One Thousand Words on PBS Televison in the Seventies

I was thinking about that old PBS show called The Electric Company the other day.

It just popped into my head so I googled it. A version of the show is still on the air, although the website doesn’t look like The Electric Company I used to watch. There are transformers and tabs with titles like “Battle” and “Planet.”

A search of “the electric company 1970s” yielded better results. I got sucked into watching a full episode. I had forgotten Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno were in the cast.

The Electric Company was a sort of educational sketch comedy show for kids. Sesame Street without the Muppets, only more urban and hip. At least the clothes were more urban and hip.

And it was very multi-cultural. I’m actually kind of surprised that they aired in Vermont in the 70s. The state isn’t very multi-cultural now and it was even worse in the 70s.

I don’t have many specific memories of the show other than them yelling “Hey you guys!” in one of the skits. I didn’t like that part because I thought the yelling was too loud. I have never been a fan of loud.

I don’t know what made me think of The Electric Company. I didn’t hear anyone yelling “Hey You Guys” or anything. But it led me to start thinking about other shows from my childhood. Zoom, for example.

I liked Zoom better than The Electric Company. I guess it was quieter. And the kids wore red and purple stripped shirts.

I remember two segments very clearly:

One where a girl showed us how to roll rags in our hair and leave it overnight so we’d wake up with curls. I can’t imagine why the writers of the show thought we should know how to do that, but apparently it was impressive because it stuck with me. I think I even tried it once. The rags made it hard to get comfortable enough to sleep.

And then there’s the famous “arm thing”. Really, that’s what they call it. One website says, “Mention ZOOM to people who remember the show from the 70’s, and suddenly you’ve got bankers, plumbers, and Ph.D.s waving their arms up and down the way Bernadette did in the show opening.”

The “arm thing” was putting your arms together at the elbows and flips your hands around so it looks like, well I don’t know how to describe it. Almost like your arms are switching places.

I practiced that move for hours, and I still never got it right.

I wonder if what shows you liked best as a kid say something about your personality. It least it sounds like a good question for a Cosmo quiz. “When you were a child, did you prefer Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood?” or “Were you a Zoom kid or The Electric Company kid?”

I liked both Sesame Street and Mister Rogers well enough growing up, but I definitely preferred Mister Rogers.

Mister Rogers drew a very clear line between real life and pretend. One minute we were talking to Mr. McFeely (They would never get away with that name today) and changing our shoes and the next that cute little trolley was taking us to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, full of kings and merry go rounds and blue owls.

On top of being fun, the trolley was very important to the transition. Even though Mister Rogers voiced all of the characters in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, a fact I didn’t realize until I was much older, it’s clear that it is a different world. The world of your imagination.

Sesame Street, on the other hand, is magical realism. The people – Bob, Maria, Gordon, Mr. Hooper – never blinked when they met monsters, birds or other creatures on the street. They were just their neighbors.

I never bought into it completely. I’ve been a realist from birth, I guess.

I also never liked the blatantly educational clips that Sesame Street played. They bored me.

Although I did really like that guy who painted numbers all over the place. What did they call him? The Mad Painter or something like that? And it was played by one of the actors on The Jeffersons. And he was in Waiting for Guffman too.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like Sesame Street at all. I did.

My favorite characters were Ernie and Bert. I especially liked it when Ernie pulled Bert’s nose off of his face. It made me laugh every time. I bet they don’t do that anymore. It’s probably too traumatic or they’re afraid some kid would cut his sister’s nose off after seeing it.

I also like Mr. Snuffleupagus.

This was back in the days when only Big Bird could see him. I read that they outed Snuffy because they didn’t want kids to be scared to tell the truth because adults would think they were lying. But I liked that he was visible to only Big Bird. It made it a kids-only, invisible friend type of thing.

But when it comes down to it, I’d take Mister Rogers and his covered sand table (how I wanted one of those sand tables!) over Oscar and the whole Sesame Street bunch.

So what does it mean that I prefered Zoom and Mister Rogers over The Electric Company and Sesame Street?

Other than being quiet and liking a clear distinction between the real world and pretend, I don’t have an answer. But I bet some smart grad or post-grad psychiatry student has written a thesis about it. Or will.

Maybe it will replace Myers-Briggs and those other test. Instead of being an INTJ, you’d be a Cookie Monster or King Friday.

I’m going to leave it at that because I left that Zoom website up while I was writing so I could link to it and I’m feeling guilty that poor Bernadette has been waving her arms around for over an hour.


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