ON YOUR MARK! GET SET!! STOP!!!
Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about one of the most amazing channels ever created. One that pretty much changed the landscape of kids’ TV, not to mention my fledgling showbiz career!
My first introduction to Nickelodeon was long before my Double Dare audition. It was our night-light, when our babies came home from the hospital and wanted that three-in-the-morning feeding. Cable was young, and we would catch the East Coast feed of a show that looked like something from the fifties: Pinwheel. The production, in my opinion, was horrible: the puppets were lackluster, and it seemed they reran the same six shows over and over. Yet I was mesmerized.
Fast-forward the tape to 1986. I was doing many things to feed my family. These included warm-ups on TV shows like Webster, Star Search, and What’s Happening Now! . . . and working as a stand-up comic and magician in clubs all over LA. A friend from Indianapolis—a ventriloquist—decided he was ending his performing career, moving behind the camera, and called to tell me about an audition I should attend instead of him. He said the network was Nickelodeon, and it was a kids’ game show. Hell, at that point of my life, I would audition for anything. Well, as we all know, it worked out pretty well.
The first day at the studio set the tone for what was about to come down. It was a bunch of young guys who were very bright and creative and yet had little experience in the world of game shows. I was the old man of the group at age thirty-four (although focus groups thought I was in my early twenties), with thirteen years of experience as a game show writer. I had crossed paths with some of the greats, including Bob Barker, Jack Barry, and Ralph Edwards. It really did not matter. We all had a sick sense of humor, were nostalgic for early TV references—and did I mention, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted?
Geraldine Laybourne was running the place and had a great philosophy: Hire people who know what they are doing . . . and then let them do their jobs. I miss her! That is why the joint was successful. We were allowed to be a little off center, think on the spot, and, in my opinion, play up to the audience. We never felt we were doing a kids’ show. We compared our humor to Rocky & Bullwinkle and Soupy Sales. It was kids’ TV that parents wanted to watch. It was one of the main reasons Double Dare took off .
Our success on Double Dare opened the floodgates. All of a sudden, kids had their own game shows, talk shows, variety shows, sitcoms, and dramas. They were all a bit raw in production values, but the casting was superb, as was the writing. The people on screen spoke like real kids and were not blue-eyed, blond-haired specimens from the perfect world of Disney. The audience could relate to what they saw on the screen. Finally!
Add to this contests that included romps through toy stores; Nick Takes Over Your School; arena tours with Double Dare, What Would You Do?, and GUTS . . . and the best slogan anywhere: “The place where only kids win!” It was to kids of a particular generation the golden age of TV. Now, well into their thirties, these viewers look back fondly on the shows, characters, and music associated with these programs.
Why did it work? Was it the casting? The writing? The irreverence? Was it just timing? What you are about to read might explain it. Personally, I think it is like trying to dissect a joke. Why is it funny? Who cares? It worked, and we are all glad it did. Sooooooo . . .
On your mark! Get set!! Go!!!!
Host, Double Dare and What Would You Do?
CHRISTINE TAYLOR: It was sort of us going through the things a lot of kids do . . . but we were doing it on TV. I can go back and see myself growing up before my very own eyes—for all the world to see.
DANNY TAMBERELLI: It’s part of how I became who I am now. I’ve heard the same thing happened to me said by people who grew up watching the show. It was okay to be weird and be a little bit off and not be completely status quo. It sort of molded me. I still burp and stick things up my nose.
ELIZABETH HESS: Of course, both Melissa Joan Hart and Jason Zimbler were going through huge changes. They went through puberty over the course of Clarissa. They both learned how to drive during the course of the shows. Jason’s voice changed. Melissa’s body went from a girl to a young woman. All those sorts of things.
JUDY GRAFE: Something everybody noticed was when Michael Maronna’s voice was changing. We were all like, “What does that mean? Is he still going to be Pete?” Then once he was becoming an early teen idol, all the young girls were coming to the sets all atwitter over him. That’s something we noticed, too.
ALISON FANELLI: Some weeks were horrid because we were going through puberty and I might have this big pimple on my forehead while I’m trying to shoot a close-up. I got to a point where every scene they were putting powder on my face, because we were just oily teenagers. After a while, they were more conscious about giving us diff erent dressing spaces instead of trading off in the same space. But mine was near Michael’s and Danny’s. Oh gosh, yeah. It was super awkward.
VANESSA LINDORES: Growing up isn’t easy. Doing it in front of a lot of people doesn’t make it any easier.
ALASDAIR GILLIS: This entrance into puberty was being captured on film. For myself, it was kind of jarring.
LARISA OLEYNIK: It’s definitely embarrassing when you’re literally growing up in front of people’s eyes. You’re doing wardrobe fittings and it’s like, “Oh! I have hips now! I’m not just the beanpole I used to be!” It’s awkward, but no more awkward than it would be otherwise. It would have been more awkward if I had just been going to junior high being like, “What do I do?”
HEIDI LUCAS: There was something female-related that I went through on Salute Your Shorts, and I felt completely secure with the female crew that was there. I knew I could take a problem or concern to anyone and they would wrap their arms around me physically and figuratively to help me through any problem.
HERB SCANNELL: Things were, by and large, sympathetic. Most of the kids had family structures they were living in, and our job was to let them continue being kids.
JASON ZIMBLER: Those people helped to raise me. They made me funny. They made me a good person.
ALISON FANELLI: But parts of it were really awkward and hard. In the “What We Did on Our Summer Vacation” special, I was eleven or twelve and working in the photo booth costume. It was a yellow T-shirt and a green jumper that was a skirt. Something went wrong with the microphone, they yelled cut, and one of the crew members came over, got down on his knees, and went right for the microphone, which was wrapped around my waist under the dress. My mom came flying out of nowhere: “No! No! No!” That was the first time I was conscious to, “Oh, maybe I should be more aware that he was grabbing me!” It was totally professional, but . . .
JESSICA GAYNES: I was the youngest of all of the hosts on Wild & Crazy Kids. And I was a girl. Sometimes it’s shocking how we’d get one crew person who would be clueless. There was one time where they said, “Put them in their spaces.” One of them thought it would be funny to say, “Jessica’s in her hole!” I heard it. And everybody who heard it, their jaws dropped. One person said, “What are you doing? She’s a minor! Do you want to get sued?” Those incidents are scarring. Young girls can’t handle that.
JUSTIN CAMMY: The crew on You Can’t Do That on Television introduced me to pornography. Playboy was always lying around.
ADAM WEISSMAN: You’re going through hormonal changes on your own, you’re feeling awkward in your own body, you’re trying to figure yourself out . . . and then you thrust that awkwardness in front of the cameras, in front of people, doing scripted TV, which you may or may not have been trained to do. You have to deal with the pressures of a TV show, and two or three hours a day in short increments, you get pulled off the set to go to school. There’s somebody knocking on the door every twenty minutes, saying, “Okay, it’s time to come back to the set!”
JUSTIN CAMMY: That is the totally unglamorous nature to making a TV show: The days are long, it’s really boring, you’re inside an overly air-conditioned studio. Most of the time you’re waiting for lights to work or cameras to be set. It’s a fun job, but nevertheless a job.
MICHAEL MARONNA: I didn’t think of it so much as a career. I had my individual pursuits—was into my Nintendo, playing outside . . .
LARISA OLEYNIK: I was able to maintain a relatively normal life. We all just got up, went to work, and then did our homework. Then went to bed. And socialized like normal human beings on the weekend.
JOANNA GARCIA: My parents were okay with me doing Are You Afraid of the Dark? because it was conducive to being normal and staying in school in Florida, then going up for a couple weeks to shoot in Montreal. I got the best of both worlds.
JACOB TIERNEY: Those of us in the Midnight Society weren’t in the stories; we just kinda burned our little bits and played with the fi re. They taped all of our stuff at the beginning of each season.
D.J. MACHALE: That was a challenge, because it meant all the stories had to be set up very early on because we couldn’t do a campfire scene where the kids would say, “This is a story about a really scary . . . thing.”
JACOB TIERNEY: We did it—the campfire stuff—so quickly. If memory serves, we’d do a whole season maybe within two weeks. Maybe four of them a day, and then we were done. It’s kind of a black hole in my memory.
JUDY GRAFE: Danny’s mother made him understand that this was a temporary thing and that a lot of times what happens when kids who are actors grow up is that they find there’s nothing there for them.
DANNY TAMBERELLI: My parents were really good at keeping me grounded. I worked at a bagel store while working on All That. I played rec soccer and baseball during all the shooting of Pete & Pete. They made sure to work really hard so I wouldn’t have a Michael Jackson upbringing or anything.
DANNY COOKSEY: It’s an interesting thing that happens when you’re successful and young; it changes everything. I was around a lot of people who were sort of affected by it, and it’s a weird chip that people carry around. You can either take the negative around with you or take the positive. Nobody comes out unscathed.
MELISSA JOAN HART: I was working too hard to get into trouble. I wasn’t in Hollywood; I was in Orlando, and other than the two boys on Clarissa, I was the only one around my age. All the people around were like big brothers and sisters keeping an eye on me, telling me what’s right and wrong. I didn’t have to go drinking or do drugs or go to clubs or any of that, because I was having such fun being a part of this whole thing.
SEAN O’NEAL: When kids are in the spotlight and they are not given room to breathe and they are sucked into the vortex of what this industry can do to certain people, that’s a shame. I went through some transitional periods afterward that took a long time to really get me solid. But man, the show was an amazing experience.
ADAM REID: It wasn’t a big deal in Ottawa. None of my friends cared that I was doing You Can’t Do That on Television. Several times I would do these trips—Vanessa, Doug, Les, and I went and rolled Easter eggs on the White House lawn; we met George Bush!—and then we’d go back to school like nothing happened.
BLAKE SENNETT: Any time you bounce back and forth, it’s weird. You’re the king of the universe and then you go back to school and you have no friends and you’re “that nerdy theater kid.” I felt like a dork in high school. But it was worth it.
ALISON FANELLI: I got teased a bunch in elementary school. In high school, they knew that I was gone for four months of the school year and then I’d be back. The teachers were even used to it. I had a really tight-knit group of friends who knew what I was doing. When I was off set, I was Ally. I got to be me: go to school, go to homecoming dances, and play the oboe, and sing in the theater show. Growing up, no matter how big a show is—and we didn’t think Pete & Pete was all that popular at the time—you just gotta be careful of the friends you pick. I could tell which people wanted to ask about the show and hang out just because I was on a show, as opposed to my friends. That’s a good life lesson.
HEIDI LUCAS: When life went back to normal, and the show went on syndication, I found a world of conflict. I had so much praise and support from my family. My true friends thought it was the greatest thing in the world. But then I would go to school . . . I could not escape enough. I had to have lunch in a teacher’s homeroom with a teacher because it was the safest place for me to go. Everybody wanted to beat me up. I had “kick your ass” threats all over my locker; I had “Heidi ho” written on my locker. It got so bad I was pulled out and was homeschooled for my last year and a half. That’s how bad it was.
MEGAN BERWICK: A lot of kids who act go through the same thing where everybody hates you. The other thing is that you’re not in school enough in a year that you can actually be a part of any of the cliques. One of the things that struck me about junior high was how many lunch breaks I’d spend sitting in the bathroom alone. It wasn’t until college that I realized I was actually pretty and could date and all that stuff. I definitely never got asked out in high school. Not a single time.
TREVOR EYSTER: I certainly would never have thought Megan would have had that trouble. Sure, she had braces, but she was bright, amazingly intelligent, quirky, charming.
DANNY TAMBERELLI: For me, it was typical, normal growing up. People made fun of people for different things. I made it out all right. I got a lot of kids on to the show because I lived in Jersey where we shot, so if they needed kid extras, I would invite people to come. Th at helped me make friends.
CHRISTINE TAYLOR: The pilot was going to just be this fun thing I never thought would go any further. When we went off to do it, it sort of felt like a dream. I was really new to it at the time. The day we were going to fly to Arizona for Hey Dude was the day they were announcing homecoming in my school, and that was a big deal. I still went to school in the morning before we drove to JFK Airport to get on the flight. I was still really invested in my “real” life, as I called it.
DAVE RHODEN: My parents would pick me up right from high school, drive me to the studios, and we’d be there until eight fi ft een or eight thirty at night. Get home around nine to eat dinner and then try to crank out homework until around ten. On top of that, we had lines to memorize. Some teachers wouldn’t always collect our homework, but we would be told to do it anyway. So I would literally guess each night which homework assignments would be picked up the next day in class and work on those ones.
CHRISTINE MCGLADE: I wouldn’t say my grades suffered at all. But I was involved with gymnastics at the time I started You Can’t Do That on Television and had to drop that activity. It might seem like an obvious choice, but it was a difficult one for me because I really enjoyed gymnastics.
ROGER PRICE: None of the You Can’t Do That on Television kids were encouraged to leave school. Most of them kept up with their schoolwork. There was a limit on the hours they might work.
ALISON FANELLI: My tutors on set were always very supportive of my academic career. Even if I were to have continued with acting or directing, they still would’ve encouraged me to go to college.
DAVE RHODEN: Part of Saturday we would be tutored because we were missing a Monday of school every week. Imagine a bunch of rebellious teenagers in a little trailer with one lady at a time who would be tutoring us on multiple subjects. There was one lady they brought in to teach us foreign language. She’d work with Jocelyn Steiner on Latin, she’d work with me on Spanish, and she’d work with either Chris Lobban or Rick Galloway on French. On top of that, she was deaf.
JASON ZIMBLER: She was an unbelievably impressive woman. Melissa Joan Hart was taking Spanish and I was taking French with her. Both Melissa and I became friends not only with her but with her family. Dave Martel from Pete & Pete is her nephew.
DAVE MARTEL: My aunt’s an amazing woman and has a great way with languages. She could see by reading people’s lips how they were pronouncing the words.
DAVE RHODEN: So now let’s focus on the fact that she was deaf. She’s one-on-one with somebody, reading their lips, and her back is to somebody else. We would say the raunchiest stuff behind her back and make the weirdest faces we could make just to make the other person bust up.
DAVE MARTEL: She would always tell me these stories of kids on set, and it sounded like they were having so much fun. She gave me the acting bug.
DAVE RHODEN: She couldn’t hear anything. Again, it was horrible. But that was a funny little thing that we’d do. Sorry.
DAVE MARTEL: She was not completely deaf. She’s just a little hearing-impaired. She wears a hearing aid. That’s a shame that people would take advantage. I don’t imagine she was aware of that.
KEVIN KUBUSHESKIE: There was some teasing and bullying when I was younger, but mostly friends and family were indifferent. As were most Canadians.
CHRISTINE MCGLADE: Canadians are funny. When people here are successful, they often go to the States because they don’t get support at home. Sometimes we’d get a jealous reaction from kids in the city, but I didn’t get any of that from my close friends I associated with. They just thought it was a funny, strange thing that they didn’t give a lot of weight to.
ROSS HULL: For me, I probably got more recognition for doing Are You Afraid of the Dark? after we were done than when we were actually shooting it.
BRENDA MASON: The kids would be amazed when they came into the station and would find bags and bags of fan letters from the U.S.
ALASDAIR GILLIS: As a fourteen-year-old, I don’t know if I knew what to make of that. In some ways, I thought it would be more interesting to be in the States and sort of revel in that attention. Not that I think that’s of great value now. But as a kid, there’s an appeal to having some of the affirmation about the show’s success, whereas here in Canada, I was just as likely to get picked on or made fun of by older kids: “Oh, you’re on that stupid show.”
ROGER PRICE: When they flew down to the States, they were sometimes mobbed. The Americans are a demonstrative people, like the Brits. But Canada is a whole country of Minnesotans.
ABBY HAGYARD: Alasdair was horribly self-conscious after that. It took him a while to get over that. That really blindsided him.
ADAM REID: It was easier back then. We didn’t have the “kid actor” system that there is today. There weren’t ten agents and whatever for every actor . . . We had kids who were interested in expressing themselves and had a lot to express. We didn’t have kids who were doing things because their parents thought they should.
MICHAEL BOWER: Timothy [aka Trevor] Eyster’s mother was like a stage mom, and that was pretty tough. “My kid this, my kid that . . .” Oh God, it was annoying! His mother ran his life.
MEGAN BERWICK: His mom was really difficult. Really mean.
TREVOR EYSTER: I don’t mean to sound cold, but I’m certainly not concerned about my mother’s reputation.
DONNIE JEFFCOAT: Omar Gooding’s mom was always on set and was very much a big part of his career back then. It was nice to have her there, because my parents weren’t really around and she did take care of us quite a few times!
MICHAEL BOWER: There were a lot of mothers on the set, but all of them kind of became part of it. Venus DeMilo’s mother was a manager and ended up managing one or two of the other actors, getting them parts and cameos in other shows. Megan’s mother ended up becoming the set photographer because she had a really nice camera and was taking photos of the cast and crew.
TREVOR EYSTER: I thought Danny Cooksey’s mom was cool, because I was envious of the relationship he had with her. I really, really liked Venus’s mom a great deal. The few times I met Bower’s father, I thought he was a gracious man.
FRED KELLER: Christine Taylor’s mom was a stage mother and insisted that she tow the line. Her mom was very chatty, very polite, very nice, but very much watching over Christine. More so than the other kids’ parents were.
SEAN O’NEAL: My mom was pretty much my chauffeur. She got me where I needed to be for years. She was always involved in the business and with my coworkers.
GEOFFREY DARBY: Melissa Joan Hart’s mom was difficult. She was. I only dealt with it when Mitchell Kriegman needed another bad guy to step in.
JOE O’CONNOR: Melissa loved her mom, but her mom’s a show mom.
DAVE RHODEN: My mom’s an exceptional person. But a little different, I guess you could say. They had called to invite me back to season three—this was told to me by my dad—and at the time I guess my mom thought I was getting a little too big for my britches. My mom’s also borderline bipolar. Very emotional roller coaster–type person. She’d gotten a call one day from Nickelodeon: “Hey, we want to talk with you about Dave’s contract for season three.” And she answered the phone and just went off and was like, “I DON’T CARE IF HE EVER COMES BACK TO NICKELODEON!” Screaming at the top of her lungs and slamming the phone down. That was the end of the negotiations.
VANESSA LINDORES: Roger would not have tolerated stage parents. That would have driven him nuts. I’m sure if there were any, they got nipped in the bud very quickly.
ROGER PRICE: When we started looking for new kids, we always arranged it so that at the final call the parents were entertained with refreshments in the boardroom by some of the kids who were already on the show. Ostensibly, this was so the new parents could ask any questions they wanted to of the established kids. In fact, it was so the kids already on the show could screen the new parents. Even the best kid in the world would have been passed over if their parents had lamentably failed their part of the audition.
GEOFFREY DARBY: A lot of kids wanted to be on You Can’t Do That on Television. It wasn’t particularly difficult to find them. We had one diva parent who thought her kid was a star. And that kid was fi red.
ROGER PRICE: I did not much care what parents thought. Their job was to be good, supportive parents to their kids. My job was to make TV shows. Kids were not allowed to take scripts home. Kids do not talk to parents much anyway.
ADAM REID: That was one thing Roger insisted on: We were never to read over the sketches with our parents. It wasn’t that the scripts were secretive. He just didn’t want anyone to influence what was actually happening.
VANESSA LINDORES: I don’t remember my parents ever being in the studio. They dropped me off and picked me up. That was it. Later, I took the bus to work. Funny, now that I think about it.
MARJORIE SILCOFF: Our parents weren’t allowed on the set. Today, AFTRA requires a parent or parental figure for each kid to be on set. There was something about that that gave my mother pause.
BRENDA MASON: It was a huge leap of faith, considering the bizarre things the kids were required to do.
ALASDAIR GILLIS: Most of our parents, in retrospect, seemed relatively comfortable with us doing it. If they had any doubts or concerns, it wasn’t really brought up. It wouldn’t have been brought up with us. We were eleven, twelve, thirteen . . .
ABBY HAGYARD: Roger made sure there was always a female chaperone on set. She was a trained therapist and a lovely woman. She happened to be the mother of two of the boys who had already gotten cast on the show. And if Les Lye wasn’t around, I was around. We had the makeup woman, Carole Hay, Geoff Darby . . . There was no situation—to my knowledge—where the kids might have been taken advantage of.
ADAM REID: I had one sketch that dug at me. It was Mom and me on the back porch, and I said, “Mom, there’s no way I’m going to school wearing this shirt. This shirt makes me look like a girl.” And I take off the shirt. “What are you doing, Adam?” “And these pants! They’re too tight, and there’s no way I’m going to go to school in these pants.” So I’m standing basically in my underwear, and she says, “Adam, you can’t go to school with nothing on.” “Fine. I can’t go to school.” And I go inside, shut the door, and lock her out. But to strip down to your underwear as a prepubescent boy—and doing it four, five times . . .
Everyone’s very respectful and it’s a kids’ show and everyone’s having fun, but there’s still a part of me . . . I felt pretty vulnerable. Brenda Mason came up to me afterward and put her arm around me and said, “That was really good. Are you okay?” And I was sucking back tears: “Yeah, I’m okay, I’m okay.” “You did a great job, buddy.” It felt like a bit of an initiation. If you watch the sketch, you’d have no idea that I’m actually kind of upset or embarrassed.
MARJORIE SILCOFF: We were all kids, but I know myself to be an above- average sensitive person and the thought of being ridiculed really horrified me.
BOB BLACK: Marjorie was a relative outsider amongst the kids. I would say Marjorie was more on the edge than in the middle. In any group of kids, you’re going to have someone who’s more in the center of the social action and others who aren’t.
JESSICA GAYNES: Omar Gooding would sometimes turn and walk away from me because his mother had said at the start of the season, “Don’t make her upset! She has a job to do, and she is sensitive!”
ALASDAIR GILLIS: Dressing up like a girl or being half-naked or stuff like that? At fifteen, these are not the things I want to stand out for! It was enough to make things uncomfortable. Especially the older I got.
JOSH MORRIS: Roger loved seeing little boys in dresses. He thought that was hilarious. But the boys didn’t like it so much. He’d pick the boy who least wanted to be in a dress and make him wear it.
ADAM REID: Five or six of us went down to LA with Roger as kind of a field trip. Roger found out Doug and Matthew had gotten in a fight—it was just Doug being Doug, a bit of a bully—and instead of punishing Doug, Roger said, “Let’s go to a women’s department store.” We all walked in, and Roger said, “Doug, pick your dress. Matthew, pick your dress.” And they spent the rest of the afternoon in dresses as a joint punishment. Through that, Matthew and Doug bonded to an extent. They made it through the rest of the trip together . . . and got along.
ALASDAIR GILLIS: It was probably ’84, ’85. It was nothing serious. I wasn’t really involved. I wouldn’t have worn a dress.
ROGER PRICE: People do horrible things to kids and make them wear dresses in real life, too. I went to a German school for boys in Switzerland. It was a nice school. Our dienstmutti or “service duty mom” used to tell us what to wear, brush our hair, bathe us, scrub us three times a day in a tub, make sure we did our homework, and pull down our pants and smack our butts occasionally. She kept a dress, a sort of hideous Heidi outfit for bad boys to wear. If she was displeased with you, you found it on your bed. I found it on my bed a couple of times, but I never wore it. You always promised to be good in the future and she always relented.
BOB BLACK: Roger’s worldview is that kids and old people are the two most discriminated against. That’s very Roger.
ALISON FANELLI: What shocked my parents most was when I decided to stop doing it and go to medical school. They expected me to go, be there for three weeks, freak out, and go back to liberal arts. It was harder on them for me to make the change to become a doctor than it was for me to go into show business. What parents say that now?
MICHAEL MARONNA: I’m so grateful—when I see kid actors having stage moms—that my parents didn’t try to force me into it.