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Take a Look: An Oral History of Reading Rainbow

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schecter: Once LeVar said yes, that was it.

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

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

Liggett: She was a former English teacher.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Liggett: The power of LeVar was remarkable.

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

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

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

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

Ganek: We wanted something whimsical or serious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burton: And when I got my ear pierced.

Marbury: We had some wonderful conversations about his haircuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wiseman: Boxes came in every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Liggett: Barnes & Noble funded us at one time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liggett: We never figured it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liggett: People will sing the theme song to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All images courtesy of RRKidz unless otherwise credited.

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Dan Witkowski
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Oral History
Oral History: The Strangest Super Bowl Halftime Show Ever
Dan Witkowski
Dan Witkowski

January 22, 1989: The San Francisco 49ers edge out the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 to become the National Football League champions at Super Bowl XXIII at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. It was a thrilling game, tied at the half—a Super Bowl first—and decided only in the closing moments with a successful pass from 49ers star quarterback Joe Montana. There was enough action to keep any football fan’s mind occupied for days.

But the next morning, all anyone wanted to talk about was Elvis Presto.

In one of the most unusual halftime presentations in the 50-year history of the event, the NFL commissioned a 1950s musical revue, led by a magician dressed as Elvis Presley who performed “the world’s largest card trick.” It was also, by the estimate of at least one soda company, the world’s largest eye exam: Coca-Cola and NBC presented the entire spectacle in 3-D, urging the show’s 54 million households to pick up a pair of disposable glasses at their local distributor. (They also cautioned that if the effect didn’t work, your lack of eye coordination meant you might need to see an optometrist.) The end result was a curious blend of retro-kitsch performance and a 1980s version of interactive television.

To understand how this uneven mix of magic, music, and carbonation came together, mental_floss spoke with several of the producers and creative partners behind “BeBop Bamboozled,” including the magician who created it, the man whose Elvis was heard but not seen, and the soda marketing genius who turned a 3-D glasses shortage into priceless publicity. As it turns out, Katy Perry's Left Shark has nothing on fire-eaters in poodle skirts.

I. OUT OF THIN AIR


The story of 1989’s Super Bowl begins in 1986, when the NFL started soliciting proposals from entertainment production companies to plan for halftime shows in the years ahead. In addition to fielding presentations from Disney, Paramount, and other massive entities, the league heard from a man in Minnesota named Dan Witkowski. A veteran stage illusionist, Witkowski owned MagicCom, a small business focused on increasing revenue for companies by being “disruptive" and encouraging them to think outside the box.  

Dan Witkowski (Founder, MagicCom): I was looking to sell some network specials, but I would get laughed off. I thought, “Well, what’s bigger than a special? What has a built-in audience?” By going after something big, it would put us on the map. So I went after the Super Bowl.

Jim Steeg (Senior Vice President of Special Events, NFL, 1979 to 2005): Basically, we had the same people producing the halftime show over the years. By the time we did Up with People for a second time in 1986, we decided we wanted to bring in different producers with ideas for the halftime show.

Witkowski: I have something I call the Pretty Girl Theory: Everybody thinks somebody else is calling the pretty blonde to go out on a Saturday night, yet there she sits at home. People are just intimidated to make calls. I wasn’t.

Steeg: We were looking to book people for the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows. We brought in probably six or seven different producers, and Dan was one of them. He called us.

Witkowski: Obviously, he got a lot of calls. But what I did was put the problem ahead of the pitch. And the problem I presented to the NFL was this: How do they take something big and make it even bigger by attracting more people? Historically, the halftime show meant it was time to get up and get a sandwich.

Steeg: I agreed to meet him in New York and hear him out.

Witkowski: I think he was intrigued about the magic idea. I didn’t give him an idea for a specific type of show, but I told him we’d welcome the opportunity to give an official presentation.

Steeg: [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle only sat through a couple of them. He sat through Dan’s.

Witkowski: What the NFL did that tripped us up was when they requested a written outline sent in advance. It’s like trying to describe a cartoon. You can’t do it. You need visuals and sound. I had one of those projectors for a slide show. But it was in their rules, so I sent everyone there a leather-bound folder with a padlock on it. I had the key. They couldn’t open it until I arrived. I got calls from secretaries saying, “They’re going nuts. They’re trying to pick the locks.” It caused a big stir.

Steeg: Dan kind of wowed everybody at the meeting. He made a bowling ball appear out of a suitcase. It got things rolling.

Witkowski: He remembered that? The funny thing is, I had to do a performance in Nebraska that same night. I couldn’t get out of it, so I had to carry the bowling ball and the suitcase through Kennedy Airport. I got in line at security, put the ball on the conveyor belt, and was immediately surrounded by guards who wanted to know where it had come from.

Steeg: What we decided to do was have him co-produce the 1988 pre-game show so he could get some experience and learn the math. It was important for him to understand the logistics and the magnitude of the Super Bowl.

Witkowski: What I basically presented was the idea of hooking the audience through their involvement. At the time, we had developed a technique that would have allowed us to distribute millions of game cards through McDonald’s with a mechanism that could be triggered by holding them up to the TV screen at a certain point. It would reveal an image. I can’t go into details on how it works, but that was the essence of it.

John Gonzalez (Director, NBC): I recall going to the NFL offices in Manhattan for the first presentation about the magic show. I was excited about it, realizing it would be a challenge in the middle of a huge football production to shoot live magic and not give any of the tricks away. To figure out the correct angles, we were going to have to do it in a very controlled, very planned-out manner.

That planning would eventually grow complicated by another influence over the halftime proceedings. With Witkowski pitching Steeg and the NFL on a magic-themed, participatory show for the 1989 game, the league was also being courted by a more established partner: Coca-Cola, who would wind up becoming the Super Bowl’s first sole sponsor that same year. The company had been working on a promotion involving 3-D glasses with a twist: a California company, Nuoptix, had developed a process where an image would be clear (not distorted or blurry) to a viewer not wearing the cellophane lenses.

Michael Beindorff (Vice President of Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1978-1992): Steve Koonin, who runs the Atlanta Hawks now but worked for Coke back then, came to me with the idea for 3-D glasses. He brought the whole Moonlighting idea to me.

Steve Koonin (Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1986-2000): I met Terry Beard from Nuoptix on an airplane. He was a sound guy, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and had invented what was called stereoscopic 3-D. He sent me a demo of it. Basically [by covering one eye with a dark lens, which you can do using sunglasses with the video below], it slows down one eye and tricks the brain. It’s the Pulfrich Effect. At the time, Moonlighting was the hottest show on TV, and I called the producer, Glenn Caron, and sold him on the idea of doing the season finale in 3-D. He loved it. We made 26 million pairs of glasses and wound up on the front page of over 200 newspapers.

Beindorff: They had actually written a script, but then the writer’s strike happened, and the whole deal fell apart.

Koonin: We’re sitting there paying rent on warehouses across the country full of glasses. We had taken over a Kleenex factory in Mexico to make them.

Beindorff: We were still excited by the idea of the 3-D. For its time, it was very well-done. We went to the NFL and NBC with the concept of doing the halftime show in 3-D.

Steeg: Coke was our partner at the time. We were always in constant communication.  

Beindorff: Really, the whole strategy behind the Super Bowl partnership was to launch a campaign around the fact that people were switching from sugary drinks like Pepsi to Diet Coke. It was intended for Diet Coke to surpass Pepsi as the number two drink.

Gonzalez: I first heard it as a rumor: “We might do it in 3-D.” I was excited about the idea, but wondered, “How would we do that?”

II. ELVIS PRESTO


In the summer of 1988, Witkowski had no idea Coca-Cola would come in at virtually the last minute with their 3-D promotion. Instead, he and Steeg tried to hammer out what his stadium-sized magic show was going to look like.

Jack Barkla (Production Designer): I think Dan initially had the idea of a 1950s retro drive-in theater, with dancers carrying picnic baskets onto the field. They’d sit down and pull a ripcord in the basket that would turn them into inflatable cars.

Witkowski: We knew we were going to have a magic theme. Whether it was contemporary or Medieval was all flexible during the presentation. The whole 1950s thing was pretty big at the time. Baby Boomers were trying to relive their youth, so we hooked on that.

Steeg: These things evolve on a daily basis. Whatever we discussed at the pitch meeting wasn’t what wound up happening. There is no, “This is what it is.”

Barkla: There was also something to do with pizza, large colorful slices of pizza being moved around by various people.

Witkowski: There was another illusion where the concept was, as everyone came into the stadium, we were going to take a Polaroid picture that would be developed by the time they got to their seats. At random, one was going to be selected, brought down to the field, and asked to hold up their photo. Everyone else held up a card under their seat, and the whole audience would form a pictogram of the audience member selected. But we realized we didn’t have time to bring people down to the stadium floor for the pictures.    

Steeg: Everything about it was big. I remember we had a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York to announce it, which was unusual. No one had ever announced a halftime show before.  


Coca-Cola

Witkowski: For some reason, we had Oscar-Mayer around. They came forward and wanted to supply lunch for all of the dancers. As a kind of joke, I said, “Okay, but I want to ride shotgun in the Wienermobile.” Sure enough, it showed up.

Witkowski would eventually settle on a trick that involved the audience using an “Applause-o-Meter” to pick one of four giant cards in the stadium, with the selected card's edges made up of held-up seat cushions. What he needed now was a master of ceremonies—someone to guide the audience and lead the melody of classic pop songs.

Steeg: Elvis Presto, yes. We felt it was a novel thing that got a lot of play. Who is he? What is he?

Witkowski: It was divine inspiration. [Laughs] I think once we settled on the 1950s music, it was natural to make Elvis Presley the lead magician. It was a nice play on words. We also had the Magic Wandas, who were his back-up singers.

Barkla: I had nothing to do with that.

Witkowski: We cast a guy who had played Elvis on Broadway. He had a very good look and had the moves down. Alex Cole, who had been a back-up dancer on Solid Gold, was his choreographer. And he wouldn’t have to sing. That was all prerecorded in New York.

Jody LoMedico (Vocal Performer, “Elvis Presto”): I had been performing since the 1970s, singing and doing commercial jingles. Someone once told me I sounded like Elvis, and it devastated me. I was never an impersonator.

Witkowski: We went to the Elvis estate. I felt that rather than it be a surprise for them, they would want the courtesy and an opportunity to respond. They couldn’t have been nicer and did it for minimal consideration.

LoMedico: A vocal contractor I knew said she had heard I did a pretty good Elvis. I had been trying to destroy any kind of resemblance to him. You want to be your own person. But it was the Super Bowl, so I was all in. We went in there and sang and sang and sang this seven-minute piece. "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Rock This Town," Stray Cats stuff, everything. I was there probably seven hours. When we were done, I couldn’t talk.

Witkowski: We had Donald Pippin, a Broadway legend, doing all the music.

LoMedico: When they saw me sing, they liked me so much they asked if I wanted to come to Florida and lip-sync my own voice. But I couldn’t be out of town for three weeks for rehearsal and everything else for $1500. They said, “Most people do this for free.” Well, your dancers, these kids from universities, they live to be on television. Great for them. No disrespect. Not for me.

While Witkowski tried to assemble a complete Elvis, Barkla and choreographers were thinking of how best to stage a production on something as volatile as a football field. Only cars made of plywood would be allowed on the grass.

Barkla: The grass in Florida is very different from the grass in Minnesota. It’s like moss. It doesn’t take much to destroy the surface.

Steeg: It’s about protecting the field, and also about what you can move on 100 yards of grass.

Barkla: They’d bring truckloads of dirt and grass seed on the field and dump it. I remember asking one of the NFL guys, “Doesn’t that change the height of the goalposts?” Because you keep raising the ground. He looked at me like no one had ever considered the question before.

III. SHOWTIME


As the clock wound down to perfect an elaborate show full of visual effects, dancers, and a stadium-sized card trick, Witkowski was dealt two of the worst hands possible: His in-person Elvis was about to split, and Coca-Cola was about to introduce a new dimension in frustration.

Witkowski: The guy playing Elvis suddenly had an opportunity to go shoot a commercial in Japan that was going to be very lucrative. We made a mutual decision to recast. My first thought was Alex, since he was essentially the other Elvis’s choreographer and knew a lot of the moves.

LoMedico: The guy who did Elvis—whoever you are, I wasn’t a fan, man. Doing Elvis at that time with anything was just hokey. Maybe in Middle America, but the East and West Coasts were done. It was Elvis and The National Enquirer. It was corny.

Alex Cole had roughly 10 days to learn a complex routine involving dancers and illusions with a hollowed-out jukebox and an electric guitar that materialized out of thin air. At the same time, NBC and Witkowski were struggling to cope with the late addition of 3-D.

Gonzalez: We both understood the sudden importance of the 3-D overlay and all the money it represented. The NFL and the executives at NBC didn’t interfere, but they did say, “This represents a whole lot of valuable promotion, so we need to make it work.” In the final week, the focus largely went away from the magic and onto re-blocking for 3-D.

Witkowski: We recorded the audio track before the 3-D element came into play, so we decided that because of time, we would edit what we had and work with it from that standpoint. We knew the magic would suffer, knew the event would be a bit corny, but felt people would watch.

Barkla: The input we got was way late in the game. That was very frustrating. If it hadn’t been so late, things would’ve been better than they were. It’s typical corporate stuff. The people making decisions didn’t have a clue as to how the whole thing worked.

Gonzalez: The choreographers had been planning their part of the show for months. To tell them two weeks before, “Throw it out, make everything counterclockwise rotational,” was not what they wanted to hear.

Witkowski: We thought of some effects where girls would appear to float outside the image of your TV set and had some other levitating effects. But with the 3-D process, things had to be in constant motion left to right to separate the field of vision for the effect to work. In many ways, the 3-D fought with the way to present magic, which was to keep a continuous camera on something so you’re not cutting away.

Steeg: To do the 3-D, everything had to move left to right. It was basically a mind trick.

Gonzalez: Fearing that the 3-D on the field would be less than what was expected, I went to my bosses at NBC with a request to spend additional funds on some animations. There are three or four spots in the show where we independently developed some effective use of the 3-D apart from the action on the field.

Koonin: Kevin Costner came up to me at a [pre-game] party in Miami. He said, “Hey, I hear you’re the 3-D glasses guy. Want to comp me a pair?”

With a pre-taped introduction by a wry Bob Costas (“This is the single proudest moment of my life”) and a 3-D Diet Coke commercial, “BeBop Bamboozled” got underway. Elvis Presto appears to materialize out of a jukebox; dancers defy gravity by leaning against parking meters horizontally; 102 custom-made Harley-Davidson bikes engulfed the margins of the field.

Gonzalez: Bob Costas was hesitant about pre-recording the opening. “Trust me,” I told him. “I need to do this to guarantee some effective 3-D effects.” We watched it together in the controlled environment of the studio and it looked quite good.

Barkla: Of course, we didn’t wind up using the inflatable cars. Those might have cost $3000 to $4000 each.

Witkowski: I remember in the planning stage, we had some early computer effects that showed how 2000 people would be moving on the field. That was unheard of back then. You could have 200 people fall over and it wouldn’t even be noticed.

Barkla: The question was, how do you get things on and off the field? You have to be able to set it up and dismantle it very quickly.

Presto's inciting of the crowd to "pick a card, concentrate real hard" left most viewers befuddled: the Applause-o-Meter led to the King of Hearts, one of four giant cards on the field and a choice Presto predicted. Because of the camera movements, it was also one of the few illusions actually picked up by the broadcast. 

Witkowski: I will say the card trick is not nearly as effective as what we had anticipated.

Steeg: I don’t think everyone got the card trick. You had to think about it.

Barkla: There was one master box for power, and it was at the 50-yard line. All the skyboxes would need wires running out of it. The place where we stored all the sets underneath wasn’t wired and it wasn’t lit at all. I found that really strange. We were running electric lines all over the place to get power.

Witkowski: We didn’t have theatrical lighting. In magic, you adjust it depending on how the performers are moving. Here, the lights were either on or off. We couldn’t rely on that. Everything was out in the open.

LoMedico: I think I made the right choice [not appearing on camera]. When I saw it, I thought, “Mmm. This isn’t working.”

Witkowski: I would say that Alex, as Elvis, didn’t have the right look. But he didn’t have the opportunity to practice, either. With magic and its complexities, it’s hard to just drop someone in.

LoMedico: The stuff sounded good in the studio. Everyone was really happy. But when it got on the air, whatever they did with the sound processing, somebody mixed that improperly.

Gonzalez: You get one rehearsal Friday night to try to put it all together, and the crew, the best in the business, was excited and cooperative. The next time the camera crew saw it was live at halftime.

IV. OVERTIME


With an estimated 120 million people tuning in, Super Bowl XXIII was a resounding success. Despite some complaints that the card trick made little sense, news media responded favorably to the 3-D effects. This was presuming the viewer had the glasses: Because Coke had only made 26 million pairs, many had to share or go without.

Koonin: There wasn’t time to make more. If it had cost the consumer money, yes, they probably would have been disappointed. But this was about getting past Pepsi. It was just a fun stunt.

Barkla: It was the beginning of a time when the shows got more inflated and slicker.

Witkowski: I remember being interviewed after. Apparently, I was dancing in the stands with the dancers.

Steeg: I think it was a good show. It was just so hyped. People were expecting this Pixar 3-D animation thing. It was just a halftime show.

Beindorff: We got a huge uptick in sales that month. And that went on for some period of time, though you can’t attribute it all to the Super Bowl. We also had George Michael.

Witkowski: Coke was kind enough to send us binders of all the press after the game. I think it was $60 million worth of promotion. It was confirmation that we were successful in creating something people were going to talk about.

Beindorff: I got a call a year or two ago that Diet Coke finally surpassed Pepsi as the number two drink. It took a while.

Steeg: The only one you’re concerned with is the Commissioner, and he [Rozelle] was happy.

Witkowski: Jim said to me, “You’ll reap the benefits of this for years.” And we have. MagicCom has been very successful. I appreciate that the NFL took a chance on the little guy.

Steeg: The next year was the 40th anniversary of Peanuts. They approached us and wanted to get involved, and we liked that.

Gonzalez: If you were to pick a halftime show that would be designed for the rotational 3-D effect, I don’t think it would be something that demands the precision and accuracy of a magic show.

Steeg: We experimented. We took chances. With the Super Bowl, it’s very easy to just say no. We rolled the dice.

LoMedico: At the time, I lived in the Poconos with no cable and had to watch it with rabbit ears. The whole thing was kind of a letdown.

Barkla: I didn’t watch it. I don’t like football.

All images courtesy of Dan Witkowski.

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

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

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

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

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally ran in 2015.

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