“The Electric Company” Brought The Power

by Kevin Burton

   Fifty years ago a technicolor light was turned on. For me it still shines.

  The premier episode of The Electric Company aired on PBS on Oct. 25, 1971. The show makes a very short list of my favorite television shows ever. 

   It burst forth on PBS in the wake of the groundbreaking “Sesame Street” with “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In” in its DNA.

   “The Electric Company roared onto the screen, orally and aesthetically more of a chrome-coated dragster than Sesame Street’s wholesome hippie hayride,” wrote David Kamp in his wonderful book, “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution that Changed America.”

    “Within two months of its introduction the show was being used in nearly a quarter of all primary schools in the US.It was also reaching an audience of nearly two million children who were watching at home after school.”  

   Kamp’s book tells the story of the Children’s Television Workshop, what fueled its creative and educational momentum and what eventually dissipated both. 

   For me, “Sesame Street” was OK, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was tolerable. But The Electric Company hit that sweet spot. 

   “By design, given its slightly older demographic, the Electric Company was goofier and more rambunctious than Sesame Street was,” Kamp wrote. “It was really a burlesque show for children.”

   In joyous preparation for this post, I took in an episode of The Electric Company from my “best of” DVD set. The Oct. 23, 1972 show begins with an Asian child entering s store and ordering the special, a banana split.  The show would focus on the consonant blend, “sp.”

   Shopkeeper Morgan Freeman obliges by taking out a banana and forcefully chopping it with a big knife. The pieces go flying, the child’s eyes go wide, we hear the show’s signature “Hey you guyyyyyys” screamed by Rita Moreno and we are off to the races.

   Off the charts cool!

   The Electric Company didn’t teach me how to read. I was reading years before I ever heard of the show. But the show taught me to love the letters and words to roll them around in my hands, to appreciate them with all their quirks and inconsistencies.  It taught me how to paint word pictures.

   The genius of Sesame Street came when its creator, Joan Ganz Cooney, figured out that instead of taking teachers and turning them into entertainers they would take entertainers and turn them into teachers. 

   “Just two months earlier, a new, quasi-psychedelic comedy sketch show called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In had premiered on NBC, exploding into the public consciousness,” Kamp wrote.

  “Joan Ganz Cooney was taken with its zippiness, how it jumped with alacrity from one bit to another, never allowing the viewer to get bored.”

   “Laugh in, with its innuendo-laden jokes and undulating body-painted go-go girls, was the antithesis of educational and child friendly programming,” Kamp wrote. “But for Cooney it was a useful model for how to keep kids engaged without their eyes glazing over.”

   Most of my old favorites were on the episode I watched.

   Fargo North the decoder, helped untangle a message for a very tall yellow feathered visitor who had lost his way.

   My main man Easy Reader, (a take off on Easy Rider), played by Morgan Freeman, preached the good gospel of reading, singing “I’m a reading man and it’s words I seek, every word I see I just gotta speak. I’m a first-class genuine reading freak whooo.”

   Judy Graubart played a Cinderella scene with Moreno that emphasized the consonant blend “br.” Graubart’s recurring, off-kilter Jennifer of the Jungle character lodged in my pre-pubescent mind and was filed away for future reference.

   There was an episode of “Love Of Chair,” a hilarious spoof of soap operas starring Paul Dooley as “a boy from a small chair in a big room.”

   Another Freeman character, disc jockey Mel Mounds played a song called “Boom” by The Short Circus, the show’s band of five musical children. He called the song “righteous, delightious and out-of-sighteous.”

   Can’t get my spell check to sign off on that but millions of children did. 

   “In its way the Children’s Television Workshop had as formidable a force in 1970s television as such west coast production shops as MTM Enterprises, the creator of the Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Bob Newhart Show, and Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions, the company behind All In The Family, Sanford and Son, Maude and Good Times,” Kamp wrote

   “I’ve always felt that what we were doing was a form of community service,” Moreno said. “It had all the aspects of it because it certainly didn’t pay very well. But I thought it was a noble, noble undertaking.” 

   When I’m having an especially tough day, I watch The Electric Company and it lifts my spirits every time. It always has hit that sweet spot.

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