Hey you guys! See how ‘The Electric Company’ TV show powered kids’ minds back in the ’70s

The Electric Company original cast album cover

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‘Electric Company’ carries on the work of Sesame Street (1971)

By Percy Shain – The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) October 21, 1971

While it is not wise — or fair — to judge a series on the basis of samplings from future segments, this new educational tool would seem to be just the sort of TV project to carry on the work of “Sesame Street,” which comes from the same Children’s Television Workshop.

Intended as a spur to reading skills for the 7-10 age group, and particularly — “those in the lower half of the second grade,” it uses — and embellishes on — many of the techniques of its forerunner for tiny tots, and has considerably more humor — some of it so sly that they may be above the heads of their target.

The Electric Company TV show cast cartoon from 1973

Teenagers and adults, I’m sure, would appreciate many of the jokes. How do you like, for instance, the name of one of the chief characters, Fargo North, Decoder, who ferrets out mysterious messages with missing letters?

The animated bits and word tricks are also ingenious, and, with Bill Cosby around to provide his brand of droll fun in a variety of disguises, there is no lack of lighter moments.

One thing is certain, this show is getting the kind of promotion that promises a wide impact in its age bracket. The first four nights of this week a sample film — filled with bits from future shows, after an introduction explaining the purposes of the series — is being shown at 6 pm, and in addition, an entirely different segment, “Here Comes the Electric Company,” will be aired tonight at 7:30.

The show itself gets underway next Monday, with one showing at 1:30 for in-school use and another at 5:30 for home instruction. A total of 130 half-hour segments have been prepared, to be aired at the rate of five a week on more than 200 of the nation’s PBS outlets.

Taking off with Zoom, a TV show for kids (1972-1978)

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The “Electric Company,” a rather unusual title, refers, of course, to the repertory troupe that is involved in its word stunts and comedy scenes, containing, besides Cosby, Rita Moreno, Lee Chamberlin, Skip Hinnant, Judy Graubert, Morgan Freeman, most of them familiar faces from commercials and other stints, all in multiple roles, plus Jim Boyd as the voice of “J. Arthur Crank.”

There is also a five-piece soft-rock, Short Circuit, because rhythmic melody and catchy verse are very important in the painlessly developed lessons, and the music is good indeed.

This looks like another feather in CTW’s hat.

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‘Electric Company’ a PBS hit (1973)

By Don Royal – Longview Daily News (Longview, Washington) June 9, 1973

— An intrepid detective decodes word messages for confused clients.

— A torch singer belts out a song on the word group “did, kid, lid.” The singer: Oscar-winner Rita Moreno.

— A crank caller gets straightened out on the silent “e” by comic Bill Cosby.

— A pre-teen rock band bops and gyrates to the rhythms of the “ow” sound.

Silent “e”! ow! Did, kid, lid!

Sound like a put-on? Well, it’s a put-on with a point. The point: reading.

The Electric Company - 1972

The program is “The Electric Company,” and it airs daily on more than 230 public television stations and several commercial channels around the country.

In its current second season (it’s going for three), the series is being seen by an estimated six million youngsters. It is viewed in a third of the elementary schools in the United States.

The Electric Company directs its effort to the age 7-10 audience. And it does so not with formal pedagogy, but with the magic of the television medium itself.

Says Andrew B. Ferguson Jr: “We have to reach in order to teach. We have to make it visually exciting, with music, dance, and fun — to make it as entertaining as anything the kids might turn on.”‘

Electric Company DVD cover

A nationwide study of the show’s impact conducted by the Educational Testing Service indicated that it was accomplishing its goals. Children who watched the program in their classrooms during the first season made significant gains over non-viewers in the skills the program was designed to teach.

“The Electric Company” and “Sesame Street” are produced by The Children’s Television Workshop. Both shows operate on the premise that the viewer’s attention span has been fragmented by the onslaught of commercials.

The Electric Company strategy, therefore, involves a mastery of pacing. Skits, songs, animated characters, blackouts, takeoffs — they rush across the screen. But what recurs are the rules of language — the unremitting “did, kid, lid.”‘

Here comes The Electric Company - debut from 1971

Though the pace is fast, the element of familiarity is always there, providing a kind of security for the young viewer. There are repeated segments, such as “Wild Guess,” a spoof of TV game shows.

Bright and Early Books for kids from Dr Seuss (1972)

Children welcome recurring comic characters such as Easy Reader, a hipster with an obsession for the written word; Fargo North, Decoder, word detective extraordinaire; Mel Mounds, disc jockey and J. Arthur Crank, whose testy telephone calls spur lessons in language; Jennifer of the Jungle and Paul the Gorilla, who inhabits a primitive civilization.

The show also teaches as it entertains, with animated films including a highly popular character called Letterman — a superhero who helps children sound out words in episodes titled “The Adventures of Letterman.” In addition, an animated “Message Man” helps youngsters read for meaning.

The show contains a number of other familiar faces, as television and film personalities make cameo appearances on The Electric Company. The selection of these performers reflects the preference of children polled by Workshop researchers.

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If language is the hero, its willing handmaidens are a repertory company of skilled actors also known as “The Electric Company.”‘

Ferguson says: “We believe that we’ve developed a real repertory concept, enabling an actor like Morgan Freeman in this context to play many roles — from Easy Reader to disc jockey Mel Mounds — and still be identifiable to our audience.”‘

The company consists of Bill Cosby, winner of four Emmys and five Grammies; Rita Moreno, winner of the Academy Award as best supporting actress in “West Side Story;” Luis Avalos, comedic actor who was a recent member of the Lincoln Center Repertory Company, Jim Boyd, who specializes in such voices as J. Arthur Crank and Lorelei the Chicken; Lee Chamberlin, whose stage performances have ranged from Euripides”Medea”‘ to Baraka’s “Slaveship;” Morgan Freeman, versatile stage, film and TV actor (“P.O.N.Y.,” “Hello Dolly,” “DMZ”‘); Judy Graubart, a former member of Chicago’s Second City troupe; and Skip Hinnant, who appeared as Schroeder in the New York production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

The actors themselves respond to the show’s blend of serious purpose and lighthearted style. A few have achieved their reputation in comedy; the others take to it as a welcome diversion. The Short Circus, the series’ young group, is used both musically and in a number of skits from time to time.

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was innovative Saturday morning TV with a message for kids (1972-1985)

Electric Company TV show cast in 1976

Unlike Sesame Street, the Electric Company has no identifiable setting. Instead, it uses the dimensions of the television screen as its own electronic limbo.

It is, however, firmly rooted in a curriculum goal that has been constant since the series’ research phase. That goal arose out of a national dilemma, as defined by the federal government, which designated the 1970s as the “Right to Read” decade while acknowledging the vast numbers of Americans who were functionally illiterate.

In response to a government request, the Workshop undertook this problem and devoted 18 months to research, testing and consultation with some 100 reading experts, before the series premiered in October 1971 on the PBS network.

“We conceive the series as a useful supplementary resource for the classroom teacher,” says Ferguson. Each program, therefore, offers a blend of curriculum approaches.

This “cafeteria” method enables teachers to use the program in a way that supplements their particular reading instruction and gives viewers a variety of incentives and reading strategies.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood theme song & lyrics (1966-2001)

The Electric Company original cast album - Vinyl record cover

Viewers’ response includes such comments as:

“Our pupils look forward to the daily program. They talk to the actors, write down words, laugh at the jokes, sing, and enjoy it thoroughly. They spell words and change the letters around before the actors do. They have no idea how much reading they are doing.” (From two third-grade teachers in Maryville, Mo.)

“I would say 90 percent of the schools in our area are using the program during the school day in some manner, and they are very happy with it.” (From an in-school programming co-ordinator in Duluth, Minn.)

“The reading on The Electric Company is much more fun than the books at school,” (From a 10-year-old viewer)… and so on.

All of which points up the biggest, most crucial, mystery: how to instill “love of learning.”

In an age when many children turn-on to television and turn-off to school, The Electric Company would seem to provide one direction.

On the set of The Electric Company - 1972

The Electric Company: PBS program starts last ‘new’ season (1976)

By Joan Hanauer – The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida) October 24, 1976

“The Electric Company” will be battery-operated after this year, running on stored power while the parent Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) generates some new techniques for teaching reading on television.

“Electric Company” began its sixth season Oct. 18. and it will be the last “new” season for a while. For the three years following the 1976-77 season, “Electric Company” will operate on reruns, with the CTW conducting research on its goals, shows and accomplishment.

“Sesame Street,” CTW’s initial and resounding success. opens its new season in November. and there are no plans to put it on reruns.

Joan Ganz Cooney, president of CTW, said in an interview that after the three-year research period, “Electric Company” will go back into production to implement what has been learned about teaching via television, at the least touching up old shows and where necessary totally revamping them and creating new ones.

We have spent a lot of time in the past testing the effectiveness of whole shows,” she said. “Now I would ~ like to see them taken apart and tested piece by piece. That will tell us when to make new shows, when to add new elements to existing shows.”

Spiderman meets The Electric Company vintage comic book

There are two new characters on the show this year.

One is Steve Awesome, “The Six Dollar and Thirty-Nine Cent Man,” a cross between superhero and super jerk. The other is Clayton, an animated character, who introduces elements of the curriculum as part of ‘Electric Company’s” attempt to cue its audience to be prepared for specific learning situations.

Mrs. Cooney remains justly proud of the accomplishments of “Electric Company” and “Sesame Street,” particularly in view of encouraging news about improved reading ability among school children.

The Pittsburgh Courier (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)25 Oct 1975, SatPage 14

“National assessments show third grade up in reading, and very much up among poor blacks. ‘Sesame Street’ is hypothesized as one of the reasons, and ‘Electric Company,’ too. The assessors think television itself has made a difference and I do, too.

“I don’t mean just ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Electric Company,’ I mean entertainment shows as well. There are many other reasons, too, including Head Start programs. and the fact that teachers of reading have become more and more experimental.”

Mrs. Cooney is not impressed with the predictions that heralded the start of the television age as the end of reading.

“Every parent I know complains that they wish their kids read more,” she said, “but most of the kids I know are in the comic book phase at the exact same point I was in the radio stage when I was a kid. Certainly, books and magazines are selling very well among adults.”

The Electric Company magazine

Dynamite magazine covers (1981-1983)

“The Electric Company” includes the following members, beginning with Paul the Gorilla (Jim Boyd) at top and moving clockwise: Jennifer of the Jungle (Judy Graubart), Easy Reader (Morgan Freeman), Igor (Luis Avalos), The Movie Director (Rita Moreno), Spider-Man (Danny Seagren), Valerie the Librarian (Hattie Winston), Fargo North, Decoder (Skip Hinnant).

Rita Moreno remembers her days on “The Electric Company” (video from 2011)

YouTube video


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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. The Electric Company is too good of a series for Sesame Workshop to have languishing in their vaults! I am making my case on that by the petition I have running, presently at 473 signatures; https://chng.it/YcchcSw7fT. Certainly those in the Generation X age group, myself included, would purchase a deluxe DVD/Blu-Ray series box set, or season by season (Six of them!), all completely restored, original and unedited if such DVD/Blu-Ray releases were available other than the two Best Of DVD box sets that Shout Factory released. In my years of growing up, I had even been a subscriber to their magazine of the same name.

  2. Additional note: The episodes on The Best Of The Electric Company-Volume Two DVD box set from Shout Factory had altering done to them. I can’t think of if the same thing had happened with some episodes on the first volume.

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