April 4, 2019

The New Zoo Revue

As the National Geographic Channel's television special "Generation X" from a few years ago noted in its opening segment of the series, to get to the world that shaped Generation X as a group of people, you kind of have to step back to the late 1960's when Baby Boomers were being drafted to fight a war in Vietnam.  The result was widespread war protests among young Boomers, while people like me were at home, watching it happen on television (in between content better suited for kids, such as cartoons).

Among the shows we watched was the long-running CBS children's show "Captain Kangaroo" which ran from 1955 until 1984. That show was conceived and the title character was played by Bob Keeshan, who based the show on "the warm relationship between grandparents and children". Aside from Captain Kangaroo, I've already written about a local show called "The Magic Garden" which I watched and enjoyed. Some kids of that era also watched a syndicated children's show called "Romper Room". "Romper Room" was never a show I watched; I felt it was condescendingly stupid for children, and my attention went elsewhere.

About the only other dedicated children's show of that time was another syndicated television program called "New Zoo Revue". Doug Momary began working as the creator of what became an award-winning syndicated, half-hour children's television show that ran from 1972-1977. Aside from being writer/producer, Doug was also one of the show's human hosts. Indeed, he reportedly wrote over 600 songs for 195 different episodes. His co-host was a woman by the name of Emmy Jo (Emily) Peden, who was described in the show's theme song as Doug's "helper" but not his girlfriend or wife.
In reality, Doug and Emmy Jo were young newlyweds at the time (back in 1972; many kids [like me!] didn't even realize they were married). In fact, young viewers of the show had little reason to suspect there was any romantic involvement between the two, since I don't recall them ever acknowledging that fact or showing any overt affection for one another on camera; instead, the show aimed to teach kids such basic principles of getting along with others, respecting the community and oneself, and doing the right thing. Aside from the two human co-hosts, the show featured costumed full-bodied puppet characters, primarily a shy, female hippopotamus with a Southern accent named Henrietta Hippo, a wise if cranky old male owl named Charlie the Owl , and a fun-loving male frog named Freddy the Frog whose behavior most resembled that of a child's. There were also a handful of human guests, among them Mr. Dingle, who was played by Chuck Woolery, a man perhaps better known as a Hollywood game-show host ("Love Connection" anyone?!). The series also hosted several celebrity guest stars during its run including Henry Mancini (a musician), Jim Backus (a well-known actor, perhaps known best as the man who played millionaire Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island" due to incessant re-runs) and JoAnn Worley (perhaps most famously as a cast member on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" from 1968-1973, but also appeared in many other movies and television shows over the years).

Freddie the Frog was voiced by Joni Robbins, Henrietta Hippo was voiced by Larri Thomas, and Charlie the Owl was voiced by Bob Holt. Other characters included Frieda the Frog, Mr. Dingle (Chuck Woolery), an elderly postman, storekeeper and jack-of-all-trades, and Mrs. Goodbody (Fran Ryan), a nosy neighbor who serves as an advice columnist for The All New Zoo Gazette.
The woman known as Emmy Jo was basically a personification of a young, hippy woman, not too dissimilar from Nancy Sinatra who gained fame for the 1966 hit single "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" ... she was attractive, and she wore very short mini-skirts that continued to be in fashion well into the early 1970's -- often with high go-go boots (a style of women's knee-high, square-toed fashion boots with block heels that were very popular in the 1960's and continued into the 1970's).

Meanwhile Doug, who was really the creative talent behind the series, was kind of a dork with a bushy, porn-star looking mustache (which was the Baby Boomer version of Millennial hipster men's fascination with beards) and unfashionable clothing that were made of polyester in plaid or other ugly colors, such as the faintly mournful "autumn" color palette - dark orange, oxblood, copper, brown, harvest gold, avocado green of that era. He was kind of a dork, even if the show was the product of his personal creative genius. Since "New Zoo Revue", Doug has gone on to become the founder and CEO of a company called Laguna Productions now based in Las Vegas, NV which produces video content (TV commercials, and/or other video content for clients). When the business began, it was based in California.

Doug began working as the creator and co-star of what became an award-winning children's hit series "The New Zoo Revue". Doug married Emmy Jo (Emily) Peden in 1972, just a few weeks before they got the go ahead for the show. "The New Zoo Revue" was actually filmed in Hollywood during the early 1970's (1972-1975; reruns ran in syndication until 1977), and Doug was the sole writer of over 190 episodes and some 600 songs.  All told, the show reached over 3 million children every day.  Doug and his wife Emily starred in the series singing and dancing along with three giant animal characters, with the idea of teaching children positive messages in an entertaining fashion.

Of note is the fact that Doug and Emmy Jo have (impressively) been married since 1972, which means they will celebrate their 47th wedding anniversary in 2019. That's really quite impressive given how many other people in the children's entertainment space of that era ended up divorced. Indeed, Gen X kids were scarred by widespread divorce of their parents, leaving many to become "latch-key" kids who had no parents at home when they finished school, unlike the Baby Boomers who typically came home to stay-at-home mothers.

The couple's company Laguna Productions maintains an account on Vimeo, and they include episodes of the "New Zoo Review", one of which can be watched below, or by visiting https://vimeo.com/317029596:

Optimism from Laguna Productions on Vimeo.

Now, I should note that when home videos started to emerge in the 1980's, a more colorful outtake from this show surfaced. While clowning around on the set, Freddie the Frog and Charlie the Owl were filmed dropping the F bomb and displaying acts of un-edited crudity while the off screen cast and crew laughed it up.

Before watching the YouTube clip below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/G9ySgnifxeQ, be forewarned that frog and owl use some pretty vulgar language. It definitely paints a different, NOT made-for-TV image for those of us who grew up watching the show as kids, proving that real, human actors were in those animal costumers (as if there was even a question about that?)!

As noted, after "The New Zoo Revue" ended its run, the couple left Hollywood where the original show was filmed and they moved to the Sacramento area (you know, the unglamorous capital of California, which although a mere 45 minutes from the Bay Area, is about 7 hours from Los Angeles, but Sacramento shares more in common culturally with the Central Valley town of Fresno than it does with San Francisco, except that as the seat of the California state government, it's much more affluent than Fresno is -- the area is also home to the university U.C. Davis).

As noted, the couple began a film and video production company called Laguna Productions around 1984 or 1985, which handles everything from concept to completion on a contractual basis, and the business has proven itself to be quite successful, enduring when many similar firms close shop in a few years. The couple relocated their family and business from Sacramento to Las Vegas around the turn of the new century.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Emily went back to school and earned her master's degree in marriage and family counseling.  She did that for a while, but she now works as Laguna's VP of Finance.  Although the couple is certainly now eligible to retire (Doug is age 72 and Emmy Jo is age 75 as of 2019 -- who realized she was 3 years older than Doug? She certainly looked much younger than he did!), their company enables periodic breaks from work, and they have a staff who does many of the day-to-day operations now.

That said, the series "The New Zoo Revue" operated in a big space that was pretty devoid of much genuine competition back in 1972.  Children's programs -- or those that were called children's programming, but were really just re-purposed adult programming, such as old movie-house cartoons like the black and white Max Fleischer versions of Popeye the Sailor Man, or Felix the Cat (both of which ran in early morning hours back in those days); Warner's ever-popular Looney Tunes ran for a slightly older audience in the afternoon; those were popular because they were in color, whereas many episodes of Popeye and Felix the Cat were not). Others included cartoons such as Total Television's battery of cartoons (including Underdog, Klondike Kat, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, Go Go Gophers, Commander McBragg and others), as well as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, Tom and Jerry, and the Walter Lantz Productions such as Woody Woodpecker, Terrytoons as well as MANY others from the Hannah-Barbera Productions which are now folded into Warner Brothers following the deaths of the two founders in the early 2000's.

Anyway, "The New Zoo Revue" was very successful back in the day.  It filled a need for educational/non-violent programming as new legislation required, and it also entertained children with its odd, giant animal characters.  They weren't quite the old puppets found on other children's series (think of Mister Rogers Neighborhood as one such example), but many of their characters were definitely child-like (Freddie, for example).

The hosts Doug and Emmy Jo served a role as the "adults" in the village, and they kept peace among the animal cast and taught viewers the lesson of the day.  Each show had songs and the cast of puppet-like animal characters to impart lessons on patience, manners, courtesy, dealing with others, and other topics that remain as relevant today as when originally broadcast. That said, I don't see re-runs of "The New Zoo Revue" on cable these days, possibly because on-demand has changed how kids are entertained. But for its time, "New Zoo Revue" filled an important role, and as an adult who grew up with the show, I look back at it rather fondly today.

For the record, although the series has left the broadcast airwaves years ago, in 2004 there was news (see archive on the old TVShowsonDVD.com) that Season 1 containing 59 episodes of the show was released on DVD. The company that released the set known as BCI Eclipse was closed down by its parent company, but there's always eBay and Amazon sellers, so you can probably still buy it, although it may cost you due to scarcity value. Another option: try visiting your local, public library which may have it to borrow (you have to bring it back, but really: do you want to OWN this?). Its unclear whether they have since migrated it to streaming platforms (although Laguna Productions has already published a fair number on the Vimeo platform), but one never knows!

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