Friday, July 22, 2011

Can you tell me how to get, how to get to ...

... Street! (well, that's how my daughter would say it when she was very young.)

First, a brief disclaimer. It is now summer here in New York City, and very hot. It is also a time when my wife is off for the summer vacation from school so we actually do things out of the house. And lastly, in a month, my daughter is getting married and we will be traveling down to Florida for the wedding, and there are still a few projects that I need to finish before we head down. In fact, I am just taking a break from one of them to write this. So what does all of this mean? Well, you may have noticed that it has been longer than usual since my last blog post, and will likely be so until the summer is over. Oh, if the muse moves me I will sit down and write, as I am doing now, but there might be times when there will be more time between posts than during the rest of the year. (Now on to business.)

Right about the time my son was born, Children's Television Workshop (as it was called then) opened two Sesame Street themed parks, one in Irving, Texas, and one in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Although the one in Texas was only open for two seasons, the one in Pennsylvania fared much better. We didn't get there for its first summer of operation, but did in year 2. My son was a year old, my daughter was three. It was a small park then (3 acres) and had water activities and dry activities for the toddler set. There were no motor driven rides, everything was geared for the child to be active. There was a building which contained educational exhibits for the younger child, as well as sets where pictures could be taken in Ernie's bathtub, on the steps of 123 Sesame Street, or with (a fiberglass) Oscar the Grouch in his garbage can. There were banks of computers (remember, this was in the early 80's - people didn't have these things at home) with games using music, colors and numbers.

Although my son was not yet walking by himself, there were many things that he could take advantage of, and while I was climbing cargo nets with my daughter (well, I was almost 30 years younger back then), he was crawling around in Big Bird's Nest. Both of my children, along with my wife and myself, were able to enjoy all of the water activities which included a large wading pool, and a lazy river type tube attraction. All of the food served in the park was healthy food, and there were no stands selling the usual theme park fare. However you could buy a package of carrots or fruit as a snack. Even the restaurant served healthier options such as a whole grain pizza. It was just the thing you would expect from the producers of Sesame Street.

Then our children grew up and the activities of Sesame Place were a bit too childish for them, so they (and their parents) continued to get their theme park fix yearly at Walt Disney World. Sesame Place faded into our memories.

This summer my twin grandsons are just a bit younger than two years old, and my son and daughter-in-law decided that Sesame Place would be a good option for a summer day for the twins. My wife and I accompanied them there this week. And as expected, things were different than when we were last there.

In that time, the park has been operated by Anhaeuser-Busch (the beer company who operate Busch Gardens), and now by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. As you would imagine, the focus has changed a bit away from the purely educational to a more commercial venue. However, it is still a great day with the toddlers.

Our visit came as we entered a heat wave, so the day was very hot, and we spent the early afternoon in one of the many water based activities which are still a big part of the park. This was the most baby friendly of the water areas, but still included three large sections with increasing depths, but still shallow enough in all areas for the twins to enjoy. There was water spraying and gentle waves that the kids played in, having a wonderful time keeping cool. (I have to say that I did as well - playing with the grandtwins and cooling off myself.) And unlike the visits in the 1980's, none of us came away with painful sunburns. We have all gotten smarter since then. When we were as fully saturated and cooled down as we were going to get, we changed into dry clothes and started exploring the rest of the park.

After a day of activities (the merry-go-round was a bit hit with the boys) and the necessary souvenir shopping...

... we had a reservation for dinner with Elmo and Friends. While the food was good, this was almost entirely about meeting the characters during your meal as they came around and visited with you. The boys enjoyed interacting with all the characters that they knew from Sesame Place on TV.


After dinner we all went to see Elmo's World Live! The boys love Elmo's World and here was Elmo in his world right in front of them!

And of course a visit to Sesame Street itself to meet up with Ernie and Bert.

And like any good theme park, the day ends with a parade.

Yes, the park has grown from 3 acres in the 1980's to 14 acres today, and the emphasis on education and healthy eating, while not entirely gone, has been changed to a more entertainment oriented atmosphere, but it is still great that toddlers have a theme park that has been created for them. There is plenty to do and characters to meet, and parents (and grandparents) can have just as good a time as the little ones. It was fun coming back here after two decades away, and I fully expect to be back a number of times with the grandtwins again over the next few years.

(More pictures from our day at Sesame Place can be seen here.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

At the studio - and TV language

In my last post I talked about how I used to see many shows being taped here in New York City, but haven't been to a taping in many years. I believe the last one I was at was in 1986 in Los Angeles for the taping of a pilot for a proposed game show. To my knowledge that show never was bought. The last time I was at a show that actually was broadcast was the 1976 Saturday Night Live that we saw in Brooklyn. (My wife attended the broadcast of The View a year ago.) As I mentioned, yesterday we attended the taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

As with all TV shows with a studio audience, the producers distribute more tickets than they have seats in an effort to make sure that the audience is filled, so my wife and I made sure to be on line when the doors opened for the actual ticket distribution. (We had ticket reservations.) When we got there, there were 49 people on line in front of us which was a comforting thought since the studio seats 200 people. (Of course VIP's and invited guests have to be accommodated before the ticket holders.)

At 2:30 the doors opened and they started giving out the numbered tickets. With these tickets we would return at 4:45 PM and would not have to stand in line waiting in the brutal summer heat. There was a Subway right next to the studio and a park across the street - with benches in the shade, so my wife and I decided to get sandwiches and drinks and sit in the park until it was time to return.

We found a bench in the shade and spent the next 2 hours people watching, dog watching (it was also a dog park), eating our lunch and hoping for a breeze to help keep us cool on a day which featured high humidity and temperatures which felt like the high 90's! The time passed rather quickly, and soon it was time to once again stand on line, with the order based upon the number you were given earlier. We discovered that there were three different colored tickets ... one for VIPs, one for the general ticket holders, and one for those who walked up to the studio without ticket reservations and hoped to get into the show on a standby basis.

Soon we were admitted to the studio, having first gone through airport style security. (Empty pockets - remove belts - step through metal detector) It was nice to get in out of the heat and into an air conditioned studio.The studio was more or less as they had been all those years ago, but the huge TV cameras were now much smaller than they used to be. There was the usual warm up comedian and then Jon Stewart came out and greeting the audience. The taping went as planned and we soon were on our way home to watch the broadcast last night.

On the way home my wife and I discussed the fact that they would need to "bleep" quite a few words for the broadcast on Comedy Central. Although it is a cable channel, it is "family friendly." It wasn't until the advent of the internet that I found out that we in the US are so very conservative as to what we allow on TV. Yes, cable networks have much more latitude in this, but many choose not to take advantage of that flexibility. Then this morning, while reading my friend Erica's blog, Desktops & Dust Bunnies, I watched this clip from Australian TV.

Obviously, on US broadcast TV you would never hear some of those words spoken. So I am curious, what do you think about the restrictions on US TV? And while you are at it, what are your thoughts on the topic presented in this clip as it relates to your location in this world?

I end today's post with the definitive expert on this matter - George Carlin (who - if you remember - I first met in the early days at a taping of the Jimmy Dean show) who reminds us that on TV you may prick your finger, but you may not finger your prick!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gee ... that used to be fun.

Lately I have been thinking about things that I used to enjoy doing, but for one reason or another either don't do often enough anymore, or don't do at all. This blog entry will be the first of a series that I will post from time to time about such activities.

This line of thought was brought about by the fact that tomorrow, my wife and I are going to a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The reason is actually simple. When I was younger a good deal of what you saw on TV originated in New York City - at least if you lived in North America. Then, as now, you could write for tickets to see a show - either broadcast live or a taping for later broadcast. With so many shows originating from here, getting tickets for most shows was guaranteed. Some, like The Tonight Show (with Johnny Carson) were difficult to get. In addition, NBC had a Brooklyn studio which was right around the corner from my house. (More about this later.) Today, it is difficult to get tickets for the few shows which still originate from NYC.

Once I was 16 years old - the minimum age to be admitted to a show - I started writing for tickets on a regular basis. For a while, I was seeing (mostly) tapings almost every week. I think at one point I saw every game show (What's My Line, I've Got a Secret, etc.) and Variety show (Perry Como, Kraft Music Hall, etc.) and many specials being taped in NYC. During a taping of The Match Game, my grandfather was picked to be the contestant from the studio audience, so we sat up front and had a lot of camera face-time. During weekly tapings of The Jimmy Dean Show I got to meet a young (then unknown) comedian by the name of George Carlin and a Washington DC puppeteer trying to make a national name for himself, Jim Henson. I even once got to sing (and if you had ever heard my voice you would know how bad that must have been) onstage along with other audience members.

Naturally we always waited for the celebrities to come out after the show and got autographs. Once, after a taping of What's My Line, a very young Liza Minelli spent time with all of us autograph seekers, keeping her limo driver waiting.

We often got shown on camera when they panned the audience at times during the show, but since these were the days before home video recorders, we never got to see ourselves - except on the studio monitors - unless we caught a re-run at an unknown later date.

Saturday Night Live - October 16, 1976
As I mentioned, NBC had a Brooklyn studio where we saw a number of shows. In 1976, Saturday Night Live was in its second year on the air, and it's NY studio was taken up getting ready for the presidential election returns of that year. For a few weeks, the show would be broadcast from the Brooklyn studio. Since most people will go to a studio in Manhattan but not travel into Brooklyn, we were able to walk up and get tickets for the week's dress rehearsal. After seeing the rehearsal, we came back and stood on the stand-by line for the live show, and were lucky enough to get in. At one point the camera pointed directly into my wife's face as the show was ready to go to commercial. However, at the last second, the cameraman was told he needed to focus on a man rather than a woman so the fellow behind her had his moment in the sun. That's my wife and me in the lower left hand corner of the screenshot. If you have the second season set of DVD's, watch for us during the episode hosted by Karen Black. Here is a video clip of that moment.

And, of course, the next week we went back, but NBC had decided to bus the audience from the Manhattan studio to Brooklyn so we didn't get in. We did meet the cast and host for the week, Steve Martin. Here is a picture I took of my brother with Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner.

Tomorrow we go to a taping of The Daily Show - who knows what new story we may come away with?

Is there something that you used to do that you don't anymore ... but would like to do?

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Turning Wheels of Change - Guest Blogger, Cate Bolt

I have always said that the best thing about the Internet was the ability it gives me to meet new and interesting people that I would never have had the chance to meet had it not existed. Guest blogger, Cate Bolt is such a person, and if you think she is an amazing woman (she is) wait until you read about her daughter.

Cate Bolt is a mother of 9, writer, humanitarian & social activist. She is dedicated to improving the lives of others through compassion, fundraising, awareness and by motivating others to take action.

She is the President & Founder of Project 18 which exists to raise funds for humanitarian and conservation projects, the first of which was an orphanage in Bali, which is now operational.

Project 18 is currently running Auctions for Education to fund the education sponsorship of children in Bali who didn’t meet the criteria for acceptance into the orphanage but who are severely socially disadvantaged due to their inability to afford to go to school.

Project 18’s youth initiative Planet You works to educate kids in Australia about topics that are relevant to today’s youth market. Researched, presented, produced & edited entirely by young people, the series is fronted by The You Crew – 6-year-old Ailish and 15-year-old Ash.

Ailish & Ash are continuing the tradition and are now official Joey Ambassadors for Australia Zoo’s Wildlife Warriors.

Cate is also the Patron of Cate’s Cause – a national appeal against homelessness. Cate’s commitment to the cause of homelessness commenced when she found her family without a home, living in tents at Christmas time 2009. Her Open Letter to Prime Minister the Hon Kevin Rudd & the Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh MP, caused great controversy and discussion on the topic of homelessness in Australia.

Cate’s trade-mark shaved head is a result of shaving 15 years of hair growth to raise money for the Leukaemia Foundation’s World’s Greatest Shave in 2010.

Amongst the cause’s Cate is passionate about are:

  • Poverty
  • The Indonesian child sex trade
  • Education
  • Homelessness & housing affordability
  • Empowerment
  • Domestic Violence
  • Equality to special needs children
  • The reduction of non-sustainable Palm Oil production
  • Orang-utan & Sumatran Tiger conservation
On a personal note, Cate is happily married, madly in love with her children and an avid and obsessed “Lostie” (fan of the TV show Lost). She loves chocolate (without palm oil) and cannot live without her one good coffee per day. 

Cate blogs at Cate Bolt - An Ordinary Life.

The Turning Wheels of Change


Right before Christmas last year my only daughter, Ailish turned seven. For Christmas she asked for a bicycle. She’d never really ridden a ‘real’ bike before so I was apprehensive buying a two wheeler and a helmet. As a mother, anything that requires a helmet scares the hell out of me.

We have a large family. Nine children in fact! And Ailish is our only girl. She is the second youngest and by the time she was born I was so desperate to have a daughter that when I got one she was promptly wrapped up in cotton wool, bound by bubble wrap and stored in a cyclone bunker where nothing bad could ever happen to her. I might be over-stating that just a little bit but it’s true to say that when she learned to walk she never fell over because I was always one step behind her and ready to catch her the second she started to waiver. For the first several years of her life she hardly ever cried because she had no reason to. Her every wish was our command.
Her face when she saw her two wheeler bike was worth every cent of whatever I paid at Kmart for the bike, which wasn’t much because I honestly didn’t think she would last long on the bike at all. Almost all of our boys had never really ridden bikes much. They all thought it was boring just riding around in circles and I was a far too protective mother to let them take the bikes out onto the road.
It doesn’t take much to work out that boys and girls are different. I didn’t realise how different they were until Ailish came along. I had been a parent for 13 years, we had seven children, surely there wasn’t much I couldn’t already know. The thing that probably shocked me the most was the noise. Girls make a completely different noise to boys, even when they’re babies! I wasn’t at all ready for that high pitch shrieking noise, whether made in frustration or elation and, seven years later, I’m only just getting used to it now.
To my surprise, Ailish loves that bike more than words can even say. We live on a relatively large house block, with a tiny little house in the middle. None of our land is flat or paved but she can spend hours riding her bike, around and around. Down the driveway, across the front of the house, down the muddy slope which floods every time it rains, through the winter sun on the grass and around the big old macadamia trees, across the car port and back up the steep driveway again.
Watching her reminds me of my childhood. I grew up in a tiny town, there wasn’t much to see or do – except the snow. On the weekends I would take my bicycle, the one we won in a raffle at the local rodeo, up the lane behind our house to the flat cement driveway of the local mechanics shop. In the 70s those things were closed on the weekends so I could ride around in circles, sometimes mixing it up with a figure-eight. And I’d think. I doubt I thought about anything of global importance, unlike Ailish, at seven all I really had the capacity to think about was what my friends were doing on the weekend, the cute boy at school and what I wanted for my next birthday.
Ailish, however, thinks about third-world poverty. She thinks about the impending extinction of her favourite animal the orang-utan. She thinks about palm oil and childhood cancer and asylum seekers. I have no doubt she also wonders what her friends are doing and what she’d like for her next birthday but she gives a lot of thought to much bigger issues than I was ever able to do.
You might think this would be depressing for a child but Ailish doesn’t tend to think of these topics as mountains that should could never dream of riding her bike up. She sees them as a steady slope that might take a sustained amount of energy to conquer but just as she rises out of her seat and peddles hard to get up the driveway, she’s not too scared to have a crack at those problems. Solutions that most adults wouldn’t have the nerve to try.
Ailish has spent much of her school vacation, the bit when she’s not riding her bike, making handmade things to sell in her ETSY Shop. All the money she makes from them she uses to make microloans to women in developing countries to start or grow a business with a view to making them financially independent. Every time she sells enough to make a loan she scrolls through the pages and pages of faces and uses her new found reading skills to see what each of them would like to do. She almost always picks someone who wants to buy pigs, or other livestock and she loves to see where she’s ranked in the world in the “giving” table. Currently – number 21 – in the world!
If you’d like to join her team and make a microloan I think you’d make her bike rides even more exciting. You can find her here.