Today we use National Zoo Lovers Day and our recent encounter with this ad in an old TV Guide as an excuse to recall The New Zoo Revue (1972-77).
The New Zoo Revue was probably the first TV show I ever hate-watched. My sister and I exorciated it with a fury and yet we couldn’t stop ourselves from tuning in on a regular basis. Why we watched it despite reviling it so passionately I cannot say. I suppose the theory was that watching a kids’ show you didn’t like was better than not watching a kids’ show at all. The program was syndicated; I don’t remember what the competition was in its slot, perhaps a talk show or a game show or some other bore like that. I was seven when it premiered and already both decisive and vociferous in my likes and dislikes. I recently went back and rewatched some of it after four decades to see if I could recapture what set me off back then. From this distance I see charms I didn’t see at the time. But I can also rather loosely identify what put a bee on our bonnets.
First, the show was the opposite of hip. I was a slave of sponsor-driven Saturday morning kids shows in the ’70s, with the commercials for sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals and toys and board games and so forth. Those programs were all slick and high energy and hard-sell. Shows about talking dune buggies and hippie sleuths in haunted houses and comic book superheroes. They were all driven by enormous marketing machines, branded out the ying-yang, and most of them came complete with promotional merchandising like lunch boxes and coloring books and action figures and so forth. Even the PBS shows, which The New Zoo Revue resembled, had marketing machines that allowed those shows to spill out of the television into kids playrooms. We ate, drank, and slept this stuff. Anything outside this tsunani of influence was simply not going to move the applause-meter needle.
Like the PBS shows, The New Zoo Revue had the look of low budget local television, and was at once more gentle and more educational in tone than the network kids’ shows. Like the Sid and Marty Krofft shows it had anthropomorphic costumed characters. But it only had three of them (Freddie the Frog, Charlie the Owl, and Henrietta Hippo), and while they were certainly sweet, they were far from brilliant or funny. They were closer in conception to something like Elmo or Teletubbies or Mr. Rogers’ characters — unthreatening and baby-like. Perhaps the target demographic was four years old, but I was watching it from ages 7 to 12. I didn’t like sweetness. I liked grotesques like Witchie-Poo, or something with action like The Superfriends. These little gentle lessons about cooperation and consideration and patience and so forth were there to be shot with my water cannon and run over with my Tonka truck.
In addition to the three animal characters, the show mimicked The Mickey Mouse Club (which we watched in reruns) by having two adult characters who interacted with them. We reserved our greatest ire for this element of the show, watching these two grown people Doug and Emmy Jo skip and gambol and cavort alongside childlike animal creatures like imbeciles. We already found it embarrassing and we weren’t even old enough to ride on roller coasters yet.
Poor Doug was the lightning rod for the bulk of our animus. He was actually Doug Momary, creator of the show. Momary was clearly a very nice and caring man, but he came off like a schlemiel, the uncoolest thing to ever invade our living rooms, the anti-Fonz. Simply put, we would have liked very much to have killed Doug, perhaps by beating him with a chair or a table leg.
I am astounded to recall that at the time I felt the same way about Doug’s wife, the mini-skirted, go-go booted Emily Peder, whose copious charms are today only too apparent to this middle-aged man. If I find myself watching the show nowadays, it’s pretty much going to be entirely about Emmy Jo. “How do those dance steps go again, Emmy Jo? (chuckles) I guess I just have two left feet!”
By what wizardry did the Svengali “Doug” manage to catch and keep Emmy Jo? Were drugs involved? While not nearly as psychedelic as the Krofft shows, The New Zoo Revue did get pretty trippy sometimes, and Doug DID play guitar. Some Pied Piper, that Doug.
In addition, the show had a surprising amount of celebrity talent on deck from time to time. Neo-Nazi game show host Chuck Woolery played an elderly mailman as a recurring character, and there were cameos by the likes of Jo Anne Worley, Pat Paulsen, Richard Dawson, June Lockhart, Jim Backus and Lonely Maytag Repairman Jesse White.
Anyway, let’s put the thing in perspective. This country has a problem with sex and violence, and I’m clear-eyed enough to see that I’m part of the problem. The New Zoo Revue commendably, even valiantly, tried to stem that tide. If Henrietta Hippo prevented even one child from growing up to be a monster of greed and bullying, then it was not for naught. But it’s also more than possible the show could unleash the opposite, a campaign of rapine and pillage triggered by video ennui and lust for Bread and Circuses, or in this case Sugar Pops and obnoxious cartoons.