Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Push Pops and Ring Pops

Tracking lollipop trends can be an arduous undertaking best left to professionals. With all the ups and downs in the hard candy market, it's tough to say which models will stick. Figuratively, that is. Literally, everything will end up pretty sticky.

Novelty candies were all the rage in the 80s and 90s. Everything had a gimmick. It was no longer enough for a candy simply to be delicious; now it needed to have entertainment value as well. Competition in the confectionery consumer marketplace was fierce, meaning candy companies were under pressure to produce new and innovatively packaged materials that would appeal to children on multiple levels.

To do so, candy makers had to think outside the box. That is to say, they needed to alter the packaging to make it externally palatable (though with the hope that children would not attempt to consume that as well). Suddenly, sweets weren't just sugary junk food, they were toys: bona fide sources of classroom distraction and playground entertainment.

Of the new* multifaceted lollipops available, ring pops had a pretty widespread appeal. And the convenience! You didn't even have to hold anything, as the candy itself was cemented to the base of a plastic ring. And of course, here's nothing quite like teaching a girl to grow to expect the equivalent of a 20 carat rock on her finger from a young age.

Ring pops were novelty as its finest. You got to wear your food. Short of candy necklaces, this was pretty much the most exciting jewelry-themed treat on the market. The commercial below, however, is the tiniest bit disturbing when that little boy proposes to the girl by means of a ring pop in a velvet box. I'm sure they were going for cute, but it comes off a tad creepy. I mean, these kids are about seven years old. Why are we pushing candy marriage proposals?

That jingle is pretty catchy though:

"It's a lollipop, without a stick!
A ring of flavor you can lick!"

At the end when they display the hands bedecked in ring pops galore, it looks like a dream come true. It looks nearly as satisfying as decorating myself with all of the jewelry that came with my Pretty Pretty Princess board game, only it wins additional points for edibility:

You also have to love the way they redid this commercial for the late 90s. It's almost the exact same thing, only the teeniest bit jazzier. Maybe there had been some recent develop in synthesizer technology by the time this baby aired. That's the only plausible explanation for not rereleasing the original:

Ring pops were admittedly on the girly side, so luckily the same company came out with a more gender neutral lollipop release. The Push Pop was supposed to be practical with its "save it for later" plastic cap, but looking back that whole concept makes me want to Purel the hell out of every corner my mouth. Sure, you had the ability to eat a candy over an extended period of time, but the sanitary/hygienic component was questionable. On the other hand, it sure beat my friend's pastime of preserving a jaw breaker over several days by leaving its spit-covered carcass in an open bowl on his desk. At least with push pops, the covers could keep out a higher percentage of the dust bunnies.

The underlying concept behind the push pop was that you could actually push up the candy from within the plastic tubular packaging, allowing you as the eater to control how much pop you'd like to expose. Theoretically you could cap the pop, call it a day, and come back to it later that week. It seemed, though, that this candy was made from the stickiest substance known to man. Not only that, but it seemed to form some sort of chemical glue-like bonding reaction when coupled with spit, its major means of disintegration.

Both Push Pops and Ring Pops came in all sorts of lab-created flavors that had relatively little in common with flavors found in nature. The cherry flavor had the added bonus of applying an unintentional bright coating of red color on your lips sans lipstick, but had the unfortunate downside of tasting like cough syrup. Another wildly popular flavor was blue raspberry, which for some reason has caught on in a big way as an artificial flavor. I'm not sure how to break it gently to these flavor scientists, but raspberries aren't blue. Ever.**

push pop Pictures, Images and Photos

Later incarnations came in flavors that definitely appealed to us as children but sound a little repulsive in our current state of well-advised judgment: bubble gum, cotton candy, green apple***, and the intentionally vague "citrus". Each of these flavors was ostensibly a huge commitment, as the amount of time and effort to consume the sheer quantity of hard candy available via ring or push pop was immense.

Truthfully though, this was the way we and our parents liked it. The candy had a two-pronged approach to keeping us occupied: the effort involved in actually consuming the slowly diminishing hard candy and the added value of its novelty features entertaining us. I must admit now it all seems a little overrated, but what do I know? I was more of a Chupa Chup girl.

*Okay, so they were introduced in 1977, but they were a novelty to children throughout the 80s and 90s **At least as far as I know and am too lazy to research otherwise ***Yes, I admit lots of people like green apple. But I challenge you to have a semi-traumatic experience with Smirnoff Green Apple vodka and not feel at least mildly repulsed by the flavor

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!

Monday, August 3, 2009


Sure, to children of the 70s and 80s, the Talking Heads may be a new wave rock band responsible for Burning Down the House, but to children of the 90s the phrase conjures up a far puppetier image. Namely that of Marc Weiner's Weinerville, a 90s Nickelodeon show featuring the children's entertainment stylings of Herr puppetmeister himself, Marc Weiner. Weinerville's trademark human head/tiny puppet body combo was both moderately frightening to small children and infinitely entertaining to those old enough to get a kick out of it. I still have an unrealized ambition to be Weinerized (e.g. for my full-size head to appear on a tiny puppet body), but I may just have to write that one off. Damn.

Marc Weiner was nothing if not imaginative. Weinerville and its innumerable puppet citizens were the sum of the no doubt many fragments of creativity floating around in Marc Weiner's head. The whole thing has a feel of every time you ever said, "You know, I have this crazy idea...", only in this case it translated into following through with that zany impulse rather than burying it deep into your repressive creative subconscious.

I don't know what it takes to become a pupeteer, but I do certainly find it admirable as a career goal. To think, while the rest of us are morphing more and more daily into The Man with our corporate suits and attache cases, there are actual adults who earn a sizable living off of controlling the marionetted limbs of fanciful puppets. Indeed, it's a pretty enviable career path. I'm not talking about those struggling pupeteers a la John Cusack in Being John Malkovich. I'm talking being paid to create a full-scale imaginary universe of puppets for which you get to add the suffix "ville" to your own last name. Just imagine, you, a ville. We can only dream.

Like many Nickelodeon shows of its time, Weinerville featured a live-action audience participation element, leaving those of us at home immeasurably covetous of the lucky so-and-sos who got to interact with the puppets themselves. Despite the incessant begging, my parents never caved to let me be a veritable member of the live studio audience at Nickelodeon Studios in Universal Studios, Florida. I even learned to recite that phrase via constant exposure to the informative ending of every live-action Nickelodeon show, but to no avail. I was going to have to settle for being part of a live at-home television audience, and that was that.

Weinerville was home to many, many puppet pals, most of whom were played by Marc Weiner himself. Played by his head, that is. In the above intro, you can see Marc as Baby Jeffery, an infant famous for creating outrageous messes. Two of the other more familiar characters were Dottie and Zip, the trusty mayor of Weinerville and her injury-prone assistant Zip. Marc played Dottie, donning makeup, a curly blonde wig, and falsetto with conviction. Zip was pure puppet through and through, allowing him to be more easily placed in dangerous and potentially painful situations. Observe, a montage of Zip and Dottie introducing the show:

Another favorite puppet was Boney, a dinosaur skeleton and a sort of anti-Barney. He's pretty much awesome because he hates everything and everyone, as evidenced in his trademark song, "I'm Boney, I'm Boney, leave me alone-y!" I don't know what it says about me as a child that I found this Boney fellow so hilarious, but I'm guessing it's in some way correlated to my angsty 90s cynicism.

The show also featured a slew of animated shorts, generally unrelated to the puppet action onstage. The cartoons featured the likes of such animated personalities as Batfink, Mighty Mouse, and Mr. Magoo. Cartoon stars from decades past were once again entertaining children, albeit only in short inter-sketch segments. Regardless of value, the cartoon shorts kept the show moving and maintained its quick pace during scene changes.

The interactive element of the show allowed for Weinerizing, the puppetization of real live audience members. Weinerized children often got to participate in all sorts of fun on-camera shenanigans, vying for gold and silver hot dog statuettes. In some cases, they were even lucky enough to experience the tour de fource of Nickelodeon audience participatory experiences: the sliming:

Admittedly, the show wasn't for everyone. To say the acting and execution was over-the-top would be a pretty forgiving understatement. Regardless, the show certainly had its charms in a whimsical-puppet-world type of way. As Daria's trusty sidekick Jane once said, everything is funnier with puppets*. I suppose I'll let you be the judge:

*The many, many Daria references recently peppering these posts are largely contingent on my finishing all 5 seasons while going stir-crazy in my current state of apartment-bound ankle breakage. Consider it a gift.

Digg This!