Friday, May 12, 2006

Don't join that club

One of my favorite bloggers out there is Mr. Fred Hembeck. Fred is a familiar name to die-hard comic book fans, having provided commentary on several books and TV series. His comments are always fun and can be found at his Web page: You can also learn about some of his eBay auctions of his artwork.

Fred is also a dad. Recently, on his blog site, Fred made a post that I just have to steal- I mean, share with you all. This is one of the best examples I've ever seen of why it's not a good idea to follow the crowd.

May 11th, 2006

Daughter Julie, the tenth grade high school student, told me earlier today about a new club that's all the sensation in the middle school portion of her school, something called the Pen 15 club.

Seems as if this is THE club for all the cool people--or at least, that's the way it's being represented to those poor social outcasts who are overly eager to join the (as they used to say in my day) in-crowd. Now, I'm not entirely certain exactly what all the requirements to join this coveted organization are, but there IS one particular one that makes or breaks one's chance at membership: each potential enlistee must take out a ballpoint pen and, on the back of his or her hand, scrawl the name of this cabal, "Pen 15".

It's as simple as that! Apparently, that's all it takes nowadays to be considered cool, and I'm sure the sense of belonging that accompanies acceptance into the ranks of Pen 15 does wonders for these lucky students’ self-confidence...

Until, of course, they go home after their induction, sit down for dinner with their families, and reach across the table for the mashed potatoes. That's when stunned mother's everywhere recoil in shock..

"Sally"--or Bobby, Joanne, Tom, Katie, or even Alphonse--"WHY did you write "penis" on the back of your hand???"

Why, indeed?

Careful what sorta clubs you join, folks.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Big Bird and the Space Shuttle Challenger

In the mid 1980s, space shuttle flights had become relatively commonplace - at least in the view of some people at NASA. Somehow, the idea began to grow that it was time to have a "regular person" fly on the shuttle along with the astronauts. One of the people who tried to get on was none other than singer John Denver. John probably would have been a good choice - reasonably healthy and a pilot himself. But someone at NASA wanted to get young children more interested in the shuttle flights. (Which sounds kind of silly when you think about it. Shouldn't young children already be interested in something so exciting?)

Anyway, if you've ever suspected that the people at PBS are in cahoots with the government higher-ups, this is material to add to your conspiracy theories. Someone at NASA contacted Carroll Spinney, the puppeteer of Big Bird and Oscar on "Sesame Street." Big Bird was being offered the chance to fly higher than most of us will ever go in this lifetime! Big Bird on the space shuttle! Needless to say, that would have been a very memorable episode of Sesame Street. It likely would have gone on for weeks, the way the New Mexico and Hawaii episodes did, as well as the later "Slimey on the moon" series.

But it was not meant to be- the Big Bird puppet was, well, too big. It's quite a large costume, and not exactly the kind of thing that can be easily packed away. (Although it's fun to imagine what Big Bird would have looked like floating around in zero gravity. "Woaaaah!!!")

But there was another alternative- the idea arose of sending Big Bird's teddy bear, Radar, into space instead. Radar would have been easier to pack. And it still would have allowed for a "Sesame Street" connection to the flight. But again, somebody (probably the same guy who said John Denver couldn't go) said no, no teddy bear. So both Radar and Spinney were out, and eventually they decided to pick an even more "normal" person - a teacher. The teacher they eventually chose was Christa McAuliffe. Today, we remember her and her crewmates as the heroes who died in the tragic accident on the Challenger.

Had Spinney died on the space shuttle Challenger, the history of Sesame Street would have been quite different. How would they have handled this death? Thankfully, we'll never know the answer to that. Both Spinney and Denver lived on to do some great work. John Denver's great song "Flying for Me" was written in tribute to the Challenger crew.

Of course, Sesame Street did eventually go into space, if only on the TV show. Oscar's pet worm Slimey has the distinction of being first worm on the moon. He along with his crewmates flew to the moon in what must be the longest flight to the moon in history. (The Apollo guys got there in about 3 days; Slimey and crew took a couple of months!) That series, in a way, was the end of an era for Sesame Street. For after it was over, and the next season began, a new part of the show had been added called "Elmo's world." Nothing would be the same after that. :)

Here's a clip from an article from the Variety website mentioning the Spinney/Challenger issue:

Little-known fact: Spinney was approached by NASA to fly on the space shuttle. "They wanted the children of America to be more interested in NASA," he says. "They thought Big Bird could go up in it and we would do an actual production. I said yes ... but then they found out there was absolutely no place to store (the) Big Bird (costume), so I couldn't go. They selected Christa McAuliffe to go instead, and now you know the rest of the story. What a tragedy."

Spinney mentioned the tragedy during some of his personal appearances. You can read about them here:

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Congratulations, Mr. Spinney!

You may not recognize the gentleman with the white hair and beard standing behind Oscar the Grouch, but if you're a die-hard Sesame Street fan, you already know that it's Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who has performed Oscar and Big Bird on the show for over 30 years. You probably already know that he recently won the lifetime achievement emmy award. I can only assume that this photo was taken at one of those Hollywood parties I never get invited to. Could it be proof that girls really do go for the bad boys? :) Well, probably not, as Elmo is there as well. The nearly bald gentleman behind Elmo is puppeteer Kevin Clash, who also got an emmy. I'm not sure if any of the girls got emmys or not.

Spinney has written a book about performing on Sesame Street that I'd definitely recommend to fans of the show. He also did a book tour a few years ago that included cameo appearances by Oscar. Spinney is also a fine artist, and some of his sketches appear in the book. And if you happen to be a fan of Bob Hope, you may want to pick this book up as well. Big Bird and Bob made a few appearances together, and Spinney has thanks for the memories.

One of my favorite stories about Spinney is not included in the book, though. It involves a connection to - of all things- the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. I'm going to have to do some homework on that one to be sure I get my facts straight. I'll blog about it soon!

In the meantime, here is Spinney's Web site, which has a link where you can buy the book:

And here's a review of the book from a fellow devoted muppet fan, Danny at Toughpigs: