June 15, 2018

The Magic Garden Continues

In 1972, the number of options for children on television were still limited. It's worth noting that this was definitely not the 1950's in which most Baby Boomers grew up; Howdy Doody, bobby socks, poodle skirts and greasers were assuredly not part of Generation X youth. Instead, 1972 was still in the crosshairs of the Vietnam war (which did not officially end until 1975), civil rights protests by Americans of African origin as well as LGBT Americans, women's liberation and much more all helped shape the environment in which Gen Xers were raised as children.

Hippy fashion was still very much in vogue at the time, including women's go go boots and bell bottom pants, often in autumn hues made from new synthetic fabrics like polyester. But it's also worth acknowledging that the seventies also ushered in an era of great social unrest caused by all of those seminal events. Politically, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace following the Watergate break-in and his administration's subsequent attempt to cover up its involvement. When the burglars were caught and the conspiracy was discovered, Watergate was investigated by the United States Congress. But Richard Nixon's administration resisted its probes, which led to a constitutional crisis (not unlike the events going on in 2018 with the treasonous Trump Administration). Coinciding with all of that, U.S. imperialism along with its near-complete dependence on foreign oil would rear its ugly head with the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, which also introduced the U.S. to tremendous economic insecurity and economic stagflation which was unknown before that time.

Still, children were largely insulated from all of the chaos going on in the world outside, and broadcast television presented a picture of the world that looked different from reality. That was the lilly-white world that Donald Trump was referring to when he made the bogus promise to make America great again.

This was before cable television existed in a vast majority of American homes, and broadcast TV was limited to the three major American networks [ABC, CBS and NBC] plus PBS which was [at the time] still a quasi-government run television entity. Bigger markets may also have had one or two so-called "independent" broadcast stations that were best known for their local news coverage (often an hour earlier than their network peers), and filling the rest of their broadcast day with syndicated reruns (again, this was in the days before cable networks like TV Land or more recently, Antenna TV, Me-TV and Cozi TV came to dominate the market for reruns of old, network television programs).

In the New York City area, the nation's largest media market, there were three "independent" broadcast television stations, including WPIX (channel 11), WNET (channel 5, it would become a part of the Fox television network in 1986 becoming one of the then-new network's 5 flagship stations, although that particular station was actually part of the defunct DuMont television network from 1944-1956, and those years became part of what was known as the Metromedia era) and WNEW (Channel 9) which broadcast from Newark, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River.

In 1968, Congress passed into law called the Children's Television Act, which established an FCC requirement that a specific amount of programming had to be dedicated to children's content which was either educational and/or non-violent. To comply, all stations had to offer compliant programming; every station had to comply with the law, or risk having their broadcast license revoked.

Perhaps the biggest children's TV show at the time was "Captain Kangaroo" starring the legendary Bob Keeshan, which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1984. Another show which ran in syndication was known as the "New Zoo Revue" which ran from 1972 to 1977. I watched that show a great deal as a pre-school child. "New Zoo Review" is worthy of its own post, so I won't elaborate much further than to simply acknowledge it here.  Another syndicated show ran on rival WNEW called "Romper Room" but was actually produced by a station in Boston.  I personally disliked that show.

New York's WPIX-11, which was owned at the time by the city's favorite tabloid newspaper the New York Daily News, opted to produce its own, locally-made show, and a children's show called "The Magic Garden" was the result.  The Magic Garden, which was a highly-acclaimed and popular TV show ran on WPIX-TV (ch. 11) New York, starred Carole Demas and Paula Janis who helped create the show.

Carole Demas is perhaps best known for her critically acclaimed creation of the female lead, "Sandy", in the original Broadway blockbuster, Grease. Her colleague and co-star Paula Janis traveled widely as a musician and lead singer with a folk trio "The Wee'Uns", performing in Greenwich Village cafes, on TV and at Carnegie Hall. She holds an M.A. in Early Childhood Education from New York University. She would later became the director of Head Start programs in New York City.

As characterized by the New York Times, The Magic Garden "was a cheerful, low-budget, inadvertently psychedelic half-hour show in which Ms. Janis and Ms. Demas sat on giant toadstools, spoke to flowers, sang songs and told stories." The show was set in a colorful garden setting, where the duo brought stories, songs, games, lessons and laughter to viewers. The show also featured several puppet characters who were integral to the show, including a pink squirrel named Sherlock and a bird named Flapper. The co-stars were friends since they were students at a Brooklyn high school. During their years as teachers in the New York City School System, both Carole and Paula combined their teaching and performing talents.

The Magic Garden received citations from Action for Children's Television and Children's Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop). Ratings for the show were equal to or exceeded those of Sesame Street and other shows of this genre (including Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, etc.). Today, WPIX-11 is no longer owned by the same company that owns and operates New York Daily News (it's now operated by Tribune Media -- but it was a different time for the broadcast media in those days -- and the station remains home to archives of its past). Indeed, several years ago, the station revealed it had discovered a long-lost Christmas episode of The Magic Garden, and now reruns that episode on Christmas morning. See the post about the discovery of the lost episode in a basement room of the station at http://pix11.com/2013/12/23/lost-christmas-episode-of-the-magic-garden-found-in-secret-pix11-basement-room/ for background.

The stars Carole Demas and Paula Janis maintain their own website at http://caroleandpaula.com/ and occasionally still tour local NYC-area venues (see https://nyti.ms/2sWdYID for more) and sometimes appear on the original station when it reruns old episodes of The Magic Garden. For example, the station announced that two episodes of the show would air on Saturday, June 16, 2018 from 2:00 to 3:00 PM.

Their own website has information about the show, as well as merchandise (DVD's and CD's from the program). It also has photos, some music and even a video clip. I am including the musical track below, or you can find it on their website (see the bottom of the page) at http://caroleandpaula.com/Ordering/index.html.

For its part, WPIX television also has some relevant video clips from The Magic Garden which can be visited on their Facebook page, and at http://pix11.com/category/11-alive/magic-garden/.

A clip provides a good overview and description of the show which can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/j4U9XF-1rkU.

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