Weird Science: The Mr. Wizard Story

NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, it was unusual for television programs to address the topic of sex. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy. Both were forbidden by network standards to even use the word pregnant. (For all viewers knew, Little Ricky was the product of an immaculate conception.) Teens on sitcoms rarely investigated anything other than chaste dating.

But for the juvenile audience of Watch Mr. Wizard, viewers got what may have been television’s earliest widespread discussion of sex. More specifically, the gestation period of hamsters.

Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible. A revolving cast of kid assistants, none of them particularly interested in science, stood at Herbert's side and marveled at how Newtonian laws influenced their day-to-day existence.

Hebert was so popular that NBC gave him free rein to blow things up or discuss hamster sex. And then, nearly 20 years after Watch Mr. Wizard's cancellation in 1965, Herbert was given the opportunity to captivate a brand-new generation of kids with Mr. Wizard's World, which made its debut on the fledging Nickelodeon cable channel in 1983. Forget Bill Nye: For millions of viewers, Herbert was the original "science guy."

 

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show.

But acting, while promising, wasn’t foremost on Herbert's mind. He enrolled in the Army Air Forces in 1942, eventually piloting a B-24 bomber in 56 bombing missions over Europe. He was also involved in the invasion of Italy. Herbert was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his contributions. (His dual role as war hero and kid show host may have been the origin of the infamous myth about Fred Rogers being a sniper.)

After arriving back home, Herbert's love of the arts led him to Chicago, where he felt he might be able to find a way back into the entertainment industry.

Eventually, he did.

Don Herbert appears in a publicity photo for 'Watch Mr. Wizard'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Herbert agreed to begin hosting a science-oriented show for WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate. Just a few years after the introduction of the atom bomb and with Americans troubled by reports of Soviet space technology like Sputnik, the time seemed right for a series that focused on the scientific laws governing the world. An ad executive thinking of sponsoring the program wanted to call him “the Wizard.” Herbert, feeling that was perhaps too pretentious, added a “Mr.” to the title.

Watch Mr. Wizard premiered in 1951. Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen. His first assistant was 11-year-old Willy, Herbert’s real-life next-door neighbor.

Herbert was adamant that science not be confined to sterile lab settings. He reasoned that by using everyday household items to conduct his experiments, kids would be able to replicate them at home.

“Milk bottles are your flasks,” Herbert said. “Glasses your beakers, and the whole house your laboratory.”

There was no barrier between a child and their curiosity. Herbert would present situations—a rising cake, blowing wind—and then explain the “trick.” He considered entertaining his audience to be his primary job, not educating them, but was thrilled if he could succeed at doing both.

“I do a kind of educational television but the difference between what I do and educational television is like night and day,” Herbert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961. “The primary purchase of educational television is to teach and the primary purpose of Mr. Wizard is to entertain, to stimulate, to intrigue.”

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers [PDF]. While the audience was not as sizable as a primetime hit, it was a substantial number for an educational program. (Though it was ostensibly for kids, half of Watch Mr. Wizard's viewers were adults.) His audience was also devoted, with 5000 fan clubs springing up across the country that eventually claimed 100,000 members. Herbert’s notoriety helped him sell 200,000 copies of various science books.

In 1965, NBC announced it would be canceling Watch Mr. Wizard. The show had run its course, the network claimed, and audiences were increasingly looking at television as an empty-calorie prospect—not an educational tool. Even so, a 14-year run was something only a handful of shows had ever achieved. But Herbert wasn’t done.

 

Though NBC briefly revived Watch Mr. Wizard in 1971, Herbert felt his skills were best-suited to areas outside of weekly half-hour television. He produced 18 films that were meant to be screened in classrooms; the National Science Foundation helped fund a series of 80-second segments titled How About for local newscasts across the country. Though most of the footage didn’t use the “Mr. Wizard” name, Herbert was often introduced with that moniker regardless.

The news spots led to renewed interest in Mr. Wizard. After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere. More than 30 years after his television debut, Herbert was back, once again dispensing with the confines of laboratory settings.

For Herbert's Nickelodeon series, the pace was much quicker, with eight to 10 segments per episode. The kid assistants, he later said, were savvier about molecules and computers than their 1950s counterparts. But most everything else remained the same.

In both incarnations of the show, Herbert refused to cater to gender stereotypes. Girls were by his side as frequently as boys, and Herbert remarked they were probably better equipped to get into the sciences. He had a cutoff age of 13 for the boys. After that, he said, they “became know-it-alls.”

Mr. Wizard’s World ran through 1990, at which point Herbert largely disappeared from public view. Though he had never expressly set out to teach science and even believed television was a poor fit for educational purposes, his relaxed approach to the subject proved to be a huge inspiration nonetheless.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

While discussing the Heenes' misguided flight, one Cleveland outlet recalled that Falcon wasn't the first "Balloon Boy." In 1931, 4-year-old Bill Crawford's father strapped him to a seat attached to a helium-filled balloon and allowed the child to float up to 50 feet in the air, much to the amazement of onlookers. For willfully endangering his son, the elder Crawford was cheered by crowds desperate for any sort of amusement during the Great Depression.

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