50 Years Ago: The Electric Company

50 years ago this day: the Children’s Television Worshop program The Electric Company premiered.

Though it didn’t last anywhere near as long, The Electric Company was meant to form a kind of conceptual package with Sesame Street. The latter show was intended for much younger viewers, although, as it turns out, kids of all ages loved it and watched it, and truth to tell, remained fans all their lives. Unlike Sesame Street, The Electric Company didn’t have puppets, But, very much like that show, it had a cast of fun, hip stars who appeared in educational comedy sketches and so forth. One of them, Rita Moreno was a recognizable stage and screen star, who’d been in things like West Side Story and is fondly remembered for her Electric Company catchphrase (belted with all of her musical comedy might): “HEY…YOU…GUYS!” Another was none other than Morgan Freeman, who of course became a major movie star AFTER the show. Bill Cosby, already a top night club and television star at the time, was in the first two seasons; he later went on to get a degree in education, and to create his own kid’s show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Incidentally, The Electric Company was also created by a well-known comedian, actor Paul Dooley. Isn’t that wild? He was a vet of Second City, which is probably why another of the memorable cast members, Judy Graubert, had come out of the Second City mill. Hers was a very recognizable face at the time from TV commericals and the like. She later married character actor Bob Dishy. One of her beloved recurring bits had her coming out in a pith helmet as “Jennifer of the Jungle”, accompanied by fellow cast member, Jim Boyd in a gorilla suit. Irene Cara, later a major pop star, appeared on the show as part of a musical group called the Short Circus. For a time Denise Nickerson (Violet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) was also a member.

One of my favorite segments on the show was called “Soft Shoe Silhouettes” — there’d be two close-up human profiles in silouette, facing one another. Timed to music, one would sound out the first half of a word; the other would utter the back half, and then they would say the whole word together. That was mesmerizing. The great Tom Lehrer (himself a mathematical whiz) wrote ten educational songs for the show. Marvel Comics Spiderman had a regular segment on the show; this was only the character’s second screen run, following an animated kids show that had originally aired from 1967 to 1970. There was the regular animated feature The Adventures of Letterman, narrated by Joan Rivers, with voices by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. Mel Brooks did the voice of the Blonde Haired Cartoon Man. And there were cameos by the likes of Willie Tyler and Lester, and the casts of popular prime time shows like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Bonanza, and Mission: Impossible.

The Electric Company was cancelled in 1977. It was just as popular as Sesame Street, but didn’t have the epic merchandising revenue of the latter show, and so it fell an early victim to public complaints about tax-funded PBS. About trillion dollar fighter jets that don’t work and the Pentagon’s black budget, from the same crowd you’ll hear nary a peep.