CLOSE
Original image
RRKIDS

Take a Look: An Oral History of Reading Rainbow

Original image
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.

wetoucansshare via eBay

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.

Original image
arrow
Oral History
Band of Brothers: An Oral History of Hanson's 'MMMBop' and Their Debut Album
Original image

Something huge was happening at New Jersey's Paramus Park Mall. Police lights flashed, enthusiastic screams punctured the air, and a wave of anticipation swelled like a tsunami.

The day before—May 6, 1997—a band of three young brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, had released their debut label album, Middle of Nowhere. Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson were in the middle of doing serious promotional work (they'd appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman the night before), and were set to perform a few acoustic songs at a record store in the mall. Hosted by radio station Z100, the event was expected to draw a few hundred people. But thousands of screaming pre-teen and teen fans—anywhere from 6000 to 10,000 of them—showed up. As the mall was shut down to accommodate the zealous crowd, it became clear that life for the three brothers was about to change.

Middle of Nowhere went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide, spawn two Billboard Hot 100 singles, and earn Hanson three Grammy nominations. Two decades after the album's release, Mental Floss spoke with middle brother Taylor Hanson, former Mercury Records executives, and Middle of Nowhere’s producers, engineer, and mixer to get a behind-the-scenes view of the band’s rise from obscurity to super stardom. They discuss how "MMMBop" evolved from a melancholy ballad to an upbeat earworm, the challenges of recording vocals as a pubescent boy, and the band’s upcoming world tour, aptly called the Middle of Everywhere tour.

Isaac, Taylor, and Zac started Hanson back in 1992, after they fell in love with classic rock and Motown from the late 1950s and early '60s. Inspired by artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Otis Redding, the brothers sang a cappella, performing tunes like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rockin' Robin." Although Isaac was 11, Taylor was 9, and Zac was just 6 years old, the homeschooled brothers began appearing around Tulsa, singing covers as well as songs they had written together. One of their original songs was "MMMBop," a melancholy, mid-tempo song that the brothers recorded in 1995 and released independently in 1996.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" started as a background part. We made an [indie] album called Boomerang and we were working on another song and looking for a background part, and that background part later became the chorus for "MMMBop." It was sort of too hook-y to be a background part, so it just kind of sat on the back burner.

Zac Hanson (via Songfacts, 2004): If anything, "MMMBop" was inspired by The Beach Boys and vocal groups of that era—using your voice as almost a doo-wop kind of thing.

Taylor Hanson: The verses were formed after the chorus had existed. Isaac and I would be sitting in the living room—we took over the living room of our house as rehearsal space when we were kids, so we completely dominated the household—playing these very simple chord patterns.

Isaac Hanson (via Noisey, 2013): The song "MMMBop" is actually about holding on to things that really matter to you because there will be few things that last through your whole life. Hold on to the things that are precious to you because life is fleeting. And it happens to have a catchy little chorus, a little nonsensical, scatty thing.

Taylor Hanson: The process of writing the song really came out of a very challenging moment as kids—deciding to play music. It was over the course of several different afternoons in our band setup in the living room. We were reflecting on what was very much happening in our world at the time, which was seeing how even as 12 and 14 year olds, friendships and relationships would come and go. Some people really didn’t get what we were doing … We were facing down the barrel of continuing to pursue a path that was different than most everyone around us.

By performing at hundreds of local art fairs, block parties, and schools across the Midwest, Hanson built a fan base of a few thousand people. The band had a manager and attorney who pitched them to major labels, but nothing was happening—13 labels turned Hanson down, partly because their poppy, Jackson 5-esque sound was dated compared to the darker grunge music that was topping the charts in the early- and mid-'90s. But the rejections ended when Steve Greenberg, an A&R executive at Mercury Records, heard one of the band’s independent albums. Greenberg traveled to Coffeyville, Kansas, to see the brothers perform at a festival, and Mercury Records soon signed the band.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" became a mainstay that we would play in our little sets around Oklahoma and Arkansas and Kansas and wherever people would listen to us. It was definitely one of the songs that was a [crowd] favorite, but it wasn’t the favorite.

Danny Goldberg (former CEO of Mercury Records): Steve Greenberg played [the "MMMBop" demo] for me. Sounded like a hit, but more to the point, I had great faith in Steve's judgment.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" was more of a campfire song in its original version—it had a little bit more of a storyteller arc to it. It’s very "Let me tell you a story, let me give you this parable," which is so interesting because it obviously was interpreted in its final version as being so pop, celebratory, pure sunshine.

Steve Greenberg (former Head of A&R for Mercury Records): I loved the juxtaposition between the extremely joyous music and the dark lyrics. The entire album has dark lyrics, actually. People just didn’t notice because the music was so upbeat. But from the start, I realized this was a band that was addressing serious subjects.

Taylor Hanson: I think the song survives in part because it was saying something real—you get a lot more out of it on the second, third listens when you really dive in.

Margery Greenspan (former VP of Creative Services for Mercury Records): The minute I heard "MMMBop," I knew it was a hit … it was so catchy and fun, and the boys enjoyed performing it. There was a real joy to it.

Taylor Hanson: ["MMMBop"] is really kind of the song that started the theme of Hanson's songwriting, which is songs that make you feel something very uplifting when the story is actually acknowledging the absolute opposite of that. Kind of happiness in spite of what life brings.

Goldberg: To me, the big thing was it sounded like a hit chorus.

Greenspan: What was so unique about this band is that they were kids. And they were the real deal—they wrote and played the music.

Allison Hamamura (former West Coast General Manager for Mercury Records): It was perfectly clear to me that Taylor was a songwriter and a burgeoning talent. I absolutely loved the family dynamic and the boys obviously loved playing together.

Taylor Hanson: You don’t have a band of three brothers playing gigs around town and all over three states without really supportive parents. But it absolutely was them following what they saw in us, and what we thought we could do. We kind of had this pure, unadulterated ambition.

Armed with a record deal, Hanson and their mother, father, and three younger siblings traveled from Tulsa to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996. The brothers first worked with producers John King and Mike Simpson—collectively known as the Dust Brothers—on "MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You." Up until then, Hanson had written, recorded, and produced their songs independently, without outside forces or opinions weighing in. At the Dust Brothers' studio in Silver Lake, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac experienced what it was like to collaborate with producers for the first time.

Greenberg suggested that the band increase the tempo of "MMMBop," and the Dust Brothers convinced the band to try making "MMMBop" a more upbeat song. They started recording, increasing the tempo and using a Jackson 5-like rhythm. Greenberg also connected Hanson with a handful of collaborators, including producers and co-writers such as Desmond Child, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Clif Magness.

Mike Simpson (of the Dust Brothers, via WaxPoetics, 2013): When I first heard the demo tape of Hanson, it took me back to my childhood. I would come home and lip-synch Jackson 5 songs every day after school as a little kid. I heard Hanson and thought, "Oh my God, this sounds like really cool music."

Clif Magness (co-writer and producer of Middle of Nowhere track "Madeline"): My manager at the time put me in touch with Steve Greenberg. He then set up a writing session with myself and the band ... Their father sat in the room with us as we wrote the song, most of the time reading a book. At one point, he stepped out to check up on his wife and three other children who were playing with my two children in the backyard.

Taylor Hanson: The strong thing we took away from walking into the room with other writers was you had to show right out of the gate to these extremely credible and gifted and experienced writers that they would be writing with you. I think it was daunting at first to sit in the room with people who wrote "On Broadway" and other completely epic and legendary songs. But very quickly we earned respect from Barry and Cynthia simply through music, sitting in the room and sharing ideas.

Cynthia Weil (co-writer, with Barry Mann and Hanson, of "I Will Come To You," the third single off the album): Hanson were our youngest and among our coolest collaborators.

Taylor Hanson: It was a huge opportunity to be able to—on our first record—sit with people who crafted songs on a level you aspire to. Always having a learner’s ear, but being gutsy enough to speak up, because ultimately this is going to be our song. Barry and Cynthia are and were brilliant and very generous. It was never intimidating—it was always in the sense that we were being invited in to collaborate.

Hamamura: The band was very involved for their respective ages and experience in the making of Middle of Nowhere.

Magness: Taylor’s voice was so strong and natural that I didn’t have to coach him much at all. They were all that way actually. We even created a high part for Zac because he is the youngest and his voice was quite cherub-like back then.

Ultimately, the Dust Brothers didn’t finish the project they started with Hanson—Greenberg hired Stephen Lironi to finish "MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You" and produce the rest of the album. Working out of Scream Studios in Los Angeles, Lironi, a few engineers, and Hanson spent almost two months recording Middle of Nowhere onto analog tape, polishing the songs and finishing arrangements in the studio.

Doug Trantow (second engineer on Middle of Nowhere): The Dust Brothers came over [to Scream Studios] and we transferred the work they had done onto our tape machines ... and then we never saw them again. I’ve heard people say "MMMBop" was recorded in the Dust Brothers’ living room, and though they did start the song there, I absolutely guarantee every single part of their work was replaced by Stephen [Lironi] at Scream, with the exception of one record scratch on "MMMBop."

Greenberg: The Dust Brothers were very in demand at the time and frankly it wasn’t a great temperamental fit between the band and the Dust Brothers. So the Dust Brothers started working on other things and the two tracks ["MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You"] were unfinished.

Trantow: Things were definitely tense when the Dust Brothers showed up. It was kind of like we were transferring what they already recorded. It wasn’t like they were going out of their way to be helpful or cool about it, so I could tell there was some tension, like maybe they weren’t happy about not being able to finish the songs.

During the recording process, Greenberg hired several vocal coaches to help Taylor hit the higher notes he had sung before his voice began deepening. They were unsuccessful until vocal coach Roger Love began working with the brothers. To speed up the recording, Hanson moved to a nearby studio, LAFX, to finish the vocals with Love and producer Mark Hudson, while Lironi and his engineers worked concurrently at Scream.

Trantow: On the second day in the studio, an impromptu jam session happened between Taylor, Isaac, and Stephen [Lironi] while they were listening to a drum loop and working out the parts for "Where's the Love" [the album's second single]. At that moment I absolutely knew something special was happening.

Roger Love (vocal coach on Middle of Nowhere): I was brought in initially by Steve Greenberg and the record label to finish the lead vocal on "MMMBop." After the first day in the studio, when they heard the song done, Steve and the band asked me to vocal coach most of the remaining songs for the album.

Trantow: The vocals took a long time to record—young boys and long hours in dark studios don’t mix too well—so we started to fall behind schedule. The label knew what they had, and they were desperate to get it out.

Greenberg: I knew the world needed to hear Taylor sing the song in its original key on the record, even if he would have to drop the key for subsequent live performances. So I made sure we got it in that key before it was too late.

Love: Taylor had recorded about half of "MMMBop" before his voice had changed due to puberty. The band and the record company both loved the way the music and vocal sounded, and they didn't want to re-record the tracks in a lower key and potentially lose any of the magic … I worked with Taylor to build a lot more power and freedom in his new high "head voice." Then I used that voice to finish "MMMBop" and whenever I needed higher notes for the other songs we recorded.

Trantow: The kids at that point were much better singers and writers than anyone of that age had any right to be, but their instrumental playing was understandably not up to studio standards. While Isaac did play most of the main guitar parts for the songs, Stephen replayed many of them later. The same goes for Taylor's piano and organ parts. This was done only because of their very young age and lack of studio experience … when possible we used their playing, but mostly it had to be replayed by Stephen or a studio musician afterwards.

Love: The boys were such great kids, and both parents were very loving, involved and present … But there were certainly some challenges other than puberty. Zac was only 10, and a heck of a drummer, but he wasn't always thrilled with stepping up to the mic and singing. And he wasn't used to having anyone, even me, saying things like, "That was good, but now let's try it again, and again, and again to make it perfect." That's a lot of pressure on a little kid, no matter how nicely I said "please."

Trantow: We even recorded Zac playing drums for a couple songs, but in spite of being surprisingly good for a boy who just turned 10 years old, it just wasn’t good enough to be on the record. I should say that now they are so well accomplished that I wouldn’t hesitate to hire them to replace the playing of other less-talented musicians! But in this case we had to bring in studio cats.

After Hanson recorded Middle of Nowhere, the band and their family returned to Tulsa. To replicate the sound of the album on stage, the brothers began searching for a bass player and a secondary person to play guitar and keys. While the album was mixed and mastered, the band did advance press and photo shoots, and executives at Mercury Records prepared marketing and radio campaigns to gear up for the April 15, 1997 release of the "MMMBop" single.

Tom Lord-Alge (mixer on Middle of Nowhere): The two Steves [Greenberg and Lironi] would join me each day while I was mixing in Miami Beach. They allowed me the creative freedom I needed to deliver great mixes but also were key in keeping the album sounding natural and focusing on the vocal performances.

Christopher Sabec (former manager of Hanson): The time between the recording [and the release] was an exciting time. We all knew that the album was special.

Taylor Hanson: That period [before the release] is interesting because you’ve created something but nobody knows it. You're sort of anticipating the big moment—will anyone care when this record is released? It's like you have a secret. You feel like you've got this thing that has all this potential, but you're just sort of waiting and hoping.

Lord-Alge: Middle of Nowhere is a very strong record and all involved were certain it would do well, but I remember that none of us would utter anything about how successful we thought it would be as not to jinx it! We stayed focused on helping the boys make a great record.

Greenspan: It was my job to figure out how to image them … Through the photos, I wanted to showcase that they were fun, great looking, and talented. And I wanted to make sure there was a level of sophistication in the images because their music had this quality, too.

Mmmbop album art

Lord-Alge: I was very impressed with the vocals on Middle of Nowhere and love the way the guys harmonized with each other. Obviously "MMMBop" stuck out as being a very strong song and I can remember doing a couple mixes of it until everyone involved was happy. The main difference was on the last version of "MMMBop" where we created the breakdown chorus. It just felt great.

Greenspan: After meeting with them a few times I thought they needed to be more urban-edgy, style-wise. They were from Oklahoma and they did have their own style, but it was a little suburban. I think we moved the style needle slightly from Gap to Urban Outfitters. Of course there was a little resistance at first but then I think they enjoyed feeling a bit more edgy.

Love: I loved "MMMBop" in particular, but honestly had no clue that the band or album would skyrocket to the levels of success they achieved. When I work on a project, I always hope for the best. But there are so many intertwined factors that lead to super-success or failure. From timing to luck, to management and promotion, to making sure that all of the stars align, it's never a sure thing. When it happens it's like magic.

Ravi Hutheesing (Hanson’s backup guitarist from February '97 to February '98): I realized quickly that this project was different from anything I had previously been a part of. The young age of the Hansons and level of commitment from Mercury Records made it evident that there was going to be a major effort to push this to the top. I also felt from the moment I first met Ike, Tay, and Zac that they were three of the most talented kids I have ever met.

In the spring of '97, Isaac was 16, Taylor was 14, and Zac was 11. To promote "MMMBop" and Middle of Nowhere, the band’s schedule was jam-packed with promo appearances, radio station visits, and short 20-minute acoustic concerts. The strength of the song and the band’s hard work paid off. "MMMBop" reached No. 1 in 27 countries, and Hanson appeared on MTV, performed everywhere from the Grammy Awards to the White House, and became teen heartthrobs in the pages of Tiger Beat and Bop magazines.

Hutheesing: Things were pretty crazy … There were a lot of very early mornings and late nights, but because Ike, Tay, and Zac were all minors, child labor laws gave us every third day off. Sometimes we appeared in multiple cities on the same day.

Taylor Hanson: Steve was very conscious of our age, as our A&R guy, but I didn’t feel any pressure from the label at all [about my changing voice]. I felt pressure from myself.

Hamamura: [His changing voice] was a conversation [at Mercury] but never an issue. I actually felt very strongly that Taylor was such a superstar and that their family values were so strong, there was no doubt in my mind that they would continue making music.

Taylor Hanson: Once we were really touring in late '97 and '98, [my changing voice] was a challenge. Essentially we changed keys and the way you invert things and the keys you pick to make it sound as close to the original recording.

Isaac Hanson (via Vulture, 2016): "MMMBop" was originally in the key of A, and we currently play it in F sharp. Sometimes in F.

Hutheesing: Tay's voice was changing almost weekly, and we had to constantly change the key of the songs to accommodate it. The bigger issue was that Zac was young and his energy would burn out quickly ... but he hit those drums so hard for 20 minutes!

Taylor Hanson: Part of it is the psychological effect of deciding "this has definitely got to change; you can’t sing that note anymore." But it happened so fast—most of the performances people saw of us, it was already underway. I was 13 when we recorded the album and 14 and 15 when we were out pushing it. There weren’t a lot of Peter Brady moments.

Sabec: One of my life’s honors was touring with the band and their family, along with my business partner Stirling McIlwaine. I loved the Hershey, Pennsylvania, show because it was sheer madness in the size of the crowd. The big shows in New York (at Jones Beach) and L.A. (at the Hollywood Bowl) had an energy you only find in those respective cities.

MMM Bop by Hanson lyrics

Capitalizing on Middle of Nowhere's success, Mercury Records also released, in '97 and '98, a Hanson Christmas album, a collection of the band’s independent recordings, and a live album. Despite Hanson’s massive commercial appeal, there were critics who disparaged the band's success at their young age, mocked their long blond hair, and even doubted their ability to play instruments and write songs.

Sabec: My advice to the band, which they actually understood intuitively, was that the crowds and their fans were why they were in this business in the first place. Welcoming your fans and making them feel appreciated is your number one goal and Isaac, Taylor, and Zac always accomplished this effortlessly.

Hutheesing: The most aggressive haters were actually the paparazzi. They often hurled insulting remarks at us in airports as we would try to hide from them. While the Internet and online posting were just beginning to surface, the true fans were much more vocal than the naysayers.

Sabec: As for the haters, life is too short to really worry about them, right?

Goldberg: [Middle Of Nowhere] was a very important record and album for Mercury that year. It was a global hit and was the biggest album by a new signing in commercial terms we had while I was president.

Taylor Hanson: Music gave us a platform to channel that larger-than-life time when you’re seeing the world, you’re feeling what’s going on, and you’re seeing relationships come and go and ebb and flow. And a song gives you a way to crystallize that. I think there was a little bit of magic in the timing [of "MMMBop"]—the right three chords with the right message.

Hamamura: I look back on [that period of time] with gratitude for having been some part of what was a global musical phenomenon. And though some may disagree, the kids bent the culture, even if it was short-lived in the scheme of things.

Greenberg: The period of time was magical because we were—along with the Spice Girls—ushering in a revival of pop after the grunge era. So it was really exciting being at the vanguard of the next era and seeing it develop. And seeing teen audiences respond to music that was uplifting.

Middle of Nowhere is still Hanson’s most commercially successful album to date, but the band never stopped making music. After releasing their second album in 2000, the band founded their own record label, 3CG Records (standing for 3 Car Garage, the name of their 1998 compilation album), and has steadily toured and released new studio albums for the past two decades: Underneath (2004), The Walk (2007), Shout It Out (2010), and Anthem (2013), all of which charted well on the Billboard Top 200 albums. Despite achieving fame and making millions before they were old enough to drive, the brothers didn’t go down the dark path that plagues many who become famous as children.

Lord-Alge: I’ve watched the guys over the years mature musically and they have really become one of the last great rhythm & blues bands. Their sound is very organic.

Weil: Very proud of these talented boys—excuse me, talented men.

Hutheesing: They were very grounded and kind people, so I would never have expected them to drop off the deep end and wind up with addictions and scandals. Certainly that happens to many, and they would have been vulnerable based on their fame and age. However, their parents did a great job of striking a balance between the responsibility and vulnerability of fame and fortune.

Taylor Hanson: The main thing is [our parents] never treated us like we didn’t have to hold our own, and treat people the same as we always had from the very beginning, regardless of success. They were always there saying, "Don’t be afraid to work for it, to try, to strive and push through when things are hard." That work ethic is the mindset we grew up with. That sense that character is more important than whether you’re super successful at this.

Goldberg: The fact that they were such a close family precluded a lot of the problems that sudden fame often engenders.

Taylor Hanson: I remember the feeling that almost to a fault, we wanted to make sure it was about the music. And having discussions with people, to them, it was just a "You guys are young, you have fans, we should merchandise and sell these [items], people will buy them." And thinking to ourselves we're not going to be taken seriously [if we do that]. We really fought for it at every stage. We didn’t do lunch boxes, we didn’t do a lot of things. I remember thinking, "We’re not in it for that, we plan to be here 20 years from now, making music."

Today, the brothers are in their thirties and are all married with children: Isaac has three kids, Taylor has five, and Zac has four. The brothers are also entrepreneurs, running their record label, a beer company (MMMHops, anyone?), and the annual Hop Jam, Oklahoma’s largest craft beer and music festival. Besides gearing up to release new music and a Greatest Hits compilation album, Hanson is also preparing to embark on a world tour to celebrate 25 years as a band. From June to October 2017, the band will play shows throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and Canada.

Taylor Hanson: The message for us this year has always been about the music, and about how music facilitates the connection with people. It's about the timelessness of hopefully great songs and songs that stand up. We want people to remember the songs.

Sabec: I am very proud of the guys. I think their music continues to resonate and their ability to take their brand into other ventures has been exciting to watch.

Taylor Hanson: We’re still going forward and we’re still hungry and desiring that spirit that got us started … You're proud of where you've been, you have that history, but you build a history based on where you're headed. It's exciting to look back because you were always driving, always pushing, always hungry for the next thing.

Greenberg: Regarding Hanson's music today, I think they've matured into a great rock band, and of course they remain great songwriters. The songs were, and always will be, the key.

Original image
Chris Gentile
An Oral History of Nintendo's Power Glove
Original image
Chris Gentile

On the surface, it seemed like an impossible task. Take an $8800, NASA-approved interface glove running on $250,000 worth of computer hardware, then replicate the performance in a consumer-grade toy with parts costing less than $26.

The twist? “We had about nine months to get it done,” Chris Gentile, one of the engineers behind Mattel’s fondly-remembered but ineffectual Power Glove, tells mental_floss.

With a video game renaissance in full swing thanks to the popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the late 1980s, the Power Glove debuted in late 1989 to a willing and receptive audience. Distributed by Mattel, marketing promised players that the glove would offer a deeper, more immersive experience with all of their favorite games thanks to the gesture-based controller, which looked like something out of the future. Rear up for a right hook that could knock out Mike Tyson; bend an index finger to make Mario jump.

While hundreds of thousands of kids were delighted to see the Glove under their holiday tree, the experience didn’t quite live up to the billing. Convoluted instructions and calibration made operating it difficult; backwards-compatibility with games proved unreliable. In less than a year, the Power Glove went from one of the hottest toys on store shelves to a forgotten novelty stuffed in closets across the country.

Was it an ill-conceived peripheral rushed to market, an important step toward the virtual reality that’s now poised to overtake the entertainment industry, or both? To find out, we spoke to several of the key players involved in the Power Glove’s launch, from its inventor to the designers responsible for turning a professional-grade scientific instrument into a Toys "R" Us hot ticket—a journey that would eventually involve Michael Jackson, Rambo, and the Japanese mafia. Here's how Mattel lost its grip on what seemed like a sure thing.

I: GLOVE STORY

An early concept drawing for the Power Glove. Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

In 1976, MIT undergraduate Thomas Zimmerman was talking to a friend about their mutual desire for a new way to create music. As a child, Zimmerman had “air-conducted” orchestras and remained fascinated by the idea of a gesture-based interface.

Thomas Zimmerman (Inventor, Data Glove): I came up with the idea for a glove where you’d touch fingers to play chords. A friend of mine knew music theory and liked the idea. But I didn’t get serious about it until 1979 or 1980.

Jaron Lanier (Founder, VPL Research): I didn’t meet Tom until later. In the early 1980s, I was fascinated by the idea of using something called virtual reality to transcend language.

Will Novak (Engineer, Mattel): Jaron was the guy who coined the term “virtual reality.”

Chris Gentile (Co-Founder, Abrams/Gentile Entertainment): Jaron was one of those guys where you went, “Is he really in this industry?” He had dreadlocks, a hippie guy doing this tech stuff.

Lanier: I had come up with a video game in 1983, and suddenly had a lot of cash, giving all these visionary talks about the future. Tom came to see one and we hit it off.

Zimmerman: I had an Atari 400 that was a wonderful machine for $400. It had eight analog inputs; IBMs didn’t have that stuff. I built a glove with an optical sensor that could pick up finger bends. An LED tube was on one side and a detector on the other. I glued everything to an old gardening glove.

Lanier: It was really breathtaking in its day.

Zimmerman: The next thing I did was code a program for finger spelling, where you’d make a letter in the air and it would appear onscreen. And luckily, I had the inspiration to apply for a patent. It was a perfect interface for what we now know as the virtual world.

Lanier: We’d do demos with the Glove and incorporated as a real company in 1983.

Zimmerman: A woman I was dating left New York to go to the Oakland Ballet, and I followed her. That’s an essential part of the story. California was home to kindred spirits. I joined Atari. And, of course, I thought Atari would be interested in the glove. I showed it to my division manager there and he offered me $10,000 for it. I called a friend back in New York and he said, “That’s crazy. Don’t take it. It’s worth a lot more.”

With Lanier, Zimmerman formed Visual Programming Language (VPL) in 1983 [PDF]. Soon, his device—dubbed the Data Glove, with a patent assigned to VPL—would be in demand everywhere from Apple to NASA, and far more valuable than what Atari had been willing to spend.

Zimmerman: Atari laid us all off. I told Jaron about the glove and he said, “Wow.” He had been using a tablet and a glove sounded like a much better interface.

Lanier: We made demos—amazing, early demos that were incredible. We used 3D glasses like the kind used for movies. We made prototypes on an Amiga with stereo imagery. I wish there wasa  way to reconstruct them; they were spectacular. One was kind of like a cross between racquetball and pinball.

Zimmerman: I was making gloves for him on the side. Eventually he said, “I’ve got some funding. Come join me.” Once we were running, I designed an ultrasonic tracking device so we knew where the glove was in five dimensions. That really expanded it. Now you had a hand in 3D. By 1986, 1987, we were on the cover of Scientific American.

Lanier: We got involved in all sorts of high-end markets.

Zimmerman: Scott Fisher used to work at Atari with me, then moved to NASA. They were working on head-mount displays, so the glove was like peanut butter meeting chocolate.

Lanier: We sold to NASA and all sorts of high-end places.

Zimmerman: They wanted to control robots in space, for astronauts to do work outside of the spacecraft. The Data Glove had flex sensors with optics, which you couldn’t mass manufacture. [VPL employee] Young Harvill had come up with a way to make flex sensors out of fiber optics. It meant higher precision.

Lanier: The glove went for about $10,000.

Zimmerman: I remember watching [the 1992 Stephen King adaptation] The Lawnmower Man and the character is putting on an actual Data Glove. I’m in the audience going, “Don’t push so hard. You’ll break the fiber optics!”

With the Data Glove in demand among scientists, Lanier and Zimmerman saw potential to bring the device to a wider audience. To facilitate that, they entered into a licensing agreement with Abrams/ Gentile Entertainment (AGE), a marketing firm that had recently hit it big with Visionaries, a line of action figures packaged with holograms.

Hall: AGE licensed it from Lanier for toy applications.

Zimmerman: I believe AGE found us. It was kind of a spinoff.

Lanier: I found them. They didn’t find us. We had been toying with the idea of doing consumer-use products, but it was hit and miss.

Chris Gentile: We had a big hit getting the Rambo toy license for Coleco.

John Gentile (Co-Founder, AGE): We were working on the poster design for Rambo: First Blood Part II and thought a toy line would be interesting. The studio was like, “You know this is R-rated, right”? They had no intention of doing toys. This was like a one-man G.I. Joe army. Selling that to Coleco was the beginning of AGE.

Chris Gentile: We also licensed a hologram toy line called Visionaries for Hasbro. I had spent five years designing nuclear power plants before working for my brothers. I call those my Homer Simpson years.

A Visionaries toy hologram. Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

Lanier: The senior guy at AGE, Marty Abrams, was this larger-than-life type of personality. Very hyper. A very New York kind of guy.

John Gentile: Marty was heavily into the toy business.

Lanier: The whole point was, we were the tech and they were going to package it as an entertainment product. 

Chris Gentile: We were originally looking at 3D games and doing development for Hasbro, but they weren’t  buying it. They didn’t think a joystick would work, so we started looking for something else.

John Gentile: We thought companies like Sega and Nintendo would be interested in VR.

Chris Gentile: It was going to be a whole 3D system for Hasbro, but then Nintendo came looking for the G.I. Joe license and they thought there might be a conflict, so it was stopped.   

Lanier: To be honest, we had to sue AGE later on for our share of everything. It was a long litigation. They wanted to hold back royalties.

Chris Gentile: We did have the lawsuit and it was based on the fact that when we licensed VPL that the technology was [to be] much further developed than ultimately it was, and we therefore had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more to get it ready for commercial production. When Jaron and my brother John finally met by chance at a conference, they looked at each other, realized what both sides were spending, and decided then to settle it without the lawyers. 

Lanier: They agreed to a settlement but Marty had this one demand: He wanted me to come to every future pitch meeting AGE had. I said sure. We wound up at meetings with Michael Jackson, Imelda Marcos, and Donald Trump. It was surreal.

Chris Gentile: It was Pax that signed up Jackson for a partnership for the Japanese version of the Glove and used Jackson along with the film release of RoboCop to promote the Glove.

Hiro Sakeo, the owner of Pax, was a major real estate developer throughout Japan. Supposedly, on some of these deals, he had various types of corporations that would be minority partners in these deals, and the government discovered a couple were allegedly entities set up to launder dollars. It was not Pax directly.

II: HANDING IT OFF

Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

The Nintendo Entertainment System, released in the U.S. in 1985, had quickly become one of the most popular toys of the decade. Lanier and Zimmerman were confident a stripped-down version of their Data Glove could entice consumers looking for a fresh way to interact with the console.

Lanier: Marty took us everywhere with the Glove. Really, it could’ve ended up at Hasbro. Marty liked to play them against one another.

Chris Gentile: We had an existing relationship with Mattel, having done some of the early Talking Barbies for them.

Lanier: I was really out there with the Glove. I was imagining people transforming into creatures, using their arm as a tentacle, that kind of thing. Maybe I wasn’t so in touch with the market.

After suffering a financial flop with their Intellivision (“intelligent television”) home console in 1979, Mattel wasn’t eager to jump back into the video game fray. AGE was hoping to change that.

Novak: At the time, video games were a dirty word at Mattel. The Intellivision had almost put them out of business. People lost their pensions over it. The last thing they wanted to hear about was a video game.

Chris Gentile: They thought they were going to be the next big video game company. Then the whole industry crashed.

Hall: What buoyed them was not being an actual video game manufacturer. The logic was: Nintendo was a rising business, so let’s be an accessory. Let’s grow with them.

Novak: I remember Jaron coming in with some VR goggles. Mattel was thinking about it, but then the concern became that a kid would be wearing them and fall down a flight of stairs.

Lanier: I approached Mattel and I was more or less told that I didn’t know anything about the industry and to come back with someone who did.

Novak: Mattel had a constant stream of inventors coming in looking to sell prototypes. When Gentile came in with the Power Glove prototype, I was the only one to say it was a bad idea.

Hall: They basically came over with the $250,000 Data Glove system hooked up to a Commodore.

Chris Gentile: I had the Data Glove wired into a computer system that fed into the NES so the console thought it was a joystick.

Lanier: We had come in prior to that with some pretty impressive demos, like a racquetball-type game. This demo was to close the deal, to convince them to make it and ship it.

Novak: Chris was there with an old black-and-white Mac. He had this golf glove with wires coming out of it. The Mac was the interface between the glove and the NES. He was demonstrating it with Rad Racer, like having a virtual steering wheel, and Punch-Out.

Hall: It was the older version, with a sort of ghosted version of the player on screen.

Chris Gentile: We had other games, racing games, but Punch-Out was the focus. It had the biggest feel for the Glove. It’s almost first-person, because you’re over the shoulder of the guy.

Nintendo

Novak: What sold it, and it was the weirdest thing, was when he suggested [Mattel CEO] Jill Barad try it. She put on the glove, he fired up Punch-Out, and she knocked the guy out on her first hit.

Chris Gentile: She hardly ever played games. She knocked Glass Joe out.

Lanier: I thought Jill was very cool. She was one of the few female toy executives at the time.

Novak: I thought Gentile rigged the game to do that.

Chris Gentile: The game was not rigged at all.

Novak: Jill took off the glove and said, “I want to do this.”

Hall: Everyone was skeptical, but she was extremely enthused. She essentially asked what it would take to have something ready for the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1989. This was October 1988.

John Gentile: We wanted to do a whole 3D system, but Mattel was more comfortable getting Nintendo on board with the Glove with dedicated games.

Chris Gentile: When she wanted it, it became about taking a $10,000 device and turning it into $26 worth of materials. 

Hall: They offered big development dollars, so the answer was yes. The answer should have been no.

In late 1988, work began on an attempt to convert VPL’s Data Glove into something that could line toy shelves at a retail price point.

Hall: AGE had come to Mattel and said, “Oh, yeah, we can sell this for $90.” But they didn’t actually have a plan to do it.

Zimmerman: It was the difference between a Volkswagen and a Rolls-Royce. One is a high-quality lab instrument.

Hall: With an $80 product, it’s a five-times multiplier of what it actually cost. So you’re really talking about $16 worth of materials for a set-up that might have cost $50,000.

Novak: When I started getting into it, I got research from Nintendo. A typical play session would last anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes. With the Glove, your arm would get tired after 15 or 20 minutes. So that was problem one.

Hall: We didn’t actually have original games to demo it with. It was more about finding a bend sensor that worked. There were levels of gesture recognition. We’d use boxing games, Mario, stuff like that to replicate the A, B, and arrow buttons.

Lanier: We basically licensed them the patent. We were not responsible for engineering the consumer version.

Novak: Gentile was around a lot. There was some resentment. Here was an outside guy yelling at Mattel guys. He stood to make the money, where we were just working on salary.

Hall: I would say that Mattel had to worry about reliability and the customer experience, where Chris could just make grand pronouncements on how things should be done. He wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences in terms of production.

Chris Gentile: They basically kept us hidden the entire time. They didn’t want the whole company getting involved with video games again. It was Jill’s project.

Hall: It may have seemed that way to him. What happened was that the Glove was part of the new business development group, which was a little bit isolated for political reasons. From Mattel’s perspective, it was like, 'Hey, we’re gonna leave you alone.'

Novak: He was a nice enough guy. I’ve got nothing against him. It just felt like we were his development lab.

Hall: AGE turned in a prototype in mid-December 1988 that didn’t work for squat. The Data Glove used fiber optics, and the challenge was to come up with something to replicate that. The first one was carbon-impregnated silicone rubber. That worked, but it was slow.

John Gentile: Those optics were never going to hold up to kids jumping on the Glove.

Zimmerman: What they did that was great was come up with something silk-screened, which was far superior.

Hall: What we wound up with were flexible ink on Mylar sheets. We paid about five cents each for them.

Lanier: Conductive ink is a really inexpensive way to make a bend sensor.

John Gentile: The ink was able to measure changes in resistance. It was Chris’s idea, and it was excellent.

Chris Gentile: The conductive ink was much, much cheaper than the optics in the Data Glove. It took about nine months, which was pretty quick.

The conductive ink sensor running through the Glove's fingers. Plusea via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As a Nintendo licensee, Mattel needed the blessing of one of the most notoriously difficult companies in the entertainment business. If they weren’t comfortable with the Power Glove, Nintendo would potentially hold back on their official Seal of Approval.  

Novak: Jill would go to Washington once a month or so. They knew they couldn’t do anything without a license. Mattel hated Nintendo.

Caesar Filori (Former Hardware Support, Nintendo of America): Licensed products weren’t things we really supported. Tengen, for example, made games that worked on the NES, but we didn’t back them.

Hall: They butted heads. The Power Glove wasn’t the only 3D peripheral in development. Brøderbund had the U-Force, an infrared device with perpendicular panels that could measure hand waving.

John Gentile: We were aware of U-Force. They were doing some things that overlapped, doing certain things the way we were doing them. But theirs was less about finger tracking and more about the hand.

Lanier: Nintendo kept us at arm’s length. We wanted their friendly cooperation, but there wasn’t a lot for them to do.

Chris Gentile: AGE didn’t have a lot to do with Nintendo of America, but they licensed the Glove for Japan. I do remember they wanted a second instructional manual to make set-up more clear.

John Gentile: What Nintendo was concerned about was making sure the product could hold up through millions of finger bends. Once it ran up to 10 million, we got their Seal of Approval.

Hall: Nintendo being Nintendo, they worked hard to play people off one another. Mattel would want to add functionality and Nintendo would resist it. These are pretty large and arrogant companies. Everyone wants to be in control.

While Mattel’s engineers tried to shrink the price of components down, other team members were focused on its aesthetic appeal. Mattel hired Image Design’s Hal Berger and Gary Yamron to help finalize the look.    

Novak: We had to think of the size of the Glove. We went through like 300 or 400 different hand sizes trying to find something universal.

Hall: We never made a left-handed version. The decision was, only 10 percent of the population is left-handed, so that was it. The retailers didn’t want to bother stocking both.

Novak: The look really came from Bob Reyo. He was the senior vice president of marketing for boys’ toys. One early prototype was really cool, almost spider-looking, but fragile.

John Gentile: We had to worry about sweat, wicking, stuff like that.

Novak: Bob kind of held it up with two fingers and looked like he was smelling a turd. He tossed it in the middle of the table and said, “I can’t sell this for $80,” and left.

John Gentile: We were after a RoboCop kind of feel—this big rubber gauntlet wrapped around your forearm.

Novak: That’s when I learned about perceived value. This Glove, cool as it is, doesn’t look like it’s worth $80, so they throw 15 to 20 sculptors on it.

Although Nintendo had released over 100 games for the NES through 1988, none were designed with a gesture-control device in mind. It would be up to Mattel to develop titles that were proprietary to the Glove.

Novak: I was the software guy, so I was the one developing original game titles for use with the Power Glove. One was Super Glove Ball, where you controlled a hand in this 3D space. The other was some piece of crap title they licensed called Bad Street Brawler.

08cents413 via eBay

Zimmerman: We didn’t develop games [at VPL] for it. As it turns out, no one really did.

Novak: Bad Street was just a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up. They wanted to launch a game with it so I tried to make it work with the Glove. They paid $30,000 or $40,000 for the rights. It makes me sick to even say the name.

Chris Gentile: We were trying to tell Mattel that we need games. They kept saying, “Let’s wait and see how the hardware does first.”

Novak: What we showed at CES was basically an Amiga with a game playing and a kid actor pretending to play it. That’s really what sold it to retailers.

Hall: It was all the visual look, but not the tech. We were still working on the sensors.

Chris Gentile: Mattel wouldn’t even put their name up on the booths.

John Gentile: We were in a back room. It was very low-key because Mattel had no idea the reaction they would be getting. 

Hall: I remember spending 72 hours at a time getting it ready for those shows. I burnt myself with a soldering iron.   

Novak: This poor guy, Darren, was the guy at Mattel who had to make the templates for all the games. Say you wanted to play Double Dragon: He was the guy who put the cartridge in and figured out the code to put in the keypad on the Glove.

Zimmerman: Making it backwards-compatible sort of did the Glove a disservice. It’s like taking a fine jeweler’s watch and using it as a hammer.

Chris Gentile: They were looking for developers, but it’s a chicken-or-egg thing. No developer wants to produce games until they know a lot of the devices are out there.

Hall: It got shown to us in October with none of the final tech. By February, we had the bend sensors working. It was a pretty fast turnaround.

Chris Gentile: That first CES, we took 700,000 orders.

John Gentile: Toys "R" Us ordered 100,000. Kmart ordered 100,000.

Novak: I was the only one who had doubts. I had no idea how right I was.

III: A LOSS OF CONTROL

Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

Bolstered by the continued popularity of the NES, Mattel’s Power Glove became one of the hottest gift items of the 1989 holiday season. The device was also front and center in The Wizard, a Nintendo-approved film starring Fred Savage about a video game savant that was released just 10 days before Christmas, on December 15, 1989.

Hall: They did very well going into the season, getting a million orders.

Zimmerman: They sold the sizzle.

John Gentile: We saw Universal was doing The Wizard, a coming-of-age story. They used controllers throughout, then the Power Glove at the climax. We designed the poster, too.

Novak: I got a screen credit on the movie as "Power Glove Advisor."

Filori: I remember all the game counselors were absolutely riveted to see how they’d depict the call [tip line] center. They definitely made it look more glamorous than it was. We didn’t even have computers. All of our notes were in books.

Novak: The kids were playing Rad Racer with it. “Oh, it’s so bad.” I remember that.

Hall: The best part of The Wizard is Fred Savage wearing a left-handed glove on the poster.

Universal

When the Gloves were finally taken out from under Christmas trees and unwrapped, the hype didn’t quite match reality. Kids found it cumbersome, hard to calibrate, and even harder to make work with existing NES games.

Novak: I sensed there would be an inherent latency in the response. A regular controller is digital—press a button, bing, something happens.

Filori: It didn’t work well with a lot of the games—fast-twitch games. It wasn’t precise enough.

Hall: It’s about absorbing the experience of game play, and if the controller gets in the way, it’s not going to work. Pushing buttons is subconscious.

Lanier: When I helped them demo it, I didn’t think the interaction was very good.

Hall: Waving your hand in space, you don’t have a visual reference for where the center is. You end up making huge gestures to go there.

Novak: Look at Mario. You need perfect slides, jumps, bounces. You bend a finger on the Glove and it’s like it says, “Oh, did he bend a finger?” The software may not recognize it.

Filori: The problem is you just can’t map something like that to any game and have it be fun. That was the problem. There was no game experience that became better for having used the Glove.

Chris Gentile: I don’t believe there was a problem with lag time. The problem was with how people would calibrate it. The ones I saw set up properly, it was real-time functional. I didn’t see any delays.

Hall: There were issues with how the ultrasonic sensors would work. We used two and ideally needed three, but it would’ve made the Glove big and ugly.

Novak: The ultrasonic triangulation actually worked, but it was a bitch to calibrate. No kid was going to do that.

Hall: We originally had the transmitters on the TV and the receivers on the Glove in case people wanted to play with two Gloves at once. But the receivers had a very broad, wide angle, so we swapped them. That was a last-minute thing.

Novak: To set it up, you had to hold your hand out and make a fist. If you didn’t, the operating system didn’t know what was a fist and what was your hand. It needed to be pointing at the sensors, and no one was doing it.

Hall: Ultimately, the experience was your arm getting tired, you have no idea where the center is, there’s no 3D. So you shove it into a closet.

Lanier: You hold something continually, and you’re going to generate arm fatigue no matter what. Holding your hand out is not great. You want to be in motion. That’s why the early demos had racquetball.

Zimmerman: They had this concept of holding the Glove up in space, but then your arm drops and you lose that center and engage the Down button. The solution would have been to make that box move so it readjusts as your arm does. It’s just a tiny user interface tweak.

Novak: I once set up a demo for a BBC reporter. The woman was playing Super Glove Ball as she was talking and it worked perfectly.

Chris Gentile: Sometimes kids would enter the wrong code for the game, and you’d get responses that didn’t make sense.

Lanier: At the last minute, there was a design decision about the plastic tracker above the knuckle, so when you closed your hand it was uncomfortable. People were just not thinking about how the Glove would be used.

Further demoralizing players was the lack of games designed exclusively for the Glove—there weren’t any released in time for the 1989 holiday season.

Novak: Super Glove Ball didn’t come out until a year later.

Hall: Really, it was launched too early.

Novak: The push was to get the hardware out. We didn’t even start development of Super Glove Ball until four or five months in. All the marketing and advertising was based around the Glove.

John Gentile: Mattel said, “Why spend the money? They [players] will just use NES games.” But the value of the Glove was with specific games, like Nolan Ryan Baseball. You would’ve been able to throw the ball at the batter and focus on spin and rotation, stuff like that. It would’ve been fantastic.

Hall: I was one of the people lobbying for them to wait a year and have some 3D games, not hackery with existing games.

Filori: I think maybe Mattel thought people would make games automatically for it. But where was the incentive to do that?

Lanier: I would say there was a big problem with the software quality, but that wasn’t my job to adjudicate.

Novak: To a rational person, you’d want software to go along with the hardware. Mattel didn’t see it that way.

Hall: The Glove was just not good in compatibility mode with older games. It was all big moves and getting exhausted trying to figure out the controller.

Novak: At that time, Nintendo controlled the game cartridges because they sold the lockout chip. So Mattel goes to them and says, “We want to order 300,000 cartridges for Super Glove Ball. We want to blanket the holiday with them.” And Nintendo says, “We’ll give you 20,000.”

megahit79 via eBay

Novak: That was their key to success. They knew what happened with Atari. They wanted to keep crappy software from flooding the market. 

Zimmerman: It’s too bad they didn’t make a killer game for it. I guess once Mattel sold the hardware, they were done.

Novak: It drove me crazy. The Glove was just limping to its grave.

Although it experienced brisk sales for the 1989 holiday season, word of mouth eventually cast a long shadow over the long-term prospects for the Power Glove. Mattel’s plans for a Turbo Glove, a lighter version with the keypad worn on a belt, were abandoned.

Novak: We had two other games we were going to do with Rare, but they got canceled.

Zimmerman: I think it did the world of VR a huge disservice. It made a huge platform of visibility, but the play was not satisfying. That’s what killed Atari.

Lanier: It was a big hit early on, but just kind of petered out.

Chris Gentile: By the time Super Glove Ball came out, it was like 14 months later and interest had just disappeared.

Novak: In the real world, it would’ve been a huge hit financially. But at Mattel, bonuses are tied in with sales projections. And they just over-projected. They went from thinking they’d sell $60 million to $80 million. It got up to $120 million. So when they only sold $80 million, it was a disappointment.

Chris Gentile: I'd love to have a so-called failure like that every year. It was a little bit of the future that was hard to grasp for some people. Today, people have mobile devices. Back then, it was a challenge.

Lanier: I remember a lot of Gloves got held up in Japan by authorities in a warehouse.

Chris Gentile: We sold a total of 1.3 million Gloves, including in Japan.

John Gentile: The Glove did very well in Japan, selling 600,000 units. At the time, there were only three or four million NES systems installed, so to do 20 percent of the installed base was great.

Zimmerman: A lot more could’ve been done with it. Virtual orchestras, virtual pottery—there were more artistic applications.

Chris Gentile: We wanted to release games, but it was pulled off the market after a year.

John Gentile: By the time the next Toy Fair rolled around, we could sense it starting to die down. We had a good year run.

IV: THE POWER OF GLOVE

Image courtesy of Chris Gentile.

Although it lasted less than 12 months on store shelves, the promise of the Power Glove—a seamless interaction with three-dimensional software—later came to fruition with video game systems like Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect, as well as the surge of VR platforms led by the Oculus Rift. 

Novak: I had a little laugh when they came up with the Wii.

Lanier: The Microsoft Kinect was sort of a spiritual successor to the Power Glove.

Hall: It was a pivotal product that was unfortunately-timed, but it changed people’s mindset.

Zimmerman: It was a tangible manifestation of VR that was mass-marketed. It was almost cyber-punk.

John Gentile: The work we do now, people with Oculus, Samsung, the Glove always comes up. It’s an instant ice-breaker. Everybody had one.

Lanier: I later helped Spielberg brainstorm on Minority Report, and the Data Glove sort of made an appearance in that—this idea of using gestures in this dystopian world. We made a working model so the screenwriters could feel what it was like.

Decades after the Glove's release, several users have found aftermarket uses for the device, which has been repeatedly “hacked” to provide a user interface for many do-it-yourself projects.

Hall: MIT had a few dozen projects based on hacked Power Gloves. This kid at the last Maker Faire, he had a hacked Glove and operated a simulation helicopter in 3D space.

John Gentile: I’ve seen people use to control stop-motion animation. DJs use it.

Zimmerman: The patent has expired, but I’m just happy to be able to say I was involved in the first wave of all that.

Nearly 28 years after its introduction, the Power Glove remains one of the most iconic pieces of video game hardware ever developed. A Kickstarter-backed documentary, The Power of Glove, is slated for release this year.

Hall: It was one of the first things to bring the potential for a truly immersive world. Tron had come out, but this was the first time you could put something on and feel like you could be part of the game. And it looked cool.

Chris Gentile: Even for people who didn’t feel it worked, it was an eye-opener into the whole virtual world. It was the first time someone could feel like they were inside the game as opposed to outside of it.

Filori: It’s a retro piece of tech that has a lot of personality to it.

Lanier: What’s interesting is that it being heavy and the overall design of it is probably why it’s remembered after all these years. It just looks cool.

Novak: Some YouTube comments, people want me dead. They think I invented it.

Chris Gentile: It’s interesting people think of it as a failure, because people still use it and still talk about it.

Lanier: I think people get nostalgia for stuff like this because of malaise, because the current moment sucks.

Zimmerman: The first time I saw it, I was passing a Toys "R" Us in New York and saw it in the window. I must say, I had this amazing sensation that I thought of something and had it manifested in the physical world. The irony is, even having worked at Atari, I don’t play video games.

Lanier: Honestly, if people had seen the early demos made for the Glove, they would’ve understood what made it so interesting to everyone.

Novak: If it was set up correctly, the damn thing worked.

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios