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RRKIDS

Take a Look: An Oral History of Reading Rainbow

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RRKIDS

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schecter: Once LeVar said yes, that was it.

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

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

Liggett: She was a former English teacher.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Liggett: The power of LeVar was remarkable.

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

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

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

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

Ganek: We wanted something whimsical or serious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burton: And when I got my ear pierced.

Marbury: We had some wonderful conversations about his haircuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wiseman: Boxes came in every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Liggett: Barnes & Noble funded us at one time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liggett: We never figured it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liggett: People will sing the theme song to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All images courtesy of RRKidz unless otherwise credited.

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#TBT
Oral History: Tickle Me Elmo Turns 21
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Location: Walmart Supercenter, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Date: December 14, 1996. Victim: Stock room employee Robert Waller. Injuries: A broken rib, pulled hamstring, and concussion.

Cause of emergency room admission: Tickle Me Elmo.

The 27-year-old stock clerk had been working the overnight shift during the holiday rush when he was spotted holding the giggling, vibrating toy by a crowd of frantic shoppers. The ensuing melee left him looking like he had just been in a minor car accident. Someone had even torn the crotch from his jeans. The last thing he saw was a white Adidas sneaker kicking him in the face before he lost consciousness. 

All across North America, shoppers and retail workers alike were reduced to their primal instincts in an effort to obtain Tyco’s must-have toy of the holiday season. Tickle Me Elmo combined the appeal of Sesame Street’s breakout character—a three-and-a-half year old monster with charmingly clipped speech—with a novel design that allowed him to be “tickled” until he was practically out of breath.

It was impossibly adorable, and impossible to get: Tyco, which was anticipating a modest success, found themselves chartering private jets in order to get inventory from China more quickly; John Gotti Jr. made headlines for a top-secret Elmo pick-up at a Queens Toys "R" Us; bomb threats were called in to Tyco; one Elmo disappeared from a New York City police station; a toy designer carrying parts through airports was suspected of being the Unabomber.

With Hasbro re-releasing the toy for a new generation of kids this winter, we assembled the inventors, designers, marketers, and industry insiders who helped make Tickle Me Elmo one of the biggest success stories in the history of playthings to talk about how the furry red monster became a pop culture phenomenon—one that parents would literally step all over someone to get.

I: TICKLISH

Tickles the Chimp. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY

With an interest in art and a degree in clinical psychology, Ron Dubren had been making board games and toys for 15 years. A mutual friend had introduced him to the late Stan Clutton, who held inventor liaison positions with a number of companies. Clutton was always willing to listen to Dubren’s ideas, but had rarely said anything other than "no." That’s not unusual in the toy business, but it was still gratifying when Dubren—who had only had modest success with games like Babble On—finally heard Clutton say “yes” to a prototype he made: a chuckling primate named Tickles the Chimp.

Ron Dubren (Co-inventor): I had been in the park one day watching a bunch of kids tickling each other. It brought back childhood memories—how much I loved tickling or being tickled. There was usually a kind of build-up of this laughing jag until you just finally lose it. I thought that would make a great toy.

Patricia Hogan (Curator, The Strong National Museum of Play): There was some precedent for putting electronics into a plush-type toy. There was Teddy Ruxpin, who had a cassette recorder in his torso. He read the story to kids like a sort of surrogate librarian.

Dubren: I can’t tell you why I used a chimp. I somehow associated chimps with laughter, or maybe I saw J. Fred Muggs on the Today show when I was a kid. I don’t know.

Mark Johnson-Williams (Electronics Designer): I had been doing design for Tyco for years. There had been talking dolls since you could pull a string. What made this different was the right sound and right personality.

Dubren: Sound was becoming inexpensive for toys at that point. We were getting into sound chips. It was too expensive to make one, so the prototype had a cable connected to a computer.

Johnson-Williams: Later on, I basically wrote the program for the circuit board that tells the motor what to do. I had done a talking Cabbage Patch Kid.

Dubren: I called up [co-inventor] Greg Hyman, who was a sound engineer and had recently lost his business partner. The original idea was a chimp that tickled you, but it wasn’t feasible. Greg and I worked on developing a prototype to show around. We were turned down by 12 different companies.

Dubren, who refers to the toy business as “the failure business,” wasn’t dissuaded. He finally came around to Clutton, who was working as vice president of marketing at Tyco’s Preschool division, in 1994.

Dubren: We showed it to Stan, and his immediate reaction was, “This would be great as an Elmo, but we don’t have the rights.”

Janice Yates (former Associate Vice President of Marketing and Development, Tyco Preschool): We had the plastic rights. Hasbro had the plush rights.

Dubren: The meeting lasted about 15 minutes before Stan referred me to another guy at Tyco, Gene Murtha. He knew that side of the company had the rights to Looney Tunes. I met Gene that day.

Gene Murtha (former Vice President of Marketing, Tyco): I instantly liked what he had. It was kind of reminiscent of Curious George.

Dubren: He looks at it and says, “This would be a great Tickle Me Taz.”

What remains of Tickle Me Taz. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY

Murtha: I don’t think I said it to Ron, but I thought it would be a great feature product for our Looney Tunes license, which we had at the time.

Yates: The concept was when it came in that you’d tickle it once and it would laugh. Tickle it a second time and it laughed harder. Tickle it a third time and it went hysterical.

Dubren: That escalation was important. It just keeps laughing harder and harder. There was a beginning, middle, and end.

Murtha: We might have looked at doing Tickle Me Tweety. But at the time, Warner Bros. was pushing the Tasmanian Devil and had all kinds of research indicating how popular he was. Boys loved the gruffness of him. The market was reaching a saturation point with Tweety. There had been a lot of Tweety.

Johnson-Williams: No one wants to take care of a Tasmanian Devil. You don’t want to be his friend.

Murtha: We did do a Taz prototype. It was functioning, with the electronics and everything. We had someone do a voice to simulate his grunting sort of laugh. I remember taking it to Warner Bros. and they were like, “Yeah, fine.” It wasn’t memorable on their part. They could have had the Tickle Me license under their property.

Despite Murtha's enthusiasm, Taz would not get the opportunity to become the must-have toy of the year.

Hogan: When you think of that character, tickling doesn’t seem the least bit compatible.

Yates: It was good for Taz, he had a crazy personality, but during the evaluation, Tyco decided not to renew the Warner Bros. license.

Murtha: In those days, Tyco had no email system. We all communicated via fax. I remember being at the offices in New York after hours—it was me, Stan, and a few others. I walked past the fax machine and it was spitting out a notice that Tyco had dissolved their agreement with Warner Bros. I walked to Stan and said, “Why don’t you take this and make Tickle Me Big Bird?” And he said, “No, it would be Tickle Me Elmo.” And by this point, they had gotten the Sesame Street license.

Dubren: The guy Stan worked for, [former Tyco president] Martin Scheman, had the idea to pursue the license to Sesame Street and create feature items they’d promote on TV. Marty went to Stan and said, “I need a feature item.” And Stan said, “I’ve got an idea.”

Yates: We had a long-term relationship for plastic toys for the Sesame license. The relationship had grown and they gave us the opportunity to bid on the plush portion and to become the master toy licensee.

Ann Kearns (former Vice President, Licensing, Sesame Workshop): StoryMagic Big Bird was really our first big item. It was pretty low-tech, but it was a huge success. Before Elmo came along, Big Bird was the star of the show. He was the quintessential 6-year-old and Elmo was the quintessential 3-year-old.

Sesame Workshop

Dubren: I got a call from Stan saying, “Guess what?” That’s when I came up with Elmo’s Law: Anything that can go right will go right.

Yates: From the time it got kicked back to us, we all felt the best use for the concept would be with Elmo.

Murtha: I was delighted for Stan to take it over. It was 70 percent done. I was able to take the internal development costs, which were between $50,000 and $100,000, and move them over to Stan’s profit and loss margin.   

Bruce Maguire (CEO, Freeman PR): Elmo hadn’t really been translated into toys yet.

Yates: Elmo was starting to come to the forefront on Sesame Street. This was around 1995. He was becoming more and more popular with parents and children.

Kearns: We didn’t do a lot of Elmo products at first, but in the early 1990s, we started getting calls from parents. “My kid loves Elmo, my kid wants to go to sleep with Elmo.”

Dubren: At the time, Sesame Street was sort of a sleepy license for toys. They were perceived as educational, and that’s a death knell for toys.

Johnson-Williams: The character had to be on long enough for people to go looking for him.

Murtha: The whole character changed with Elmo’s skin. It gave it a gentle, loving ambiance.

Yates: His character lent itself to the laughing and giggling element. It was perfect.

II: GOOD VIBRATIONS

Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY

Work began on turning Tickle Me Taz into Tickle Me Elmo in early 1995, with the expectation that it would be ready for a February 1996 debut at New York’s Toy Fair. Dubren and Hyman had licensed their concept and would be paid a royalty, although the end result would be markedly different from Tickles the Chimp.  

Dubren: I don’t have a proprietary feeling about it. A lot got changed, developed, and improved.

Johnson-Williams: I have a lab near a main street and there are windows. At one point, there were Elmo skins all over without any of the electronics. It looked like a toy factory exploded. People would walk by and go, “What happened?”

Murtha: The next pieces they put in were friggin’ awesome.

Yates: We brought in our ad agency to take a look at the concept. Bob Moehl came to the meeting. He looked at the toy and there was just dead silence.

Maguire: It was a line review. I remember being there. They said, “This is going to be our lead item.”

Bob Moehl (Advertising): I, as the ad man, said it was a waste of money to advertise a sound toy. Television is about motion. The thing ought to move

Yates: He said, “It’s adorable, it’s great, but television is a visual medium.” And off he went.

Maguire: Bob said, “It’s great, but can you make it shake, like a Santa Claus belly?” That one little change had such a payoff.

Dubren: I think what happened was, someone had remembered seeing a shaking monkey that had been on the market.

Neil Friedman (former President, Tyco Preschool): The line review was just about the time I had come on board the company. That mechanism became the third component.

Jerry Cleary (former Vice President, Sales, Tyco Preschool): With the laughing and shaking together, I thought we had something compelling.

The secret to Elmo's success: a vibrating sound box.

Johnson-Williams: They showed me this shaking, shrieking monkey, showed me Elmo, and asked me to build one with all of those elements.

Yates: I remember at the time people had those old-style flip phones on the table. They were vibrating and shaking as they were ringing. And a light bulb went off.

Dubren: My wife actually saw Tickles the Chimp and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it shook?” I said, “Yeah, but no one is going to put that kind of money into it.”

As with most licensors, Children’s Television Workshop—which later changed its name to Sesame Workshop—was fiercely protective of its intellectual property.   

Yates: There were serious concerns from Sesame. They weren’t sure if they wanted Elmo to shake in case parents thought he was having a seizure. It was a conversation over the course of several meetings, winning them over.

Kearns: I don’t recall that. She may have spoken to someone else about it. What I recall is that we wanted to make sure the shaking was confined to the giggle, so he was only shaking when he was giggling, and then it stopped. There’s no reason for the body to move without that.

Johnson-Williams: It was a conversation with Janice on how to get the motor to run a little, then a little more, then run full blast.

Dubren: They tested it with moms, and no one seemed to care it was going to be $30 instead of $20 because of the motor.

Yates: We did some informal research, and no parent thought Elmo was having a seizure. 

Johnson-Williams: Every licensor does this. Every one. I remember one company had to stop production on a Minnie Mouse because her bow had nine polka dots. Disney said, “No, she has 11. Start over.”

Dubren: It was a big payoff, or surprise ending. The vibration is what makes people start laughing along with it.

Johnson-Williams: At one point, we had him saying, “Stop, stop tickling me.” And there was something sinister about that. Elmo is a child and you can’t have a child saying, “Stop, stop.”

Hogan: Almost all of us have memories of being tickled or tickling. It’s fun, but it’s also a little uncomfortable. There’s a tension there that’s part of the appeal. Elmo recalled that.

Johnson-Williams: I flew the prototype back to show them. They’re professional toy people. It’s not like they clapped.

grac_rahi via eBay

While a lot had to go right in order for Tickle Me Elmo to succeed, one key component would be the notion that parents and their children would be able to see Elmo in action before spending $29.95.

Yates: Martin Scheman originated the concept of “Try Me” at retail, which means presenting a product to a consumer in packaging with batteries included so you can press it and get a demonstration. That was a critical piece of Tickle Me Elmo.

Murtha: I wouldn’t say originated, but there was a mastery of it. We had to do a lot of Try Me because Tyco Preschool wasn’t advertising on television.

Friedman: I forced the factory to put batteries in because I wanted it to be a Try Me.

Maguire: You’d be walking down the aisle, squeeze his hand, and he’d laugh right on the shelf.

Johnson-Williams: That was a relatively new idea. One of my theories when I wrote the program was, most people have an attention span of less than eight seconds. The Tickle Me Elmo would have to get to the punch line in less time than that. Any longer and people walk away.

Dubren: Try Me showed off everything about the toy. It laughs, it escalates, it starts to shake, and you get it right away.

Yates: You could experience it at the retail level but it would not wear out the batteries. Engineering had flagged us about using battery life for a toy with sound and a motor. They were concerned about dead batteries at retail if the toy played in its full mode.

Johnson-Williams: Once you took it home and pulled the cord out, it would play in the full mode.

While Johnson-Williams worked on getting Elmo to laugh and shake in the right ratio, he would sometimes be interrupted by calls or visits to his office in Half Moon Bay, California from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was suspected of being the Unabomber.

Yates: I was on a plane to San Francisco with a bucket of parts on my way to meet with Mark. I was interrogated at the airport because I had all these wires, batteries, and tapes. They asked me who I was going to see. That’s how they got Mark’s name.

Johnson-Williams: The FBI basically had 10,000 people on a list, and one of the ways to get on was to order a bunch of electronic parts. They were trying to find this guy and casting as wide a net as possible.

Dubren: The media picked up on that and turned it into him being the creator of Tickle Me Elmo. It got to be a little uncomfortable.

Johnson-Williams: There were some funny coincidences. He was seen in Utah, supposedly, at the same time I was shooting a toy commercial in Utah. One day he said he was going to blow up San Francisco and then I flew into San Francisco. Every few weeks, they’d make a call and ask a question.

After an 18-year search, the FBI caught Unabomber Ted Kaczynski on April 3, 1996. While that was a relief for Johnson-Williams, the pressure was building for Tyco Preschool’s core team, which had never before been charged with delivering such a high-profile item.  

Murtha: That division of Tyco was considered to be kind of a stepchild. There was a critical meeting where four or five of us sat with Dick Grey, the CEO, at Gramercy Park. And he basically scolded and berated us.

Cleary: I think he was challenging us, which was his job. The discussion was about who was going to be promoting it.

Murtha: We showed him Elmo and thought we had something special and wanted to handle the advertising. He wouldn’t allow it. I thought we’d be fired.

Cleary: In so many words, he told us we didn’t know what we were doing. And then they finally reconsidered.

Murtha: This is around the time Neil Friedman came in [as president of Tyco Preschool]. He had a very keen marketing eye for what the consumer will respond to.

Cleary: Elmo was done by the time Neil came to the company, but he did a remarkable job selling it.

Friedman: It was not done. The packaging still needed to be designed and there was more work to do.

Maguire: She wasn’t his wife at the time, but Amanda Friedman designed the original Tickle Me. A lot of people became lifetime friends from working on it.

Tickle Me Elmo’s push began during the February 1996 Toy Fair in New York, the annual event for companies and buyers to get an idea of what the coming year will bring. 

Yates: I remember waddling into Toy Fair very pregnant at the time. I was presenting it to buyers and having meetings. The reaction was positive, but it wasn’t, “Oh, my God, we have a phenomenon.” It was, "Okay, it’s cute, great."

Johnson-Williams: They stuck a bunch of them on a wall.

Maguire: The primary line at Toy Fair was Tyco’s line of RC Cars. So the media would go through this tour and wind up at Tyco Preschool, where Elmo was. It was probably one of the first animated plush licenses next to Big Bird. They may have thought, “Oh, okay, they’re just doing what they did before.”

Johnson-Williams: My wife at the time had a friend who didn’t like anything I did. She was kind of a curmudgeon. When she touched Tickle Me Elmo, she smiled, and I knew it was going to be a big deal.

Maguire: Al Roker from the Today show was there, and he loved it. This was pre-[gastric] surgery, so he was a little chunky then. He laughed and his belly laughed and Elmo laughed.

Ellie Bagli (Senior Vice President, Freeman PR): Al was being Al and Elmo was being Elmo. It was a great visual.

Maguire: It brought Elmo to life in a way that had never been done before.

Yates: Neil was at a baseball game when he ran into a buyer from Toys "R" Us. And the guy said, “Oh, my God, Neil. We just got an initial point of sale report and this thing is flying off the shelves. You guys better ramp up.” It had been out three or four weeks.

Friedman: We were monitoring it from the moment it hit shelves. It wasn't because of running into anyone. We were getting calls from buyers right away. It was selling far better than any $30 plush would have sold in those days.

III: THE TICKLE MONSTER

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Thanks to Elmo’s popularity and the novel Try Me packaging, Tickle Me Elmo was off to a solid start when it hit store shelves in July 1996. But without the viral marketing of today, a toy’s best shot at hitting the stratosphere was exposure to children—and their parents—on television.

Yates: The Today show had aired a segment about the new hot toys. Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric were sitting there playing with the doll and getting a kick out of it. It was great exposure.

Maguire: Bryant was not considered a warm guy, so for us, it was great. He was not the type you’d expect to have Elmo on his lap. It seemed to humanize him.

Bagli: He held it the entire time. I don’t think it’s ever been done before or since.

Yates: Freeman PR was responsible for getting Rosie [O'Donnell].

Maguire: Ellie was taping her show almost from the start. Rosie would create a kind of game show atmosphere and give her audience products.

Murtha: It was perfect. This was September, and the kids were going back to school.

Dubren: It helped her show as well. She was just starting out.

Yates: You couldn’t just send Rosie items. It was all about whether she liked it or not. If she didn’t, it wasn’t going on her show.

Bagli: It was early October. We had sent her son one and then she talked on-air about how he had flushed it down the toilet. So I jumped on the phone with Tyco and said, “Get every Elmo we have. Get some red tissue paper.” I got a call from her show an hour later saying, “This is great. Can we have enough for the whole audience?”

Murtha: She eventually brought Neil Friedman out and he did a great job pitching. Elmo did a great job pitching.  

The packaging, the character, and O’Donnell’s endorsement put Tickle Me Elmo on the map in a very prominent way. As the holiday season began, the media took note of shoppers waiting anxiously outside toy stores in groups resembling "Depression-era bread lines.” Unlike most dolls and many plush items, Elmo was a “gender-free” gift that boys and girls were demanding in equal quantity.

Hogan: If it were a plastic doll, chances are most boys wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with it.

Murtha: Going into September, we were forecasting 100,000 pieces. Within a week of Rosie, we were forecasting a million.

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Bagli: It was virtually sold out from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas.

Maguire: All of a sudden, demand got really strong, and Tyco was in a position of, “How many more can we make before the end of the year?”

Murtha: You line up factories for 100,000. A week later, it’s a million. There’s just no way to get them into the marketplace.

Cleary: I was on the phone with Hong Kong three nights a week. The tools could burn out on high manufacturing runs, so we were figuring out how to build new tools.

Friedman: The plush was not the limiting factor. The problem is producing the mechanism. We were building new tools every week.

Yates: We ended up not running the full TV campaign, pulling some of the back-half media because we didn’t feel it was right to continue to advertise the item to gain awareness and sales when we could barely support all of the pent-up demand.

Maguire: That’s the irony of the motor. It was made for television and they never needed television.

Following Black Friday, Tickle Me Elmo turned into the most coveted holiday item on wish lists. The scarcity led to a tsunami of media about toy aisle mayhem. John Gotti Jr., son of late mafia boss John Gotti, was seen entering a Toys "R" Us after hours and walking away with several Elmos; Cartier Jewelers offered Elmo free with the purchase of a $1 million necklace. One Toys "R" Us district manager pushed a pallet of Elmos out and watched in horror as parents tore into them without regard for anyone’s safety. He started to cry.  

Yates: People would call the Tyco offices threatening to do something if we didn’t release more Elmos. Bomb scares. “I’m going to blow the place up.” It was overwhelming.

Dubren: There were people acting primitive, but that happens every Christmas. A kid laughing with his parents doesn’t get to be a news story.

Kearns: Did it make us cringe? A little. It was nothing we promoted, but there was nothing we could do about it. It was just demand.

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Yates: The media kept saying that we planned it, and it was just great marketing. It wasn’t.

Dubren: Nothing of the kind ever happens. They’re in business to sell stuff. The problem is, they don’t want to be stuck with inventory.

Maguire: The media was doing negative stories, saying it was artificial. Sometimes they want to build up a thing to knock it down. Everyone thought there was a bunch in storage somewhere. Tyco was a public company. You couldn’t mess around like that.

Friedman: Plan a shortage? No one plans a shortage. You can't just say, okay, we want a million. You need to buy chips and other materials, and that can take 60 days.

Cleary: You have a responsibility to the shareholder. That’s the last thing we’d do.

Moehl: [We just] underestimated how the thing would take off. Nothing succeeds in the toy business like shortages.

Yates: Neil was so influential in getting us more goods, as much as we could possibly produce. We went from 400,000 to shipping a million units.

Dubren: Stan thought Neil was crazy to do that, that it was way over the line.

Maguire: He wanted to put the pedal to the metal, where Tyco as a whole wanted to be more cautious. Big toys have put companies under. Teddy Ruxpin killed Coleco. You can’t flood the market. Neil convinced them.

Friedman: It was completely my decision. 

Dubren: They were shipping them by boat, but then they started to fly them in.

Friedman: We air-freighted them in on a regular basis, over and above the goods arriving on water.

As Christmas neared, it was clear not everyone who wanted a Tickle Me Elmo was going to get one. A toy phenomenon had become a cultural symbol of how determined shoppers were to land the coveted monster. To prevent thefts or fights, Toys "R" Us would call raincheck holders and leave vague messages that their “item” was in. In the store, they would be handed a pre-wrapped package so they could slip out of the store without being obstructed.

Dubren: For me, it hit home when I was on a plane to Chicago in early December and The New York Times had the front page of their business section talking about Tickle Me Elmo. It was a pinch-me moment.

Maguire: Harvey Weinstein at Miramax contacted us and sent us a bunch of Oscar-nominated movies on VHS. The Letterman people called and traded us sweatshirts. Brett Favre called Neil.

Cleary: Al Gore called. I told my secretary to tell him I’m Republican.

Murtha: Jill Barad, the [former] CEO of Mattel, walked past my office one day and saw him. “Oh, my God, you have an Elmo!” I gave her mine.

Maguire: Some people at Nintendo traded us N64s, which were the other hot toy, for Elmos.

Dubren: The internet was pretty fresh back then. Most people had dial-up. But there were a few on eBay already.

Yates: I was riding the train home from New York one night and Stan asked me to go do a radio interview. I get on the phone and did the interview. I look up, and everyone on the train is looking at me. “You work for that place? Can you get me an Elmo?” I really felt like my life was in danger.

Maguire: You had to say no sometimes to needy people who would benefit, like charities. You became the gatekeeper for this toy.

Cleary: We tried to distribute it evenly. But we were able to use it and say to retailers who were slow to pay invoices, “Look, we gotta clean this up or we can’t allocate any product to you.” And everyone paid their bills.

Murtha: We took Tyco Preschool from being the losers in New York to, “Oh, those are our guys.”

Maguire: When Tickle Me Elmo sold out, you couldn’t come home empty-handed, so you bought some kind of Elmo toy.

Kearns: It was a halo effect across the entire Sesame line. There was always another Elmo on the shelf to buy. We had T-shirts, books.

Maguire: They could have sold 10 times as many if they had them.

Murtha: Mattel was in the process of buying Tyco and merging Tyco Preschool and Fisher-Price together when Elmo was coming out. I would say the entire purchase price of Tyco [$737 million] was recovered over the next two to three years by Elmo.

IV: ELMO GETS EXTREME

Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY

By the end of 1996, Tickle Me Elmo had taken his place among the most popular toys of the 20th century. Over 1.2 million of the dolls had reportedly been sold, making Tyco a name that could stand among the Hasbro and Mattel brands as a leading supplier of hot holiday items. But unlike past fads, Elmo wasn’t going to be forgotten quickly.  

Dubren: I think it took until the following June for Toys "R" Us to honor all of their rainchecks for 1996.

Friedman: I'm not going to tell you the number. We sold well over a million in 1996. And we sold many, many more Elmos in 1997. In fact, we sold more Elmos in the first quarter than we did for the entire year before.

Cleary: We sold one million Elmos in 1996 and four million Elmos in 1997.

Kearns: It may have been the first time a toy did better in year two than year one.

Yates: It was an exciting time, but Stan gave me a reality check. He wanted to know what we were going to do the next year.

Maguire: It became a franchise out of nowhere.

Yates: We did Sing and Snore Ernie, which did almost as well as Tickle Me Elmo.

Friedman: The biggest thing I found following the craze was walking into a toy department and seeing people pick up a plush toy and squeezing it to see if it would do anything. We needed to keep bringing soft toys to life, and that's what we spent a lot of time doing.

Kearns: Ernie was very popular in Europe. Elmo actually wasn’t on Sesame Street in Europe at the time.

Yates: We also did a line extension with Baby Tickle Mes—Cookie Monster, Ernie, Zoe.

Kearns: There was no Tickle Me Oscar. The toys always had to be true to the character.

Cleary: We sold 4 million Baby Tickle Mes. There was just so much demand we couldn’t fill.

Gina Sirard (former Vice President of Marketing, Fisher-Price): One of my main strategies when I got to Fisher-Price was to have people asking, “What is Elmo going to do next?”

Bagli: You’ve got to give them credit. Every year, they did a new Elmo. Chicken Dance Elmo won a Toy of the Year award.

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Yates: There was a Toss and Tickle Me Elmo.

Dubren: You threw him up in the air, he’d laugh, you’d catch him, and a motion sensor switch would get him to stop laughing.

Cleary: Elmo as Elvis.

Yates: Rock and Roll Elmo was also Greg Hyman. I was there until 2008 and there weren’t any real dogs.

Girard: Pogo Elmo got a lukewarm reception. It was the only one that wasn’t really a huge success.

Dubren: To some degree, I’ve been told it saved Children’s Television Workshop at the time. The success spread to the entire license.

Maguire: As funding for public television deteriorated from the government, the private sector was coming into place through royalties. Now you were seeing the characters on applesauce and snacks.

Kearns: What I would say is that any non-profit is constantly challenged with ways to drive income. Any success story is a big plus. [Workshop founder] Joan Ganz Cooney gave a speech where she said Tickle Me was such a big success it allowed them to expand internationally.

Under Mattel’s Fisher-Price banner, Elmo made annual appearances right on through 2006. For his 10th anniversary, the company launched TMX Elmo, or Tickle Me Elmo Extreme, a doll that had to be seen to be believed. 

Dubren: TMX was fabulous. I wish I could say I developed the mechanism, but I didn’t.

Bruce Lund: (Owner, Lund and Company): We had actually shown them the mechanism for Elmo’s fifth anniversary. Later, one of us came to the other and wanted to take the concept further into extreme laughter.

Sirard:  It didn’t work out for the fifth anniversary. When he bought it back, we added the slapping on the ground and the rolling over.

Lund: It was something we used in a toy called Baby Go Boom—not the same, but an earlier version. Baby Go Boom could basically fall from a standing to seated position, then lay down, then sit back up. And then we realized we could get her to stand back up, and that became Somersault Sara.

Gabriela Arenas (Vice President of Licensing, North America, Sesame Workshop): TMX was really an attempt to recreate how a 3-year-old would laugh when being tickled—rolling on the floor, giggling, having fun. The mechanism was able to translate that.

Kearns: I remember Fisher-Price did a mock-up to show us and we just fell over laughing. It was a no-brainer.

Lund: Getting the Elmo skin on was an issue. The mechanism can work fine on its own, but the fur adds friction.

Maguire: We were able to recreate the hysteria, which was pretty huge.

Kearns: Gina Sirard was the genius behind the marketing of keeping the whole thing under wraps. Retailers would buy it without having seen it.

Sirard: We did ads with Elmo in silhouette.

Maguire: I had been working with Tyco for 25 years and it was the first time they made me sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Lund: There is satisfaction in seeing people mystified. It was a simple mechanism, but people thought it was a mechanical marvel.

Sirard: The whole goal was to make Elmo seem as real and alive as possible.

Lund: One time we had temporarily lost a sample and Fisher-Price was a little upset. We did find it. They wanted everything kept top secret.

Maguire: We stole a little from Steve Jobs and didn’t let anyone see the product until it was at retail.

Bagli: There were maybe 20 people in the world who saw it before then. We kept the product a secret until the day we revealed it on Good Morning America.

Lund: It was really marketing genius.

Bagli: The package looked like a metal briefcase with a warning, “May Contain Uncontrollable Laughter.”

Lund: We had shipped samples in a diamond-plate pattern metal with foam inside, sort of an attaché case that fit the model properly, because they were so valuable. That was ultimately the inspiration for the packaging.

Kearns: They made a package where you just saw the eyes through a tiny little flap.

Lund: It was also good because there was no on-shelf demo, and so the batteries wouldn’t wear out.

Maguire: Diane Sawyer had it in a little vault.

Bagli: Most holiday sales started on Black Friday, but this pushed it ahead two months. We called it the Elmo Effect.

Fisher-Price

Maguire: People were lined up outside of Toys "R" Us and put 10 in a cart to sell on eBay.

Bagli: It was like getting election results. You get the East Coast, and then West coast numbers pop up.

Arenas: It created that must-have expectation with consumers.

Maguire: The toy industry was in the doldrums that year. All of a sudden people got excited to go to big box stores in September and it turned out to be a good year. Everyone benefited from TMX Elmo.

Hogan: I suspect the appeal was more for adults who had grown up with Tickle Me Elmo and now had kids of their own. It was very exaggerated and very funny.

Lund: According to Mattel, it sold more toys on its first day than any other toy in history to that point. That doesn’t include video games.

Sirard: I remember getting calls every hour from Walmart. It was incredible. I think the number was 250,000 sold that day. I don’t know if there’s been a product since that’s done that.

After countless variations—including backpacks, foreign releases, and more—Elmo and the rest of the Sesame Street license returned to Hasbro in 2011. Their Love2Learn Elmo offers children guidance on potty-training; a slightly smaller version of the original is also in stores. Sesame Street, which is now premiering new episodes on HBO, still considers Elmo its biggest licensing success among preschoolers.

Dubren: Ironically, there had been a tickle-me baby on the market the same year Tickle Me Elmo came out. But there was no TV promotion and no character.

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Bagli: People still use Tickle Me Elmo as the standard. “What’s the next Tickle Me Elmo?”

Lund: When I did TMX, I had people come to me and go, “Oh, man, why didn’t you bring it to us?” What would you do with it? Make a teddy bear? Who cares? When it’s Elmo, that’s when it matters to people.

Dubren: There had been big toys, but this transcended the typical toy phenomenon. It was more human than something like Furby or Tamagochi. It became something adults were aware of.

Kearns: It became what the industry came to call “feature plush.” There had been talking toys, but this was wiggling, giggling, and vibrating.

Murtha: I’ve worked on a lot of these. Strawberry Shortcake, Trivial Pursuit, Cabbage Patch—it’s what you work for. When it comes together, all you can say is wow.

Dubren: Tickle Me Taz probably would have vanished overnight.

Kearns: It was a perfect storm, the right character with the right mechanism. No one wants to hug Taz.

Dubren: It’s simple. It gave people joy. It may have only lasted a couple of moments, but that’s one of the precious things about life.

Kearns: At the time, my sister-in-law was going through some very serious radiation and chemotherapy for cancer. I would visit her and talk about what we were working on. I once brought a Tickle Me to show her and she got the biggest smile on her face. Even with all these tubes and chemicals, she smiled. All the doctors and nurses played with it. It showed me Elmo’s appeal went beyond preschoolers.

She passed away. I still have her doll. Everyone loves Elmo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I: “ANYONE LOSE THEIR MONKEY AT IKEA?”


Courtesy of Stephanie Yim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lin: It was a well-dressed monkey.

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

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


KnowYourMeme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiorillo: Apparently the owner had called the front desk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II: DARWIN ON TRIAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hansen: I understood the call did not go well.

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

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

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

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

Hansen: IKEA donated $10,000 to us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Courtesy of Daina Liepa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: AN ONGOING CONCERN


Courtesy of Daina Liepa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darwin depicted in butter
Courtesy of David Salazar

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

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

Hansen: She actually wound up getting two other monkeys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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