After 26 years, PBS staple Reading Rainbow is calling it a day.
I suppose its a miracle that the series managed to stay on as long as it did, as the show worked to cultivate a love of books, as opposed to phonetics and basic reading comprehension. It assumed the viewing audience had already cultivated these skills, but more recent generations seem to be behind the curve (not to worry--our children will have fantastic text messaging skills!). Hosted by Levar Burton (a charming, affable, and very underrated actor, known to many as visually-impaired STNG's Geordi La Forge and Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley's Roots miniseries), the show would often feature celebs like Bill Cosby and Hulk Hogan narrating from popular and new kids' books, turning on many fledgling readers like myself onto a myriad of fantastic material. Plus, it had that amazing sing-a-long theme song...
Looking back, several programs on PBS and Nickelodeon really helped supplement my early education and thirst for knowledge. My hat is off to Reading Rainbow, and these other shows that hold a special place in my heart:
SESAME STREET (1969-Present)
With over 4000 episodes on its belt, Sesame Street remains the educational benchmark of children's television. It does what a lot of shows endeavor to do but fall short of--being educational, while remaining fun, fresh and entertaining for adults and children alike. Jim Henson's Muppet characters are known throughout the world (as a kid, for me, it got no better than Snuffleupagus and Grover, who's near and far routine would become the fodder of many improv bits for me throughout the years) and the show has many international spin-offs. It shows no signs of slowing, thankfully!
TODAY'S SPECIAL (1982-1987)
This charming Canadian show was part of my Nickelodeon mornings--taking place in a department store after hours, where mannequin Jeff would come to life (I'm sure Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall were taking notes) and hang out with good buddy Jodie, nightwatchman Sam, and fancy mouse Muffy. It focused on small lessons and subjects, and played up the comedy. Short-lived, but well-remembered.
THE VOYAGE OF THE MIMI (1984)
A 13-part PBS miniseries, it followed the adventures of a boat called the Mimi on its humpback whale census voyage. Notable nowadays for its early star turn for Ben Affleck, it focused on teaching the viewer a bit about science and mathematics, from cartography to heat and condensation. It was shown a bunch alongside 321 Contact.
MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD (1968-2001)
Was there a nicer guy than Fred Rogers? I'd be hard pressed to think of one. This gentle, fun trip through the power of imagination left us in the nurturing hands of eternally-optimistic host Rogers (it really is a beautiful day in the neighborhood), taking us on a trolley to the neighborhood of make-believe, where we'd pal around with puppet characters like King Friday XIII, Ana Platypus and Daniel Striped Tiger. It's like a big, fuzzy blanket of a show--always welcome and comforting.
Canada's answer to Sesame Street, this show was the cornerstone of Nickelodeon in the early '80s. My favorites: Plus and Minus, best buds who constantly played a game of tag called "Gotcha last!" (Sure, they were clearly a take on Bert and Ernie, but I loved 'em anyways). The show was broadcast in long, multi-hour chunks, a bit of an early-morning educational babysitter.
MR. WIZARD'S WORLD (1983-1990)
Oh man, science is COOL! At least that's what Don Herbert (aka Mr. Wizard) taught us all to think, conducting sweet science experiments with a rotating cast of kids (chemical reactions often resulted in fireballs and brights brilliant flashes of light, eliciting oohs and aahs). Herbert is well known from his series in the 50s called Watch Mr. Wizard. Herbert passed away in 2007, but his love of science lives on in kids everywhere.
SQUARE ONE TELEVISION (1987-1994)
The concept was challenging--how do we make mathematics interesting and graspable to children? Square One pulled it off, thanks largely to a segment called Mathnet, a Dragnet-style piece that ended each episode and featured notable guest stars like James Earl Jones. Yeah, math is still difficult and laborious for me, but this show made it seem fun.
THE GREAT SPACE COASTER (1981-1986)
Oh man, I adored this show (I even tried to nickname a purple car I used to own "The Grape Space Coaster," but it never took), particularly the Gary Gnu segments (No Gnews is Good Gnews with Gary...Gnu). Despite the semi-scary giant clown named Baxter who piloted the space coaster (but aren't all clowns semi-scary), the show really resonated with me.
THE ELECTRIC COMPANY (1971-1977)
HEY YOU GUUUUUUUUYS!!!
The cast was outstanding (Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby!) on this hip, fun, eclectic 70s kids show. Notable segments include The Adventures of Letterman (with voice work by Zero Mostel, Joan Rivers and Gene Wilder), Freeman's Easy Reader, and those silhouettes which would each whisper part of a word before linking it together. It was just revived this year!
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN SAN DIEGO? (1991-1996)
An addictive, fun game-show based on the best-selling PC games, it pitted three contestants against each other on a search for the world's most notorious country-jumping thief, Carmen San Diego. Hosted by Lynn Thigpen (who we sadly lost to a cerebral hemorrhage in 2003) as The Chief who would help the young "gumshoes" track her down, and featuring music by Rockapella, every episode closed with a kid trying to put flags in the correct countries called out by host Greg Lee. Super fun, it really helped foster a love for travel and geography.
3-2-1 CONTACT (1980-1988)
An afternoon PBS tradition, its breakout stars were The Bloodhound Gang, a crew of young amateur sleuths who used science to solve crimes. A popular magazine came out shortly after the show began, which I used to read alongside publications like Ranger Rick and National Geographic World.
CAPTAIN KANGAROO (1955-1984)
Ok, I admit it. I used to like to watch this show just to see those ping pong balls fall from the sky and nail the Captain, courtesy of Mr. Moose. Well, that and the phenomenal Picture Pages segment done by Bill Cosby (love the sound of that pen!). Bob Keeshan had a great spirit and warmth as the title host, creating a fun world of unusual puppets and characters.
All of these great programs made a difference in my life--and I can only hope my future kids latch onto educational shows like this and find an interest in all of the great things in this world--and not just video games and social networking!