Learning is Fun!

A look back at the PBS of my youth.
By Bro
July 20, 2015
This wasn't going to be the next article I wrote but the enthusiasm shown in the comments to my previous article on SNES rentals left me inspired to start it right away. Thanks to you all who expressed their interest in a PBS article, but I have to give you all a slight warning before you continue. My original plan was to right about afternoon shows. In fact, once I started looking for pictures, it took no small amount of restraint not to turn this whole thing into an article solely about Ghost Writer, as that's easily the show I remember the most about. While I can certainly recall the shows I used to watch in the morning as a small child, I didn't think I remembered enough specific information to make into a a full blown article. When I sit down to write one of these things, I make a point to include anecdotes and personal notes so as not to be generic. Most of us share these memories but it's our personal accounts of how we remember these events that I feel make these stories so enjoyable and why I feel we love this site and others like it begin with. That being said, I will do my best to remember what I can in hopes that I can jog the memories of you all, the readers. Maybe you can fill in the gaps that I can't. I'm more than happy to do some research to build upon existing memories, but I'm not going to copy and paste information for things I have zero recollection about. There. You've been informed.

As I'm sure most of us did, I watched a lot of Sesame Street, along with Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Reading Rainbow.

What I remember most about Sesame Street is that I always liked Bert and Ernie. Unfortunately, I can't remember anything specific about their segments. I know Bert liked pigeons and I'm pretty sure there was something that involved Ernie and a rubber duck. I think I also liked Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. I can remember Kermit talking about the London Fog and the two muppet aliens who would see an object and just repeat it's name over and over again. (Phone, phone, phone, phone, phone!)

I can also remember, and I'm pretty sure I saw this on Sesame Street and not another show, an animated segment that showed a hand pulling back a pinball lever and launching a ball through a machine that while somebody sang "One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve!"

I don't remember too much about Mr. Rogers. I know there was mailman who would come to his house. I remember the intro where Mr. Rogers would come and sing "Won't you be my neighbor?" and I remember he would follow the trolley into the land of make-believe. There was king and several other puppets in that land and some type of story would play out that taught us all a lesson...but I don't remember any of them. I always thought Mr. Rogers was very kind though and looked forward to visiting him every day.

I remember a little more about Reading Rainbow. The intro was cool because it showed real kids that turned into animated characters at the beach, in space, and other cool things.
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The whole premise was that you could do all these things when read a book. Since I loved to read anyway, Reading Rainbow was a perfect fit for me. Host LeVar Burton would start by reading us a book then take us somewhere where we would learn something.

I can remember one episode showed us about bugs and I think one episode even took us to the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation which he was one of the stars of. The show would then end by showing three different children recommending different books for us all to read. I used to look for books that were talked about on Reading Rainbow at our local library. Looking back on it, I really admire the way that Reading Rainbow encouraged kids to read. LeVar Burton used to end the show by saying "Don't take my word for it." He tried to get kids to learn and discover new things themselves in ways that just aren't television anymore. The one thing I remember most of all though about Reading Rainbow doesn't involve books. In one episode, somebody offered to show LeVar Burton how to make Tortellini. He then looked at the camera said to the audience "What's tortellini?" As a small child unwise in the ways of pasta, I had asked myself the same question. He was then shown what it was and how it was made. To this very day, if I ever see tortellini, I can't help but smile a little inside and think about Reading Rainbow. Funny what sticks with you over the years, isn't it? ;)

Now I'm going into really fuzzy territory. The next few shows are ones that I know I watched, but I can't remember jack about them. Chief among them is a show called Zoobilee Zoo.

I know for a fact that My sister and I, along with my sister's best friend, watched this show all the time. When it was over, we would play it and pretend to be our favorite characters. And that's where the memories end. I don't the names of any of the characters, let alone my favorite. I don't remember what their world looked like, I don't remember any of the stories...it's just blank. I have a vague recollection of how the theme song went but I have no idea how accurate it is.

I have a similar blackout for Today's Special.

Again, I know I watched it all the time, but I can't remember squat about it except that it took place in a department store, there was a male mannican who came to life when a hat was put on him, and I think were were puppets involved somehow. I can also remember the name of one episode. "Today's Special is...boxes and boxes." What was so special about these boxes? Where they round? Were they made of a strange material? Was the simply a whole lot of them? I honestly don't remember. (Yet I remember tortellini with perfect clarity. Go figure.)
The last morning show I can recall was Shining Time Station.

This may have been a Saturday morning show, but again, I'm not sure. It involved a boy and a girl, along with the people who worked at there. I remember there was band that lived in a jukebox.

When doing research, I was surprised to discover that the showed starred George Carlin and Ringo Starr.

Being so young, I had no clue who these people were at the time and never noticed. I don't remember the names of any of the characters and the only storyline I remember involved a bully who showed up at the station to visit his uncle. He treated the kids like garbage but pretended to be nice when adults were around. He eventually got caught. What I remember the most about this show was not the people, but rather that in each episode, usually to illustrate a point, somebody would tell a story about Thomas the Tank Engine and show would turn into that for a little bit. I don't know if Thomas had his own show at that point but it was always that segment that I looked forward to.

Eventually I grew out of the morning shows and during the later portion elementary school I discovered PBS. I had my fill of cartoons with the Disney Afternoon, so educational tv offered a nice balance. I associate this time with little PBS guy. Anybody else remember him?

The first show my sister and I got hooked on Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego. Even my folks liked it. I'm not going to go too much into it, as there's already an excellent Carmen Sandiego article on here by Nightwatcher and I don't want to repeat information. For as much as I enjoyed it, this show, specifically the final round, made me realize just how bad I was at geography. I used to picture myself being on the show, but I know that if I ever managed to get to the final round, which involved placing beacons on different areas of a giant map, I would have failed miserably. One thing I always enjoyed about this show were villains employed by Carmen Sandiego. They were tasked with stealing famous landmarks and things and I always liked keeping track of who I had and hadn't seen yet. Remember any of these people?

There were more, such as Double Trouble, Top Grunge, Eartha Brute, and Vic the Slick. One day I found out a pretty cool trick. Look at this picture.

Behind the chief, there is a shelf to the right that has what I assume are meant to be files with pictures of each villain on it. Somehow, I was able to use the way these files were arranged to figure who the villain would be before Chief had finished her briefing and told everybody. Unfortunately I don't recall how I could tell, but I used get excited when I knew it was somebody I hadn't seen yet.

Along with Carmen Sandiego, another show that grew to be popular with my sister and I was Square One.

This was a math-based show that used humor of all things to teach math concepts to kids. It was pretty cool, but alas there are only two segments of the show that I can remember specifically. The first was a very short segment called Mathman.

Inspired by Pac-Man, Mathman would go around maze chanting "mathman, mathman" and try to eat different mathematical ideas. One time, it was percentages. Another time it was something like multiples. He was chased by a tornado looking enemy called Mr. Glitch. Since anything video-game expired was instantly cool to me as a kid, Mathman struck a chord with me. The only thing I didn't like was that I never saw him win. Either Mr. Glitch would eventually catch him or he'd eat the wrong thing. If there was ever a segment where he did win, I never saw it. But the thing about Square One that I liked the most was called Mathnet, that made up pretty much the second half of the show.

Mathnet was a parody of Dragnet, and featured detective Tuesday and her partner being tasked to solve crimes in the city. Clues were gathered and eventually everything was solved using math and deduction. It was actually pretty cool. Again, I don't remember specific cases with one major exception. The duo got to go to a mystery weekend for some fun, but it quickly spirals into an Agatha-Christie inspired mystery.

Guests start disappearing and the pair must get to the bottom of it. Turned out that the butler did it. It was funny because his name was Peeved and whenever he'd introduce himself, he'd say "I am Peeved." Basically he captured everybody because they had all stood trial before but he was convinced they had used math to fool the juries into believing they were innocent. It's silly, I know, but it was cool because it was a five part episode that took us a week to watch. Most of the time things were solved in the fifteen or so minutes that Mathnet lasted. Even it was kinda cheesy, it was a lot of fun. In fact, here's all five parts for your viewing pleasure.

The one show however, the show that I could not get enough and was always sad when it was over, was Ghost Writer.

For those who don't remember, Ghost Writer was a teen mystery show set in Brooklyn. It's characters were Jamal, Alex and his sister Gabi, Lenni, Rob, Tina, and eventually Hector. Ghost Writer was a ghost who was first discovered by Jamal who could only communicate by writing, using words that were written around him. These could be written words, graffiti, fridge magnets, and in one instance even computer code. With the help of Ghost Writer, the gang would solve mysteries ranging from a group of older kids stealing lunch money, to who tagged up up the school. Ghost Writer was acclaimed for was it's racially diverse cast. Lenni and Rob were white, Jamal was black, Tina was asian, and Alex, Gabi, and Hector were Hispanic. The show wasn't afraid to tackle tough issues like drug addiction and racism. One of the things I remember most about the show is a conversation between Jamal and Rob. Rob had just come back from a rough neighborhood where someone called in "white boy" in a derogatory manner. He talks to Jamal about it, and Jamal kids him by saying he is more pink than white and concludes that he's not a white boy, but a pink eye. Rob then asks if anybody has ever called Jamal black boy. Jamal turns away, and solemnly says. "Yes, they have. And a lot worse." It's a touching moment that shows racism can happen to anybody.
Ghost Writer was aired in serial format, with each story line taking four (I think) episodes to reach their conclusion. I like that this show encouraged it's viewers participate in solving the mystery. A casebook was presented before each episode that reviewed the last episodes and any clues discovered while it aired. Unlike most of the shows I've talked about, I can remember several episodes of this show.
The first case started with Jamal. He and his sister live with his grandma and his sister is leaving for college. She leaves Jamal her computer.

After he's goofing around with it, he inadvertently discovers Ghost Writer. Sadly, I don't remember how. Next we are introduced to Alex, who is at the local arcade playing X-men. Yes, that X-men. As he runs out of quarters, Jamal enters the scene and the two strike up a conversation. They notice a group of kids in the corner playing a game called Double Defenders and they are taking it very seriously. They then notice a banner in the arcade that says a Double Defenders tournament will be held soon. Afterwards, we are introduced to the rest of the crew with the exception of Rob, who won't show up until the next case. (Which is fine by me, as he was my least favorite of the bunch.) Ghost Writer reveals himself to everybody and they learn he is a friend who wants to help them. Meanwhile, several kids at school are reporting that their lunch money is being stolen by group of older students in masks. What's going on? With Ghost Writer's help, they discover that the culprits are the kids who were playing Double Defenders. They wore masks with two heads to depict characters from the game. They were stealing lunch money to have quarters to practice with so that they could win the tournament. Is it silly? Of course it is, but it was presented well. The big tense moment was when the gang found the other kids chanting in the middle of the night like they were trying to summon Cthulhu about how they will dominate their competition in the tournament.

It's really cheesy by today's standards, but back then, when they spotted the gang and Jamal stayed behind so the others could get away, I was all kinds of worried. He got back safely and the day was saved. The kids become good friends, and the Ghost Writer mystery team was born. Other cases involved the gang writing a scary story about a slime monster named Gooey Gus, where the show cut between them and playing out the story they were writing. One had them in a contest involving a comic-book character named Hoodman. They were given a panel of the comic which contained clues to where the next one would be. The contest is being sabotaged by somebody else and they get to the bottom of it. In another case, somebody named Max Mouse was threatening the school and Ghost Writer helps them solve it by going into the culprits computer.

Another case even involved Ghost Writer traveling through time solve a mystery from the early 1900's, a case that if not not solved would stop the gang from ever meeting in the present. I thought it was really clever. While there's no doubt there is some early 90's cheesiness , I would love to watch this show again with my daughter. She loves mysteries and I've already got her hooked on Ducktales and classic Scooby-Doo and Johnny Quest. I think she'd enjoy it.

And that's it. That's the PBS that I remember. As I was writing this, what stands out to me the most is how children were not talked down to. Learning was made out be not a chore done in school, but a journey that was exciting to make on your own. PBS encouraged kids to think for themselves and made it seem cool to do so. That's something missing from a lot children's programming today. It makes me very thankful to have grown up with these shows. Until next time, stay retro folks. Thanks for reading.
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