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On Smurf Turf: Remembering the Snorks

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In 1958, Belgian artist Pierre Culliford, who went by the name Peyo, illustrated a comic in the magazine Spirou that featured a diminutive supporting character with blue skin that assisted the hero Johan in his quest for a magic flute. Johan was soon overshadowed, with readers demanding more of the curious sidekick and his friends. By 1959, Culliford had a strip focused exclusively on Les Schtroumpfs, or The Smurfs. A little over two decades later, his creation became an international sensation with Hanna-Barbera’s animated series. Debuting in 1981, it ran for nine seasons.

Like any children’s commodity, it wasn’t long before similar works began to spring up. In the case of The Smurfs, both Hanna-Barbera and producer Freddy Monnickendam decided that if anyone was going to emulate their success, it might as well be them. Accordingly, Snorks—essentially the story of underwater-dwelling Smurfs with breathing tubes—premiered on NBC on September 15, 1984.

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Snorks may be the best-remembered of The Smurfs knock-offs, but they were hardly the first. The fall 1981 season also brought Trollkins, a bizarre hybrid that existed somewhere between The Dukes of Hazzard and The Smurfs, about a society of tiny creatures imperiled by outside forces; an adaptation of the video game Pac-Man, airing in 1982, picked up on this narrative thread, with Pac-Land under duress. So did Monchhichis, about tree-dwelling monkeys threatened by the Glumpkins.

Each of these stories revolved around pint-sized creatures who wished to live in peace, while larger, belligerent persecutors attempted to exploit or destroy their existence—a framework used to great success with Smurf village and its problems with the human villain Gargamel.

By virtue of being more crassly imitative, Snorks was something different. Like The Smurfs, the characters enjoyed using their own noun to season their speech, “snorking around” their undersea kingdom or commenting on “totally snorky” incidents. While they came in different colors, their body type was generally the same: bulbous.

Brought to Hanna-Barbera by Smurfs production house SEPP International, producer Freddy Monnickendam, and his collaborator Nic Broca, the Snorks had an unusually elaborate backstory. According to their lore: In 1643, a ship was overtaken by pirates and began to capsize, though the captain managed to save himself from drowning by finding an air pocket. As he struggled to stay afloat, he took notice of a tiny sea kingdom in the water that appeared filled with humanoids, but with odd features—including a snorkel protruding from their heads. When he got back to dry land, he implored people to believe his story; the Snorks, in turn, told their descendants about the giant they had once encountered.

The Snorks series appears to be set in contemporary times. In the series, Snorkland occupants Allstar Seaworthy and Casey Kelp eat kelp burgers, use sand dollars for currency, ride seahorses for transport, and try to avoid the wrath of Governor Wetworth, a salty saltwater politician. Tooter Shellby, the Urkel of the ensemble, could only communicate via sound effects, which often sounded like he was operating a whoopie cushion.

Critics, who usually had nothing but contempt for the Saturday morning lineup of the 1980s, didn’t expend much venom on Snorks. Writing for the Tallahassee Democrat, Ellen Klein noted that the snorkel-spouting creations did an admirable job of educating preschoolers on the benefits of cooperation.

“The Snorks don’t drive fast cars or get involved in cosmic battles between good and evil,” Klein wrote. “The cartoons are non-violent and non-sexist, and simple enough for a toddler to understand.” The series itself was “not brilliant,” but “inoffensive.”

On the heels of such high praise, Snorks stuck around for a total of 65 episodes, airing on NBC and in syndication from 1984 until 1988.

Despite Monnickendam’s involvement with both the Snorks and The Smurfs, the obvious crossover event never materialized. The closest Hanna-Barbera ever came was a 1984 Saturday morning preview special titled Laugh Busters, which featured a number of their established and debuting animated series. While both groups of little people were featured, they didn’t share any scenes together. Viewers did, however, get a consolation prize: Mr. T met Alvin and the Chipmunks.

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When Topps Fought Terrorism with Trading Cards
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

On the morning of September 11, 2001, John Perillo looked out of his office window at 1 Whitehall Street in Manhattan and saw a plane flying at a dangerously low altitude. Almost instantly, his building began to shake. Seven blocks away, the plane had struck the World Trade Center.

It would be hours before Perillo and other New Yorkers were able to grasp the gravity of the situation. A terrorist attack on American soil stunned the world and created a widening panic and confusion before a kind of resolve set in. For Perillo, the vice president of operations at Topps Trading Card Company, and Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, it would become a time to memorialize the events of that day in the medium they understood best. Which is how Osama bin Laden came to have his own trading card.

Two kids sort through a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card set
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Although they were best known for sports cards, Garbage Pail Kids, and other entertainment properties, Topps had already recorded a significant history with real-world events. In 1950, they found success with a line of Korean War cards. More than a decade later, they memorialized the Civil War. A set reflecting on the life of John F. Kennedy following his assassination was released in 1964. In 1991, a line of cards depicting Operation: Desert Storm received endorsements from Colin Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Within a week of the attack on the World Trade Center, Topps executives decided to pursue another—and substantially more controversial—line based on current events. Titled Enduring Freedom, the line featured 70 cards of figures like President George W. Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Governor George Pataki, and bin Laden. There would be cards of military vehicles and weapons; on the back were biographies of political figures and descriptions of the hardware. The goal, Shorin told the press, was to give kids information about the rising conflict in a format with which they were already familiar.

"Kids need to get information on their own terms," he said. "This is their medium."

While the plan came together quickly, the company largely avoided depictions that might upset children or their parents. One card featured a smoke-filled view of the transformed Manhattan skyline, but no pictures of the destruction or rubble were considered. In a departure from conventional card sets, no "chase" cards—or rare inserts that prompt consumers to buy more packs—would be involved. There was some internal debate about including bin Laden, but the company ultimately decided that kids might want the opportunity to defile his image by ripping it up. It's the only black and white card to appear in the set.

"We wouldn't be surprised if they tear, stomp all over it, and dump it in the garbage," Shorin said.

A photo of a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card wrapper
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Enduring Freedom was released in October 2001, which marked a rapid turnaround time for the card industry. (Sets typically take months to come together.) Hobby shops and larger retail outlets like Walmart accepted shipments of the 7-card product, which sold for $2 per pack, but not everyone was comfortable monetizing the tragedy. Stores in Chicago refused to carry the line, citing concern over appearing insensitive. (An unrelated 2002 card set by Chestnut Publications eulogizing victims of the 9/11 attacks, which was created with their families' permission, drew related headlines and accompanying criticism.)

In interviews, Shorin argued that the cards and their explanation of America's military would be comforting to children: Topps had consulted with child psychologists to make sure the content was age-appropriate. Though they were reticent to publicize it, the company was also donating a portion of proceeds to relief efforts. They even shipped 1 million cards to troops stationed overseas.

Ultimately, the notion of potentially trivializing the War on Terror never caught on. Topps never released a planned second wave that would feature high-tech military hardware, a likely result of the cards selling only modestly. As one store owner pointed out, it wasn't that the cards were offensive—it's just that kids were too preoccupied with Pokemon to bother.

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When Michael Flatley Was 'Lord of the Dance'
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Jo Hale, Getty Images

In 1989, while speaking with the Chicago Tribune, a 30-year-old dancer named Michael Flatley outlined some significant plans he had for the future. Chief among them: franchising a plumbing business called Dynasewer, which he hoped would one day replace Roto-Rooter as the go-to company for desperate people with impenetrably clogged toilets.

Few people outside of the Chicago area have ever heard of Dynasewer, which tells you everything you need to know about Flatley’s grand plans. Instead of running a sewage empire, he embraced dancing, something he had loved and practiced since the age of 11. A little over six years later, he was selling millions of videos and made a fortune touring as the Irish-stepping star of Lord of the Dance.

 
 

The contrast between Flatley’s plumbing aspirations and his theatrical gifts isn’t as jarring as it might seem. Born in Chicago on July 16, 1958 to Irish immigrants, Flatley took cues from both his parents. His mother was an accomplished Irish step-dancer, which usually emphasizes a rigid torso and vertically-held arms along with rhythmic lower body choreography; his grandmother was a contest champion in their native Ireland. His father was a construction laborer and plumber who eventually owned his own contracting business. There was no reason Flatley couldn’t be inspired by both of their talents.

Dancing was an informal hobby for the young Flatley, and one he didn’t begin to take seriously until age 11—a significantly late start for step-dancers. To make up for lost time, Flatley practiced for hours every day in his family’s garage. The work paid off: At 17, he won the All-World Championships in Ireland, becoming the first American ever to do so.

While it was a commendable accomplishment, and one that surely thrilled the step-obsessed Flatleys, Irish stepping was not considered a viable option toward financial independence. For the next several years, Flatley assisted his father in construction work, digging ditches and contemplating a career in professional boxing, another physically demanding passion he had developed.

Then The Chieftains came calling. The Irish folk band was successful touring Ireland with an act that mixed traditional Celtic music with high-energy step routines, and Flatley acquitted himself well as a supporting player. He accompanied the group for four years, at the same time developing the Dynasewer brand as a financial cushion to fall back on, as he assumed his dancing career would be a short-lived endeavor. Even a Guinness World Record—which Flatley earned for tapping his feet 28 times in one second in 1989—was hard to monetize. (In 1998, he broke his own record when he reached an impressive 35 taps per second.)

Flatley’s fortunes changed in 1994, thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest. Looking to broadcast the distinctive art of Irish stepping, Flatley joined a new troupe and co-created Riverdance, a seven-minute number that broadened the appeal of his art by adding flashy costumes, a stage-filling number of backup performers, and a degree of sensuality.

Riverdance was a phenomenal ratings success, becoming the talk of that year’s Eurovision field in much the same way Michael Jackson had walked off with a televised Motown special in 1981 by debuting the Moonwalk. Almost immediately, Flatley and producers began assembling a full-length Riverdance stage show that was even more bombastic. Flatley, his exposed torso reminiscent of a flamenco dancer, led a wildly successful international tour and became one of the very few dancers recognizable to the general public—attention usually only afforded to actor-performers like Gregory Hines or Mikhail Baryshnikov.

For six months, Flatley was on top of the world. Then, the night before Riverdance was scheduled to open in London, he was fired.

 
 

According to Flatley, the acrimonious split from Riverdance was a result of the show’s unprecedented success. As the key creative force behind the scenes, the performer wanted to retain control of his choreography, a concession that the show’s producers were unwilling to make. In a show of force, they ousted their star from the stage.

Flatley’s legal response to that situation wouldn’t be resolved until 1999, when the two parties came to an undisclosed settlement. But it didn't take that long for the parties to realize that it was Flatley, and not the Riverdance banner, that audiences were flocking to see. Less than six months after his Riverdance dismissal, Flatley and new partner John Reid conceived Lord of the Dance, a brand-new stage attraction that featured a loose narrative—Flatley is a warrior up against sinister forces—and even more bombastic theatrics. (Reid and Flatley would part ways, rather acrimoniously, a couple of years later.) Flatley exuded so much energy that he claimed he lost 8 to 10 pounds during each performance (then ate “everything in sight to keep my weight up").

'Lord of the Dance' star Michael Flatley poses during a public appearance
Alaxandra Beier, Getty Images

Lord of the Dance was a staggering success, making $60 million in just two years of touring and selling 12 million copies on video. Flatley continued performing through 1998, before announcing his retirement from the show. He was nearing 40, and his back, feet, and joints had taken a significant amount of impact. He felt it was time to step away.

In 2005, the urge to perform returned, and Flatley debuted Celtic Tiger. He continued dancing through 2016, at which point, he told reporters, being the Lord of the Dance had led to diminished physical abilities. “My groin is gone,” he said. And his left foot sometimes fractures spontaneously.

Wealthy from touring, Flatley could sit idle and nurse his aching frame. Instead, he recently shot a film, Blackbird, which he directed and stars in alongside Eric Roberts. He also paints, albeit in an unconventional way: Flatley produces abstract works by dipping his feet into paint and moving them across the canvas.

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