The (Earlier) PBS Years
Welcome back guest writer Rosie for her second Nostalgia Week article, on PBS shows from the 70s and 80s!
I was reading Amelia’s “PBS Round Up” posted earlier this week and realized how much PBS has changed over the years. I’m 11 years (less four days) older than Amelia and although I raised two boys in my first marriage, there’s just enough of an age gap among us all that I only recognized some of the shows she mentioned. I thought it would be fun to remind some of our (ahem) older readers of the shows we loved as kids.
When my sisters and I were quite young, we didn’t have a television. By the time we got one, I was about 9 years old, and our TV watching time was restricted to a maximum of 30 minutes per day (and we couldn’t roll-over minutes to the next day if there was an hour long show we wanted to watch—that was a bummer). As a result, my sisters and I gravitated toward PBS because no commercials means we got our full thirty minutes! Of course we already knew the joys of PBS because we were unmitigated TV junkies whenever we went to visit our friends.
One of my earliest TV memories was watching a show out of Los Angeles called “Dusty’s Treehouse.”
Although it won 8 Emmy Awards and was shown on Nickelodeon in the 1980s, to this day I’ve never met anyone outside of California who has heard of the show. The intended audience was the same age range as “Mister Rogers” or “Captain Kangaroo” and I believe the point of the show was to teach kids life lessons, but all I remember were the field trips we took in Dusty’s balloon to visit factories. I was utterly fascinated watching how lollipops were made—perhaps this was a precursor to my fascination with the current “How It’s Made” show on Discovery! In researching this show, I’ve discovered that I don’t really remember it as well as I thought—I must have been quite young—but one thing that seems to have stuck with me on a subconscious level was the theme song. Every time I hear Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Feeling Groovy”, I get the feeling I’ve heard it before. Now that I’ve listened to Dusty’s Treehouse theme music again, I know why. What a lovely little goose-bumpy feeling.
By the time we got our own television and I could watch it for a whole thirty minutes in my own home, I fell in love with “The Electric Company.” It ran on PBS from 1971 to 1977 and stuck around in re-runs until 1985. It was for a slightly older audience than “Sesame Street,” was produced by the Children’s Television Workshop (the founders of “Sesame Street”) at Second Stage (the original home of “Sesame Street”) and had very much the same look and feel as “Sesame Street.” While the connections were obvious in terms of tone, style, and content, one thing “The Electric Company” had which “Sesame Street” didn’t was The Easy Reader. Man, that cat was so hip! Who knew he’d grow up to be Morgan Freeman?! Insane!
Come to think of it, “Sesame Street” didn’t have Fargo North, Decoder on their team either. But The Electric Company did!
In retrospect, it’s ridiculous, but to a kid it was pure comedy genius. I think the thing I loved best about “The Electric Company,” other than its engaging humor, is that the writers treated kids like actual people with opinions and intelligence. It’s entirely possible that’s also where I first fell in love with Rita Moreno. Just listen to that shout!
“ZOOM” showed up a year after “The Electric Company” first aired. Forty years later, I can still sing the theme song and recite their mailing address, though I never did learn how to do that butterfly thing with my arms that Bernadette did in the season 2 opening credits… Anyway, the original show ran from 1972 to 1978 (it revived from 1999-2005) with the intention of inspiring kids to be inquisitive. “ZOOM” used sketches, activities, poems, etc., to teach kids about prejudices, hospitals, the world’s longest word, and pretty much anything else you can think of. The content was mostly unscripted and was primarily set by viewer suggestions. Each episode included a ZOOMguest, where a kid was able to show off his or her special talents, such as ice skating, tap-dancing, or boat-building. In a lot of ways, the talent vignettes reminded me of “Dusty’s Treehouse” and I think that’s one of the reasons it quickly became my favorite show.
When I was watching these shows, cable didn’t exist. Not in any real sense anyway. People know its capabilities, but the notion of digging up streets all over the nation just for more TV was laughable. We had the two or three channels that came in over our antenna (or sometimes four if it was a really clear day) and we were at the mercy of the newscasters in case of any “breaking news” (which for us meant Vietnam, Watergate, or the energy crisis/gas shortages). The options my stepkids had 20 years ago and those that my own kid had 12-15 years ago are fantastic. The sheer volume is staggering, and yet, the consistent theme through our lives seems to have been PBS. So thanks, PBS, for all you’ve done for me and my kids and my friends and probably their kids, too. You’re pretty awesome, you know?