The Electric Company
|The Electric Company|
|Format||Children's television series
Lee Chamberlin (seasons 1-2 (1971–1973)/3, episode 386 (1974)/6, episode 8B (1976))
Bill Cosby (1971–1973)
Luis Ávalos (1972–1977)
Hattie Winston (1973–1977)
Danny Seagren (1974–1977)
The Short Circus
Irene Cara (1971–1972)
Douglas Grant (1971–1973)
Stephen Gustafson (1971–1975)
Melanie Henderson (1971–1975)
Denise Nickerson (1972–1973)
Bayn Johnson (1973–1975)
Gregg Burge (1973–1975)
Janina Mathews (1975–1977)
Réjane Magloire (1975–1977)
Rodney Lewis (1975–1977)
Todd Graff (1975–1977)
The Adventures of Letterman (1972-1977)
Gene Wilder (cameo)
Mel Brooks (cameo)
Joan Rivers (cameo)
Zero Mostel (cameo)
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of seasons||6|
|No. of episodes||780|
|Running time||28 minutes|
|Original channel||PBS, (1971–1977/reran in 1977-1985), Noggin (1999–2002)|
|Original run||October 25, 1971– April 15, 1977|
The Electric Company is an educational American children's television series that was directed by Bob Schwartz, Henry Behar (1972–1975) and John Tracy (1975–1976), written by Christopher Cerf (1971–1973), Jeremy Steven (1972–1974) and John Boni/Amy Ephron (1972–1973) and produced by the Children's Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) for PBS in the United States. PBS broadcast 780 episodes over the course of its six seasons from October 25, 1971, to April 15, 1977. After it ceased production that year, the program continued in reruns from 1977 to 1985, as the result of a decision made in 1975 to produce two final seasons for perpetual use. CTW produced the show at Second Stage, located within the Reeves Teletape Studios, in Manhattan, the first home of Sesame Street.
The Electric Company employed sketch comedy and other devices to provide an entertaining program to help elementary school children develop their grammar and reading skills. It was intended for children who had graduated from CTW's flagship program, Sesame Street. The humor was more mature than what was seen there.
The original cast included Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby, Judy Graubart, Lee Chamberlin and Skip Hinnant. Most of the cast had done stage, repertory, and improvisational work, with Cosby and Moreno already well-established performers on film and television. Ken Roberts (1971–1972), best known as a soap-opera announcer (Love of Life; The Secret Storm), was the narrator of some segments during season one, most notably the parody of the genre that had given him prominence, Love of Chair.
Jim Boyd, who was strictly an off-camera voice actor and puppeteer during the first season, began appearing on-camera in the second season, mostly in the role of J. Arthur Crank. Luis Ávalos also joined the cast at that time.
Bill Cosby was a regular in Season One, and occasionally appeared in new segments during Season Two, but left afterward. Nevertheless, segments that Cosby had taped during the first two years were repeatedly used for the rest of the run, and Cosby was billed as a cast member throughout. Similarly, Lee Chamberlin also left after Season Two, but many of her segments were also repeatedly reused; consequently, she was also billed as a cast member for the rest of the show's run.
Added to the cast at the beginning of Season Three (1973-1974) was Hattie Winston, an actress and singer who later appeared on the show Becker. Beginning in Season Four (1974-1975), Danny Seagren, a puppeteer who worked on Sesame Street and also as a professional dancer, appeared in the role of Spider-Man because he replaced the 1973 departed Bill Cosby.
- "The Adventures of Letterman": Premiering during season two, "Letterman" featured the work of animators John and Faith Hubley. The title character (a flying superhero in a letter jacket and a football helmet) foiled the Spell Binder, an evil magician who made mischief by changing words into new words. It featured the voices of Zero Mostel, Joan Rivers (the narrator) and Gene Wilder. In his book The TV Arab, Jack Shaheen criticized the portrayal of the evil Spell Binder as a negative racial stereotype.
- "Five Seconds": Halfway through the show, viewers were challenged to read a word within a five- or ten-second time limit. From seasons 3 to 4 (1973 to 1975), in a spoof of Mission: Impossible the word would self-destruct in a Scanimate animation sequence after the time expired. From seasons 5 to 6 (1975 to 1977), the viewers had to read the word before a cast member (or a group of children) did.
- "Giggles, Goggles": Two friends (usually Rita Moreno and Judy Graubart) riding a tandem bicycle or something similar conversed, when one of them would misuse a word. Several similar words were humorously misused until they returned to the original word.
- "Here's Cooking at You": A send-up of Julia Child's cooking shows, with Judy Graubart playing Julia Grown-Up
- "Jennifer of the Jungle": A Borscht Belt-style parody of George of the Jungle, with Jennifer (Judy Graubart) and Paul the Gorilla (Jim Boyd)
- "The Last Word": Shown at the end of season one (1971 to 1972), a dimly lit incandescent bulb with a pull-chain switch was shown hanging; the voice of Ken Roberts would gravely state, "And now, the last word." A single word would appear (usually one that had been featured earlier in the episode). An unseen cast member would read the word aloud, reach his/her arm into the shot, and turn the light off by tugging the pull chain.
- "Love of Chair": A spoof of Love of Life, Ken Roberts (who was also the announcer for Life) read a Dick and Jane-style story about a boy (Skip Hinnant) sitting on a chair and doing simple things, concluding by asking questions in a dramatic tone followed by "For the answer to these and other questions, tune in tomorrow for 'Love Of Chair.'"
- "Mad Scientist": Monster parody with an evil scientist (Morgan Freeman) and his assistant Igor (Luis Avalos), who tried to read words associated with their experiments.
- "Monolith": Animated short, set in outer space and used to introduce segments involving a phonic. A large, rectangular pillar of rock (reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey) collapsed to the strains of Also sprach Zarathustra after being disturbed by an astronaut or extraterrestrial. The letters of the phonic appeared from the clearing dust, with a deistic voice pronouncing it.
- "The Night Fright": A 1974 season 4 sketch with scouts (played by June Angela as Julie, Bayn Johnson as Kelly and Stephen Gustafson as Buddy).
- "Pedro's Plant Place": Featured Luis Avalos as a garden-shop proprietor who incorporated words into his planting tips, accompanied by the plant-language-speaking guard plant Maurice (Jim Boyd).
- "Phyllis and the Pharaohs": A 1950s-style doo-wop group, with Rita Moreno singing lead and the male adult cast on backup.
- "Road Runner": New cartoons featuring the Looney Tunes character and his pursuer, Wile E. Coyote, produced and directed by Chuck Jones, which reinforced reading skills with words on signs encountered by the characters; used occasional sound and verbal effects.
- "Sign Sing-Along": Often the last sketch on a Friday, these films featured signs with words accompanied by a sing-along song. They were sung once through; viewers supplied the lyrics the second time, while a trumpet-and bassoon-duo played the melody.
- "The Six-Dollar and Thirty-Nine-Cent Man": Spoof of The Six Million Dollar Man in seasons five and six, with Jim Boyd as Steve Awesome, Luis Avalos as Awesome's boss Oscar and Hattie Winston as the General; the other adult cast members played villains.
- "Slow Reader": Animated or live-action shorts in which a slow reader was given a message to read by a delivery man. Each message had advice that he needed to follow, but because of his inability to sound out the words he often wound up in trouble.
- "Soft-Shoe Silhouettes": Two people in silhouette, one making the initial sound of a word and the other the rest of the word; the two then said the word in unison. The soft-shoe music composed by Joe Raposo.
- "Spidey Super Stories": Short pieces debuting during season four and featuring Spider-Man (played by Danny Seagren in 1974-1977) foiling petty criminals. Spidey was never seen out of costume as his alter ego, Peter Parker, and he spoke in speech balloons for the audience to read. A spin-off comic book, Spidey Super Stories, was produced by Marvel Comics from 1974 to 1981.
- "Vaudeville Revue": Skits and songs presented in variety-show style on stage, with music fanfare and canned applause; also called the Stage.
- "A Very Short Book": Sometimes the last sketch, it featured a nursery rhyme or story read by a cast member who turned the pages of a book with moving pictures. The stories usually had a humorous ending that was different from the original.
- "Vi's Diner": Lee Chamberlin played the proprietor of a diner where customers read simple menus to place their orders.
- "Wild Guess": Game-show spoof (similar to You Bet Your Life) with announcer Ken Kane (Bill Cosby) and host Bess West (Rita Moreno), in which the contestant would guess the day's secret word. When the word was not guessed, West would give three clues as to what the word was.
Selected recurring characters
- Blond-Haired Cartoon Man (Mel Brooks): This character would read words appearing on screen; however, they often showed up in the wrong order or made no sense; as such, the character would resort to correcting the words.
- The Blue Beetle (Jim Boyd): Bumbling superhero, who often made matters worse instead of better when he tried to help; often challenged Spider-Man.
- Clayton: Claymation character, animated by Will Vinton, who commented on the previous skit or introduced a new concept.
- The Corsican Twins (Skip Hinnant and Jim Boyd): Twin brothers who inflicted pain on each other while teaching phonics.
- Dr. Doolots (Luis Avalos): Parody of Doctor Dolittle and Groucho Marx, who used words to cure his patients.
- Easy Reader (Morgan Freeman): Smooth hipster who loved reading; associated with Valerie the Librarian (Hattie Winston) and Vi (Lee Chamberlin) in her diner.
- Fargo North, Decoder (Skip Hinnant): Inspector Clouseau-type detective, who decoded scrambled word messages and phrases; his name was a pun based on Fargo, North Dakota.
- Francine: a scout, played by June Angela as Julie in the 1974 season 4 sketch "The Night Fright".
- J. Arthur Crank (Jim Boyd): a plaid-wearing grouchy character, who interrupted sketches to complain when spellings or pronunciations confused him; named after British film mogul J. Arthur Rank.
- Lorelei the Chicken (Jim Boyd): Animated chicken appearing in live-action scenes. She was a caricature of actress Carol Channing.
- Mel Mounds (Morgan Freeman): Disc jockey who introduced songs, usually by the Short Circus.
- Monsters; Werewolf (Jim Boyd) (who was in the 1972 sketch Tea with Scream (season 2) and 1974 sketch Night Fright (season 4)) and Frankenstein (Skip Hinnant) would team up with Dracula (Morgan Freeman).
- Millie the Helper (Rita Moreno): Eager-beaver trainee working at various jobs. She was the first to shout "Hey, you guys!" a popular expression on the show.
- Otto the Director (Rita Moreno): Old-style Hollywood film director, who tried in vain to make her actors say a line correctly but failed more often than not
- Pandora the Brat: Rita Moreno's bratty-but-lovable blonde girl who tried to outwit the adults around her.
- Paul the Gorilla (Jim Boyd): Sidekick of Jennifer of the Jungle; named after head writer Paul Dooley.
- Vincent the Vegetable Vampire: A send-up of Dracula, played by Morgan Freeman.
The adult cast also had recurring roles as Spider-Man (Danny Seagren) (seasons 4-6 (1974-1977)), J.J. (Skip Hinnant), Carmela (Rita Moreno), Brenda (Lee Chamberlin) (seasons 1–2 (1971-1973), Mark (Morgan Freeman), Hank (Bill Cosby) (seasons 1-2 (1971-1973)), Winnie (Judy Graubart), Andy (Jim Boyd), Roberto (Luis Ávalos) (seasons 2-6 (1972-1977)) and Sylvia (Hattie Winston) (seasons 3-6 (1973-1977)).
The Short Circus
Another regular part of the show was the Short Circus (the name a pun on short circuit), a five-member singing band whose songs also facilitated reading comprehension. June Angela was the only Short Circus member to remain with the show during its entire six-year run. Others lasted anywhere from one to four years. Irene Cara appeared during the first season (1971-1972) and would go on to become a pop-music star. Cara was replaced by the former singer Denise Nickerson, best known for her appearance as Violet Beauregarde in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in the second season (1972-1973).
The other three original members of the Short Circus were singer and guitarist Melanie Henderson, drummer and singer Stephen Gustafson, and singer, tamborinist and guitarist Douglas Grant. For seasons three (1973-1974) and four (1974-1975), Grant and Nickerson were replaced by tap dancer Gregg Burge and Broadway actress Bayn Johnson.
Except for June Angela, an entirely new Short Circus was cast for seasons five (1975-1976) and six (1976-1977). The new hires were Todd Graff, singer Rodney Lewis, Réjane Magloire, and singer Janina Matthews who replaced the departed Gustafson, Burge, Henderson, and Johnson for seasons five (1975-1976) and six (1976-1977).
In the first season (1971-1972), a number of unbilled children were also used on-camera with the show's cast, as on Sesame Street, but this concept was quickly dropped.
Because of the frequent reuse of segments, a practice derived from Sesame Street, actors continued to appear after their departures from the cast.
- June Angela as Julie (Tamborines)
- Irene Cara as Iris (Keyboards 1971–1972)
- Stephen Gustafson as Buddy (Drums 1971–1975)
- Melanie Henderson as Kathy (Electric guitar 1971–1975)
- Douglas Grant as Zach (Electric guitar 1971–1973)
- Denise Nickerson as Allison (1972–1973)
- Bayn Johnson as Kelly (Electric guitar 1973–1975)
- Gregg Burge as Dwayne (Electric guitar 1973–1975)
- Janina Mathews as Gail (1975–1977)
- Réjane Magloire as Samantha (1975–1977)
- Rodney Lewis as Charlie (1975–1977)
- Todd Graff as Jesse (1975–1977)
The Electric Company also featured a few celebrity guest appearances on the show. An incomplete list follows.
- Big Bird (voiced by Carol Spinney) (1972)
- Victor Borge (1972)
- Carol Burnett (1972-1973)
- David L. Cook (1971)
- Barbara Eden (1972)
- Walt Frazier
- Peter Graves
- Lorne Greene (1972-1973)
- Elvin Hayes
- Michael Landon (1972-1973)
- Dean Martin (1973)
- Dick Martin (1972)
- Greg Morris
- Joe Namath (1972)
- Carroll O'Connor (1972)
- Oscar the Grouch (voiced by Carol Spinney) (1975)
- Gary Owens (1972-1973)
- Richard Paul (1976)
- Dan Rowan (1972)
- Jean Stapleton (1972)
- Lily Tomlin (1972)
- Willie Tyler
- Woody Allen
- Diane Keaton
- Tony Orlando
- Joe Raposo, who was famous for his work on Sesame Street, was the music director of the series for seasons one through three and wrote songs for the show during its entire run.
- Gary William Friedman, who wrote the music for the hit Broadway rock opera The Me Nobody Knows was the music director and composer for 130 episodes of The Electric Company, composer for an additional 260 episodes, and wrote some 40 songs, including the popular Spider-Man theme song.
- Tom Lehrer wrote ten songs for the series. Two of those songs, "L-Y" and "Silent E," were included as bonus tracks on Lehrer's second live album.
- Dave Conner was the music director for Seasons Five and Six.
- Clark Gesner wrote several songs for the series, including most of the sign songs, but never served as the show’s music director.
The series was notable for its extensive, innovative use of early computer-generated imagery, especially Scanimate, a then-state-of-the-art analog video-synthesizer system. They were often used for presenting words with particular sounds. Sometimes a cast member would be seen alongside or interacting in another way with a word animation.
A total of 780 episodes were produced in the show's six-season run, 130 per season. As with Sesame Street, each episode of The Electric Company was numbered on-screen instead of using traditional episode titles. Seasons One through Four were numbered 1–520 (1971–1975). Season five was numbered 1A–130A (1975–1976), while season six was numbered 1B–130B (1976–1977). The last two seasons were designated as such because they were designed as year-long curriculum for schools.
Starting with season three, a show's number would be presented in the sketch-of-the-day teaser segment, a parody of soap-opera teasers, which would highlight a particular sketch that would be shown during that episode. The voice of a cast member would say a variant of, "Today on The Electric Company, the so-and so says, '(censored),'" and the action would freeze as the graphic of the word of the day (or a card with the word of the day printed on it) became visible to viewers. The censored words were replaced by a series of harsh electronic sounds (similar to the sound of a theremin) roughly mimicking the tone and cadence of the word in question. The still action would linger on the screen for several seconds, then fade to black, where the show number would become visible in a Scanimate animation in a random color. The music for this segment was a repetitive, funky instrumental groove featuring a call-and-response between horns and a scratchy wah-wah guitar.
The next-show teaser, which was introduced in season two without music, worked in the same way, and usually used a different take of the music heard during the sketch-of-the-day teaser, except that the voice said "Tune in next time, when...," and there was no show number shown. In season six, the electronic sounds were made less harsh-sounding, and new background music featuring lots of horns and a Moog synthesizer was used.
In Season One, however, after the title sequence, the sound of a striking match would be heard, and a fade-up from black would reveal a hand holding a lit match and "Show #x" handwritten on a piece of paper that was placed in such a way so that it could blend with the surrounding objects in-frame. Instead of the next-show teaser, Ken Roberts's voice could be heard, saying, "And now, the last word," and the trademark light bulb would be shut off by a hand doing whatever the last word was. In Season Two, after the opening sequence the words "The Electric Company" would disappear from the familiar logo, and the show number would appear in its place through the use of a Scanimate animation and an electronic whooshing sound.
Notably, some episodes in seasons three through five had serious technical errors with either their sketch-of-the-day teaser segments or their next-show teaser segments, which was probably because of the failure of the linear analog video-editing equipment. Episodes that have these errors in their sketch-of-the-day teasers include 297, 390, 1A, 8A, and 15A—sometimes the music started too late, ended too early, or played too long; sometimes the errors are negligible, with the teaser music only playing a fraction of a second longer than usual.
For season six, because the teaser music was changed to a shorter, self-contained composition, these errors do not occur, with the exception of the teaser of 33B shown at the end of 32B (available on iTunes), where the teaser was accidentally cut by a fraction of a second.
The Electric Company was canceled in 1977 at the height of its popularity. Unlike its counterpart Sesame Street, which licensed its Muppet characters for merchandising, The Electric Company did not have a brand or character that could help generate profit. The only significant items the show licensed were comic books and a Milton Bradley board game of the Fargo North, Decoder character. Licensing rights were also granted to Mattel Electronics for two educational-based video games for the Intellivision console in 1979. These games featured both the show's title logo on the game's packaging and label and the first several notes of the theme song played on the title screen of the games.
In addition, the PBS stations and statewide networks that aired the show often complained of the Children's Television Workshop "soaking up so much money in public television," said veteran television producer Samuel Gibbon, who worked on the show. "The stations demanded that one of the programs—either Sesame Street or The Electric Company—be put into reruns to save money. By that time, Sesame Street was a cash fountain for the Workshop. The show was almost supporting itself by then with all the productions, books, records, and games. There was no way, it was felt, that they could reduce the number of original shows of Sesame Street. But the thought was that if we produce two final seasons of The Electric Company which were designed to be repeated, that would give the show four more years of life." Most PBS programs at the time were produced by local stations instead of independent producers like CTW.
Following the last original episode on April 15, 1977, The Electric Company continued on PBS in reruns until fall 1985, which gave the show about the amount of life expected at the time after production ended, with the final two seasons (1A through 130B) shown in rotation. These are the episodes that are the most familiar to younger viewers.
The earlier shows did not resurface until February 2, 1999, when the Noggin network, which was partly owned by Sesame Workshop at the time, rebroadcast the show as a result of its co-ownership of the network. A two-hour feature-length compilation special, which was aired on TV Land, re-introduced the series to a new generation whose parents had grown up watching the show.
Noggin ran 65 select episodes until 2003, when they were pulled from the program lineup because Sesame Workshop sold its half of the network to Viacom, which already owned the other half. The shows were cut subtly to fit Noggin's shorter running time and free up time for various interstitial segments produced for the network. These deletions included the episode numbers, the Scanimate word animations, the segments 15 seconds and shorter, and the teasers of the next episodes (in seasons 2–6).
During the same period as the Noggin rebroadcasts, numerous fans of the program produced QuickTime and MP3 clips from the Noggin rebroadcasts, old over-the-air recordings, and, in some cases, from master recordings. These were hosted online at various places and received heavy attention from the blogosphere (e.g., Boing Boing) until a cease-and-desist letter took down the most prominent of these sites in 2004.
The series was not seen since it was pulled from Noggin’s schedule until Sesame Workshop, under license to Shout! Factory and Sony BMG Music Entertainment, released a DVD boxed set on February 7, 2006, called The Best of the Electric Company that included 20 uncut episodes from throughout the show's run, including the first and last episodes, plus outtakes and introductions and commentary by Rita Moreno and June Angela.
Due to the overwhelming—and somewhat unexpected—popularity of the initial DVD release, a second boxed set was released on November 14, 2006 (The Best of the Electric Company: Volume 2). This second volume contained 20 episodes from seasons one through five plus a 30-minute documentary on the effects of in-school viewings of The Electric Company from 1975. Cast members Luis Avalos, Jim Boyd, Judy Graubart, Skip Hinnant, and Hattie Winston provided commentary and reflected on their years on the show. However, the original content of nine episodes presented in this set were altered. In some cases, material that was originally broadcast in a particular episode was removed completely while material from other episodes was included. For example, 60A originally contained the Spider-Man episode "Spidey Meets the Prankster" and used a scene from that sketch as the opening teaser, which was removed completely after the opening credits, leaving only the episode number, and at the start is an episode of "The Six-Dollar and Thirty-Nine Cent Man," which supposedly aired only during season six. Also removed following the Letterman sketch in this episode was the clip of the Short Circus singing "Stop!" and a Road Runner–Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Clayton appeared in this episode as well, even though he supposedly only appeared in season six. These altered episodes also contain special effects used to segue from one sketch to another that were not used in the show's original run. The other altered episodes are 197, 227, 322, 375, 35A, 57A, 77A, and 105A. The material seen in these altered episodes was not what was originally shown when the episodes were first broadcast.
It is believed that these changes were probably made to avoid repeats of segments that were on the first DVD set, but it is more likely that it was due to ownership rights—the segments that were used to cover up the material not under Sesame Workshop's control (Spider-Man, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, etc.) were longer than the excised segments, so the episodes were cut further to get them down to their required 28-minute length.
An hour-long television show called The Electric Company's Greatest Hits & Bits was broadcast on many PBS stations in late 2006. It included interviews with cast members, voice talent, and creator-producer Joan Ganz Cooney. The special was produced by Authorized Pictures and distributed by American Public Television, and was designed to be seen during pledge drives. It was released on DVD on March 6, 2007.
In early 2007, Apple Inc., through its iTunes service, started selling 15 previously-unavailable episodes of The Electric Company. "Volume 1" contained Episodes 5, 13, 23, 128, 179, 249, 261, 289, 297, 374, 416, 475, 91A, 8B, and 32B.
In late 2007, another collection of 15 episodes dubbed "Volume 2" became available from iTunes. The new additions were Episodes 2, 36, 40, 75, 142, 154, 165, 172, 189, 218, 245, 290, 337, and 350. Repeated from Volume 1 was Episode 8B, erroneously labeled as 658, even though it is correct if the A–B designations were disregarded (1A–130A are 521–650, 1B–130B are 651–780).
It is unclear if these episodes were altered from the versions originally shown on television. Shout! Factory representatives indicated that it had no plans for another DVD set, implying that episodes distributed via iTunes would not be available in another format.
In May 2008, Sesame Workshop began production on a new version of The Electric Company that began airing on PBS on January 23, 2009. The revival included interactive Web elements and community-outreach projects. Karen Fowler served as executive producer. Unlike the 1970s series, in which the Electric Company referred to a troupe of actors in comedy sketches, the new series referred to a group of super heroes who battle villains in the name of literacy.
Season one premiered on January 23, 2009, and consisted of 28 episodes. None of the segments used in the 1970s were used in the revival (with the exception of new versions of the soft-shoe silhouettes and an occasional appearance of Paul the Gorilla, although these were infrequent), nor were any of the original actors (although June Angela had a cameo as a woman on the street). In addition, the theme used of the new version had no musical relation to the 1970s theme. The show was nominated for eight Emmy Awards in 2010 and won five.
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- The Electric Company (1971 version) at the Internet Movie Database
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