Pinball Number Count
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Pinball Number Count (or Pinball Countdown) is a collective title referring to 11 one-minute animated segments on the PBS children's series Sesame Street that teach children to count to 12 by following the journey of a pinball through a rather fanciful pinball machine. These segments are notable for the colorful, imaginative animation as well as the funky soundtrack with vocals by The Pointer Sisters. Pinball Number Count was originally produced in 1976 by Imagination, Inc. in San Francisco, California for the Children's Television Workshop. It made its debut on Sesame Street in 1977.
The Pinball Number Count segments contain common beginning and ending sequences showing the launch of the pinball into the machine and the exit of the pinball from play, respectively. Between these two sequences is a number-specific animated narrative showing the pinball in play. This middle segment features a scene in which a number of contraptions move the pinball about the interior of the machine. Each scene begins with the ball following ramps and hitting some bumpers, then various features belonging to a theme specific to the number. The pinball then exits this area to the end sequence, where it leaves play.
At the beginning of each segment, we see a number with a group of stars circling around it. We hear a voice whispering the current number.
Music for Pinball Number Count was composed by Walt Kraemer and arranged by Ed Bogas. Performers included The Pointer Sisters on vocals and assorted San Francisco Bay Area jazz musicians, including Mel Martin on saxophone and Andy Narell on steel drums.
The arrangements reflect musical idioms commonly found in 1970s urban culture, predominantly funk and jazz, though other styles including Caribbean music are also represented. The number-specific middle sections contain one of three different improvised instrumental solos over a basic progression, featuring steel drums (numbers 2, 4, 9 and 12) electric guitar (3, 8 and 11) and soprano saxophone (5, 6, 7 and 10).
Consistent with an abbreviated jazz structure, a prearranged head and turnaround / coda are played during the common starting and ending animation sequences. The vocals work in similar fashion with the featured numeral spoken, sung and shouted during the middle section and a return to the arranged counting at the end.
The song employs complex rhythms, changing time signatures frequently between 4/4, 3/4 and 5/4 during the opening and closing segments, around a rhythmically straightforward 4/4 middle improvisation section.
Animation for the segments was directed by Jeff Hale and recalls contemporary psychedelic and pop art styles, typified by the ornate pinball bumpers, colorful geometrical motifs and whimsical themes and devices inside the machine. While great liberty is sometimes taken with respect to physics (the pinball moves smoothly over curved ramps lacking guide rails), subtle yet striking efforts toward realism are made by the animators to express the mechanical nature of the objects within. In particular, note that most of the contraptions in the pinball machine have discrete hinges and joints held together by screws and moved by rods or slots in the floor of the playing field.
List of segments
Despite the lyrics' counting from one to twelve, Pinball Number Count did not feature a segment for the number 1. The number 3 is the only segment that features four flashes of its number instead of three, while the number 7 is the only segment where the ball doesn't enter a hole at the end of the segment, while the number 8 is the only segment where the ball doesn't enter the scene immediately, while the number 9 only features two flashes of its number instead of three.
- #2: A Day at the Carnival (amusement park) The ball finds its way through carnival and amusement park-themed obstacles—riding a roller coaster, a ferris wheel, and some hanging airplanes until being dropped into a giant clown heads's mouth that leads to a haunted house ride. It passes by a ghost, a skeleton, and a bat (which zooms toward the camera), before exiting another giant clown head's mouth. Now it runs over a balloon man, goes through a ball toss, gets rejected from a duck game by a windmill, then is bounced into the hole by two bumper cars.
- #3: Circus Capers (circus) The ball rolls through circus attractions. It is shot from a blue cannon (flowers pop out), caught by clowns, and handed off by a ringmaster to a juggling monkey who tosses it to a lion tamer and her lion, who throws it through the hoop. The ball then gets tossed and it lands on the nose of a blue seal and is launched from a seesaw by a hippopotamus to a pink elephant that runs it into the hole.
- #4: FORE! (golf course) The ball rolls down a hill and is hit by a golfer. It crashes into a duck and it spins. The golfer gives the ball another shot. It then runs over another golfer with a flag standing next to a hole before entering a rabbit burrow (causing six purple rabbits to pop out of their holes). The golfer makes the last shot. The ball bumps off the bottoms of four trees before rolling into another tree where a squirrel drops it into the hole.
- #5: The Only Way to Travel (modes of transportation) The ball rolls down a ramp and is kicked by a man with a flag into the backseat of a car which enters a tunnel, from which emerges a bicycle with the ball in its basket. The ball is then pushed by a train, then a magnet attached to a plane picks it up and drops it into a tugboat, causing it to sink. After the ball is shot out of a volcano, it is caught by a blimp, which drops it into the hole.
- #6: Down on the Farm (farm animals) The ball rolls down a ramp attached to a barn and is kicked by a donkey past a group of sheep before rolling into the bottom of a haystack. It emerges from the top and is tossed by a goat dressed like a farmer. Now it rolls under a group of chicks and is laid like an egg under a mother hen who then pushes it away with its beak. The ball now rolls into a doghouse and is chased out by the dog inside. It then chases a pig into a barn where the goat farmer emerges from behind it carrying the ball in a wheelbarrow and drops it into the hole.
- #7: World Tour (famous world landmarks) The ball slides down from the roofs of the Taj Mahal and under a snake charmer whose pet snake is startled awake and pushes the ball out from under him with its tail. The ball rolls under the Sphinx (the statue turns its head to see the ball as it rolls behind him), and into the pyramid of Khafre. The ball leaves the pyramid from the top and bounces off two onion domes before being kicked into the air by a Russian dancer. A Swiss-mountain climber blowing a alphorn swings to the right to catch the ball. Then he swings to the left and blows the ball loose. The ball lands on a bull in a ring, bounces off him and crashes into a matador. It then gets rejected by a Kinderdijk windmill, runs over a constable and rolls into a sentry box which causes two British guards to pop out of their holes.
- #8: Forest Follies (forest animals) Many forest animals pass the ball around. A unicycling teddy bear, a frog, a monkey, a pelican, a kangaroo, a gopher, a second brown bear in a tree, two more unicycling brown bears, and a unicycling raccoon who drops it into the hole.
- #9: Play Ball! (baseball) The ball rolls down a ramp and encounters some baseball players, runs over a hot-dog seller, and is chased under the bleachers and dropped into the hole by a dog.
- #10: Medieval Times (Middle Ages) A second ball slides down a ramp attached to a castle wall while the first ball is launched from a catapult by a peasant and a knight into the mouth of a dragon who spits it out with fire. The ball rams into another knight. We see a tent with a hole behind the flap which the ball tries to go through but is stopped by a giant’s foot. A spiky flail belonging to the giant, pushes the ball on. The ball then rolls into a castle through the doorway as the bridge lowers, then it is shot from a cannon into the cave, and splashes into a witch's cauldron. The dragon then emerges from the cauldron with the ball in its mouth and drops it into the hole.
- #11: Wild Things (jungle animals) Many jungle animals pass the ball around, including a monkey, an elephant, a giraffe, a jaguar, a rhinoceros, a zebra, a lion, a hare, a tiger, and a gorilla that flicks it into the hole.
- #12: Sightseeing, USA (famous American landmarks) The ball goes sightseeing through American landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, a Red Wood Tree, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a San Francisco Trolley which drops it into the hole.
Cover versions and parodies
Pinball Number Count has been covered and remixed by a number of artists. One such version, done with the cooperation of Sesame Workshop, was released under the DJ Food name by Ninja Tune Records on a 12" EP  and the Zen TV DVD. Other versions have been performed by Venetian Snares (on the Infolepsy EP), Wicked Hemlocks, The Postmarks and an instrumental version by Big Organ Trio. The refrain was prominently featured in Many Moons by Janelle Monáe. It was covered by Brandon Williams on his 2014 album 'XII' featuring Dames Brown & Nicholas Payton.
The Family Guy episode "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Fonz" used a plastic bubble-encased Stewie as the pinball in a close parody of the segment. The Pointer Sisters' distinctive counting style in particular is also referenced near the start of the film Half Nelson, where Ryan Gosling's character Dan Dunne mumbles the numbers in the same fashion.
In 2019, sesamestreet.org released an online pinball game based on the animated segments.
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- "Pinball Number Count/C is For Cookie (ZEN12143)". Ninja Tune Records. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
- "Ninjatune Releases - Solid Steel Presents Sesame Street". Ninja Tune Records. Retrieved 2013-01-04.
- "Pinball Number Count".