock, and barrel. I couldn’t deal with something called Walt Disney’s ALF, so I turned them down.

Tom Patchett (Co-Creator, Writer, ALF): I had worked on a show called Buffalo Bill with Dabney Coleman. The lead character was like ALF in terms of being brazen. My manager told me a puppeteer named Paul Fusco wanted to meet me because he liked the show. I had worked on two Muppet movies already, and I thought, "Gosh, I don't know."

Fusco: Buffalo Bill was in line with my sense of humor. We partnered and formed Alien Productions. It really came down to: Do you want to bet on yourself or not?

Patchett: I remember meeting Paul in [manager] Bernie Brillstein's offices. Bernie didn't know Paul at the time. This was before. He got very upset. "What's this f*cking puppet doing here?" He represented Jim Henson and didn't want any other puppets around. Then he saw ALF and said to me, "Tom, I have one word for you: Merchandising." That's show biz.

Fusco: I would drag him out at parties for friends and family, working on him. Once I went to a comedy club in New Haven just to test him out. The response would be remarkable. I knew the character was working.

Patchett: The ALF I saw was very close to the one we wound up with. He nailed it right out of the box. I've worked with Henson and Frank Oz, who was particularly brilliant. I've seen the best, and I think Paul is right up there.

Fusco: ALF’s humor came out of him not knowing any better. He wasn’t politically correct, but he was like Sophia on The Golden Girls—the remarks came out of honesty. That was always the premise. He was never mean.

Steve Lamar (Associate Producer): Bernie managed Tom and also Jim Henson. Paul needed someone who was TV-savvy. I think if you knew Tom’s history in sitcoms, he knew where to take it. Paul knew what the puppet could and couldn’t do.  

Patchett: I would say Paul created the character and I created the show. I was fortunate enough to have worked with the Muppets and knew what it would take to make it believable.

Fusco: We pitched ALF to a lot of companies for two or three years. I was working in Los Angeles and went to meetings in my spare time. We didn’t want it to be saccharine. It had to have a certain sensibility.

After failing to arrive at a deal with other studios, Patchett, Brillstein, and Fusco took their idea to NBC, which was still smarting from a dire fall season and a string of failures. Thanks to Patchett, they got an audience with president Brandon Tartikoff, the man who brought Cheers, Family Ties, and other blue-chip programs to the station. It did not go as planned.

Patchett: I had a commitment for a pilot at NBC, so I took Paul over there with this idea for a series we had thrashed out.

Fusco: We set up a meeting with the VIPs at NBC. It was Brandon, Leslie Lurie, and Warren Littlefield. I walked in carrying a brown garbage bag with ALF in it, but I didn’t tell them that. I asked where I could do my laundry.

Lamar: It was probably a Hefty bag.

Patchett: You can't pitch a primetime show where the lead is a puppet unless you see it.

Fusco: We go into this conference room and sit at this long table. I threw the bag under it. Brandon was at the head and I was next to him, with Tom next to me. We go into the pitch—alien crashes into this house, lives with the family, it’s funny. And I could see in their eyes that we’re losing them. Bernie whispers to me, "Take him out."

Patchett: There's no way you can look at what Paul does with the character and not laugh.

Fusco: I pull him out and sit him next to me. People were just silent. They didn’t expect it. Bernie said, "Listen, before you guys pass on the show, we wanted you to meet ALF."

Patchett: That was absolutely the thing that put it over the top.

Fusco: So ALF is sitting there and not saying anything. He looks around the room, sizing everyone up. He looks at Brandon, picks his nose, and wipes it on Brandon’s jacket. The room went crazy.

Patchett: He just started raining insults at people.

Fusco: Brandon started talking to ALF and making eye contact. That's when I knew I had him. He was asking me, "Why should we put you on our network?" I said, "Your network is falling apart!" They had done Manimal, Supertrain—ALF just tore him a new one.

With a green light from Tartikoff, ALF shot its pilot episode in the spring of 1986.

Fusco: The premise was essentially the house guest who wouldn’t leave. He’s a lonely person who can’t go back home. You had to have some sort of feeling for him.

Patchett: We talked about a lot of different ideas. Should he be with a senator? You can't have him out in public. He'd be captured or killed.

Fusco: Tom got Max Wright from Buffalo Bill. He was the perfect choice. ALF and Max had great chemistry onscreen.

Patchett: Max absolutely made you forget ALF was a puppet.

Lamar: I sat in on a lot of the casting sessions. Paul would be there as ALF. One woman who came to read for Kate Tanner, he kind of verbally sparred with her. As an actor, you had to be able to give it back to him, and this woman couldn’t. Anne Schedeen [Kate Tanner] could, and that’s why she was cast.

Patchett: Casting is always about throwing things in the air. We talked about seeing if John Candy was available, but ultimately ALF was the show. He was the funniest one.

Lamar: I’m not sure if anyone else has said this, but Brandon Tartikoff was going to pass on the show after we shot the pilot. But his daughter, who was three or four at the time, loved it. That’s what made him say, "Okay, let’s give it a chance."

ABC/Alien Productions

Almost immediately, the logistical issues of a single-puppet, multi-camera sitcom began to present themselves. Fusco was fiercely protective of preserving ALF’s integrity as a real character.

Fusco: We tried to do one or two episodes in front of a live audience, and it just didn’t work. There was so much delay between set-ups that we just couldn’t do it.

Dean Cameron (Actor, "Robert Sherwood"): I did three episodes as the daughter’s boyfriend. When I got there, I got this little handout, this little sheet. At the top it said, "Call him ALF. Do not call him a puppet."

Lisa Bannick (Supervising Producer): It was old-school magician stuff. We were told, "ALF is from the planet Melmac." And that’s what we’d say to press.

Benji Gregory (Actor, "Brian Tanner"): He was super-protective of ALF’s image. If anyone in the cast was asked, he wanted us to seriously say, "He’s an alien.'

Fusco: It goes back to my magic background, not to give away secrets. It’s not rocket science, but people didn’t always know how it was done. I’d get mail saying, "Hi, ALF, my dad says you’re not real, but I know you are." They want to believe, so I did it for the kids.

Victor Fresco (Staff Writer): I think it’s the same way you don’t talk about the existence or non-existence of Santa Claus. You don’t want to burst a childhood bubble. 

Lamar: Early on, we had an actor, Michu Meszaros, who was a little person in an ALF suit. He was just in the pilot and in a couple of other episodes, but not as much as people seem to remember.

Cameron: Watching them do it was pretty amazing. There were three people—one did the head and arm, the other did the other arm, and then there was a guy who did the remote control for the eyebrows. They were just masters.

Lamar: A lot of times, his feet would be propped up on the coffee table, and sometimes I would be the one controlling them, making them wiggle via radio control. It gave you the impression of a full body.

Gregory: Paul’s wife, Linda, her job was to look at all the monitors and make sure you couldn’t see anyone’s arms.

Lamar: Lisa Buckley and Bob Fappiano were the other two. They were amazing. We once did a Risky Business take-off with ALF sliding in frame in a white T-shirt. It’s really, really hard to do that with two people right next to one another.

Tom Fichter (Art Director): They had to be like Siamese twins. I think Lisa and Bob wound up getting married. 

Paul Miller (Director): The set was full of trenches. You’d have to open and close them so Paul could get underneath. Every time the script said, "ALF crosses the room," you’d go, "Oh, god, there’s an hour."

Lamar: There were certain places where the trenches lived, like behind the couch, but you’re always adding and subtracting. We eventually just wore the stage out.

Gregory: One time, Anne came out of the kitchen and fell right into one of the holes. She got pissed.

Fichter: People fell in them all the time. We’d name a hole after every person who fell into it.

Miller: We actually shot it in a converted warehouse in Culver City because of the fact they had to build the floor up four or five feet for the trenches.

Bannick: We shot right next door to The Wonder Years.

Lamar: There was a whole world under that stage. The stagehands had everything under there except a 7-Eleven. Snacks, mini-fridges, little beds.

Fusco: It was uncomfortable, but there were no repetitive injuries. There was no Chronic ALF Syndrome.

Patchett: I do remember getting a message from Steven Spielberg after we shot the pilot. He wanted to see it to make sure there wasn't any big resemblance to E.T. Apparently, he was satisfied.

II: OUT OF THIS WORLD

NBC

Airing opposite MacGyver and Kate & Allie, ALF premiered on September 22, 1986 and was immediately singled out for its distinctive approach to the sitcom—one in which the lead character was literally not of this earth.

Fusco: Critics were rough on it because we were on at 8 o’clock. It was kind of, "What’s NBC thinking, putting on a puppet show at 8?" After four or five episodes, a few of them started to say, "Listen to what this thing is saying. It’s pretty funny."

Patchett: It was like, "Is this a joke?" It's a big primetime slot. But it got its own following. Thanksgiving, Monday Night Football, whatever it was, it held its own.

Fusco: I was very against anything sci-fi in the show. I didn’t want people to buy into anything other than ALF being real.

Al Jean (Staff Writer): That was a rule I thought worked. [It] makes ALF unique.

Fusco: Those episodes were constantly being pitched. One time, someone floated the idea of ALF finding a ray gun, zapping Willie, and ending up in another dimension.

Fusco: "La Cucaracha" was as far as we pushed it. It was kind of believable—this bug hidden away in a bag of food.

Lamar: The giant cockroach episode, right. That was one Jerry Stahl wrote.

Bannick: We can figure out where that one came from.

Fusco: We did an episode, "I’m Your Puppet," which gave ALF a puppet of his own. That was written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss [The Simpsons], and their original script was very dark, almost Twilight Zone-ish. It kind of creeped people out.

Mike Reiss (Staff Writer):The dummy was made to look just like Paul Fusco.

Jean: The puppet was certainly intended to be self-referential. 

Reiss: Everyone seemed to realize this except Paul. He kept saying, "This looks like someone. Jamie Farr?"

Fusco: I think people are reading into things a little. We did an episode about ALF’s addiction to cotton. It wasn’t a reference to anyone having an addiction on the show.

Lamar: We were not a huge hit, but we were winning our time slot. It was different, and it was getting a lot of attention.

Fusco: Once we finished the first season, we got on a roll.

With ALF appealing to multiple demographics, it became apparent that some of the character’s habits—ALF enjoyed a cold beer every so often, and considered cats to be a delicacy—would have to be softened.

Fusco: In the pilot, ALF drinks a beer. He’s 200-something years old. We got flak about that. "He’s a role model. He can’t be drinking beer."

Fresco: ALF was kind of your raunchy uncle.

Fusco: We did an episode where ALF was electrocuted when he tried to turn the bathtub into a Jacuzzi. The following week, they made us do a disclaimer. "Last week, we did a show … don’t try this at home." They were just worried about liability.

Lamar: He was blow-drying his hair in the tub or something. We re-shot it with an egg beater.

Fusco: Kids were duplicating what ALF was doing. It was kind of sad in a way. Some kid put his cat in a microwave because ALF tried to do that once. We had to be real careful.

Bannick: NBC left us alone for the most part. They had other problems. But occasionally we’d get notes whenever we had an act break where ALF was in some kind of peril. They’d say, "Kids will think ALF is dead. You can’t do that." Look, he’s in TV Guide next week. They’re not going to think he’s dead!

Fusco: The worst note I ever got was from Warren Littlefield, who wanted ALF to be more Webster-like. What does that even mean?

Bannick: We shot one scene on the stage where ALF and Willie are driving home in the car. And I got a phone call from someone at NBC saying, "You can’t use that. We can see Jesus’s face in the folds of Willie’s jacket." You could see something, but whether it was a beaver or Groucho Marx—we did not reshoot it.

To help with the tedium of long shooting days, Fusco would often ad-lib between takes while in character as ALF.

Fusco: I enjoyed doing it. It made him real in the moment.

Fresco: It takes about 30 seconds to fall into the idea that this creature is real.

Gregory: Paul had everyone rolling all the time. He was hilarious.

Miller: You get used to the idea of directing a puppet.

Lamar: People would talk to ALF. "ALF, turn this way, turn that way."

Miller: Whenever he had the puppet, he was the character.

Fichter: The most difficult thing was when ALF had to reach across the table for something, because there was no length of arm.

Lamar: Paul had a puppet just for rehearsal we called RALF, or Repulsive Alien Life Form. He was kind of old and wrinkly.

Fichter: No one really brushed his fur. He was kind of wild-looking. He really had a different personality. He’d look up actresses’ dresses and get this shocked look on his face.

Jean: Paul would cut loose and the tattered puppet seemed like a burned-out celebrity. It would make a great show now.

RALF wouldn't have cut it for the character's lucrative licensing ventures. His poster outsold one featuring the rock band Bon Jovi, a heady accomplishment in the mid-1980s. All told, ALF-related merchandise rang up well over $250 million in sales in 1987; Coleco sold $85 million dollars’ worth of plush ALFs alone.

Fusco: I turned down any kind of endorsement where ALF would be telling someone to go out and buy beer or hamburgers. I turned down General Mills, which wanted to do an ALF cereal.

Al Kahn (Then-Executive Vice President, Coleco): We did a billboard on Sunset Boulevard to help raise awareness for the show.

Fusco: Budweiser wanted ALF. This was prior to Spuds MacKenzie.

Kahn: We had other categories besides plush—swimming pools, ride-ons. He was a wise-ass with a sense of humor and it appealed to kids.

Cameron: They had an ALF pinball machine on the set. That was actually a lot of fun.

gizmorf via eBay

Patchett: You can say it was a $100 million or whatever number, but we got a fraction of that. Part of the advance for the merchandising helped pay to produce the show.

Fusco: I turned down a lot of things, but there were some oversights in the international market. Someone made an ALF wind sock. In Germany, there was an imitation mayonnaise. Sometimes things slip through the cracks.

With success came demands for ALF to appear as a guest for a variety of shows and appearances, many of which proved problematic for Fusco and his insistence on preserving the illusion.

Fresco: I do remember Paul doing phone calls for Make-a-Wish. He’d call them at the hospital and talk to them as ALF.

Fusco: NBC wanted ALF to host Saturday Night Live. The home audience wouldn’t have seen me, but the studio audience would have. They couldn’t hide me, so I turned them down.

Patchett: People would be baffled. "Why can't you just bring him in and do it?" Because it's more complicated than that. It would've been great for ALF to do Saturday Night Live, but there's no way he could have.

Fusco: I turned down David Letterman because I didn’t think he was going to go along with it. He’d have magicians on his show and kind of egg them on.

Patchett: It was best for him to be behind things, like a desk.

Fusco: Jim Henson was a big fan of ALF and wanted him to do a Muppet Show—the John Denver Christmas Special. He wanted to do something with Kermit and Miss Piggy. It would’ve given me an opportunity to perform with Jim and Frank Oz, but I turned it down because I didn’t want ALF to be perceived as a Muppet.

Bannick: Paul hated Muppets. ALF was a little raggedy, and his worst fear was people thinking he was part of Fraggle Rock.

Fusco: NBC was always after us to do these fall preview shows, these awful specials. ALF Loves a Mystery. They were just tedious. I did do a Matlock.

Patchett: ALF got invited to the White House by Nancy Reagan for the 1987 Christmas party. We set it all up so there was a special podium. Afterward, Paul told me President Reagan said ALF was his favorite show, which of course made me worry more about him.

III: ALIENATED

NBC

As ALF matured into a ratings success, it became increasingly difficult to open up his limited world. He was an alien in hiding, which meant minimal interaction with anyone outside of the Tanner family.

Fusco: It was very much a contained show. We would bring in characters like Jody, who was blind, or a relative to try and expand it.

Fresco: It’s a very hard show to do. Your lead cannot interact with anyone in the world but the four regulars.

Fusco: We were constantly looking for ways to not violate the rules of the show but still meet other people. So one time, he met someone who was drunk. And maybe they just hallucinated him. I think we got some kind of award for that as a Very Special Episode.

Jean: I thought the biggest hurdle was that no one new could see ALF. So once we did a Gilligan’s Island dream show and a show with a blind person befriending him. We were already desperate for ideas.

Bannick: Paul and I co-wrote an episode featuring Willie’s brother with the idea that might be a direction for a spin-off or another season.

Fusco: He was housebound, if you really think about it.

Gregory: How many scripts can you write with ALF stuck in the Tanners’s house?

Bannick: When Anne Schedeen got pregnant, I got bombarded with ideas. "What if ALF has to drive Kate to the hospital? What if ALF has to babysit?" No, that’s ridiculous. Kate is not going to let an alien who can’t walk across a room without breaking a lamp take care of her child.

With a tedious production and few opportunities to explore their characters outside of reacting to ALF’s antics, the cast was reportedly not the happiest on television. That was especially true of Max Wright, who found his tenure as a second banana to the furry lead character increasingly tiresome.

Cameron: By the time I got there, the cast was over it.

Jean: The cast, I later heard, found it a very difficult experience because of the danger of the open trenches that ALF moved around in.

Bannick: If they were unhappy, they sure were professional, because I never heard about it.

Lamar: I think there were a lot of laughs early on, and as things continued, it became more tedious.

Cameron: Max was this theater guy who probably thought, "Sure, I’ll do this pilot and I’ll be back on stage in three weeks." Four years later, he’s still the dad on ALF.

Miller: Max’s character was exasperated with ALF, and that was real.

Bannick: Let me tell you about Max: Writing for Max was like playing a synthesizer. He would play every single comma, ellipsis, or dash you put in. You type it in and he gives you exactly what you wanted.

Miller: I might get a note from Paul asking me to ask Max to pick up the pace. I would dread that because it would usually cause a problem.

NBC

Gregory: We were rehearsing a script where Max makes kind of a cage for ALF and I get locked up in it. And I flubbed a line and Max flipped out on me. I’m nine years old and he’s screaming. I’m bawling.

Fusco: He was a classically trained theater actor. I think maybe he would’ve rather been doing theater instead of television, but you take the jobs that come along. I can’t speak for him, but it’s possible he might have felt trapped the longer the series went on.

Patchett: When it came down to doing year three or four, I'm sure he had had enough. Max is brilliant on the stage. Working in television might be anathema to his instincts.

Cameron: This is one of my favorite show biz stories: They’re blocking a scene and Anne Schedeen says, "Do I really need to be in this scene?" And then someone else asks the same thing. Max was a very hard worker trying to do the show. He started saying, "I’m here to work. Are you here to work?"

Pretty soon they’re all screaming at each other and the set clears. As he’s walking off, Max starts screaming. "Put us all on sticks! We’re the puppets here! We’re the puppets!"

Fusco: Max is a complicated man.

Cameron: I respected Max. He worked hard. I felt for him.

Miller: Paul was a very driven guy and a perfectionist who could get impatient with people.

Bannick: Paul was also a guy who was in a trench for five or six hours with his arm up in the air and then he’d go into his office, shut the door, and make calls to Make-a-Wish kids. He was completely drained.

Fusco: It absolutely was a tough, grueling schedule. But no one was manhandled or terribly treated. And the actors were paid significant amounts of money.

Miller: Paul wanted scenes to move along. And sometimes they’d say, "I don’t see it that way." I don’t recall Paul ever yelling at anyone as ALF, no. He could be sarcastic, but that was the character.

Cameron: I did a sitcom once that ran 20-odd episodes and cannot imagine being on a show every single week where all the best lines are given to a f*cking puppet.

IV: THE PUPPET MASTER

NBC

With the show's ratings in decline, NBC decided to move the show to Saturday evenings—television's version of a hospice. On March 24, 1990, viewers were left hanging when ALF appeared to have been discovered by military forces. It was a cliffhanger that would take six years to resolve.

Fusco: We were going to go another season. If not, NBC said we could at least finish up with an hour finale or a movie.

Miller: We knew fairly soon after the last episode. I asked someone from NBC if the rumors were true and they said, "Yeah, it’s not coming back.'

Fresco: I thought there was a 50-50 chance we were coming back. If we knew for sure we weren’t, we would’ve wrapped it up definitively.

Bannick: ALF does not have the same kind of shelf life as Cheers or Taxi. The premise gets tired easily.

Fusco: If we had gone a fifth season, the idea was going to be ALF on a military base. He’s incarcerated there in some kind of detainment camp. The family would be allowed to visit him. It would’ve opened up his world more. He would’ve been like Sergeant Bilko, essentially. Selling bootleg items, gambling.

Lamar: If it did come back, it needed to be something different.

Fresco: We had exhausted the family dynamic already. It would’ve given us something new.

Bannick: My idea for a series finale would have been to have ALF be discovered and become a celebrity. And he becomes so famous he has to go back into hiding.

Fusco: By that point, Brandon had left and Warren Littlefield had taken over, and he did not make good on Brandon’s promise.

But ABC did. In 1996, the network aired Project: ALF, which pursued Fusco’s idea of ALF on a military base. Intended to be a backdoor pilot for a new series, it failed to gain any traction. Instead, Fusco pursued a short-lived chat session on TV Land—2004's ALF’s Hit Talk Show—and resurrected the character in a series of unexpected cameos. Most recently, he appeared in the Emmy-winning USA series Mr. Robot.

Fusco: I like when ALF shows up in unlikely places. Bill O’Reilly, The Love Boat, Meet the Press. Who expects that?

Patchett: Right now we're in the final stages of a script for a movie. We're determined not to do a kids' movie. Kids will like the character anyway. We want to do the movie for the 35- to 40-year-olds who remember watching it.

Fusco: We were actually going to do a movie in 1987. We had a script ready to go, but the studio saw it as a low-budget matinee movie for kids. It never took off. But I think it would’ve been great. It took place in space and explained ALF’s journey to Earth. It was a prequel, basically. But the budget we needed and what we were offered were so far apart it would’ve been horrendous.

Patchett: It would be a mixture of Paul and CGI. We showed ALF's full body a few times in the series, but we were never happy with it.

Fusco: We’re just waiting for the right moment to come back.

Whether or not ALF makes it back to the screen in some kind of hybrid CGI epic is probably beside the point. For a generation of viewers, he was a very simple but very effective visual effect. To this day, Fusco is reluctant to talk too much about ALF as an object.

Fusco: I don’t want people to think he’s sitting in a box somewhere, or living in an efficiency apartment with Scott Baio.

Lamar: ALF could come back at any time. He’s like KISS.

Reiss: At the time it was considered a silly family show, but its reputation has rightfully risen over the years. Al and I got to write the show just the way we later wrote The Simpsons—silly, smart, and subversive.

Bannick: I’d love to have a new generation discover it. There was such a personality to the way Paul played the role. ALF’s facial expressions were many times funnier than the lines.

Patchett: It's huge in Germany. I'm doing a play there and it's all anyone wants to talk about. They seem to appreciate the critique of the Americans.

Gregory: Every now and again, I’ll throw in the DVD. The puppet still holds up. I’m not sure about some of the lines.

Reiss: One of the most famous Homer lines, "What's the number for 911?" was actually first uttered by ALF. [Writer] Steve Pepoon came up with the line years before [Simpsons writer] George Meyer thought of it independently.

Fusco: He’s probably a little more tainted, a little angrier. The world is a different place. It’s gotten a lot crazier since 1990. We might need ALF more than ever.

Gregory: I’m still kind of pissed at Max for yelling at me.

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Courtesy of Valdemar Lethin
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Oral History
I, Darwin: An Oral History of the IKEA Monkey
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Courtesy of Valdemar Lethin

Like any successful chain store, IKEA prides itself on a uniform shopping experience. Walk into the company’s location at 15 Provost Drive, North York, Ontario, Canada and you’ll find two sprawling stories featuring stacks of easy-to-assemble furniture. Shoppers are enveloped in the smell of Swedish meatballs coming from the store’s trademark food market. Near the first-floor entrance is a playroom for impatient children to idle while parents push warehouse carts full of bookshelves.

On December 9, 2012, shoppers expecting a traditional IKEA shopping excursion got something else. Sprinting between cars in the store’s adjacent two-level parking garage was a primate decked out in a tailored faux-shearling coat and a diaper. Barely a foot tall, the gimlet-eyed creature scanned the growing crowd around him looking for any sign of his keeper. Several of them snapped his photograph.

In less than an hour, animal services would arrive to collect him. In less than nine hours, he would become an international news story.

Initially misidentified by some media outlets as a capuchin monkey, the beleaguered animal was a Japanese snow macaque named Darwin. His striking appearance in stylish winter fashion and incongruous presence at IKEA captivated the internet, making him one of the most popular memes of the year. In the days following, the media ferreted out that he had escaped from his owner’s car, that he had quickly been delivered to a primate sanctuary, and that a significant and costly question would be raised over custody: Is a monkey a wild animal? And if he is, can he really be “owned” by anyone?

Darwin’s human keeper would eventually pay $250,000 to get an answer to the question, the primate sanctuary would endure death threats, and the eventual court proceedings would become the second most publicized monkey trial of the past 100 years. Here’s the story behind the meme, as remembered by the people directly involved.

I: “ANYONE LOSE THEIR MONKEY AT IKEA?”

Courtesy of Stephanie Yim

With two weeks left before Christmas, the North York IKEA store was perpetually congested with customers. Most parked in the attached two-level parking lot that featured an enclosed vestibule with an elevator leading to the lower level of the property. A little before 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 9, some shoppers noticed a diminutive figure lurking in the lot.

Yasmin Nakhuda (Owner, Darwin): Darwin would always go shopping with me. However the last time we went to IKEA I was approached by one of the staff and told that I could not bring him in. On that unfortunate day, we planned a very brief stop and took all precautions to ensure he would be busy and safe while we were shopping. It was the second time we had left him alone and we took longer than expected.

Bronwyn Page (Shopper, Saw the Monkey): It was a really busy day there. I went with my sister to buy a Christmas tree and we drove all around looking for a spot. When we got out of the car, we saw a circle of people around this … object. It was hopping around. I thought it was a bunny.

Joe Fiorillo (Animal Control Officer, Toronto Animal Services, via deposition): [Dispatch said there was] a monkey running in the upstairs parking lot with a jacket and a diaper on. I thought it was a joke.

Lisa Lin (Shopper): I was there with my family. We parked in the upper deck because there was a cop outside the doors on the first floor, so we went to the second floor.

Nakhuda: He had a soft zippered crate that generally he was not able to get out of which he was able to rip apart. He was locked in our SUV and from inside he unlocked the car by himself—none of which we could foresee at that time, given we had not seen him do it.

Page: It was making sounds and seemed scared. It was running in between people. Some of them kept trying to corner it or trap it.

Stephanie Yim (Shopper): I saw a little head bobbing up and down near a car I had parked by. I actually couldn’t believe there was a monkey.

Nakhuda: I had no choice but to carry Darwin everywhere I went. He would have anxiety fits if I kept him away from me.

Lin: It was a well-dressed monkey.

Page: It was incredibly bizarre to see. It was so small, like a baby. I would’ve stuck around, but my sister didn’t care. I just snapped a few photos and then we went into the store. It was so weird. I kept thinking, “What just happened?”

Nakhuda: We were obviously panic stricken and I started running up and down the parking lot until someone indicated to me that they had seen a little monkey running back to the store.

KnowYourMeme

Page: People think he was inside the store, which probably made it funnier.

Lin: By the time we were there, the monkey was already secured in the vestibule. It took me a while to understand what it was. You don’t usually see monkeys running around.

Fiorillo: People were outside taking pictures. As soon as I drove up the ramp ... I said, “Now we got a monkey.”

Lin: It was running around and looked distraught. I took a picture of it through the glass door. We didn’t stay long. I didn’t want to make it more frazzled.

Yim: He was lost and clearly looking for someone familiar. He didn’t seem agitated, just more bewildered or scared.

Fiorillo: I went in just to assess it and I asked the security guard, “How is he?” [He said] “Oh, he’s fine. If you put a blanket over him he stops right away.” And he did.

Lin: At that point, the cop was inside the vestibule with the monkey. They locked the automatic door so it wouldn’t open.

Page: I didn’t tweet the picture until we got back to the car. My sister said, “You should send that out.”

Lin: At the time, I was new to Instagram and Twitter and was looking for something unusual to post, so I put it up.

Fiorillo: I never saw a monkey, like, you know, in Toronto, running around. He wasn’t bad in there, too. He screamed a little bit. I’m sure he was looking for his owner but he didn’t attack anybody and he was scared.

Page: On the way out, I saw someone talking to a security guard. She was really upset. I guess maybe that was the owner.

It was. Nakhuda, a Toronto real estate lawyer, obtained Darwin just five months prior from an exotic animal dealer introduced to her by a client at her firm. The seller, known only as “Ayaz,” indulged Nakhuda’s interest in obtaining a Japanese snow macaque after she viewed YouTube videos of the species. Nakhuda acknowledges that she knew there might be problems with having the monkey in the city—but as she’ll explain, she was under the impression that she’d just receive a warning and be told to move to a suitable farm; something she was planning on doing anyway.

After paying Ayaz $5000 for the exotic animal and bringing him home, she realized the monkey—which she named after Charles Darwin—would require a significant level of care.

Nakhuda: Darwin would nip and resist any handling. I thought it would take a few days for him to come around, like perhaps a dog or cat that is newly adopted, but it did not seem that he was making any progress in this direction. If anything, he was getting bolder and more aggressive.

Katherine Cronin, Ph.D. (Research Scientist, Lincoln Park Zoo): When macaques get close to maturity, they can quickly become pushed away from people and grow more aggressive. It can be unsafe.

Nakhuda: He actually settled down the day I took him back to return him to Ayaz. As soon as he saw Ayaz and realized I was handing him back to the animal trader, he jumped and grabbed on to me with complete trust and practically begged me to keep him.

Cronin: What we know about macaques is that they look for a maternal figure. If their mother is not available, they may form a pretty strong bond with someone else, given no other options. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a primate who had his caretaker taken from him would be distressed.

Nakhuda: We were told that if we were found holding a monkey, we would be asked to relocate the monkey; no fine was mentioned. We had always planned on moving out of the city to a farm and we were told that if there was an issue, Ayaz would keep Darwin … until we were ready to have him back.

Cronin: Primates do not make good pets. There’s no way around it. It’s not good for people and it’s not good for the primate.

A video game based on Darwin's IKEA exploits quickly made the rounds
KnowYourMeme

Nakhuda’s YouTube videos of bathing Darwin and brushing his teeth would eventually enter wider circulation as his fame grew. But at the time, the fact that he was seemingly a harmless monkey cast adrift allowed the internet to invent their own stories about him. Someone posted a “Missed Connections” ad on Craigslist purported to be from Darwin; a Flash video game followed. Page’s photo went out with the caption “Umm saw a monkey in the #ikea parking lot.”

Page: Immediately, people were retweeting the photo. The Toronto Star phoned me while I was still in the car. Media was trying to get in touch with me through direct messages on Twitter. Four camera crews arranged to come to my apartment that night.

Lin: I didn’t really realize what was going on until hours later. It became international news. I was very surprised by it.

Nakhuda: We were waiting for instructions from Ayaz, who had promised to help if this happened. He refused to interfere saying that it was all over Twitter. I had no clue what Twitter was at that time.

Don Caldwell (Administrator, KnowYourMeme.com): Before Darwin, in terms of notable monkey memes, I can’t really think of any.

Page: The media asked what I saw. I saw a monkey darting all over. That was about it.

Caldwell: The coat was a huge part of it. People love to anthropomorphize animals. And being at IKEA was also important. Memes need a catchy name, and “IKEA monkey” was catchy.

Page: The madness lasted over the next few days. I did television interviews, radio interviews. I did an interview with BBC World News. They were treating me like an expert. I saw the monkey for maybe a minute.

Caldwell: It very quickly made r/funny on Reddit and got a lot of points, which was huge for visibility.

Page: I got recognized on the subway. “Are you Bronwyn Page?”

Lin: I love memes, so that someone would turn my photo into one was pretty cool.

Caldwell: Bronwyn posted the original, but the one of him behind glass became the iconic shot. He just looks sad.

Page: That was my favorite one, I think, the one about a friend forgetting to pick up “Carl.”

While Darwin was becoming a viral sensation, Nakhuda was frantically trying to reclaim him from animal control officials. Monkeys were and are prohibited in the city of Toronto. With Ayaz unable or unwilling to assist, she and her husband, Samar, drove to Toronto Animal Services. Their interactions and what was or wasn’t said would eventually become a topic of debate for an Ontario court.

Fiorillo: Apparently the owner had called the front desk.

Nakhuda: We went to the Toronto Animal Services and sat in the parking lot for some time contemplating the best way to get him back without issue.

Fiorillo: That happens a lot with prohibited animals. Goats. If we pick up a goat, somebody comes in, “I want my goat.” You can’t have the goat.

David Behan (Animal Control Officer, Toronto Animal Services, via deposition): Basically, I spoke to Ms. Nakhuda regarding the monkey Darwin, explained to her that it was a prohibited animal under our bylaw within the city of Toronto, and in the meantime I was in touch with my supervisor to find out … which direction, how we were going to go with this situation.

Nakhuda: He stated that I walked into TAS to ask that Darwin be placed into a sanctuary and of course this is a monstrous falsity. There was no misunderstanding. I was very clear that I wanted Darwin back.

Behan: [Supervisor Carl Bandow] asked me if there was any chance that “you could have Ms. Nakhuda sign the animal over to us for—to Toronto Animal Services.”

Fiorillo: [Behan] said, “You have a choice here to sign it over if you want. You don’t have to sign it over but we’re looking at the animal’s safety and well-being” and that was important.

Behan: [I explained] that she would be signing this paper and signing her animal over to Toronto Animal Services.

Nakhuda: [Behan] did all he could do in his powers to coerce me to sign documents so that he could move the monkey—apparently temporarily given TAS had no facilities to keep a baby monkey at their location—to a primate sanctuary. He would only allow me to see Darwin and check on him if I signed transfer papers.

In a January 2013 deposition, Behan denied he used any form of coercion to convince Nakhuda to sign the form. In court later that year, Behan testified that TAS sometimes turned exotic animals back over to their owners after signing surrender forms but said the decision to retain Darwin was made by his supervisor, Carl Bandow. When asked if she “appeared to be a woman who wanted to surrender her monkey,” Behan replied, “No.” Nakhuda would later testify that she believed she was signing a form to have Darwin tested for diseases and did not know it would grant TAS full ownership of the animal.

Fiorillo: I was surprised when I came back [in the room] that she signed it.

Behan: She was upset. She was still in tears. Our staff … that takes care of the animals at the shelter asked Ms. Nakhuda if she could come to the back of that shelter and please remove the diaper from the animal because the animal had a diaper on.

Fiorillo: Once you sign it over, we can move the animal to a safer place better than the shelter. We don’t look after monkeys here.

II: DARWIN ON TRIAL

A illustration of Darwin's legal struggles
Courtesy of Jason Larche

The day after being captured by Toronto Animal Services, Darwin was delivered to Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary, a rural harbor for animals located in Sunderland, Ontario. He would quickly become the most infamous monkey in Canadian history—a photogenic creature that put a face to a bustling exotic animal trade, said to be one of the largest illicit markets in the world.

Daina Liepa (Co-Owner, Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary): The primates we have basically come from three sources. One is the exotic animal trade, which people don’t think exists, but does. The second is labs. The third is roadside zoos, which are not regulated.

Sherri Delaney (Former Owner, Story Book): People get these animals because there’s less than adequate regulation. Someone says, “I’d love to have something like that,” and the market for selling and breeding grows. You can buy them online.

Liepa: People forget where baby monkeys come from. They were taken from their mother. Transporting them is often done undercover. There’s a huge attrition rate and some die in transit.

Cronin: Baby snow monkeys stay really close to their mother for the first year of life, nursing for up to a year. They’re riding on the mom’s back, staying close, learning. The maternal relationship is key to a normal relationship. That early bond is very important to their later development.

Delaney: With the unregulated zoos, if an animal gets sick, it might alarm someone looking at them, and so the animal is taken off display and warehoused. So we would get some animals from there, some who were pets, some from seizures.

Liepa: We had one famous monkey before Darwin, actually. Pockets Warhol, who paints.

Delaney: Pockets actually originated in the States. He came to Canada as a pet and was housed for many years. He had a good owner who tried very hard to maintain him. He had a cage, a heated enclosure, his own pet guinea pig, his own TV. His owner eventually realized she wasn’t going to be able to take care of him in her golden years, so he came here.

Pockets Warhol working the canvas
Pockets Warhol.
Courtesy of Story Book

Liepa: Most of the monkeys are given up willingly. Darwin was not.

Delaney: I first heard of Darwin when a volunteer saw him on the news. Then I got a call from Toronto Animal Services. As far as I was concerned, they had seized Darwin legally, they couldn’t house him, and so they reached out to us. My first memory of him was that he was so little.

Rachelle Hansen (Board Chair, Story Book): What struck me was how tiny he was and how sad he was.

Liepa: People buy monkeys as babies. You can tell people until you’re blue in the face that they don’t make good pets, but it doesn’t matter. They have very strong teeth. People often have the canines pulled in order to keep them. They’re incredibly strong.

Cronin: You see what someone might call a smile on a primate face, whether it’s a macaque or a chimp. But what looks to us like a smile might well be what primatologists call a fear grimace. They’re pulling their lips back, showing teeth, and it’s actually a fearful response, a submissive response. It’s saying, “I’m not a threat, don’t hurt me.” There’s also an expression with an open mouth, eyes wide, where they look right at you, and that’s threatening behavior. It means, “Back off, I’m not comfortable.”

Hansen: I believe Toronto Animal Services called the Toronto Zoo and they would not or could not take him.

Delaney: The day he arrived, I got a call from Yasmin [Nakhuda]. She had intended to come right out, but I put my foot down and said no. She was very demanding. I wanted to give Darwin a few days to settle down from all of the excitement, and then we could talk about it. She didn’t like that, and that was the end of the conversation.

Hansen: I understood the call did not go well.

Cronin: In most cases, the animal’s welfare improves by being among their own species.

Delaney: I don’t know why macaques are high on the priority list, with people raising them as children. Once they reach sexual maturity, they get confused and aggressive.

Among Nakhuda’s complaints were that Story Book was using Darwin as a way of creating awareness for their fundraising. Days after receiving him, they launched a “Dollars for Darwin” campaign that anthropomorphized him, with Darwin “saying” that a “donation towards my care, this is my Christmas wish.”

Nakhuda: Story Book was given a donation of some $15,000 from IKEA the first week they captured Darwin. From that moment, he was their meal ticket. They had revamped their website within days and were out there to sell his pictures and tickets to visit him. I was angry, hurt, and truly heartbroken to see my baby being peddled for money.

Hansen: IKEA donated $10,000 to us.

Liepa: We’re a charity. We’re always fundraising. When Yasmin questions why we need to do that, the answer is because we’re always striving to improve the environment for the monkeys.

Delaney: The reality is, to provide a diet, a heated barn, the cost becomes astronomical. I spent over $1 million of my own money on the sanctuary.

Absent any other recourse, on December 14, Nakhuda sued Story Book [PDF] for unlawfully detaining Darwin and filed a petition to have Darwin returned to her—or, alternately, be given regular access—until the custody issue could be settled. As the case wore on, allegations from both sides grew contentious, and both retained lawyers.

Kevin Toyne (Attorney for Story Book): I had actually visited the sanctuary a few months prior to all this and told them that if they ever had any legal issues, they could contact me. Fast forward and I’m online and see that a monkey escaped at a local IKEA in Toronto. I thought, “Hmm. I wonder if he’ll end up at the sanctuary,” and so I sent them an email.

Delaney: There was absolutely concern over whether we could afford to get into a legal battle. We were lucky to have Kevin, who volunteered for us before this.

Liepa: There was a question for the board of directors at the time of whether we could afford it financially.

Hansen: There was a lot of harassing on social media, people leaving horrible messages on our voicemail, which was Sherri’s own number. People would wait at the end of the driveway. I had cars following me. It was all very stressful.

Toyne: There were unfortunate comments being made toward the sanctuary and the volunteers. People were saying nasty things about Yasmin, as well.

Nakhuda: I was infamous but that did not seem to affect my existing clientele and daily operations since most of my practice is from return clients who were absolutely satisfied with my services and were unconditionally supportive of my situation. However, mentally and financially, I had become a wreck.

Liepa: I was a volunteer at the time. There were threats against us, people who believed his prior owner was his mother and should be allowed to keep him.

Delaney: We had threats that someone was going to come and burn down the sanctuary itself. There was another threat to kill me. It was draining on everyone.

Toyne: Canada has a constitutional division of power. Certain things are federal or provincial, the equivalent of states. Animals largely fall into provincial government. If you want to bring a monkey into Canada, various federal regulations come into play, but once here, whether it’s imported or born here, provincial legislation would apply. The problem is, virtually no province has a statute that talks about exotic animals. The regulation of exotic animals is done by municipalities.

Delaney: Darwin was getting better, day by day. He had caregivers around him constantly. Not around the clock, but caregivers who would spend hours and hours with him as he acclimated.

Hansen: We spent a lot of time with him, giving him bottles and so on. He had a Curious George stuffy that he liked.

Toyne: Yasmin’s position was that she never gave up ownership and so my clients were not entitled to have him. The sanctuary position was, as soon as he got out of the car at IKEA, he no longer belonged to Yasmin.

Delaney: I was open to discussing a visitation arrangement if she was reasonable. It would’ve benefited not just her, but Darwin as well. But unfortunately, she wasn’t ready to take that position.

Courtesy of Daina Liepa

In the press, Nakhuda stated she was unwilling to see Darwin while being supervised by sanctuary staff and wearing gloves, among other precautions. With Nakhuda unsuccessful in winning either temporary or permanent custody of Darwin, he remained at Story Book through the first half of 2013. Arguments over Darwin’s fate were heard in the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario on May 30 and 31, and June 10 and 11, 2013.

Toyne: What struck me was how many people were interested. There would be media scrums outside the courthouse. That’s very unusual in Canada except in high-profile criminal cases. The courtroom was packed every day.

Delaney: It was phenomenal to me—shocking to me—that we had so much media hype over a monkey. Other cases were unfolding in that building involving domestic assault, homicide, and who knows what else. Something that should have never made it to court was front and center.

Page: People would keep sending me articles about the trial. People would bump into me, people I kind of knew, asking what was going on with Darwin. Like I would know.

Toyne: Yasmin’s position throughout was that she still owned Darwin and never gave up ownership, and so my clients were not entitled to have him.

Liepa: The case was not about who would take better care of Darwin, although we thought we could, but based on property ownership.

Toyne: The primary argument we advanced was the concept of property with respect to wild animals. Most domesticated or agricultural animals are considered to be the same type of property as a book, or chair, or car. If the car is in the shop, it’s still your car. But that concept does not apply to wild animals. The doctrine is called ferae nature. It basically means wild animals are treated differently. You only own it as long as it’s in your possession. If it escapes, it belongs to the person who captures it.

Delaney: I think there was some separation anxiety in the beginning. As time went on and the trial progressed, he would play, explore, and do what babies do.

Toyne: People ask, if the case is about an animal, shouldn’t the animal be there? There was a period of time centuries ago in England when animals were brought into court. Donkeys in the witness box. We don’t really do things like that anymore. My guess is that if the monkey showed up, there would have been a riot. There were very strong opinions on both sides.

Hansen: It was like a child custody case with the kid caught in the middle. I think it would have overwhelmed him to be in court.

Toyne: In this case, possession was ten-tenths of the law. If someone managed to steal him, my client could have lost ownership of him.

After an agonizing judicial silence over the summer, Justice Mary Vallee issued her decision [PDF] in September 2013. She found Nakhuda knew she was signing a surrender form and that Darwin was a wild animal, and as such, could only be possessed by whomever currently possessed him—in this instance, Story Book. Nakhuda appealed in October, but voluntarily dismissed it in February 2014.

Nakhuda: If I recall correctly, [it cost] some $124,000 for my own legal fees, $83,000 court costs to the defendant, some $22,000 or so I believe for opinion for appeal, costs for organizing fundraisers, sale of T-shirts and books—all of which were pure financial losses.

Liepa: Toyne was not quite pro bono. We did get some legal fees at the end of the proceedings.

Toyne: The arrangement I had with the sanctuary was, I would take the case on a pro bono basis, but would be entitled to costs if costs were awarded.

Liepa: In 2015, Sherri put the sanctuary up for sale and we had to create a major fundraising campaign in order to raise enough money to buy the existing property. We didn’t want to move it. You get into things like having to anesthetize a large baboon in order to relocate him. We didn’t want to do that.

III: AN ONGOING CONCERN

Courtesy of Daina Liepa

Following Justice Vallee’s ruling, Darwin has become a permanent resident at Story Book, where he has remained since first arriving in December 2012. In 2015, Delaney sold the property, which remained in its original location.

Liepa: Darwin is about two-thirds of the size he will eventually be as an adult. He’s an adolescent. He’s very energetic, strong, and active. He can bend rebar.

Cronin: Monkeys who have been former pets, and that have spent less time with their biological mother, can be less extroverted than other primates. They show changes in behavior—less time grooming, less time with groups.

Nakhuda: We believe that primates are not meant to be locked behind bars and that the so-called sanctuary failed in its mission in that it never gave a home to Darwin as it claimed it would. His only interaction with other monkeys is behind bars. He will never experience a hug again—and trust me, if you knew anything about primates, you would know how important physical contact is for their psychological well-being.

Delaney: Let’s be honest. Darwin was stolen from his real mother, someone who spoke his own language. Yasmin was his caregiver, not his mother.

Liepa: Yasmin and her supporters criticize us for keeping monkeys in an enclosure, but at a certain age and sexual maturity, it’s a whole different ballgame. Try putting a diaper on a monkey that’s fully grown.

Toyne: Snow macaques look friendly and gentle. They are almost pure muscle with very large fangs. Anyone misguided enough to want to own one of these things has to realize they are basically buying something with the ability to kill you down the road.

Nakhuda: The issue that we find revolting is that [people] who have never owned monkeys believe that just because an organization has the title "sanctuary," that that organization is the best equipped to provide the best life to an animal ... [Darwin is] segregated and is not "with" other monkeys—just in a cage next to other monkeys equally caged. No, he is not running free in a forest or in any type of enclosure that comes close to simulating his natural environment. He is a caged prisoner being showcased for donations by a self-serving sanctuary.

Liepa: He has access to other monkeys through his enclosure. He’s near a baboon, Pierre, and they’ll groom each other. Pierre also teaches him manners. He’ll show he’s unhappy with Darwin if he misbehaves.

Cronin: Monkeys learn behavior when around other monkeys. They’re social creatures.

Hansen: The problem with introducing him to other monkeys during the trial was that monkeys can be aggressive with one another, and if one had bitten Darwin, Yasmin theoretically could have sued us again for damaging what would be her property. So we couldn’t integrate him right away.

Liepa: We’re waiting on two or three lab monkeys that we’re hoping to introduce to Darwin so he has a family. It’s the one thing missing for him.

Hansen: There are two research monkeys Darwin’s age we’re looking to get and we’re hoping we can introduce them.

Liepa: People ask, "Are monkeys happy?" It’s not really quantifiable and can be hard to assess. Monkeys are like people in that they have different personalities. Some can be outgoing and some can be shy.

Hansen: He’s shy, but he’s a sweetheart. He likes to wash his grass for some reason.

Toyne: I don’t expect there to be a significant change in law of property. And for now, animals are property. We own them, kill them, eat them, and some of them we treat like fake children. But in this case, the law was clear on the outcome of property, and a judge agreed.

Darwin depicted in butter
Courtesy of David Salazar

Nakhuda has since relocated to a new area, Kawartha Lakes, that had no laws against owning primates. With the case closed, she acquired more snow macaques. (Kawartha Lakes has since prohibited exotic animals, but Nakhuda and other existing owners are exempt.)

Nakhuda: We knew we wanted another Japanese baby male snow macaque the moment we realized the trial was lost and that Darwin was never going to come back. I also knew that even if he was returned, given the time that had elapsed during the separation, the bond was not going to be the same. I needed to pick up where we left off. I was haunted by him, I missed him, I ached for him. I did not have closure. To have another Darwin had become an obsession.

Hansen: She actually wound up getting two other monkeys.

Nakhuda: Almost three years later we came across Caesar. He was for sale at an animal auction. He was Darwin's replica. We did not hesitate for one moment. In any event we had moved to a farm where the zoning did not prohibit monkey ownership. Yes, a miracle happened. I feel that I proved my love and that it was only natural justice that I get what I was craving for. Yes, the emptiness that Darwin left behind may not have been filled entirely, but Caesar has brought light where darkness was. I felt blessed.

As the fifth anniversary of Darwin’s IKEA adventure nears, his legacy as both a meme and a lightning rod over the exotic animal trade continues.

Liepa: The trial definitely created an awareness of the exotic animal trade.

Toyne: The sheer interest in the fate of that monkey was a bit of a surprise.

Hansen: IKEA just had its 30th anniversary of their store in North York and put Darwin on the cover of the campaign, the poster or something. We actually reached out to them when we were fundraising later on, but they said, “Nah, that was a one-time deal.” I was on Facebook and someone at the Canadian National Exhibition show sculpted Darwin out of butter.

Delaney: I consider it tragic. Darwin is one of many. It was a very stressful time. Would I do it again? Yes. I’m trying to impact lawmakers at this point, so we don’t have any more Darwins.

Liepa: There are not consistent laws across Canada. There aren’t even consistent laws across Ontario. We do what we can to suggest to municipalities that having exotic pets is not a good idea.

Cronin: I understand the appeal of wanting to be around primates. It’s why I’ve spent 20 years studying primates, watching them. I get so much satisfaction watching them interact with each other, getting a glimpse into their world, how they communicate, social relationships. It’s very satisfying. We’re primates. We have a desire to be close.

Hansen: We have a day open to the public once a month and people will ask about Darwin. But they want to see him in the coat.

Toyne: I tell people I was involved in the second most famous and most important Darwin case.

Page: People ask me about it all the time. It’s become my legacy. I was the person who saw the monkey.

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Oral History
Take a Look: An Oral History of Reading Rainbow
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RRKIDS

For students, the summer months represent freedom from the shackles of regimented learning. For educators, they were becoming a problem. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was growing concern that children were becoming so captivated by both television and warm weather during their summer vacation that they had abandoned reading altogether. When they returned to school in the fall, their literacy skills had noticeably plummeted.

For a group of broadcasters and teachers, the solution was unusual: Air a new program during the summer months, and use television as a means to get kids excited about opening up a book.

The result was Reading Rainbow, a magazine-style series that celebrated books by reading them out loud to viewers, then exploring their themes in on-location segments. Hosted by LeVar Burton, the show grew from modest trials at PBS affiliate WNED in Buffalo and Great Plains National out of Nebraska. It ran for 150 episodes and 26 years, making it one of the most enduring children’s shows to ever air on public television. If Sesame Street taught kids the alphabet, Reading Rainbow helped them develop a love of words, paragraphs, and narratives.

Despite Rainbow’s altruistic aim, the series was frequently in danger of halting production due to a lack of funds. Lacking merchandisable characters or licensing opportunities that boosted shows like Barney, its producers struggled to convince financiers of its importance. In 2006, succumbing to a changing media and public television landscape, Rainbow shot its final episode. But the show's fans—and Burton—never gave up hope.

With the Reading Rainbow brand once again visible via apps and electronic devices, Mental Floss reached out to several members of the production team to revisit its origins, the approach to the very static practice of reading for the dynamic medium of television, and how Burton didn’t let little things like elephant snot discourage him from helping generations of kids learn to love reading.

In a 1984 survey by the Book Industry Study Group, young adults under 21 years of age were experiencing a marked decline in their interest in reading. In 1978, 75 percent reported they read books. Six years later, the number was down to 63 percent. In Buffalo, New York, and Lincoln, Nebraska, two public television employees grew fixated on how television—long thought to be a thief of a child’s attention—could be repurposed to combat the phenomenon.

Twila Liggett (Co-Creator, Executive Producer): I had been hired by ETV in Nebraska, which distributed programming to classrooms. One day my boss came to me and said, “You know, we’d like to make some television rather than just distribute it.” So I started to think about something in the area of reading.

Cecily Truett (Producer): Putting books on television wasn’t unheard of. Captain Kangaroo had done it. It was Tony Buttino who conceived of the summer loss concept for television.

Tony Buttino (Co-Creator, Executive Producer, Former Director of Educational Services, WNED): I started looking into the summer reading loss phenomenon, which came out of research being done in California. The basic idea was: Kids don’t read during the summer. When they come back to school in the fall, teachers spend two to three weeks bringing them back to their past reading level.

Pam Johnson (Former Vice President, Education and Outreach, WNED): The station would talk to their educational advisors, and what Tony kept hearing from professors, librarians, and teachers was that there needed to be something that explored a love of reading during those summer months. Having that capability early on puts kids on a path to doing well in school.

Larry Lancit (Director, Producer): There was always interest in getting kids to read more, but this was more of a highly-targeted mission. We wanted to make reading fun for kids and encourage them to participate.

Buttino: I started looking at programs that were available to run during the summer. One was called Ride the Reading Rocket, which we aired for a couple of years starting in 1977. I didn’t like the show, but it was something. We’d give out workbooks for classrooms that wanted to use them.

Liggett: There was a lot of stuff made for the classroom then, but it was not that great.

Johnson: Tony went back to 1959, 1960, when WNED first went on the air with live television. You’d have a nun come and read books, or a guy from the zoo come talk about science. It was seeding that notion.

Buttino: After Rocket, I went to see Fred Rogers. He turned us over to David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and we shot some short wraparounds with him over the next few summers.

Johnson: WNED would take some preexisting shows and basically use them as experiments. They were all a precursor to Reading Rainbow. It was all building a case for why TV could be good for that kind of thing. WNED was like an incubator.

Liggett: I wanted to do something to mirror what I did in the classroom, which was read to kids out loud, get kids involved in the experience of reading, and have kids talk to each other about reading. Those became the three basic elements of Reading Rainbow.

Buttino: Before Reading Rainbow, we had the Television Library Club. That worked well, but eventually we started thinking, “Well, what kind of show would we make if we had money?”

Lynne Ganek (Writer): The original mission was to create a summer series for inner-city kids who couldn’t go to camp to remain interested in reading. Larry, Cecily, and I sat down and said, “Well, this could be more interesting if we took a different route.”

Buttino: I basically copied some research that had been done for The Electric Company, which showed that if you can get kids in second grade to love to read, it’s a real turning point. Fifth grade might be a little too late.

Liggett: Nebraska's ETV and Great Plains wound up partnering with WNED in Buffalo. Ride the Reading Rocket was not fitting the bill anymore, so I suggested we take my idea and latch it onto the summer reading phenomenon.

Johnson: They compared notes and it really seemed like all roads were leading to the same thing. Different players were having different conceptions of how it might work out.

Ellen Schecter (Writer): The question was: How do you keep kids reading over the summer? There were all these studies showing that reading plummeted, but not solutions.

Ganek: The idea was not to teach kids how to read, but to encourage a love of reading.

Liggett: It was never about sounding out words, but a love of narrative. It was the perfect follow-up for kids who [had moved beyond] Sesame Street. You’d grab them with Sesame Street and then send them on to Reading Rainbow.

Truett: It was Tony who recognized the phenomenon, and Twila who said, “Why not make a TV show about it?”

Liggett: Tony has been known to claim it was his idea, and I take no umbrage at that. Success has many mothers and failure is an orphan.

Buttino: The word “creation” is interesting. I would say I created it, but then Cecily and Twila and Larry came along and recreated it. If I hadn’t done five summers pulling together what was important to the program, I’m not sure how it would have come together.

Ed Wiseman (Producer): What I remember is Ellen Schecter being the heart and soul of the show. Larry and Cecily organized it and put it together. Watching that dynamic with the three of them was wonderful.

With Liggett and Buttino convinced that a show about reading was viable, its execution was left to Cecily Truett and Larry Lancit, a married couple who owned New York City's Lancit Media. Having produced the kids' show Studio See and medical education programming, the couple knew how to navigate informational television with imagination on a budget.

Truett: Tony introduced us to Twila and explained what the goal was, which was to keep kids interested in reading. I thought, “Whoa, how do you do that on television?”

Schecter: We would sit around Cecily and Larry’s apartment at West End Avenue and talk about what kind of show we wanted.

Wiseman: I remember getting a call to come meet with this producing couple who worked out of their apartment. I went there in a three-piece suit, which is what I thought you did. They were so casual and relaxed.

Truett: I answered the door for Ed in a bathrobe.

Ganek: At the time, I was working for WNET in New York. Tony and Cecily hired me to be the associate producer when I was nine months pregnant.

Liggett: Cecily and Larry were responsible for the design of the show. They were and are brilliant producers.

Ganek: Cecily was good about allowing people to speak their mind and doing the same. I’d have an idea and she’d say, “Lynne, that sucks canal water.”

Schecter: An early idea was just to have people sitting around a library, but it was too static and boring. That got shot down.

Liggett: We briefly thought about putting the words on screen and having kids follow along as they were read to. We looked at Zoom. We looked at Sesame Street, of course, the giant of kids' TV. We looked at Mister Rogers.

Ganek: I grew up with Mr. Rogers and even got to know him a little bit later on. He always felt it was important for kids to be spoken to directly by the host. He was a huge supporter of the show.

Truett: We met with Fred, who was a great mentor to us. We wanted to have the kind of relationship Fred had with his audience.

Liggett: The name came from knowing that kids like alliteration and that we wanted to have “reading” in the title.

Buttino: An intern at WNED came up with the name Reading Rainbow.

Ganek: The formula we developed was used for the next 26 years of production, so I think we did something right.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting agreed to fund roughly half of the first season’s 15 episodes, leaving Liggett to petition corporations for the rest of the $1.6 million budget.

Liggett: It took about 18 months. I became sort of impossible to live with. People were telling me to let it go. My then-husband said, “You love this project more than you love anything else,” implying he was the anything else.

Ganek: Twila was very significant in getting Kellogg’s.

Truett: Twila was a relentless Nebraska girl with a will of steel. She was indomitable.

Liggett: I had written proposals for grants and funding before, but nothing on this scale. My big break came when I asked someone I knew at the University of Nebraska Foundation for assistance. He couldn’t get the money from the school. Then he said, “But I do sit on the Kellogg’s Foundation. I’ll contact the CEO and tell him he should see you.”

Schecter: We were always asking things of people in positions where normally you wouldn’t dare approach them.

Liggett: I went to Kellogg's by myself. How I had the guts, I don’t know. I had enough of the show laid out to convince them it would be a good idea.

Rev. Donald Marbury (Former Associate Director, Children’s and Cultural Programs, CPB): At CPB, we funded about half the budget. That’s the way it works in public broadcasting. There’s nothing PBS can fund in full. We become the initial money to parlay that into leverage to find other granters.

Liggett: Between Kellogg’s and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, we had enough money for 15 episodes. Without Kellogg’s, the show never would’ve gotten off the ground.

Money was only part of the production’s concerns. Without an engaging host, Reading Rainbow was in danger of being passed up by viewers in favor of more exciting programming.

Truett: [The original host was going to be] Jackie Torrance, a highly-regarded storyteller. But we also knew boys were at a greater risk of reading loss and were in need of a good role model. We looked at probably 25 people or so.

Buttino: I wanted the kind of host you’d buy a used car from.

Lancit: We had been thinking about—who was that guy who spoke at the Republican Convention? Scott Baio.

Buttino: I didn’t want a robot. I didn’t want anyone in a costume, someone dressed like a sheepdog or something. I wanted someone sincere. In the proposal, I think I mentioned Bill Cosby.

Ganek: We had gone to a kid’s TV conference and LeVar was there. He was just coming off Roots at the time.

Truett: Lynne said, “Have you seen LeVar lately? He’s so handsome, articulate, magnetic.” We thought, “Gosh, this guy is perfect.”

Schecter: Everyone knew him as Kunta Kinte from Roots. He was so 'live' and expressive.

LeVar Burton (Host): I had done two seasons of a PBS show out of Pittsburgh called Rebop. I had an affection for PBS. It made perfect sense to me, because of the reaction to Roots. You felt the sheer power of the television medium. Over eight nights of television, you experienced the transformation of what we meant when we talk about slavery in this country.

Lancit: I remember Lynne called us and said, “You really need to see this guy. He’ll be on the six o’clock news.” We turned it on and he just had this sharpness about him.

Liggett: Larry sent me a note saying I wouldn’t believe how camera-friendly he was. I saw a thing where he recited poetry on stage for Scholastic high school contest winners and he was so compelling. You could not take your eyes off of him.

Ganek: We decided to get in touch with LeVar, and he agreed to shoot the pilot.

Schecter: Once LeVar said yes, that was it.

Burton: I loved the counter-intuitive idea of it. It was no secret children were spending time in front of the TV set, so let’s go to where they are and take them back to the written word.

Ganek: At the time, LeVar was being managed by Delores Robinson, who was married to Matt Robinson, who played Gordon on Sesame Street.

Liggett: She was a former English teacher.

Truett: Lynne called her when LeVar was doing ABC’s Wide World of Sports on the Zimbabwe River. She said, “He’s not even in the country, but he’ll do it.”

Ganek: [Delores's] heart was in kids' TV and she was instrumental in getting LeVar to do it.

Burton: I was all in. It made perfect sense to me.

Truett: At the time, having an African-American kids' TV host was completely unprecedented.

Marbury: He was the first black host, surely. And more than being an African-American male, he was the first genuine celebrity we had landed for a public broadcasting series.

Burton: It wasn’t on my mind from day one, but it came into my awareness the longer we were on the air. I like to ask what Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, and LeVar Burton have in common: We all worked in children’s television.

Schecter: I’d go over scripts with him and ask how he felt. He really brought a lot of himself into the show, stuff that would relate to him—like how he learned to ride a bike and how scary it was until he realized his father wasn’t holding on to him anymore. That’s a perfect story for kids to hear, and it came off as very genuine because it was.

Wiseman: I would say LeVar on the show was 70 percent him and 30 percent refined for the viewer. He was playing himself, but a character, if that makes sense.

Liggett: The power of LeVar was remarkable.

Truett: No young black men were taking the lead in this kind of show. He was like Fred Rogers, talking directly to the audience.

There was little precedent for Rainbow’s format of focusing on a single book. Out of 600 possibilities for the first season, 67 were selected. While producers assumed publishers would appreciate the free advertising, not all of them fully understood the goal.

Ganek: I’d go to the library and just start pulling out books from the shelves, sit on the floor, and read them.

Schecter: The idea was to pick a book with enough juice to build a show around. If it was about dinosaurs, we’d go dig up dinosaurs at Dinosaur National Park. If it was a book about camping, we’d go camping. We went to film a volcano erupting—anything dynamic to hook kids. To pick out a book, it would have to be something that just jumped off the page and became alive within the context of the show.

Ganek: We wanted something whimsical or serious.

Schecter: When we picked out the books, we went to the National Library Association to make sure the titles we featured would be available when kids went looking for them. If you’re turning a kid on to a book, they have to be able to find it.

Ganek: The first season, we had to pay for the rights to use the books. No one was going to let us use them for free. It wasn’t much, but we had to pay.

Liggett: It was hard. That was why we used mostly unknown authors that first season.

Schecter: I think there was some apprehension over how the books would be presented.

Truett: We went to Macmillan and told someone there we were doing a series about summer reading loss and we’ve got no budget, so could we please have it for free? He was dumbfounded. He said, “I don’t see how this is going to sell any books for Macmillan.”

Liggett: They could not wrap their brain around how we could take the story and stretch it over half an hour.

Truett: I think we paid a few hundred dollars for the first book.

Schecter: Once publishers figured out they’d be on TV, they’d be pretty dumb not to say, “Fine.”

Liggett: We had to negotiate with both the author and the illustrator, since many of them were picture books.

Once a book was chosen, it was up to Lancit Media to figure out how to film its pages while remaining visually interesting.

Ganek: Maintaining the integrity of the artwork in the books was huge.

Liggett: I like to say we were Ken Burns before Ken Burns. We moved the camera across an illustration the same way a child’s eye would move across it, from left to right. That was Cecily’s idea.

Truett: I had been working for Weston Woods, a company that adapted books to slideshows way back when. The kids could see the illustrations rather than have the teacher hold up the book for everyone to look at. We knew we couldn’t be static.

Lancit: We realized early on it would be beyond our budget to do cel animation. We adapted books in what we called an iconographic manner, basically moving the camera on still images. We’d get copies of the books from publishers, cut the pages out, and send them to a company in Kansas that would adapt them by extending characters or adding art in case one of them was cut off by a page. Later, we would do limited animation if it made sense.

Reading Rainbow was divided into three segments: the book recitation, a field trip relating to the content, and a concluding segment where kids reviewed other, similar titles. It was one of the few times children on television had an opportunity to voice their opinions.

Schecter: That was a big thing, to have kids review the books. Kids talking about books didn’t happen often on TV.

Buttino: We found the kids in Buffalo for the first few years.

Johnson: Those were real kids from real neighborhoods in Buffalo. We’d test hundreds and hundreds of them and go, “OK, which one of these 6-year-olds has a presence?”

Ganek: I want to give credit to a librarian I spoke to in New Jersey. She came up with the idea for the kids to do book reviews. She had a little file on her desk where kids had left reviews and said, “Here, you don’t have to take my word for it.” That’s where LeVar’s line came from.

Schecter: I recall I wrote that line and that was my idea to have kids review the books. There would be the main book, and then it would be something like, “If you love this, you’ll love these.”

Truett: That was Ellen Schecter, pure and simple. It found its way into one of the scripts and we thought it would be a nice way to end each show.

Ganek: We found a little girl who was spectacular at doing the review and we were going to use her throughout the entire series. Eventually, we decided to use different kids every time.

Truett: Our research showed kids loved watching kids review the books.

Ganek: We were later accused of coaching the kids, and there was some of that, but it was really in their own words.

With funding and plans in place, shooting for the pilot episode began in early 1983.

Liggett: At first, Kellogg’s said they’d fund us but wanted to see a pilot episode first, which was only reasonable. But essentially, one of the assistants there took me aside and said, “Don’t worry. We love the show. Just go do it.”

Truett: LeVar showed up to shoot in New York City having just gotten off the red eye from Africa. It was 7 a.m. He asked me if he could have a toothbrush and a glass of orange juice.

Burton: I had no time to prepare. Talking directly into the camera and breaking the fourth wall is not something actors do often. I had to learn how to feel like I was very specifically talking to one kid.

Wiseman: He was just so incredibly sincere. I remember shooting that and he was developing his character through the smallest things. He had a backpack, and it was like, “Does he carry that? Does he not? Does he swing it over his shoulder?”

Burton: I just assumed that it was me they were looking for. Over time, I really dialed in the voice of LeVar on Reading Rainbow, and I recognized it as the part of me that either was a 10-year-old or appealed to 10-year-olds. They’re kind of one and the same.

Schecter: We did spring for some animation, where a woman opens a book and this big cloud of activity comes out of it.

Liggett: We contacted the people who had just done an animated Levi’s commercial. We wanted real kids to turn into animated kids. We almost ran out of money just doing that.

Truett: We did take one segment out of the pilot that was a bomb. It was called, “I Used to Think But Now I Know,” which was about first impressions not necessarily being the correct ones. It was a barker.

Lancit: When we took that out, we needed to fill time. We shot footage of a tortoise out in Arizona crawling around. I went to our music guy and said, “Can you get me a tortoise song?” I had no idea what he’d come back with. It was a clever little song. It was just two minutes of this little tortoise.

Ganek: I did have one incident after the pilot. I went to visit Dorothy and Jerome Singer, two professors at Yale who had done work in children’s television and had a column in TV Guide. I really looked up to them and so I brought the Reading Rainbow pilot along with me so they could take a look. They later wrote and told me it was awful and would never go anywhere. So much for academia.

Reading Rainbow premiered July 11, 1983 as the first summertime program funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While it wasn’t the first episode to air, the pilot, featuring the book Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport, proved to be a memorable introduction to the series for the crew.

Ganek: Someone at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting thought it would be too scary.

Wiseman: The title had “monster” in it, and that led to discussions.

Schecter: Often, self-important people will have ideas about what kids will or will not like. The book was not at all scary.

Truett: One of our advisers had a traumatic experience as a kid because someone brought a Gila monster to her house. It slept in a cage next to her.

Liggett: Our hearts were set on that and we went after it like gangbusters.

Truett: Gila Monsters was perfect because it showed how we would take a book and relate it to a kid’s life, like the fear of moving.

Ganek: I was in the pilot while I was still pregnant, and I remember PBS wasn’t comfortable having a pregnant woman on the show. They shot me from the neck up.

Truett: The response was extremely enthusiastic. We had real Gila monsters on the show. People loved it.

Schecter: The response was extremely positive from the public. It wasn’t like it was with Sesame Street. Older kids were watching it and enjoying it.

Wiseman: It was the most adult-watched kid’s show out there. They’d watch it without their kids.

Liggett: Sometimes we’d be criticized for not picking up the pace, to go faster. But we trusted a kid’s attention to let us take time to get to where we were going.

Not all of the debates surrounded the books. Over time, Burton’s choice of hairstyles and facial grooming would become popular topics of conversation off-camera.

Truett: One of the things we would always have to come to grips with what hairdo LeVar would have in a given year ... There were conversations about his mustache.

Burton: And when I got my ear pierced.

Marbury: We had some wonderful conversations about his haircuts.

Burton: I remember those conversations, and I remember saying, “Look, if you want me, you’ve got to take all of me.” Whether I had a mustache or not, or an earring or not, my authenticity and enthusiasm was coming through.

Wiseman: His hair and style would change from year to year depending on his acting projects. He was partial to a mustache, and the concern was that it aged him. Like, here’s a dad instead of a friend.

Truett: The producer called and said, “Hey, tell him to get rid of that thing.” They wanted more continuity since he didn’t have one in the first season. He shaved, but he was not happy about it.

As Reading Rainbow grew in popularity, publishers and authors began to understand what it could do for their business. Some titles experienced such a surge in sales that books would go back to presses or issue paperback editions to meet the demand.

Burton: The joke was that we would wear kneepads because we were begging publishers to allow us to put their books on television. In the 1980s, TV was still being discussed in academic circles as evil. It was seen as a direct competitor for readers.

Ganek: After the first season, we could barely fit all the books we were getting sent into the office. Publishers would send us practically anything they had.

Wiseman: Boxes came in every day.

Schecter: The whole children’s book business exploded. Some titles went up by 800 percent in sales.

Liggett: Kids would come into libraries asking for books they saw on the show.

Truett: The publishers started making little Reading Rainbow stickers to put on the featured books.

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Ganek: The show changed the way children's books were published. They would do very small print runs until Reading Rainbow, and then the numbers got big.

Truett: They finally got it when they saw the show. Reading Rainbow was tied to the sale of thousands of books.

Schecter: Once they saw how carefully we were treating the work and how we were getting celebrities like Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep to narrate the books, they understood.

Ganek: We had no budget, so anyone you heard reading the stories was doing it because they thought it would be good for kids.

Liggett: Some donated their fee to a charity, and some did it for nothing.

For the second season, Rainbow’s episode count would be cut down to just five installments. Plagued by budget constraints, it would join a number of other public television projects that had problems finding funding. “It’s a very scary time for children’s television,” PBS head of programing Suzanne Weil said at the time.

Liggett: We never did 15 episodes in a season again. It was too hard to raise the money.

Schecter: Money was always a worry. We would get it, but not always in time to keep a steady flow of episodes going. The problem was that we needed a schedule to get shows in production and on the air.

Lancit: Few series get continual funding with no risk. Sometimes we’d be within weeks of putting people on hiatus, then somehow we’d get it going again.

Ganek: Twila was the person responsible for continuing to get money to produce the show.

Truett: Every time we were on the brink of letting everyone go and moving on, Twila would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. She’d turn people upside-down and shake the money out.

Liggett: It was never guaranteed. One year, I thought we had money for a season and then my contact at Kellogg's went on vacation. The budget got redirected. When she got back, she told me our money was gone.

Schecter: Places like Kellogg’s and CPB didn’t really understand that you needed to keep the production moving. There would be a month or two of waiting, then everyone would have to hurry up.

Marbury: We funded it each and every year. It became a centerpiece for us. It was a marquee value children’s series we just embraced.

Liggett: Barnes & Noble funded us at one time.

Schecter: The questions would always be: How much will they give us? How much can we afford to spend?

Liggett: The National Science Foundation was suggested by a friend of mine. We did science-related books, so it made sense. But after a few years, it’s, “OK, you’ve had your stint here. We can’t fund this show forever.”

Unlike Sesame Street’s large cast of easily-merchandised characters, few elements of Reading Rainbow translated into licensing opportunities, which is one way series can meet their financial needs.

Liggett: We left no stone unturned in an effort to get us licensing deals. A friend set up a meeting with Joan Ganz Cooney, who ran Children’s Television Workshop. She told me, “I can tell you this, you’re not going to make much money selling book bags.”

Truett: We didn’t have the cuddly guys you could take to bed.

Wiseman: The thing that made us special was not having gimmicks, but it also made us less marketable. We didn’t have those licensing dollars flowing back into the show.

Liggett: At one point I wasn’t far from Hallmark in Kansas City. I went over there and thought, “Surely, Hallmark can see their way clear to do something with this.” And their licensing guy basically said, “The problem is, you have these books, but you don’t own these books.”

Truett: Publishers were the largest beneficiaries of the show. We talked about maybe adding a character to the show we could license. We thought about maybe the butterfly from the intro, but that felt very cheesy.

Burton: I was very, very wary of that idea. Thank god we never put it into play. I felt introducing another major character all of a sudden would have a negative impact in how I related to the audience.

Wiseman: I remember in college, a professor was talking about kids' TV, and said that animation and puppets were losing that humanity. LeVar was so sincere. It was back to the Fred Rogers model.

Johnson: We never had LeVar dolls, or ways to leverage those ancillary rights.

Liggett: We never figured it out.

Despite the financial constraints, there was always an allotment set aside for location shooting. In some of the more memorable segments, the show visited a zoo, a Chinatown parade, a live birth, and a high-security prison.

Ganek: Once we settled on a book, we sat down in a circle and talked about what we could do with it. That led to going on field trips depending on what we could afford. We went to a lot of interesting places. We did whitewater rafting in Arizona. We didn’t have money to pay the experts on the show, but when you’re doing work for children, people are very willing to give their time.

Schecter: LeVar was such a good sport. When we did the camping episode, it rained all the time.

Liggett: When he got Star Trek [in 1986], he’d shoot for a week there and then do our show on weekends. Unbelievable stamina.

Burton: I actually thought I was done with Reading Rainbow when I got Star Trek: The Next Generation. I felt I had done it for long enough and it was time to hang them up. They actually started looking for another host. Then Rick Berman, the executive producer on Trek, told me he used to work in children’s programming and had a soft spot in his heart for it. He made sure I could go out and shoot Rainbow when I needed to.

Schecter: I remember LeVar shooting at a zoo and an elephant had a cold and kept blowing snot all over him. He never lost his cool. “OK, let’s try it again.”

Truett: That was hilarious. The elephant was going for the apples LeVar had, and this stream of snot was coming from its trunk.

Burton: My whole thing was to not interrupt the flow of conversation with the viewer. That’s sometimes difficult to do when you’ve got elephant snot on you. I had goats trying to eat my clothes.

Truett: We pulled him out of a goat pen before he got pummeled to death.

Wiseman: I remember shooting near a live volcano. We left our editor about a mile from the eruption.

Liggett: We did an episode on the Starship bridge. Patrick Stewart remains one of the most courteous people I have ever met.

Truett: The biggest mistake Trek made was covering up [LeVar's] eyes with that device. People knew him from Trek, but on our show, he was talking directly to the audience.

Ganek: The biggest, and really only, arguments we’d have would be where to go on location. Someone would ask, “Where do they have the best dinosaur collection?” Someone thought it was Pittsburgh, and someone else would say otherwise.

Schecter: Chinatown [in Manhattan] was a problem. We did Liang and the Magic Paintbrush there, but it was not easy. There are gangs there and you have to be on the right side of them. We managed to ingratiate ourselves.

Truett: As time went on, we delved into more mature topics. We talked about the Underground Railroad, about slavery. We did Badger’s Parting Gifts, about losing someone you love when they die.

Wiseman: We filmed in Sing-Sing, in parts where cameras had never been allowed before. We pushed the envelope in quiet ways. We live-filmed the birth of a baby! We choreographed it with an OB/GYN and a mom. It had never been done in children’s TV before.

Lancit: We coordinated it with a doctor and didn’t show anything graphic. It was all above the waist.

Wiseman: Every PBS station aired it but one: WNET in New York, of all places.

As Rainbow rolled on, it drew considerable attention from libraries, publishers, and the television industry itself, taking home 26 Emmys for excellence in children’s programming.

Wiseman: People at the Daytime Emmys would look at us sideways. “Here come the Reading Rainbow people.” I think we won in just about every category.

Buttino: That was always wonderful, to dress up and attend those shows.

Wiseman: During the 2003 Emmys, LeVar went on stage to accept and said, “This might be the last time we’re up here. There’s no funding.” And we wound up getting funded because he said that on TV.

Burton: I don't remember that, but it sounds like something I would do. Year in and year out, we continued to stay afloat despite a continuous need for funds. I think Reading Rainbow always had a guardian angel that was looking out for us.

Lancit: I always said we had Reading Rainbow karma. Whatever we needed, we would eventually wind up getting. People were always willing to help.

In 2006, Reading Rainbow had seemingly run out of goodwill. The culprit: the No Child Left Behind Act, which placed restrictions on how the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could allocate funds.

Wiseman: We just kind of always thought there would be more money, that Twila would find a way to get it. Like, this show is too good to just die.

Liggett: We ran out of money in 2006 and did our last show in 2006.

Truett: Part of it was the gradual move to other shows. Even though parents wanted their kids watching PBS, they’d leave the room and the kids would go back to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Liggett: To this day, I’m bemused by the funding issues we had. Everyone is obviously in support of reading and literacy—until you start asking for money.

Ganek: Encouraging a child to want to read was our downfall in some ways. No Child Left Behind wanted kids to be taught the mechanics.

Burton: No Child Left Behind was the death knell. The money was marked for the rudiments of reading. There was no mandate for encouraging a love of reading. All the sources we had come to depend on were no longer able to help us.

Liggett: The mechanics of it would make your toes curl, but basically, CPB got ready-to-learn funds and then shows would come in and plead their case. I argued. I can’t tell you how hard I argued.

Marbury: There were greater demands from Congress to venture out into other areas. We had to start questioning how much we put into the series year after year.

Truett: PBS had to justify its existence to political constituencies. The programming choice for a lot of public television became animation. Stuff like Blue’s Clues.

Burton: We shot our last episode in 2006 but weren’t pulled from the lineup until 2009. After three seasons with no new content, we were pretty much canceled.

Although the show aired in reruns through 2009, Burton was adamant that Rainbow not be forgotten. In 2012, he and partner Mark Wolfe launched an iPad app that capitalized on interactivity and the digital age of entertainment. In 2014, their Kickstarter campaign raised more than $6 million to become the most-funded project in that site’s history.

Burton: When it was taken off the air, it was like a light bulb moment for me. “Wait a minute. There’s something I can do.” We spent most of 2010 and 2011 gathering the rights that had been scattered to the winds and throwing a rope around them to make a deal with WNED.

Wiseman: It was, at the time, the biggest Kickstarter ever, with $6 million. That shows you the power this show had.

Burton: It held the record for the biggest number of backers. It was pretty overwhelming, seeing the depth of passion and enthusiasm for the brand.

Schecter: I thought it was kind of strange. LeVar owns Reading Rainbow? How could this be?

Burton: There was an opportunity to raise seed capital and hire a team.

Liggett: My understanding is that WNED made a deal with the University of Nebraska, and that LeVar and his company made a broad licensing arrangement with WNED, but WNED still owns it.

Truett: I’m thrilled LeVar is keeping the legacy of Reading Rainbow alive.

Buttino: I’m not sure LeVar and WNED are getting along too well right now. I think WNED sold some stuff to him and they’re not happy about it. [WNED and RRKidz are currently involved in litigation concerning the Reading Rainbow license, with WNED accusing RRKidz of “illegally and methodically” trying to “take over” the brand by pursuing projects that were not part of their original agreement.]

Burton: There’s nothing I can say about it right now. I hope and believe we’ll get it resolved soon.

Today, Reading Rainbow remains a touchstone children’s television series, its impact on both viewers and its production team immeasurable. Burton's RRKidz continues to reach children via apps and other online iterations of the series.

Ganek: The cast and crew of Reading Rainbow loved each other.

Wiseman: If we had a crew member come in and say, “It’s just a kids' show, it doesn’t matter,” they’d be gone. It was because it was a children’s show that it had to be the best.

Truett: We started out as kids ourselves, really, and grew up over 26 years.

Wiseman: I married Orly [Berger, a fellow producer]. Our kids wound up appearing on the show.

Liggett: We made kids want to read, and that makes a huge impact. It’s like playing the piano. The more you do it, the better you get.

Truett: It was one of the first shows that shined a light on books and literacy, of enjoying books and enjoying books with your kids.

Johnson: PBS would commission surveys, and over an 18-year period, teachers reported Reading Rainbow was the most-used video in their classrooms. They saw it not only as a reading show, but as a way for disadvantaged kids to see things they might not otherwise get exposed to. They can see a bee farm, or a live volcano.

Wiseman: People will talk about the show with tears in their eyes.

Marbury: I’d put it up there with Sesame Street. I really would, in terms of undergirding the cruciality of reading to our young people.

Burton: Part of the secret sauce of Reading Rainbow was tying literature to a real-world experience. I cannot tell you how many people I have met who told me they became a writer or librarian or bee keeper or were inspired by the show to some degree or another and that it had a major impact on their life.

Ganek: So many people today do their own version of the Reading Rainbow theme song on YouTube. I saw Jimmy Fallon dressed as Jim Morrison from The Doors doing it on his show with The Roots.

Liggett: People will sing the theme song to me.

Marbury: I could sing it right now! Butterfly high in the sky, I can go twice as high …

Buttino: Friends will say I was involved with Reading Rainbow at restaurants. Waiters will come up to me and show me the theme song is their ring tone. It happens all the time.

Lancit: I think there was a purity in the way we presented the program that reached kids and touched them in a way where they didn’t feel patronized. We spoke to them at a level that made them feel confident. That I had something to do with giving a generation of kids that feeling is a wonderful thing.

Truett: I believe in my heart that the relationship LeVar created with young people was one of the factors in bringing them to embrace a relationship with an African-American man. It changed a generation’s perspective.

Wiseman: He made color both an issue and not an issue at the same time. LeVar transcended race, gender, and age.

Burton: That’s something emotional about that sweet spot of childhood, and Reading Rainbow triggers that for people. It was during a much simpler time in their lives. The world is a lot faster now.

Marbury: I don’t think enough children’s programming has followed Reading Rainbow’s lead. There is nothing more important in education than reading. We must continue to make it foundational to the educational process.

Schecter: Sometimes I’ll meet friends of my kids who go, “You wrote Reading Rainbow? That was my favorite show. I’d get a book, close my bedroom door, and let my imagination go.” That’s what we wanted.

Burton: It was very pastoral. We allowed that conversation with the audience to breathe. I think that’s part of the appeal. I felt they believed they had a friend. Someone who was rooting for them, that knew and cared about them. And that was real.

All images courtesy of RRKidz unless otherwise credited.

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