Somewhere in that golden haze after we got to know Big Bird and his friends on Sesame Street — but before we were introduced to Barney and his pals — there was a little show called New Zoo Revue. Here, take a look back to that oh-so-retro TV show for kids!
New Zoo Revue, coming right at you!
By Norma Lee Browning, Chicago Tribune (1972)
Once in a blue moon, you run across a story that warms the cockles of the heart. This one begins with a call from a Hollywood press agent pitching a new children’s TV show that “teaches a moral value to the youngsters.” That’s what the man said.
A TV show teaching moral values? In Hollywood? It had to be a press agent’s gimmick.
“Check it out,” he said.
I checked it out. The show is the New Zoo Revue.
Its cast includes only two human characters and three “animal characters” people inside animal costumes: Freddie the Frog [lovable but not too bright]; Charlie the Owl [the scholarly one who lives in a treehouse with his own private elevator]; and Henrietta the Hippo [an aristocratic southern belle whose hobby is eating].
It is an entertaining show even for an adult, as I learned when I spent a day on the New Zoo set during filming at Cinema General Studios.
It does indeed teach moral values — within a charming mini-musical-comedy format.
How New Zoo Revue got its start
The story of how it all happened is as fascinating as the show itself, and contains probably the most un-Hollywoodian cast of characters whoever put a commercial TV show together: a woman business executive and toy designer who had never been inside a television studio; her 24-year-old protege and his bride, both students working on their master’s degrees, neither of whom had ever been in front of a television camera; a young Hollywood producer-promoter who left his lucrative association with Raquel Welch because he wanted to “contribute something of value”; a TV producer-director who is also special television consultant to President Nixon; and Chicago insurance tycoon W Clement Stone, who is bankrolling New Zoo as a “character-building” series.
Most of them had never met one another before New Zoo began, and they still haven’t met Stone.
Yet, without knowing it, they emulate his philosophy of positive thinking, character building, and the teaching of moral values to young children. Perhaps because of their common concern for moral values — or the lack of them in today’s modern society — they were drawn together by some invisible force to create the New Zoo Revue.
It all started with Barbara Atlas, a chic-looking toy designer, whose bean-bag frog Freddie is a favorite in toy shops everywhere. Barbara, the mother of a grown daughter, is a business executive in her husband’s Atlas Toy Company. She is also a creative woman who has had an interest in children for a long time. She took her first job at the age of 16 while attending UCLA, selling needlework and teaching children to knit at the same time.
Two years ago, in addition to her toy creations, she began designing and teaching needlepoint for grade school children and teens. She built a good business, and soon it was necessary to hire an assistant designer.
That’s when she discovered a very talented young man, Douglas Momary, who was to become co-creator of the New Zoo Revue. She had met Doug through his mother, who was an employee of the Atlas Toy Co.
Doug is a composer, lyricist, scenery designer and artist. He is a graduate of California State College at Fullerton, has been involved in educational theater for seven years, and was the director of the Whittier, California Children’s Theater.
Barbara hired him to help her with her needlepoint designs for children. Then a local television station approached her to design toys for a children’s show.
“I’d never been involved in television,” she said. “I knew nothing about it. But I decided that if I was good enough to be asked to design for another children’s show, why not have my own TV show? I knew I could do it with Doug’s help and his talents. That boy’s a genius. So, I said to him, ‘How would you like to have your own TV show?’
And that’s how New Zoo started.
“We planned it together. We decided to make it the best children’s show on the air, a show that would be inspirational and instructional, that would teach a way of life through a musical format. that le 100 percent entertaining. But our aim was to accomplish character building by provoking positive thought patterns through music — and to inspire children to become better citizens in the world in which they live.”
Barbara and Doug packaged 65 original programs with songs and music, and one year later they were on the air.
But it wasn’t easy. None of the major studios were interested in backing a “moralistic” children’s show.
Next, entered one of Hollywood’s young, dynamic executives, Stephen W Jahn. 27, who had become disenchanted with his job as vice president of Curtwel Productions [Raquel Welch, Patrick Curtis]. He had formed his own independent production company, FunCo to promote and produce family-oriented entertainment in motion pictures and television.
“I prefer to be associated with a type of entertainment I would want my own children to see,” he said, echoing Barbara Atlas’ conviction that “the family is still the most important part of society today.”
Jahn believed in New Zoo’s “moralistic” approach, and it was he who took it to the newly-formed Stone-Bradshaw Productions, headed by Stone and his son in law, attorney David Bradshaw.
Stone worked out a plan that was mutually beneficial to New Zoo and himself.
A milestone in children’s TV programming
William Carruthers, who is the producer and director of New Zoo, and is also TV consultant to President Nixon, has high hopes that the show will stand as a milestone in children’s programming and “encourage others to face their obligation toward America’s youth.”
Momary agreed. “I think there are certain universal laws and principles that apply to all people everywhere. about how to get along in the world and with each other. And I think this philosophy should be taught to children. That’s what we’re trying to do on the show.”
Both Doug and Barbara still work together in creating storylines for New Zoo. They hire scriptwriters to carry out their ideas and the dialogue, but all the lessons or “morals” are told in the songs that Doug writes.
Barbara calls Momary the Burt Bacharach of the playschool set, and predicts that of the 300 songs he’s written so far, he’ll have at least ten gold records. [“He better!”
She has unofficially “adopted” Doug and Emily, calls them “my kids,” and enjoys telling people, ” I am like a mother hen with them.”
Doug and Emily have only been married a little over a year. In fact, they had to cut short their honeymoon to start rehearsals for New Zoo.
Emily is a native of Dallas, Texas, a graduate of Southern Methodist University and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts which she attended on an ABC-TV scholarship. Both are now working towards master’s degrees at USC — his in drama, hers in speech. Emily also teaches a children’s class in speech and language.
About the clever animal characters on New Zoo, Emily said, “I get so involved with the show that I forget they’re not real.
The “moralistic” aspect of the show is always light and upbeat. There is no attempt to preach. For example, in the first episode, Freddie the Frog decided he didn’t need school anymore. In a series of songs, he learned why school is important.
On the day I visited the set, there was a simulated thunderstorm. The animals were complaining because the rain had spoiled their picnic. So Emily and Doug sing some songs about how rain isn’t all that bad, it’s really beneficial, for where would we get water to drink without rain. Very simple, but with appeal and charm and educational overtones distinctly unusual in a commercial children’s show.
New Zoo Revue theme song lyrics (1972-1977)
La la la la la la la
la la la la la la la
It’s the New Zoo Revue, coming right at you
Where three delightful animals have fun with what they do
We learn with our friend Doug (our friend Doug!)
I’m his helper Emmy Jo (Emmy Jo!)
With Freddie! Charlie! Henrietta!
We have fun learning what we don’t know
Delicate and feminine is Henrietta Hippo
Very wise and very smart is Charlie the Owl
Not so smart, but lots of heart, is Freddie the Frog
It’s quite an unusual thing, the animals talk and sing
With Doug and Emmy Jo, every day’s a different show
It’s the New Zoo Revue, coming right at you
It’s the New Zoo Revue, coming right at you!