Showing posts with label Puppets. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Puppets. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Indoor Play Places

For those of us who did not grow up in consistently temperate climates, our parents faced a serious conundrum: how to drain us of our boundless energy when the outdoor playgrounds were buried under six feet of snow or consumed by a mighty hurricane? Without the benefit of outside space with major running-around space capacity, it was difficult to sufficiently tire a kid out in time for naptime. What's an exhausted and weather-beaten parent to do?

Luckily, enterprising child-minded 90s entrepreneurs had the answer: indoor play places. In these colorful, kid-friendly enclosed playgrounds, masses of children had the opportunity to run wild to their hearts' collective content. Parents, by lucky virtue of their inability to fit in those constrictive plastic crawl tubes, were mercilessly spared and allowed to sit back and relax from the observation area. Overall, a win-win situation.

All it took was a quick removal of shoes to be stored in the play place cubbies and we were generally good to go. Crawling spaces, climbing ropes, ball pits, and slides awaited us at every visit, turning these indoor play spaces into popular venues for birthday parties and playdates. While their appeal waned in the late 90s and many chains merged and eventually filed for bankruptcy, I'd like to remember them as they were: chaotic, germ-ridden, and filled with screaming children. At least we have our memories.

Discovery Zone

For a brief period in the early-to-mid 90s, DZ play places were a major force, opening centers in cities across the US. These self-proclaimed "indoor fitness centers" for children boasted an array of climbing, swinging, and sliding apparatuses. Perhaps DZ got a bit greedy, as their haste in opening venue after venue left them in a relatively dire financial situation. In 1996, the company filed for bankruptcy, inspiring the more dominant Chuck E. Cheese to quickly gobble up DZ franchises. By the end of the decade, Discovery Zones were but a brief memory to most 90s children.

Despite their short-lived popularity, many of us still remember the colorful commercials and catchy jingles that impelled us to beg our parents for what we considered to be our right to Discovery Zone time. Though the company failed to live up to their self-generated hype over time, for a time their slogan was right on: "Where kids want to be." Or, perhaps more appropriately, "Where fed-up and exhausted parents want to bring them."

Chuck E. Cheese

Among the few free-standing play place chains to cross over to the new millennium, Chuck E. Cheese's aptly cheesy concept has served them well over the years. Despite the undeniably frightening full-size animatronic mouse music show accompanying their signature sit-down pizza meal, Chuck E. Cheese has enjoyed relative success in the children's entertainment industry for over 30 years. Aside from the standard climbing equipment and ball pits, the chain also featured a sizable arcade stocked with standard fare. You've got to commend their multi-faceted approach at entertaining young consumers, but those giant singing mice are essentially unforgivable. They will haunt your dreams.

McDonalds PlayPlace

Some of today's savvier and consumer-minded children may be appalled to know some of us actually held birthday parties at (gasp!) McDonalds, but back in the late 80s and early 90s the novelty of these indoor PlayPlaces made them an attractive venue for children's celebrations. The relative cheapness of McDonalds' PlayPlaces in comparison to stand-alone chains like Chuck E. Cheese lured in budget-conscious parents. We may not have known what was in the Chicken McNuggets (suspiciously not containing all-white meat chicken breasts until a few years ago, leading me to suspect they once potentially contained shoes and tire remnants) but we knew one thing: PlayPlaces are free, Chuck E. Cheese costs money. Done deal.

Leaps and Bounds

McDonalds Corp knew they couldn't give it all away for free though--especially not when they saw their PlayPlace competitors raking in the big bucks from their pay-for-play centers. In 1991, McDonalds opened the pilot "Leaps & Bounds" center in an 11,000 square foot strip mall space Naperville, IL. The experiment was short-lived--the chain merged with the now-defunct Discovery Zone a few years later--but it was fun while it lasted.

Circus Pizza/Showbiz Pizza

These chains were somehow linked to the Chuck E. Cheese empire, though my research skills are a bit too hazy (read:lazy) to tell you exactly how. They featured the same basic Chuck E. Cheese prototype: arcade, ball bit, climbing zone, pizza, freaky animatronic performers. In case your memory needs some dusting off, here's a brief refresher course in the terrifying singing puppets: they were called the Rock-afire Explosion and you can see them in all of their horrific glory in the video above. Watch at your own risk: those things are creepy.

These play places varied significantly by region, so I imagine many of you grew up with different chains. Feel free to wax poetic in the comments section about your favorite mangy ball pit or sandbox station. These centers were popping up everywhere in the 90s, sometimes in the least expected places. Here, I'll get things started: my personal favorite was my family's annual stop at Grand Casino Hinckley in Minnesota--it may not sound like much of a place for children, but they had the play place to trump all other small-town isolated casino play places. To this day when I enter a casino, my instinct is not to sit down at the blackjack table but rather to ask the concierge for directions to the on-site enclosed play place. Screw slot machines: I want crawling tubes.

Okay, now it's your turn. Knock yourself out. Not literally, though. We don't have a brain-cushioning ballpit or recycled-tire floor here to break your fall.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sesame Street Songs

Some children's entertainment is timeless. If well-executed, a children's show or song has the potential to amuse and engage children across the span of generations. Admittedly, the fact that children are incredibly easily won over may play a part in the perseverance of these songs; most kids tend not to be especially discerning in their taste, nor do they have even a remote sense of what is irritating. Not to mention the fact that many parents are too cheap to replace the old hand-me-down CDs and videocassettes over the years--I know that kept my family watching scratchy VHS tapes for years after their prescribed shelf life had expired. Why buy a new copy of "Follow That Bird" or "Sing the Alphabet" when the original is still in working condition? Exactly.

Whatever the reason for its perseverance, Sesame Street has captured the hearts of children from the 1960s on and its appeal to each subsequent generation has remained strong. The show's music that drew in children in the 70s often remained beloved by children of the 90s and beyond. Many of the versions seen below are from the 70s but have been since replayed or re-recorded for new young viewers. The songs are extremely catchy and make for easy sing-alongs--perfect for children, but as an adult, it occurs to me they would be perfect for my iPod as well. Excuse me for a moment--I'm off to iTunes to add "Put Down the Ducky" to my road trip playlist.

As is the case in everything you see here at Children of the 90s, memory is subjective. Songs that stand out as my favorites probably differ somewhat from your own, so share your own most memorable Sesame Street tunes in the comment section. In fact, you could even link to a video of the song so we can all reminisce along with you! Sound like I'm asking you to do my job? Possibly. I asked nicely, though, so I think we can let it slide.

By the by, if you're looking for your favorite Sesame Street famous musical guests, fear not; I haven't forgotten them as a blatant omission. I've already got a whole post devoted to them. Check it out. See, I'm not so lazy as I might have seemed when I asked for your contributions to this list. I accept your apology for the snap judgment. Don't worry about it.

Rubber Duckie

Now here's a song with some serious mass appeal: in 1970, Rubber Duckie actually charted at a peak number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not too shabby for a song intended to encourage children to bathe.

C is for Cookie

Ah, how we long for the days when Sesame Street's favorite cookie addict was still allowed to freely extol the virtues of sugar-laden snacks. While Snopes has since discounted the raging internet rumor alleging a switchover from Cookie Monster to Veggie Monster, our furry blue cookie consumer doesn't seem quite as ravenous for sweets as he once did. In my day, C was for Cookie and that was good enough for me.

Elmo's Song

Play this one at your own risk. I'm telling you, once it's in there, there's no removing it from your brain. It's entirely likely you will spend at least 24 hours repeating the "La la la la, la la la la, Elmo's soooong" chorus over and over again in your head. Elmo draws you in with his benign cuteness and then BAM! Total cerebral takeover. Well played, Elmo. Well played indeed.


Oh, poor, misguided Big Bird. He sees the alphabet written in chalk on the sidewalk and jumps to the conclusion that it's a long word with a meaning known only to the wise. Children without a comprehensive knowledge of the alphabet are probably equally perplexed by the meaning of "ab-cer-def-gee-jeckle-mernop-kur-stoove-wik-siz," but hopefully they can deduce that they possess an intellectual potential superior to Big Bird and figure it out eventually.

Bein' Green

This song gave Kermit a bad rap for melancholia--his lament of his green hue does seem like a bit of a downer. Apparently a major proportion of child viewers failed to understand that he actually felt okay about being green by the end of the song. That's what you get for trying to engage children through subtlety: total misunderstanding.

Put Down the Duckie

Hoots the Owl tells it like it is. Ernie naively thinks he can play the saxophone while clinging to his dear rubber duckie, but he is sadly mistaken. I suppose you could deduce some sort of anti-materialism message from the song, but most kids probably learned only not to attempt to play the saxophone while holding a small yellow rubber duck.


"Sing" remains one of the most-sung songs on Sesame Street, which is nearly as impressive as how many versions of the word "sing" I managed to squeeze into this sentence. The Carpenters' cover in 1973 even hit number 3 on the Billboard charts. It's since become a Sesame Street standard; perhaps there's some guest star initiation clause that requires celebrities to churn out a version of "Sing."

The People in Your Neighborhood

This one could possibly stand to be updated for the current decade; the people in our neighborhood have expanded to include the digital cable installation man and the guy in India allegedly named "Mike" who talks us through our Windows 7 installation. That's not to diminish the importance of the postman and the fireman, of course. It's far more likely that kids will still have aspirations of growing up to be one of those than an outsourced technology customer service associate.

I Love Trash

There's not really a "message" in this one, per se, but it stands alone on cuteness. That is, if you consider a garbage can-dwelling monster waxing poetic on the virtues of a good broken telephone or rusty trombone to be "cute." For the record, I do.

I Don't Want to Live on the Moon

Like Ernie, I too feel that I'd like to visit the move, but setting up permanent residence seems like a mistake. That's the lesson here, right? An anti-gravity locale is a tough full-time homestead? Okay, okay, fine, maybe it has something to do with appreciating what you have here at home. Darn you, Sesame Street, and your resonant life lessons.

Monster in the Mirror

We could all take a page from Grover's book: rather than being frightened by the monster in his mirror, he chooses to befriend it. To be fair, he is that monster, but I'm sure there's a nugget of educational wisdom in there somewhere. I think it's hidden in the "Wubba, wubba, wubba, woo, woo, woo" section.

Ladybug Picnic

Learn how to count and delight in watching ladybugs engage in adorable picnic activities? Where do I sign up? Of course, not all of the lyrics are totally relatable for small children. That line about the ladybugs' conversation about the high price of furniture and rugs and fire insurance for ladybugs may have gone a tad over their heads, but luckily they were distracted by the cute animation.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Where Do They Come Up With This Stuff? A Few Truly Strange 80s and 90s Children's Shows

It takes a special kind of creativity to dream up the premise of a truly unique kids' show. In grown-up circles, it's more commonly referred to as certifiable insanity. It's almost as if some of these children's show writers have some special gene that grants them an eternally youthful point of view. Otherwise, craziness is probably the most flattering description of their professional endeavors. We'll go with the gene thing.

Though the 80s and 90s saw its fair share of educational children's programming, many kids' shows lacked that level of justification for production. At best the characters might learn a moral lesson or two, but in general the themes of these shows fell into the "WHAAAA?" category. It's hard to imagine the shows' creators delivering their respective pitches for these absolutely ridiculous concepts.

We can only imagine it went a little something like this:

"So there are these Martian mice, right? Oh, and they're motorsports enthusiasts. That part's pretty important, too. And--"
"Say no more. We're putting this into production immediately. Biker Mice? From Mars? Brilliant!"

It's almost enough to make you want to start keeping a dream journal. All of those unrelated thoughts shuffling around in your head just might turn out to be the premise of a lucrative children's entertainment franchise. Maybe.

Regardless of the germination process of these strange concepts, kids embraced these shows as gospel. That's the best part about children's entertainment: your viewers won't question a thing. Everything you show them makes perfect sense to them. Why? Because you said so. It's a perfect balance of getting away with insanity and never having a fan dispute or question anything you present. What's the worst they can do--write a scathing review in crayon on the living room wall?No, they'll watch it and they'll like it. It's just that easy.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

We've had such heavy exposure to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that it can be difficult to remind ourselves that the concept is utterly ridiculous. They're not just mutant turtles, they're also adolescents with a penchant for mixed martial arts. Brilliant.

Biker Mice from Mars

As many shows on this list have firmly established, kids go for the literal. When naming your animated or puppet-populated series, it's best to just come up with an exact description of your major concept and just go with that. Biker Mice from Mars are a perfect example, as they are indeed mice from Mars with a passion for motorcycling. Don't fight it, it makes perfect sense.

It's amazing we made it all the way to the 90s before someone turned this into a TV show. You would think someone would have come up with it sooner. After all, motorcycles, mice, and Mars are just so darn intrinsically connected. Anyway, Ian Ziering was in it. Ian Ziering! You've got to have a soft spot for that.


Like I said, save the creativity and craziness for your show's concept. The title should be simplified to a point of dumbed-downness. It's half cat, it's half dog, what do you call it? A CatDog. Of course.


To be fair, in the case of the Popples, the toys came first. At least we know where they came up with it, though the back-story the writers filled in is a tad questionable. The Popples are adorable little pom-pom tailed puffballs who pull mysterious objects from their kangaroo-esque pouches. They also consistently thwart the efforts of well-meaning human children. It's crazy, sure, but their cuteness is a reasonable distraction from how little sense it all makes.


These may have risen to popularity a bit after our time, but their impact on the genre of strange kid shows was incredibly resonant. They're colorful, they roll on the ground in the sunshine, they laugh uncontrollably, and they believe they can see children through a screen on their tummies...I don't know what these guys are on, but I want some.

Eureeka's Castle

This was pre-Harry Potter wizardry, meaning the Eureeka's Castle producers still got away with making up their own arbitrary rules on sorcery. They also gave us a slew of unique characters, including the peanut butter-sandwich gobbling Bogg twins, the flying impaired blind-as-a-bat Batly, bumbling dragon Magellan, and vaguely ethnic pushcart owner Mr. Knack. Magellan even had some terrifying claymation pets, Cooey and the Slurms. Maybe it's just me, but I have always been terrified by claymation. I'm pretty sure it's just me.

The Smurfs

Despite the conspiracy theorist arguments claiming the Smurfs to be a pro-communist vehicle, I've never really bought into it. Yes, the Smurfs are admittedly strange, but their intention is to get kids to share. Maybe we should stop teaching that in kindergartens, too, to simulate a more capitalist classroom environment. Survival of the fittest five-year olds. How could it possibly go wrong?

Bananas in Pajamas

The title says it all: the main characters are indeed bananas eternally clad in pajamas. That's pretty much all there is to it. They don't even get the courtesy and respect of real names, stuck as B1 and B2. You get the feeling the writers meant to fill that in somewhere along the way, but then just gave up on it.

Rocko's Modern Life

What, you've never seen an Australian wallaby with a pet dog whose best friends are a steer raised by wolves and a neurotic over-phobic turtle? You can't accuse Rocko's Modern Life's creators of being unoriginal. The characters are undeniably idiosyncratic, but they're all charming in their own right. Well, charming if you're not too visually squeamish; the show can get a tad gross.

Fraggle Rock

To their credit, the Fraggles did teach us to dance our cares away. That probably counts as moderately educational. They can share dreams by making head contact with another Fraggle, they subsist on doozle sticks and radishes, and they coexist with Gorg giants. Their incredibly specific and detailed existence is at least justified by the show's relative complexity for a kid's program. And, you know, we danced our cares away. That part was the best.

Wee Sing in Sillyville

This one was actually a straight-to-video musical series, but its craziness warrants a legitimate place on this list. Sure, it has a legitimate message of togetherness and anti-prejudice, but the songs are so over the top that you've got wonder what these adult actors were on.

Aaah! Real Monsters

There's something to be said for the originality of 90s Nicktoons. Shows like Aaah! Real Monsters created a fully formed highly imaginative world of monsters-in-training. Ickus, Oblina, and Krum were fully realized characters, which makes up for their sometimes unsavory behavior. We can probably let it go, though. They are monsters, after all. Plus they live in a literal dump. Let's cut them a break.

Zoobilee Zoo

Perhaps this one qualifies more aptly as creepy than just strange. Those costumes are reallysomething else. Adults in full animal makeup and get-ups are sure to simultaneously delight young children an scare the bejeezus out of adults. The older and allegedly more mature I get, the scarier the pictures of these guys seem.

This list is just skimming the surface of the under-examined weirdness of the kids' TV series with which we grew up. Additions to the list are more than welcome in the comments section. Just don't think about any of the shows' premises too hard; you could easily strain a neuron or two trying to wrap your brain around their convoluted reasoning.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Our Favorite 80s and 90s TV Puppet Pals

If there's one thing we've learned from TV, it's that everything is cuter when a puppet does it. It's a fail-safe formula. A person performs a hackneyed visual gag and we all groan in agony, but an adorable puppet does it and we fall for it hook, line, and stinker.*

It's no mystery that children love puppets, but TV in the 80s and 90s proved that adults have a pretty solid puppet-loving capacity all their own. Puppets often make the best punchlines, giving them an automatic boost in likability in both kids' and grown-up television programming. Plus, they never need a stunt double or act like a diva when it comes to contract renewal. Talk about cutting expenses.

Puppet-studded programs may not be the most highbrow fare on TV, but they have a unique style of entertaining us. They allow us to suspend our disbelief to a point where if we can believe this talking toy exists somewhere in real life, maybe all of the magical features that come along with it are possible, too. These 80s and 90s shows didn't need to be realistic or to feature deeply developed characters; we were perfectly content with our cartoonish, overdrawn cliches. So long as they kept feeding us hilarious puppet gag antics, we were more than happy to partake in spoonful after heaping spoonful.

Eureeka's Castle

Eureeka's Castle was a Nick Jr. gem, giving us a quirky, offbeat world of wizardry and goofy characters. The show revolved around sorceress trainee Eureeka, thickheaded dragon Magellan, peanut butter sandwich-gobbling twins Bogge and Quagmire, the visually impaired Batley, and the vaguely ethnic pushcart proprietor Mr. Knack. The characters were creative and imaginative in a way that bodes well for children's programming. It may not have been highly educational, but it did teach me to fear claymation Slurms. Those things were weird.

Lambchop's Play-Along

If there's one thing kids love more than puppets, it's baby puppets. Have you ever seen a more adorable little sheeplet? When I grew up, I was horrified to find that "Lambchop" referred to a cut of meat. Slicing into it for the first time was pretty traumatic, though luckily there was no stuffing inside. That might have scarred me for life. As a device to distract myself from the lambchop chopping task at knife, I just hummed a few bars of "This is the Song that Never Ends." That seemed to do the trick.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

I think our buddy Joel at MST3K had the right idea. If you're stuck orbiting the earth sequestered on a spacecraft forced by the powers that be to watch n endless stream of B-movies, you should definitely use the spare theater equipment to build yourself some sentient robot pals. You should, of course, name them Gypsy, Cambot, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo. There are pretty much no other options.

Sesame Street

For many of us, this was our first major exposure to puppetry. Or, equally likely, our first exposure to platonic male puppet roommates who share a cookie crumb-ridden bed and know an awful lot about each other's bathtime habits and carrier pigeon preferences. Either way, most of us fell for the cuddly Sesame Street characters, and hard. I mean, a monster who lives in a garbage can? Where do they come up with this stuff?


Alf Sings "Old Time Rock and Roll" - Click here for the most popular videos

Just when you thought noses couldn't get any more phallic looking than Joe Camel's, you met Alf. And then, you knew. This was the be-all-end-all of vaguely suggestive schnozes. ALF stood for "Alien Life Form", which is how we kindly earth-folk classify floppy-looking brown masses who grew up on the Lower East Side of the planet Melmac. ALF definitely had his moments, but his appearance is just a little unsettling. It just feels inappropriate.


If after watching this show you cried out endlessly, "I'm the baby! Gotta love me!" I'm sure your parents were less than pleased with their decision to grant viewership privileges. The show wasn't really directed at kids; it was more of a family sitcom that happened to feature full-size puppet characters. By the time we'd realized this, though, we'd already moved on to gleefully smacking our fathers on their heads with a frying pan while screaming, "Not the mama! Not the mama!"

Muppets Tonight

There have been so many incarnations of The Muppets over the years it's become difficult to differentiate between one series and another, but for the sake of 90s nostalgia we'll single out Muppets Tonight for brief examination. The show hinged pretty heavily on celebrity guest appearances and wasn't especially a standout in the long line of Muppet shows. I must say, though, the Baywatch parodies were worth a chuckle or two.

Fraggle Rock

That is some seriously rockin' theme music. I probably haven't seen this intro since 1992, yet somehow I find myself singing along with a surprisingly adept command of the lyrics. It's catchy, right? It's got that sparkly puppet charm sprinkled liberally throughout. Well done, Jim Henson studios. Well done, indeed.

Fraggle Rock managed to slip in a bunch of heavy issues while we were busy enjoying the musical numbers and highly colorful wardrobe selection. Some of us also spent a fair amount of time giggling over the fact that there was a Fraggle named Boober. I mean, Boober! Can you beat that?

Cousin Skeeter

Who knew a marionette could be such a bad-ass? It probably speaks volumes about my level of maturity that the theme song's phrase, "Skeeter's what I want" amuses me in a slangy double-entendre kind of way. I don't think I've advanced much in behavioral age since the days this show originally aired.

Unhappily Ever After

This show gave many of us an unquenchable desire to own a crass, wise-cracking stuffed rabbit. Mr. Floppy was just so adorable. His looks were, anyway. His personality could probably have used a bit of a tune-up to align with his cherubic appearance, but it all just contributed to his puppety charm.


If you had to pick the most terrifying mode of puppet, I'd say human-head-on-tiny-puppet-body would fall pretty darn close to the top of the list. Weinerville was a Nickelodeon cartoon/live-action variety show based on the comedic stylings of Marc Weiner. The characters were undeniably creative, but they still seem a little creepy to me. Add cross-dressing to the giant head/tiny puppet body mix and be prepared for the wrath of Weinerville.

Whatever the reason, puppets had a hold on us. Maybe we just don't watch enough Nick Jr. anymore, but the proportion of puppets in prime-time programming seems to have persistently plummeted. It's too bad, really. A lot of today's shows could probably use a good puppet boost. Just think: if this weekend's Oscars had used puppet presenters, we'd have been far more likely to push through to the bitter end. Just a thought.

*This is not a typo, it's just a terrible, terrible play on words. Had I been a puppet, you would have been all over that one

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

90s Kid's Christmas Movies

Tis the season for overly sentimental entertainment. This time of year, it's almost entirely socially acceptable to be moved to tears by cheesy movies. You better get your fill of these cryfests now; before you know it, you'll have to go back to sneaking a Hallmark Movie of the Wees when you're home alone with surplus stash of secret Kleenex.

There are so many classic Christmas movies from generations past, but there's something uniquely nostalgic about the Christmas films of our own generation. It's hard to imagine most of these achieving anything akin to the untouchable status of It's a Wonderful Life, but some are worth a repeat viewing or two. It may be too soon to say whether or not any of these will end up classics, but they certainly kept our generation entertained the first time around.

Home Alone

Home Alone gets my vote for hitching the fast-track to Christmas classic status. The movie was iconic in the way we'd come to expect from late director John Hughes. Home Alone follows the extended Chicago-based McCallister clan as they gear up for a big family Christmas trip to Paris. An angry eight-year old Kevin (Culkin) wishes his family would disappear following a fight with his older brother. To his surprise the next morning, his wish came true--or, at least that's the way he interprets his sudden solitude. In actuality, his family forgot him in their harried rush to the airport. His mother (Catherine O'Hara) realizes their oversight immediately after takeoff, but it's too late.

The movie follows Kevin's adventures, as the title suggests, while home alone. The bulk of the movie details his complex booby trap-based thwarting of some local burglars. It may not be the most realistic movie ever made and some may frown upon the cartoon-like violence, but Home Alone has genuine heart. Culkin is just so adorable in it, too, you can't help but feel some affection for him and his positive spin on his predicament.

To read the full Home Alone post, click here

Miracle on 34th Street (Remake)

Some movies just don't warrant a remake, particularly if still in popular circulation in their original form. The 1947 Miracle on 34th Street is assuredly a classic, though it's yet to be seen if the 1996 remake was wholly necessary. It was cute enough in a John Hughes type of way, which makes sense as he penned the screenplay and produced the movie. Whether or not it measures up to the original is questionable, though it follows the plot pretty straightforwardly. Interestingly, though, Macy's department store didn't want to be implicated in the remake, forcing the film to replace it with a fictitious department store in the remade version.

I'll admit there was some personal investment in this choice. As a child, Mara Wilson was the only celebrity with whom I shared a name, and I always rejoiced in seeing another Mara in the media. On the other hand, she's also Jewish like me, which is this case gives her Christmas wish a slight tint of irony.

Jingle all the Way

Like all native Minnesotans, I have a sort of built-in radar for all movies filmed in my home state. Minnesotans are innately armed with an arsenal of state-pride knowledge to deflect questions of how we could live somewhere so cold, touting movies like Fargo and celebrities like Prince as evidence of a state well-deserving of inhabitance. In 1996 we got yet another notch in our state fame belt with Christmas flick Jingle All the Way, meaning it will forever abide in my memory as a truly great movie despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

This movie is quintessential 90s, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad as fathers battling for the most coveted toy of the Christmas Season, Turbo Man. Throw in the late Phil Hartman as a Stepford-esque dad and you have a trifecta of solid 90s stars. Despite the big names the movie was generally poorly received by critics, but it performed decently in theaters and had non-discerning kids everywhere laughing in the aisles. Aside from the tragic death of Phil Hartman, it's no wonder Jingle All the Way's co-stars moved on to bigger things: Schwarzenegger to a gubernatorial career and Sinbad to unemployment and massive tax evasion.

The Santa Clause

Before they beat this franchise to death with its innumerable sequels, The Santa Clause was a movie set in the tradition of high-spirited holiday classics. Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a divorced businessman dad who frightens Santa off his roof and finds only his vacant red suit atthe spot to which Santa fell. He follows directions from Santa's suit's business card to put on the outfit, following which he begins to transform into Santa himself. That is the aforementioned Santa Clause. Get it? Santa Clause? Like a contract? Oh 90s movie makers, are there any limits to your hilarious punnery?

The movie was both a financial and critical success, which is a pretty impressive feat for a kid's Christmas movie. It's not particularly innovative or groundbreaking, but it follows the successful family-friendly Disney formula to a tee. Too bad we can't say the same for Santa Clauses numbers 2 and 3.

Nightmare Before Christmas

I'll admit this one stands out in the bunch as it's not technically a children's Christmas movie. Disney chose to release it under its Touchtone label to promote it as a more adult offering. Despite the stop-motion animation format, this movie is downright dark and a bit scary for children. Actually, it was probably because of the stop-motion animation. That stuff is creepy.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is Tim Burton at his best. It's quirky, strange, and oddly fascinating. While it scared me to near-death as a child, watching it as an adult I can recognize that it's a truly great film. Burton actually manages to make us feel empathy for his grotesque creatures, which is no easy feat when we're dealing with skeletons and zombies.

To read the full Nightmare Before Christmas post, click here

A Muppet Christmas Carol

Really, how many times can we retell this story? Apparently there's some demand for an infinite number of adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, leading to the nearly yearly permutations released in theaters or on TV. Regardless of the repetitiveness, the Muppets are kind of a sure thing for kids. I've said it before and I'll say it again: kids love puppets. That's usually the deal breaker on this kind of thing, so kids can overlook the fact they've probably seen this story three or four different times before and just focus on Kermit and Miss Piggy. Thank goodness for short attention spans.

We can't know for sure if any of these will become future classics, but we have a few viable 90s contenders. Give me a call in 20 years and let me know how it all plays out.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Shining Time Station

Yes, I'm aware Shining Time Station was a spin-off of Thomas and Friends and that this introductory picture is thus misleading. Thanks for pointing that out.

Quiet telethon-hosting public television giant PBS has a lot more balls than for which we generally give them credit. Okay, so maybe their sunny broadcasts of Antiques Roadshow and breathless pseudo-historical reality show trashiness of Manor House aren't winning them any edginess points, but they did have the gall to cast comedian George "Seven Dirty Words" Carlin as Mr. Conductor on Shining Time Station. You have to admit, that took some pretty serious cajones from someone down at PBS HQ.

Of course, they had to ease into a big step like this. No, no, we needed to start a little smaller. Alright, alright, so the character is already minuscule by definition, as Mr. Conductor was a tiny man who lived in Shining Time Station's signal house. Are you with me on this? Good. Great. Grand. Wonderful. Anyway, the original Mr. Conductor was played by none other than former Beatle Ringo Starr, who can be seen in the clip below drumming with some wooden spoons. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Though past my prime Shining Time days, it does please me that in the 2000 big screen version entitled Thomas and the Magic Railroad, our friend Mr. Conductor was played by none other than my favorite 30 Rocker/angry voicemail designator Alec Baldwin. Really, what a feat of casting on all three counts. Thomas and friends were pulling in some pretty big names.

A decade before Alec Baldwin was running out of Mr. Conductor's magic gold dust, the old-fashioned style kids show was warming hearts and instilling a deep-seated love of train travel within children of the 80s and 90s. The original Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends premiered in Britain in 1984. Impressed by the show's success, producers in the US decide to create an American version five years later.

As a child, I watched the movie Grease on repeat for approximately two years straight (right after I'd emerged from my unfortunate but long-sustained Sound of Music stage)and was delighted to find my Pink Lady pal Frenchie starring in this show about trains. Frenchie (okay, fine, her real name is Didi Conn) starred as Stacy Jones, the perky manager of Shining Time Station. Shining Time Station seems like a pretty run-of-the-mill train station until we meet Mr. Conductor, the tiny magical man who lives in the signal house in the mural painted on the wall and reveals himself to share stories about Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. You know. The usual.

The station's old and rusty when Stacy goes back to reopen it, but it certainly has its high points. For example, a jukebox featuring a full internal puppet ensemble band. Not bad for an abandoned train station. There's also an arcade, run by a man by the name of Schemer. Schemer's favorite for coining the phrase "Genius time!" as he marveled over all of his less-than-genius ideas to make more money and preserve his valued arcade.

Beginning of the first US episode, in case you need a refresher course from 1989. I can't imagine why.

They had a few more tricks up their sleeve with this cast of characters. Season one featured an engineer named Harry, whose grandchildren (along with Stacy's nephews) make up the child population of Shining Time Station. Season two veered a little more toward good old 90s multiculturalism, featuring a new engineer named Billy Twofeathers. You know, if we're going to have Native American characters we can't be subtle when it comes to names. No matter he's played by a guy named Tom Jackson--this guy's getting a legitimately multicultural moniker.

The show also had the convenient trick of making the stability of major characters flexible. Whenever a cast member dropped out, they simply replaced him with a long-lost cousin or are transferred to a new station. While this type of Dukes of Hazzard/Brady Bunch Cousin Oliver-level tomfoolery may have jumped the shark in other shows, it was pretty well-suited to children's entertainment. After all, children are pretty fickle by nature. So long as they consistently fed us old-timey train-themed entertainment, we were pretty content to eat it up without question.

The show's concept was sweet and uncharacteristically set in a more traditional premise. It taught values in not-so-subtle ways, but at least surrounded the arrow of its moral compass by a sturdy backing of comedic wit. It introduced a whole new generation of kids to the joy of trains and managed to supplement that love with a slew of corresponding overpriced merchandise to boot. How can you blame them for milking this concept, though? This show had it all: trains, puppets, animated segments. Oh, and George Carlin. You can't forget George Carlin.*

RIP, Mr. Conductor

*Unless you were more of a Ringo fan, in which case I scoff at your choice. Scoff!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sesame Street Celebrity Musical Guests

First off, thank you for your ongoing support, loyal readers. I am in a somewhat pain medication-induced state (read all about my exciting bicycle crashing adventures here), but I am here to honor my commitment to bring you your daily dose of 90s nostalgic goodness. What sort of a nostalgian (like a historian, but lazier and less reliable) would I be to abandon you and fail to quench your unending desire for childhood revisitation? A bad one, that's what. So, let's get down to business here.

Sesame Street is a long-running and impressive television enterprise. Not only is it valuable to children on an educational level, it manages to continually entertain adults with its subtle barbs and references to popular culture. The show boasts an incredible number of high-profile guest stars over the years, ranging from politicians to boy bands.

Most adorable, however, are those popular musicians who come to reprise their popular songs with new Sesame Streetified lyrics. You really can't help but love their capacity to belt out these tunes to a bunch of well-orchestrated puppets with such fervor and intent you'd think they were playing to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Though some sing Sesame Street orignals, many take their most popular songs and tweak the lyrics to make them either educational or pertinent to the lives of cute fuzzy monsters.

While the child viewers probably think of Elmo as the celebrity and the musical guests as some no-name Elmo backup singers, older watchers can appreciate the mildly self-deprecating aww-ness of watching Hootie and the Blowfish warn of street-crossing safety.

Though you may have been far beyond your Sesame Street years when many of these aired, you can certainly enjoy them retrospectively for their celebrity value. For your pure viewing/listening enjoyment, I present a random but reasonably comprehensive compilation of 90s musical guest appearances on everyone's favorite pedgoical PBS puppet program:

Spin Doctors: Two Princes

In 1996, the Spin Doctors appeared on the show with a parody of their popular "Two Princes", conveniently re-titled "Two Princes". In the original song, the Spin Docs sing about a woman with a choice of two male admirers. If you're not familiar with the song, feel free to take a listen. Really, just go ahead now. In the more kid-friendly Sesame Street version, lead singer Chris Barron explains how Princess Zoe doesn't have to pick between two princely playmates but rather that they can all play together. To their credit, the monsters' celebratory dance moves during that extended solo are pretty impressive.

REM: Furry Happy Monsters

REM released "Shiny Happy People" in 1991, intended as an ironic loose translation of some obscure Chinese propaganda. The original video (pop-up version for your entertainment available here) was ironically unironic in its colorful, upbeat interpretation. Luckily, these political undertones were totally absent from the playful Sesame Street Version, "Furry Happy Monsters". The VH1 Pop-Up Video version notes that many fans believe REM hates this song as they never play it live, but obviously they must want to spread the joy in some capacity if they're willing to get this into it with puppets 8 years later.

Bobby McFerrin: Tweet in the Morning

I have to say, Hoots the Owl is one of the coolest puppets I know. Who knew owls were so jazzy and scat-catty? Scat-owly, I suppose, but now we're really just splitting feathers. 90s phenom Bobby McFerrin of "Don't Worry Be Happy" fame came to the Birdland club in 1991 to showcase his quirky percussive stylings. I have no idea what he's saying, but I would certainly be tapping my foot if it wasn't broken.

Aaron Neville (with Ernie): I Don't Want to Live on the Moon

I have vague recollections of owning a casette tape with this song on it, and loving it intensely even though I personally thought I could handle living on the moon for more than one afternoon. What can I say, that Ernie's a real lightweight. Especially on the moon. In all seriousness, it's a really pretty song. Also, they created a cool arrangement using a previous recording by the late Jim Henson and matching it up with Neville's harmony section.

Johnny Cash: Tall Tale

Johnny Cash appeared on the show a few times, seen above performing "Tall Tale" with giddy-up puppet Noel Cowherd in 1993. It's sort of a country song version of "opposite day". The clip really, really makes me love Johnny Cash. If I were a man, I would yearn for that deep, toneful, resonant voice. Back in the day, though, I was probably more preoccupied with coveting that cowgirl puppet's bolo tie. I'm into it.

Gloria Estefan: 1-2-3

Pretty much anyone who ever puts out a song with any counting whatsoever must be high-up on the list of preferred celebrity musical guests on Sesame Street. After all, it's incredibly easy to rewrite a song to be about counting when the original already conveniently features numbers in sequence. Well played, Sesame Street song reprisers. Well played indeed. Nice work on coming up with the word "Birdketeers", too. Those incredibly multicultural children in birdsuits are pretty awesome. Kudos all around.

Queen Latifah: The Letter O

Yes, she totally called those little puppets her safari sisters. I just love all of their turbans. It's been so long I actually totally forgot Queen Latifah even rapped, I'm pretty impressed with this. Mainly because that second hat she's sporting totally warrants a comparison to Abu the monkey from Aladdin.

Little Richard: Rubber Duckie

Little Richard is all kinds of crazy, but more fun crazy than scary crazy. Between this and his guest appearance on Full House, he earns major 90s children-entertaining points. That signature "Woo!" really adds appropriate emphasis to the Rubber Duckie song. And there's Hoots the owl again! Can't go wrong with Hoots. Hoots is the dude.

Goo Goo Dolls: Pride

I mainly included this clip because I find it heartwrenchingly adorable at the start when Elmo says, "Oh, hi Goo Goo Dolls!" It's really just spectacularly cute. This episode aired in 2000 so I was certainly far past my prime Sesame Street watching years and thus only recently discovered this clip. They reformulate their song "Slide" as "Pride". I just love watching these guys rock out to lyrics like, "You helped your mother bake a pie/You fell and didn't cry/You made your bed and said/Your ABCs".

Hootie and the Blowfish: Hold My Hand

Yeah, yeah, this clip is more recent too (also from 2000), but you may just have to deal with it. Hootie and the Blowfish were an inexplicable runaway 90s success and hence deserve our attention, even if this clip wasn't necessarily a part of our original formulative Sesame Street watching years. Unlike bands who capitalized on Sesame Street guest appearances at the height of their fame, these guys were clearly on the downslide by the time they reprised their song "Hold My Hand" to be about crossing the street safely.

And of course, though by the time these two groups were on the show I'd likely graduated to screaming in the front rows of their concerts and trying to catch the teddy bears they tossed during their stunt flying, I'll share these with you as a concession for you not judging that last confession:

Well, that's about all I have for you today. This post was brought to you by the letter V as in Vicodin.

Friday, May 15, 2009


The 90s saw an explosion in cheesy formulaic family sitcoms. Audiences couldn't seem to get enough of allegedly normal people interacting with their loved ones; it was certainly a lot easier than being forced to interact with our own. One after another, these shows appeared, featuring a basic nuclear family and following them through their (again, allegedly) humorous daily interactions. Step by Step, Full House, Family Matters; these shows all followed a pretty standard set of story lines. Even the purportedly edgy Married with Children relied to some extent on sturdy stereotypes of a blue collar family.

It took a magical mind like Jim Henson's (which I imagine to have been full of abandoned ET design prototypes and colorful Fraggle Rock wardrobe changes) to conceive of a more original model for such a tired premise.

Why not make them dinosaurs?

Wait, wait? As in carnivorous prehistoric creatures with a penchant for carnage and general non-camaraderie? What could they possibly have in common with the white bread families of typical 90s sitcom fame?

Nothing. This was the whole point. Why not create a show that follows the family sitcom formula to a T, but with characters who inherently have nothing in common with this type of familial situation? It was a fairly innovative approach, though it did borrow heavily from Flintstones and Simpsons conventions. The situation and the characters were inherently out of sync, infusing some freshness into the stale model of a home-based situation comedy. And though the idea came to fruition a year after Henson's death, the seed he had planted grew into the Dinosaurs in 1991:

The character molds were all recognizable, but with a delightful prehistoric twist. Let's meet the Dinosaurs:

Earl Sinclair: Our hero, the mighty megalosaurus. Who knew dinosaurs looked so great in flannel? Considering this was the 90s, I'm fairly certain I owned that shirt. He could be a tad on the Al Bundy oafish side, but was determined to keep his family happy and fed. In the first episode we find that he opted to take this purportedly new family route rather than killing and eating his mate and young, which apparently was a pretty novel idea. He worked at WESAYSO as a tree-pusher, which likely explained the lumberjack getup.

Fran Sinclair: Dinosaur housewife extraordinaire. Her skills included chasing furry future dinners around the kitchen, nagging, and wearing aprons. She inexplicably birthed offspring of varying dinosaur species. Fran initially roped Earl by means of her natural feminine scent, in her case, New Car Smell.

Charlene Sinclair: 13-year old daughter, fashion-driven and materialistic a la Quinn Mordgendorfer. We do, however, find that she exhibited some signs of intelligence by managing to prove the world is round and thus changing the course of historical geographic discovery. Other than that, she was pretty vapid.

Robbie Sinclair: 15-year old son, wise beyond his years. We knew he was semi-rebellious because his best friend sports a leather jacket. In 90s sitcom conventions, a leather jacket is the only known symbol anti-authority.

Baby Sinclair: You gotta love him. Or so he says. His catchphrase, "I'm the baby, gotta love me!" was everywhere during the show's tenure. And really, I mean everywhere. It was so famous, in fact, that DTV (the fictional dinosaur TV network) allowed him to star in the following 100% ridiculous music video (please be warned that if you watch this, there is no chance of extricating this song from your brain. Attempts at detaching it from your cerebral cortex are futile. I'm still humming it 15 years later):

Baby (yes, this was his real name) also had a penchant for hitting his father on the head with a frying pan and referring to him affectionately as "Not the mama!" Cute, right?

The show premiered in the ABC TGIF lineup, appropriately sandwiched between between fellow family sitcom hits Full House and Family Matters and was fairly popular throughout the course of its 3-year run.

Beneath the surface (this would be a good place to make some sort of fossil joke that I don't have) lurked countless vaguely recognizable voices. Allow me to share with you some of the prehistoric celebrities who lent their voices to this program of puppetry:

Jessica Walter as Fran--You know, Lucille Bluth? I suppose she's also in that new 90210, but really, she is just playing Lucille Bluth all over again. You almost expect to hear the ice cubes clinking in the glass any time you hear her voice.

Sally Struthers as Charlene--Sure, she was in All in the Family, but most of us 90s kids remember her as that blonde lady constantly imploring us to get our degrees through the magically convenient means of by-mail correspondence (I was particularly partial to the veterinary technician course, if forced to choose).

Sherman Helmsley as tyrannical (insert "-asaurus Rex joke here) WESAYSO exec BP Richfield--What is this, an All in the Family reunion? Of course, he was best known from his starring role on the Jeffersons, so you could probably say in this case he was movin' on down (and yes, I recognize that was an extremely cheap attempt at humor. Just roll with it. I think Sherman would have.). For those of you that were into that kind of thing, you may also recall him as Tia and Tamara's grandfather on Sister, Sister.

Christopher Meloni as the aforementioned badass teenage friend, Spike--Most of you probably know this guy from Law and Order:SVU, but the less fear-mongering among us may recollect his performances in Oz, Harold and Kumar, or my personal favorite, Wet Hot American Summer. Also, he once played a gym teacher on Pete & Pete. What more could you want from a man?

Kevin Clash as Baby Dinosaur--You might not recognize him by face, but Kevin here voiced some of your favorite childhood characters (allow me to assume these are your favorites. Thank you for your cooperation.) Most notably, Elmo, but also Clifford the big red dog, and everyone's favorite animated rat, Splinter from TMNT. Oh, and he also played that lovable sax-playing Sesame Street owl who sang "Put Down the Ducky". Great song.

Admittedly these are not the biggest names in the biz, but they reflect the nature of the show itself. It wasn't the flashiest or the most original, but deep down it was good fun. While the show addressed a surprising number of political issues for a puppet-centric program, it was generally lighthearted and didn't take itself too seriously. At the end of the day, isn't all you want just to watch a giant puppet dinosaur get smacked on the head with a frying pan by his less-giant puppet dinosaur son? I think so.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lamb Chop's Play Along

For children of the 90s, a lamb chop was more than just a tasty cut of meat. It (well, she) was also a fluffy little sheep puppet who, along with an afro-ed Shari Lewis and her delightful puppet barnyard peers, entertained us through the magic of once-worthwhile public television.

A brief (read: lazy) investigation into Lamb Chop's history reveals a frightening amount of spare time amongst pop-culture Wikipedia updaters. The "Lamb Chop's Play-Along" entry actually links to a categorical page entitled "fictional sheep". Yes, really. Fictional sheep. Our esteemed lamb puppet pal was obviously in good company. In case you were wondering (which no doubt you were!), the Wikipedia entry opens with the compelling phrase,"this is a list of fictional sheep". It then goes on to list more than thirty fictional sheep.

You may be saying to yourself, what is a person who diligently maintains a blog devoted to frivolous 90s novelties doing mocking a harmless list composed by loving devotees? Certainly even she recognizes her hypocrisy.

You would be wrong.

Other fictional sheep aside, the true star was Lamb Chop. The pure cuteness of her very being was almost overwhelming. She was adorable incarnate. She was sassy and fun. She was an innocent little sock puppet we could all look up to. And her name was Lamb Chop. Come on. What sort of stone-hearted scrooge could deny the inherent cuteness?

Lamb Chop's Play-Along featured a puppet-packed roster of barnyard friends, all voiced by Shari Lewis. I present to you our painfully adorable cast of characters:

1. Charlie Horse--sometime trouble-maker, full time horse. Stirs stuff up a lot. Goofy bucktoothed expression. Pictured above wearing unecessary puppet visor.

2. Hush Puppy--all-around good guy. Floppy ears. Pictured above in superhero style t-shirt handy for moments when he forgets his initials.

3. Lambchop--feisty, adventurous, child-like. Pictured above in trendsetting Blossom-style hat.

So there you have it. There was, however, one more aspect of Lamb Chop's Play-Along that really spoke to me as a child.

Let me set up a moment for you here: as a child, I had no puppets to look up to, or at least not as religious role models. I know what you're thinking, "but all children deserve religious puppet role models!" I wholeheartedly agree. It's essentially a basic human right. The television puppets I knew and loved were always putting on low-budget remakes of "A Christmas Carol" and reveling in their non-inclusive brand of seasonal cheer. Sure, the Muppets were nice, but where was I in their puppet Christmas merrymaking? My house had no wreaths, no tree, no mistletoe. No one ever seemed to ventriloquilize anything for children like me.

Enter Shari Lewis, oh great Semitic puppetmistress. For God's sake, her father was a founding member of Yeshiva University. Did I mention he was a magician? Shari's magical Jewish upbringing set the stage for high-quality yid-centric children's entertainment. Finally, a sock-puppet horse playing Dreidel! A fuzzy-dummy dog throwing a surprise Passover Seder for the whole gang! A lamb-likeness waxing poetic on the virtues of crispy potato latkes! If nothing else, Shari Lewis and Co made me feel, if only for a few episodes, as if I belonged. No longer was I an outsider to puppet holiday celebrations! A great children's television show injustice had been overturned, or at least in the eyes of me and my Jewish day school peers.

Jewish Holiday specials or not, Lamb Chop was beloved by children worldwide. Her sweet innocence and fluffy exterior captured our hearts and planted us firmly in front of our television sets for 3 enchanting seasons. Even after Lewis's untimely and tragic death, her impact on children of the 90s lives on. After all, she taught us how to endlessly (really, endlessly) irritate our parents with a catchy little ditty entitled "This is the Song that Never Ends."

It goes a little something like this:

This is the song that never ends,
it just goes on and on my friends
Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was,
and they'll continue singing it forever just because...

This is the song that never ends...

Oh, how parents hated this song! It was right up there with "I Know a Song that Gets on Everybody's Nerves". To Lewis's credit, however, the song was quite memorable and played at the end of every episode. She even made a big show about trying to get them to stop, prescient of our parent's subsequent woeful attempts to end our insistent singing.

Even once we had outwitted the lyrics and could start singing it once we actually knew what it was, we would always continue singing it forever.

You know, just because.

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