Take a Look: An Oral History of Reading Rainbow

RRKIDS
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.

The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special

Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

Alone in the Dark: An Oral History of MTV's Fear

MTV
MTV

While shooting their 11th episode at the Mina Dos Estrellas mine in Michoacán, Mexico, in 2001, the production team behind the MTV reality series Fear encountered a very unusual situation. The show, which dropped five or six contestants into mysterious locations reputed to be haunted and dared them to spend time alone in the decrepit buildings, awarded a cash prize of $5000 to each person who successfully faced their anxieties without fleeing. Of the group, at least a handful would usually be left at the end of each show to collect their reward.

The mine was different. It was said to be patrolled by the spirits of miners who died while on duty, as well as the Nahual, a werewolf-esque creature. The sense of foreboding was too much to take. On the first night of shooting, all six contestants quit.

“Instead of being there two weeks to shoot, we were there a month,” Alissa Phillips, a production associate-turned-associate producer on the series, tells Mental Floss. “We had to fly an entirely new cast in to see if they could manage it.”

Fear, which ran for 16 episodes from 2000 to 2002, remains an anomaly in the reality genre. Unlike most docudramas, there was no camera crew in sight. The cast wore chest-mounted cameras and carried handheld recorders to provoke a feeling of real isolation. Nor did the production orchestrate artificial scares—apparitions, fleeting figures in the woods—like a modern haunted house. Instead, the contestants were largely left alone to get lost in their own heads, the weight of the violent, sometimes-murderous locations bearing down on them as they sat in pitch-black areas thought to have paranormal occupations, sometimes for hours. Some contestants successfully made it through to the end; others quit in their hotel room, before they had even arrived at the site.

For MTV, it was a departure from their typical reality fare like The Real World. For producers, it was an opportunity to craft a “real” horror movie, capturing the genuine reactions of hysterical, sobbing young adults who jumped at the sound of every wind gust and creaky floorboard. To get a sense of what it took to craft this real-life Paranormal Activity, Mental Floss spoke with members of the cast and crew. Here’s what they remember about the series, its challenges, and some truly terrifying moments they still can’t quite explain.

I: FEAR ITSELF

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

In 1999, MTV was riding a wave of inexpensive reality programming that brought disparate personalities together and forced them to either live together (The Real World) or compete against one another (Road Rules). Coupled with the music video countdown series Total Request Live, it remained a destination channel with a clear identity for young adults.

That brand was put to use by writing and producing partners Martin Kunert and Eric Manes, who conceived of a feature film pitch about an MTV-esque reality show that goes awry. Kunert and Manes began shopping the feature around town. While they eventually found interest, it wasn’t in quite the way they expected.

Martin Kunert (Co-Creator, Co-Executive Producer): We had just done a movie called Campfire Tales and decided doing a pseudo-documentary horror film would be our next idea. We basically thought of a movie called The Legend of Hell House and combined it with The Real World. It was called Dare.

Beau Flynn (Executive Producer): I was obsessed with In Search Of, the old Leonard Nimoy show, and I was thinking of rebooting it. I merged the two ideas to create Fear and took it to Dawn Olmstead, who was one of my best friends from college.

Dawn Olmstead (Executive Producer): He sent over the feature idea. Beau and I discussed what would happen if we basically did it for real.

Kunert: The pitch was about these kids that go to [the allegedly ghost-occupied swamp area] Honey Island in Louisiana. And it turns out the place really is haunted and sh*t happens for real.

Eric Manes (Co-Creator, Co-Executive Producer): Basically, they said, “Instead of making this movie, why not actually make the show within the movie?”

Alissa Phillips (Associate Producer): I was working for Beau as his assistant at the time. Dawn had recently joined the company and had worked at MTV. They ended up selling it there as a show.

Olmstead: MTV thought it was a cool idea, but I think there was suspicion over whether we could pull it off and be scary. I flew with an executive to a run-through for the pilot and he told me on the plane, “Listen, no one is going to die. What are we actually shooting?”

Craig A. Colton (Editor): I was cutting World’s Wildest Police Chases when [Fear supervising executive producer] Cris Abrego called me out of the blue and said, “I’m executive producing this show called Fear. I think you’d be perfect for it. It’s a pseudo-game show where young contestants have to spend 72 hours in a haunted location. If they do, they win $5000.” I was like, “Huh.”

Phillips: In those days, reality was really still defined as Road Rules and The Real World and that was it.

Jonas Larsen (Segment Producer): It was a crazy idea. How were we going to execute this? How were we going to create a sense of these people actually being alone?

Colton: For me, haunted location shows had never quite worked. It was for the same reason people generally don’t put magic in movies. Audiences think, "Oh, it’s manipulated." Same with ghost stories. How do we know the location is haunted?

Olmstead: My thinking was, remember how scared you get watching a horror movie and seeing someone going down into a basement? The scariest parts are watching people nervously going somewhere.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

With the premise settled, producers set about creating an environment unique in television—isolating the cast from the production and allowing stationary mounted cameras in the location and on the cast's bodies to cover the action.

Kunert: The idea was to not have any interaction with the production. That was the way to get genuine fear. They felt completely isolated and alone.

Gordon Cassidy (Story Editor): With these ghost-hunting shows, one of the things that breaks the spell is the presence of a camera crew. How scared can you really be with a cameraman and soundman standing next to you?

Olmstead: The main problem was: it’s not going to be scary with producers around. We used every idea and innovation we could to make them feel like they were alone and abandoned.

Luis Barreto (Director): You can’t put the camera on the head. It moves too much. It had to be more of a shoulder or body mount.

Cassidy: They came up with the idea of people self-filming. It was a vest-worn camera on a gooseneck arm that extended out a little bit then pointed back to the face and shoulders for a medium close-up.

Phillips: Beau’s company produced Requiem for a Dream [in 2000], where the crew had built camera rigs that Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly wore for certain shots. We used the same basic rigs.

Flynn: We had a huge camera rig mounted on their chests for three or four shots. We did that, but with a lipstick cam.

Kunert: The vest cams didn't come from Requiem from a Dream. We designed and built originals in order to get close ups when people were alone.

Colton: We called it the Clam Cam. It was basically a harness that had arms with a camera mounted on the end. Their body was like the tripod. When they ran, you would get this incredible low-angle shot on their face. Because they were infrared, it didn’t matter how dark it was.

Cassidy: The effect on screen is disorienting and scary. The person is still but the background moves around them. It reinforces the fact they were in this space by themselves.

Colton: The Clam Cams were used for dramatic emphasis. When contestants freaked out, we went to the Clam Cam for that in-your-face Exorcist moment.

Cassidy: It changed the experience. We got real human behavior. It wasn’t mediated by the presence of a camera crew. The material was very compelling, spooky, and striking.

Colton: We also used it to build suspense. If someone is going down the stairs, we went to a close-up. Now the audience can’t see what they see.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Colton: We also used it as a red herring. Say someone was going down stairs: We’d go to the Clam Cam and the audience would go, “Oh, something scary is about to happen.” But then nothing happened. It gave the audience a false sense of security.

Flynn: The important part of the pitch [to MTV] was that fear lives in the eyes, and you have to be sure to capture that.

Colton: In a couple of cases the camera would get knocked off-kilter if someone ran into something. One time half of someone’s face was showing, and that was actually really cool.

Olmstead: It was a happy accident. If they started running and bumped into a wall, the camera would move and you’d see a shoulder and hear someone breathing. They were too scared to adjust the camera, nor did we have access to say, “We can’t see you.” But when we saw the footage, it was scarier than if we had seen their face.

Colton: As the viewer, your back is to what’s coming around the corner. That’s the basis of all great horror films. It’s what the filmmaker chooses not to show you that’s scary.

To populate Fear, MTV turned to a reality TV staple: a revolving door of young, attractive 20-somethings orbiting Los Angeles, New York, and select casting hotspots around the country.

Barreto: MTV had a whole casting department. Fear wasn’t as heavy-duty as a show like Road Rules that had six weeks of interviews. It was much more truncated. We talked to them, found out what they were about. Some people came in with some preconceived ideas. Some were skeptics.

Olmstead: We were going for a Breakfast Club mix. Six people trapped in a building. How would you cast it as a movie? There’s a prom queen, a nerd.

Flynn: Breakfast Club is exactly right. I grew up on John Hughes movies. How do we put together a grouping of people that will be interesting?

Kunert: We wanted people who had some type of big emotional issue in their life that was boiling to the surface. Some big decision they had to make.

Manes: People who are looking for something emotionally are open to things. Maybe things in their life aren’t going according to plan. Maybe they’re in a fight with their parents. That just gave us stuff to work with.

Phillips: We needed kids who were as tough as possible. If someone in an audition was saying, “I’m spiritual, I believe in the paranormal,” it was like, “Ohhhh, probably not.” We were looking for people who were cynical, who would look into the camera and say, “I want the money. You’re not going to scare me.” Because people would just quit the first night.

Steven Breier (Contestant, “West Virginia Penitentiary,” Episode One): They asked a bunch of weird questions. Are you afraid of spiders? Are you scared of the dark?

Jason Harbison (Contestant, “Mina Dos Estrellas,” Episode 12): They were interviewing people in Birmingham, Alabama, with one group of six people per table. Me and my brother both went. They asked questions. I remember being asked why we wanted to be on the show. One guy gave some bullsh*t answer like he wanted to study the science of ghosts. The interviewer got to me and I said, “I just want to be on TV and meet some hot chicks.”

Cassidy: They did a good job of putting together people who were contrasting types. One was athletic, one was skeptical of ghosts, another was a can-do guy. It was a pretty good cross-section of people.

Flynn: One thing we learned is that in extreme situations, when you’re feeling vulnerable and afraid, it’s very bonding. We drop all the presentational qualities that we have.

Barreto: We told them, “Be ready to go. Bring one bag. Don’t bring a phone. Tell your friends they won’t hear from you for five days.” They’d get taken somewhere, get blindfolded, go to a hotel room with no television, and left alone for 48 hours. We treated them like prisoners.

Harbison: I got to Mexico City and the driver was kinda hot. I guess that part doesn't matter. But she was kind of cold and callous toward me and wouldn’t make conversation. I eventually asked her about it and she said, "Well, they asked me to be like that."

Olmstead: Sometimes they’d be flown to one city but then driven to another. They had no communication with the outside world. We were trying to de-stimulate them.

Kunert: If they feel safe, they’re not going to react. We tenderized them in the hotel room. They’d go in front of the cameras and say, “This is not what I expected.”

Manes: They had a VCR in the hotel room or safe house, but they could only watch horror films.

Harbison: Poltergeist was one. The Shining was another.

Barreto: Friday night, someone shows up. They get blindfolded. No one tells them where they’re going. Once you get to the safe house, good luck.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Phillips: We put bags over their heads. That was not fake. They never knew where they were going. One girl vomited in her bag. I was like, “Is this dangerous?”

Olmstead: She wasn’t the only one who puked.

Phillips: We left one kid with a bag over his head for hours. We did some evil things.

Breier: Someone woke us up and put a pillowcase over my head and walked me out to a car. I could tell other people were in the car. We drove around for about an hour. When we got out, it was like 3:30 in the morning. They told us to put our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us.

Flynn: We didn’t want them talking or planning beforehand. We wanted all of them to meet for the first time.

Manes: Sometimes people would get there and say, “It’s MTV, nothing is going to happen.” We made it clear that MTV is not there.

Breier: I thought, well, while this is scary, and maybe you might get hurt tripping in the dark, it’s not a situation that will create grave harm.

Manes: By the time participants actually ended up walking into the location, they were already so prepared to be frightened, so concerned about where they were, that even if they thought it was a gimmick when they auditioned, they were worked up by the time we finished with them in the prep stage.

Barreto: I’m an old-school reality producer. I believe there’s a process to getting people ready to be on set. It’s a holistic thing. The whole approach has to work. Participants have to come ready to play ... They were primed already. You just had to keep satisfying the expectations of what they’re about to go through.

Major Dodge (Contestant, “Mina Dos Estrellas,” Episode 12): They’d mess with your sleep. You’d be up all day and awake at night. I knew they were doing certain things to get us to break mentally a little bit.

Breier: One contestant ... had a little pagan altar set up and said she practiced witchcraft. Before we even started, she left.

Colton: It’s almost like horse racing. You put the horse in the starting gate and it’s their instinct to run but they can’t. When you ring the bell, the horse takes off. That’s what the contestants were.

Flynn: Because of my passion for In Search Of, I wanted to educate people about these places. All of that stuff was real. We’d research it and incorporate it into the episodes. It was a great way to tell the backstory, to merge it with what the modern college kids were experiencing.

Colton: We had a documentary on top of the show that explained why the location was haunted. It communicated the story to contestants. We saw it visually and they heard it verbally. It was also to sell the audience—like, OK, there could really be some paranormal activity in this location.

Cassidy: They’d be told of the haunted spots.

Breier: You got your head filled with stuff before you even got there.

Colton: We might exaggerate the story to build some suspense.

Manes: We also had an insurance waiver. Instead of saying something like, "Hey, we don’t take responsibility if something happens,” it would say, “In case you get dismembered or blinded here …” We built up the feeling of danger.

Even with a cast on edge, no one at MTV was entirely convinced a show about contestants grappling with their own internal anxieties could be effectively communicated on television.

Olmstead: I think there was some trepidation about, could we capture scariness on TV when we knew no one would die? Could we capture what it feels like to be scared out of your wits at a haunted place? Would it be too scary and people would quit in five minutes? We kept adjusting as we went along.

Manes: We started working on [the feature film idea for] Dare before The Blair Witch Project, but their [success] definitely helped us out.

Olmstead: I think Blair Witch influenced people who wrote about Fear, but it wasn’t like Blair Witch inspired it. What I do think happened is Blair Witch helped the network feel confident that they would find an audience for it.

Manes: I think part of what helped the show was that the network expected it to be a complete disaster. They left us alone. No one at MTV wanted to get blamed for it, and so they allowed us to get crazy.

II: SCREAM FACTORY

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Before Fear went to series, the network ordered a pilot that took place in West Virginia State Penitentiary, a notoriously brutal facility located in Moundsville that had been open from 1876 to 1995 and was said to be inhabited by the spirits of the estimated 100 inmates who had met violent ends via execution. The objective was simple: Walk into the darkest recesses of the building and see if you had the nerve to stay put.

Phillips: Martin and Eric wanted to go to the prison first. They really honed in on it. It was included in the original pitch document.

Flynn: There was a lot of history there. When the prison was built, it was on an Indian burial ground. They flattened the land and put the prison on top of it. Ultimately, it was shut down. There was more death and murder per square foot there than anywhere. It was a lot of bad mojo.

Olmstead: It was a great story. The idea of putting young adults and dropping them off after midnight in a prison seemed really frightening. The reason we played with the idea of mental institutions and prisons was because we knew the idea that, if you believed in ghosts, and someone died while being incarcerated, you could be trapped there forever.

Larsen: Martin, [director] George [Verschoor], and I went to scout it and start the documentary process. We decided, “You know what, let’s see if we can get some local kids and see what their reaction is.” Have them come and hang out with us at the prison and test it out. There was a place in the basement where, during a riot, some inmates had killed some other inmates, decapitated them, and played soccer with their heads. I told the kid, “Here’s what you need to do. Go into the room with a video camera and spend 15 minutes by yourself.” I think we offered a couple hundred bucks.

What he didn’t know was that [we had someone] hiding in a hallway leading down to the room with a little metal chain. He jingled it and the kid freaked out and came screaming out of the room. I said, “Listen, we’ll give you $500 to go back into the room.” Then it was $1000. He wouldn’t. That’s when we looked at each other and knew we had a show. It’s all in your head. It doesn’t take much to tap into that fear.

Cassidy: Frankly, the space even in the footage was scary and intimidating. It was a real penitentiary and real violence occurred within its walls.

Phillips: It was terrifying for the crew. No one wanted to go to the bathroom alone. Actually, no one did in any location.

Cassidy: The narrative device imposed was that once they entered the penitentiary and were given a home base in the prison chapel, they could kind of relax and talk to one another. In the room, there was a computer with instructions on what they had to do next.

Phillips: On a pilot, you don’t really know what you’re doing. I was not sure it was going to work—kids with cameras in an enormous location. Luckily, we got incredible footage.

Kunert: The Sugar Shack was scary.

Cassidy: That was the inmate rec center. There was a lot of graffiti on the walls. It was a spooky place.

Breier: That was the worst for me. It’s a big, open room with nothing in it, just pillars. People could be hiding in there. I didn’t know if there were actors ready to jump out and scare us.

Manes: That was genuinely scary. I personally did not want to go in there. I felt an awful, evil presence. My body and soul were telling me to get the hell out.

Phillips: The crew did not want to rig the Sugar Shack alone. It was an intense room, freezing and dark.

Cassidy: For the documentary material, a production crew traveled there and interviewed inmates who spent years in Moundsville. People were telling me the most frightening moments of the show were getting interviews from some of those guys and hearing accounts of what had gone on in the old days. It was chilling.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Flynn: I saw water shooting up from the urinal. I know Dawn had a similar experience.

Olmstead: I went down a hallway there and there was no running water in the place. I get into a room and there is water and sludge dripping out of stones in the walls. I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a cross on it.

Phillips: I did a dry run with a walkie-talkie and headset and no flashlight to test the directions we would give them. It’s pitch-black and I’m being read the same instructions the kids would get the next day. So someone says, “Climb up the ladder in front of you.” I got to the top and couldn’t see anything. There is no light at all. Now I hear, “Walk three paces forward” in my ear. So I was standing there and heard someone say, “No,” but not in my ear. I vividly remember someone saying no. So I relayed back, "I’m not doing this.”

The next day, someone from the crew that was rigging said, “Thank god you didn’t do that.” It turns out there was an enormous trap door in that part of the prison, where they put hay down for horses. It was 10 or 15 feet wide. If I’d proceeded three feet, I’d have fallen to my death.

Cassidy: There was a young woman in the pilot who was very sensitive to psychic things. She was open to the experience and was having some intense experiences and ultimately decided it wasn’t healthy for her to continue putting herself in those places.

Flynn: Whether you believe in ghosts or spirits or not, one thing is undeniable and that’s the energy. Just like you can walk into someone’s house and feel good energy, there’s bad energy. Walking into that prison was terrifying. We shot for one night there. We didn’t even need two nights.

Olmstead: After shooting, we went to a diner ... A telephone pole cracked in half, this giant telephone pole, and almost killed all of us in the van. It made the local news. This was after the first night of filming.

Flynn: It came out of nowhere. The lights went out in the Denny’s and the pole just fell down.

Larsen: Eric and I were in one car and they were in the other, passing each other. There were fire trucks and people in hazmat suits. The guy directing traffic just left and we kept going. Police got really mad at us for driving through a detour.

Flynn: When I got back from Moundsville, my house had been infested with rats. That was odd and terrifying.

via GIPHY

Despite the near-fatalities, the crew got what it needed. Of the six contestants recruited for the pilot, three remained. To finish the challenge, a contestant named Ryan successfully pulled off a tarp from the prison’s electric chair. Though it was just a cloth on top of a seat, his apprehension cemented Fear as a show where the simplest dares proved most effective.

Larsen: We used the actual electric chair from the exhibit at the prison.

Cassidy: The electric chair reaction was right on the edge of total fear, but also kind of very big. Like he enjoyed it but was also genuinely terrified.

Phillips: What we learned is that it was better to give them real goals than to just sit there and get terrified. It gave them a sense of purpose and stabilized them a little bit. Like, “Document this, find this.” Otherwise they would often just quit.

Kunert: MTV did a test screening and their method was, if someone in the audience says, “I’ve seen something like this before,” it would never get on the air. Or, “I could see this on another network,” that wouldn’t get on air, either. MTV wanted innovation.

They got it. Debuting September 21, 2000, Fear (sometimes styled as MTV's Fear) resonated with audiences in a post-Blair Witch culture, living vicariously through the frayed nerves of contestants. Producers were already scouting future locations.

Phillips: We had concepts for different experiences. We wanted an old hotel so we did [Poconos resort] Buck Hill Inn. That was like, where can we find The Shining? We wanted a former sanitarium, so we found Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. We conceived of an experience and then sought to find it.

Olmstead: We did a lot of research for what the most haunted places in America were. We wanted it to be like a movie, a visual feast.

Kunert: It was the job of a producer or associate producer to go to a location and spend the night alone. If they weren’t scared, we weren’t going to send a whole crew.

Olmstead: We wanted to know if it felt haunted and if we could tell a story about it.

Phillips: Jonas Larsen scouted a location. He is the most level-headed, cool, no-nonsense guy, and he came back with a story that blew our minds.

Larsen: I went to this island in upstate New York to look at a castle that had been built in the 1800s by a guy for his wife who died before it was ever completed. A pastor lived there and did Sunday services. The caretaker took me there in his speedboat. I spent time touring. It was funny in a Scooby-Doo kind of way. Basically, there was a network of secret passageways in the house. There were even eyeholes cut out of paintings so you could spy on people. There was also a jail cell, in what was supposed to be a private residence, which made me curious.

The pastor invited me to spend the night instead of going all the way back to the hotel. At about 3 or 4 a.m., I felt a tug on my sheets. I had a feeling of not being able to move, like someone had taken the sheets and was holding them down. I laid like that, awake, like, “What the f*** is happening?” All of a sudden, I felt it let go. I turned on the light and there was nothing there. I did not go back to sleep.

Flynn: Jonas was a total non-believer. 

Larsen: I travel quite a bit. Your sleep habits get messed up. It could’ve been a combination of being in an unfamiliar place and jet lag, or it could’ve been some paranormal thing. I have no idea.

Olmstead: He was sure he had a little PTSD. He felt he was attacked in his bedroom.

Flynn: He came back, sat with me and Dawn, and said, “I’m quitting the show.” He felt he had been abducted by a ghost.

Larsen: [Laughs] They’re embellishing. I produced the rest of the episodes.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

It could be hard for viewers to grasp how intimidating some of the show’s locations could be. In addition to multiple prisons and mental institutions, Fear eventually made it to the purportedly haunted USS Hornet; the Duggan Brothers cement factory, which had seen numerous industrial accidents; and the Ki Sugar Mill, a shuttered Hawaiian location reportedly harboring a strange subterranean creature.

Colton: These places were huge. Hundreds of thousands of square feet. Just to go down into one of these places in the dark, it’s a headf*** right off the bat.

Phillips: The early rule was: If it has a soda machine, we’re not going.

Barreto: It had to have a history. It had to be old. That was an environment conducive to having that kind of experience.

Phillips: We didn’t want to go to places you had heard of. We weren’t going to the Winchester House.

Colton: These buildings had been empty for decades.

Phillips: We had [psychic] Carla Baron come in advance and decide where the paranormal readings were. They’d tell us, “Be in this room.” Carla was lovely and intense. We all believed in her abilities.

Carla Baron (Medium): Cris Abrego called me, or I called him. A friend of mine knew Bonnie Hammer at MTV and suggested me for the series. So we talked and I said, "You should change the name of the show from Fear to MTV’s Fear because the numerology would be much more successful for you." He said, “You’re freaking me out. The network just called and wants to change the name to MTV’s Fear.”

Manes: We did all the work before the contestants showed up. The whole crew worked like crazy to lay all the cable, set up the dares, and put the cameras in the right places.

Barreto: Someone told me we laid down 10,000 feet of cable in some places.

Flynn: We were maybe using more cable than the Super Bowl.

Phillips: This was long before the idea of remote cameras. We rigged cable for all of the cameras.

Kunert: We had to make sure the places were safe so no one hurt themselves.

Phillips: The leper colony in Canada is probably my most memorable location. It blew my mind. It was this huge, abandoned city, like everyone had just suddenly left.

Colton: The Boettger Brewery [a.k.a. Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, Missouri, where multiple people had committed suicide on the premises] stood out for me. There was tons of debris around. Old tables, desks, vats, junk. It looked like a deserted supernatural environment.

Phillips: The locations were terrifying even during the day. If they had electricity in the past 50 years, we were psyched.

Manes: Some of these places had been condemned. You couldn’t trust the floors.

Baron: I’d go through rooms and see what latent spiritual activity was there—if there was anything dangerous, anything unresolved, if there were spirits that needed to move on.

Phillips: We usually renamed the places for security reasons. Sometimes we had to beg for permission and had to promise [site representatives] they wouldn’t end up with people descending on them.

Olmstead: For Fairfield State Hospital, we were on the phone with the mayor, then the governor’s office. It was an old, abandoned mental institution where horrible things happened and they didn’t want it to look bad for the state. So we wound up changing the name to St. Agnes, after Agnes of God.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Oddly, many of the truly unsettling experiences surrounding Fear happened off-camera, when the production team was getting situated in their haunts.

Barreto: St. Agnes, that place was not good. There were weird cold spots in the rooms. Half the room would be cold, half wouldn’t be. There were nasty smells all over the place. I actually got sick.

Flynn: There were these incredible cold patches in places where we knew bad things had happened, but there was no window or breeze of any kind underground. There was no explanation for it.

Olmstead: I felt a lot of weird things. Sometimes you’d be in one room that was identical to another and just feel like your soul dropped out. The next day, a grip would refuse to go in the same room to lay cable. The psychic would come in and start crying, saying many people had been murdered in the room.

Manes: One instance I won’t forget. It was maybe in a hospital. One contestant was walking down a hallway underground from one building to another. She was talking to the others back at the safe house. Everything is fine until she walks near this room numbered 572, which was in the documentary. She said, “Oh, wow, I feel this weird cold air right there.” All of a sudden, her cameras went dead, the light in the hallway went dead, the flashlight went dead. These were all on independent battery sources. All three went dead at the same time.

Phillips: We were at the Buck Hill Inn, and Luis was the director on that one. I looked over and as he was talking, blood started running out of his nose. It was some kind of asbestos issue. We were all getting sick.

Barreto: That’s true. That did happen. However, I did get nosebleeds from time to time before I worked on the series so I’m not certain the location had anything to do with the bleeding.

Flynn: I’m not sure where we were, but there was a time when a crew member always felt like he had a hand on his back. One time he took a digital picture and in the center of the frame was something that looked like a tear. It was like a rip in the space-time continuum.

Baron: A crew member got pushed down the stairs at the penitentiary by something. He was by himself. He fell all the way down. He was so frightened he almost quit the show.

Phillips: At the leper colony, we went to the bathroom in groups. Three of us were working there late at night. There was a house near where we were shooting, which was exciting, since we used Porta-Potties a lot. So I walked up the steps with Jenn, the accountant, next to me along with another girl. I went to touch the door and the door handle just turned and opened itself. The door swung open. We all just ran and screamed. No one would touch the house after that. It became this legendary story.

Baron: I went back to my hotel when we were doing Eastern State Penitentiary and something followed me back there. I got a call asking if this was Carla. It was someone with an Indian accent. I called production right away and asked if they had sent anyone over. They said no one had called me. We signed agreements where we can’t tell anyone where we were going. Nobody knew I was there. I called the front desk. There were no calls that night. I talked to someone for five minutes who knew my name.

At midnight, there’s a knock on the door so loud it could wake the dead. I said, “Who’s there?” Someone said, “housekeeping.” I swung the door open. There are 50 rooms to either side of me. No one was there.

Phillips: Eric and I went to the Ki sugar plantation in Hawaii a week early to get a feel for things. There was this two-person subterranean elevator that took you down, then you’d get into a boat in some water tunnels. It was like a mile underground. We saw this huge, white, prehistoric creature illuminated by a flashlight—this biological creature.

Manes: I don’t remember the details but I definitely remember going down in that nasty old elevator with Alissa, in the dark, and getting really freaked out to the point that we turned right around and got the hell out of there. I don’t even remember making it out of the elevator. I think we saw something nasty stuck to the wall with our flashlights and said, “Screw this,” and high-tailed it out of there as fast as possible.

Phillips: It was this bone white crab thing crawling in this place with no light. It was unbelievable. We started rowing back. No one else ever saw it. We prayed the cast would.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

With the environment of each episode carefully laid out, producers largely sat back and allowed the foreboding atmosphere to influence the contestants’ behavior.

Colton: In a zero-visibility environment, your mind becomes a vehicle for some intense hallucinations. You think you’re seeing things and you’re not. Their minds were their own worst enemies.

Phillips: We had to run multiple kids through the same dare sometimes to get one clean enough to use. They’re screaming and dropping the camera.

Baron: I said, "Look, someone needs to talk to the kids before they go into these locations. They have no idea what they’re dealing with."

Olmstead: If a dare didn’t further the story, or if it didn’t play out on camera, we’d cut it. Sometimes we wanted to release tension or wanted something to be funny, like a good horror movie.

Harbison: They didn’t show my dare for some reason. I had a dare where I went into a cave that was boarded up where they supposedly trapped one of these Nahuals. I was supposed to tear it down with a pickaxe and stand there with my back to the entrance in complete silence. I did it, but they didn’t show it.

Cassidy: They’d split up into teams and use walkie-talkies to communicate. The radios would crackle and break up and people would get scared.

Colton: They would psych themselves up to the point where any little sound would set them off.

Manes: They would freak the f*** out.

Kunert: I remember the first time we had a séance, the network said, “No more séances.”

Larsen: That was a kid performing a séance in the basement of the Fairfield asylum. He started speaking in tongues and acting weird. It was like he was communicating with the dead. Watching it live, I was like, “What the hell is going on?” It freaked him out and freaked us out, like, “Wow, maybe we better not mess with a Ouija board.” It was the last time we used that.

Baron: One kid had marks on her leg that no one could have made. She was in a room all by herself.

Phillips: MTV was supportive except for the Civil War episode. We did a branding on a person. It never made it on-screen. We rigged it with dry ice so it wasn’t an actual branding—it wouldn’t harm you. But it looked like the person was getting branded. We even ran a little card onscreen saying, “No one was harmed.” But he thought he was being burned, yeah.

Larsen: We didn’t want to psychologically damage anyone. It was supposed to be fun.

Colton: The contestants were never fake. They would have to be a great actor to do some of the shit they did, bouncing off the walls and going apesh*t.

Phillips: We wanted to do a werewolf episode and thought we could expand to the middle ground of a mythical monster. That was the big episode [“Mina Dos Estrellas”] where everyone quit. There was one guy in the two-parter who was the last one by himself on the first night. Everyone else had quit. He’s sitting there by himself just looking up at the ceiling and my heart went out to him. He was scared but he didn’t want to quit. We really wanted him to go on.

Dodge: I didn’t care if six people had quit. In my mind, nothing was going to happen to me at all. If it did, I’d be rich.

Kunert: That episode had a guy climbing down into a pit and crying for his mother.

Dodge: I did ask for my mom. “I want my mom.” I was playing into it.

via GIPHY

Harbison: I do remember thinking he was a little too hysterical for what was going on, but I also looked at it like, I wasn’t down there with him. I don’t know what he’s going through. I’m focused on my sh*t.

Dodge: I was down there for a while. There were real bats flying down in the pit and that was freaky.

Olmstead: I was there watching footage live and more than once I felt like, “Should we pull the plug on this?” It seemed like he was about to break.

Dodge: So many people gave me sh*t for that, friends I wrestled with in college. I was like, “Dude, I’m trying to get camera time.” I never felt afraid in any way or worried.

While some contestants expressed little concern over the potential for paranormal contact, others claimed to have had a first-hand experience.

Barreto: We were at a military academy that had been open in the 1890s. The dare was for a woman to go down into a subterranean room and stand in a cross position, waiting for some spirit to reach out to her. We’re monitoring it and hearing what sounds like someone having sex. Like, whoa, this is weird. She comes back to the safe house and explains that she was molested by a ghost.

Baron: When people quit, they did it with real tears. They’d be shaking. It was psychological terror.

Barreto: Two years ago, I was sitting in a cafe in Los Angeles. A woman walks in and says, “Hey, aren’t you Luis Barreto?” It was the same woman. She introduced herself as the woman who had been molested by a ghost. I thought she had gone crazy. She said, “No, no, I got back home and was fine.”

Phillips: Some kids were rocks. Watch the Danvers episode. This one guy had been there for hours by himself. Some kids blew us away with their fortitude.

III: FEAR ITSELF

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

As Fear continued airing on MTV in 2001 and into 2002, audiences were sometimes left wondering if some sequences had been enhanced by the production. Today, the question remains: Were the slamming doors and howling winds created for effect, or did they have an organic—and potentially paranormal—origin?

Kunert: The thing we found out from the beginning was if you do gimmick stuff, people will yelp, but it’s better to let their imaginations go and have their own fears play out. That’s how you come up with unique reactions. That’s why it’s called Fear.

Manes: The two of us resisted any manipulation. It would ruin the show.

Flynn: We never had to do anything to augment people being scared. A lot of reality shows do what they have to do, but there was nothing we did to accentuate it. It was very organic. There were no special effects or boogeymen to scare people.

Cassidy: You didn’t have to come up with fake scares. The places themselves were frightening. You wanted to keep that feeling of it being authentic.

Breier: I remember hearing wind or other noises, but the prison was so big and vacant with so many openings, the elements could have played a factor. I don’t think they were staging anything.

Olmstead: We wanted the viewer to go, “Oh, no, don’t get the Ouija board out!” That’s where the manipulation came. If you were in an 1800s prison and learned it was on top of an old Indian burial ground, where is the last place you’d want to be alone? We’d send the contestant to that place and the viewer would have the information why it would be so scary to go there by yourself.

Phillips: I can say with absolute impunity we worked so hard to deliver a truthful show with integrity. Reality TV was not like it is now. We wanted to achieve as much of a paranormal experience for the cast as possible.

Olmstead: Most of the noises were explainable to the place. A draft may have closed a door. I would say there were times we manipulated the time frame of the reaction and the sound.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Larsen: There might be some well-placed sounds or something mechanical, where you’d brush your leg against something. Sometimes we’d use things like that, but for the most part, it was their own imagination.

Colton: We never said that we would show you ghosts. What we said was, “We told the contestants there are ghosts. Now watch them freak out.”

Cassidy: Even with The Real World, there were early discussions of, “What happens if it’s boring? If people are just sitting there?” But anything contrived reads as contrived. Anything you do where viewers can point and say, “That’s a piece of fishing line tied to a chair,” once you do it once, you break your contract with the audience. Nothing was ever arranged to move. In a dark, scary place, the mind provides you with enough.

Olmstead: We knew if they caught us doing something, they would be snapped out of the experience. And in very large places, like an abandoned cement factory, you’re gonna hear stuff.

Dodge: Some moments I was like, “MTV has set this sh*t up well.” They asked me to put some goat blood down in the pit, then the wind starts swirling. And then I hear some evil growling like right outside. There’s no one down there but me. Like an evil sound, “Ehhhhhhh.” That’s a really good sound effect, or there is something really evil out here.

The other question: Could a reality series really be filmed with virtually no intervention from the production?

Manes: We had one person who was on location in case they had technical difficulties, if their camera batteries died or the camera wasn’t working. You couldn’t go days without a working camera. What they didn’t know is that the [tech] person was an off-duty police office and paramedic.

Barreto: There were people they could speak to, but not daily. It’s not like, “Hey, guys, come here.” Once they were inserted, like on the USS Hornet in the bowels of the ship, they’re committed to having the experience.

Colton: You have to remember, we had people walking in the dark. We had to have certain safety measures in place to make sure they didn’t get injured. People were placed in the location to make sure they were OK and then we had the control room to monitor shots.

Manes: Having a dropped radio signal was a nightmare. We wanted them talking with each other. The problem was going underground into cellars with thick walls. A lot of these structures were old and built solid.

As the series progressed, producers had more ambitious plans. But by the standards of the reality genre, Fear was quickly becoming an expensive proposition for a budget-conscious MTV.

Kunert: We wanted to do the catacombs in Europe.

Olmstead: We wanted to go abroad and take it to the next level.

Flynn: We had a huge list of locations we wanted to explore. We had big plans to go to castles in Europe with these thousand-year histories. We were thinking of doing celebrity Fear.

Barreto: You’d work during the day, then be up all night for three days, then travel someplace else to do it all over again. We’d be on the road for seven or eight weeks at a time. It was cumbersome. You can’t move all that equipment and all that cable by air.

Manes: One of the problems we had with MTV which seems comical now is that the technology at the time was so incredibly expensive. Just the [file] storage alone. Now I have as much storage at home as we were using then. But the space for the footage from all the cameras running all the time was a huge thing.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Kunert: They wanted us to cut the documentary we showed to participants. Well, if you don’t feed their imagination, you won’t have the same result.

Barreto: They cut the budget on the second season. They wanted us to spend less money and have the same show.

Despite the solid ratings, Fear was canceled in early 2002.

Colton: It was a big hit. We were shocked when it got canceled.

Phillips: I remember being sad about it but I had also been traveling literally for two years. There was a phase of my life where I vividly recall being at the airport and having no clue where I was or what plane I was supposed to catch. I didn’t know what state I was in. It was amazing and exhausting.

Kunert: There was a rumor someone got killed on the show, but that wasn’t true.

Larsen: There was a regime change. John Miller, the executive who greenlit the show, left. That might’ve had something to do with it.

Manes: The ratings were fantastic. That wasn’t the issue. It was relatively expensive compared to other things MTV was doing at the time. Kids [on other shows] are just hanging out. Our was many times more expensive.

Colton: It doesn’t matter how expensive something is. Nothing is cheaper than a hit, and MTV was not spending a lot of money on the episodes. They were only giving out a prize of five grand! People were sh*tting their pants on camera for $5000!

Olmstead: MTV came to Beau and I and asked us to halve the budget. We were unwilling to do it. We knew what it took to make the show. We loved the show and didn’t want to make a lesser version of it. We thought they might come back and say, “OK, do it,” but that didn’t happen.

Cassidy: Most reality shows don’t travel every week. It took real money and real manpower and effort to do it right.

Kunert: Even today, it probably cost twice as much as an average reality show does in 2018.

Phillips: Reality became very cheap to produce. Get one cameraman instead of 70 unmanned cameras.

Colton: What I heard is that because of 9/11, the idea of people running around in the dark and screaming was too close to home after the Towers had come down. People were in rubble. MTV said, “We’re not sure the public really wants to watch this anymore.”

Manes: After 9/11, they did express concern people would be flipping through channels and hit someone running down a dark hallway screaming for their life. We were never told it was the reason, but we felt it was a combination of that [and money].

Colton: They might have cloaked it in a budget situation but look what happened after 9/11. You had a lot of feel-good, touchy-feely comedies.

Flynn: I think something happened at MTV where they didn’t want a show with people in isolated spaces.

Cassidy: All the networks reevaluated their content in light of 9/11. They might have wondered if it seemed exploitative.

Barreto: I think MTV choked. It could’ve been a perennial series like Real World. But they rolled up the carpet on it.

Although it’s not commercially available and rarely seen in reruns, Fear fans have kept word of the series alive by uploading episodes on YouTube. More than 16 years after the last episode aired, it continues to be an inspiration to other paranormal-themed projects both on television and in film.

Baron: MTV was pioneering with this. I met the [cast of the Syfy docuseries] Ghost Hunters, Jason [Hawes] and Grant [Wilson], and they thanked me. They said, “Carla, if Fear hadn’t happened, our show wouldn’t exist.” We were the first show of its kind.

Colton: [The 2007 found-footage movie] Paranormal Activity was just a higher-budget Fear. People looking into cameras and talking.

Cassidy: If you look at Paranormal Activity, I think the visual tropes of the show—that grainy, dark video that conveyed authenticity—lived on.

Breier: It was a time when reality TV was a new concept. It wasn’t established as the successful thing it became.

Colton: I think if you brought back Fear today it would have to be more high-tech. I think the tastes of the audience have changed.

Cassidy: Like with a lot of reality stuff, the bar has been raised. At the time, there wasn’t a huge plethora of supernatural ghost hunting shows. But human behavior is always fascinating. It could work. Visually, we have more tools to cover the experience.

Colton: The show came together in a way you hadn’t seen before and that’s why it sticks with people. If I run into a younger person and we’re talking horror movies and I ask if they’ve seen Fear, they say, “No, but I’ve heard so much about it.”

Manes: It wasn’t a game show. People weren’t competing against each other. They all got rewarded if someone finished and made it all the way through. It was designed so they would love each other and try to support one another. It gave the show a different feeling from what reality shows later became, which was nasty.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Dodge: I’m still friends with Jason and [contestant] Adesina on social media. There’s definitely a bond there.

Breier: At a young age, it opened up my mind to seeing how a group of human beings from different walks of life can quickly become dependent on someone to help you through a situation.

Olmstead: In a moment of fear, they could reveal something about themselves. Maybe it was that they were gay and coming out, or maybe it was issues with their father. The fear could break and rebuild you in the same episode.

Flynn: It was an opportunity for people to not be afraid anymore. Maybe they were embracing sexuality they had kept to themselves. They felt a real sense of accomplishment.

Manes: If people realize I was involved in Fear, they usually ask, “Did you believe it? Did you believe the places were haunted?” I come from a skeptical state of mind, but crew members had experiences that were unexplainable. It opened my mind to maybe there’s something more than I believe there was. These places were genuinely scary.

Flynn: I learned a lot from Fear that I took into making movies, like [2005's] The Exorcism of Emily Rose. There’s a theory and a concept about opening yourself up to these things. If you allow yourself to see the devil, the devil can see you.

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