The Electric Company is an American educational children's television series created by Paul Dooley and directed by Robert Schwarz (1971 & 1977), Henry Behar (1972–1975), John Tracy (1975–1976); written by Dooley, Christopher Cerf (1971–1973), Jeremy Steven (1972–1974) and John Boni/Amy Ephron (1972–1973); and produced by the Children's Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) for PBS in the United States. PBS broadcast 780 episodes over the course of its six seasons from October 25, 1971, to April 15, 1977. (In many areas, a preview special, Here Comes The Electric Company (pilot episode), was seen in syndication through sponsor Johnson Wax on many local commercial stations during the week before its 1971 debut.) After it ceased production in 1977, the program continued in reruns until October 4, 1985, as the result of a decision made in 1975 to produce two final seasons for perpetual use. The Workshop produced the show at Second Stage, located within the Reeves Teletape Studios (Teletape), in Manhattan, which had been the first home of Sesame Street.
The Electric Company employed sketch comedy and various other devices to provide an entertaining program to help elementary school children develop their grammar and reading skills. Since it was intended for children who had graduated from CTW's flagship program, Sesame Street, the humor was more mature than what was seen there.
The original cast included Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby, Judy Graubart, Lee Chamberlin and Skip Hinnant. Most of the cast had done stage, repertory, and improvisational work, with Cosby and Moreno already well-established performers on film and television. Ken Roberts (1971–1973), best known as a soap-opera announcer (Love of Life; The Secret Storm), was the narrator of some segments during season one, most notably the parody of the genre that had given him prominence, "Love of Chair".
Jim Boyd, who was strictly an off-camera voice actor and puppeteer during the first season, began appearing on-camera in the second season, mostly in the role of J. Arthur Crank. Luis Ávalos also joined the cast at that time.
Bill Cosby was a regular in season one, and occasionally appeared in new segments during season two, but left afterward. Nevertheless, segments that Cosby had taped during seasons one and two were repeatedly used for the rest of the run, and Cosby was billed as a cast member throughout. Similarly, Lee Chamberlin also left after season two, but many of her segments were also repeatedly reused; consequently, she was also billed as a cast member for the rest of the show's run.
Added to the cast at the beginning of season three (1973–1974) was Hattie Winston, an actress and singer who later appeared on the show Becker. Beginning in season four (1974–1975), Danny Seagren, a puppeteer who had worked on Sesame Street and also as a professional dancer, appeared in the role of Spider-Man; Marvel Comics published a title, Spidey Super-Stories, that tied into Seagren's appearances as Spider-Man, in character as whom he never spoke aloud or unmasked himself.
The adult cast also had recurring roles as Spider-Man (Danny Seagren) (seasons 4–6 (1974–1977)), J.J. (Skip Hinnant), Carmela (Rita Moreno), Brenda (Lee Chamberlin) (seasons 1–2 (1971–1973), Mark (Morgan Freeman), Hank (Bill Cosby) (seasons 1–2 (1971–1973)), Roberto (Luis Ávalos) (seasons 2–6 (1972–1977)), Winnie (Judy Graubart), Andy (Jim Boyd), and Sylvia (Hattie Winston) (seasons 3–6 (1973–1977)).
Another regular part of the show was the Short Circus (a pun on short circuit), a five-member singing band whose songs also facilitated reading comprehension. June Angela was the only Short Circus member to remain with the show during its entire six-year run. Others lasted anywhere from one to four years. Irene Cara appeared during the first season (1971–1972) and would go on to become a pop-music star. Cara was replaced in the second season (1972–1973) by Denise Nickerson, who previously appeared on the ABC daytime series Dark Shadows and was best known for her appearance as Violet Beauregarde in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
The other three original members of the Short Circus were singer and guitarist Melanie Henderson; drummer and singer Stephen Gustafson; and singer, tambourinist, and guitarist Douglas Grant. For seasons three (1973–1974) and four (1974–1975), Grant and Nickerson were replaced by tap dancer Gregg Burge and Broadway actress Bayn Johnson.
Except for June Angela, an entirely new Short Circus was cast for seasons five (1975–1976) and six (1976–1977). The new hires were Todd Graff, singer Rodney Lewis, Réjane Magloire, and singer Janina Matthews.
In the first season (1971–1972), a number of unbilled children were also used on-camera with the show's cast, as on Sesame Street, but this concept was quickly dropped.
Because of the frequent reuse of segments, a practice derived from Sesame Street, actors continued to appear after their departures from the cast.
The Electric Company also featured a few celebrity guest appearances on the show. An incomplete list follows.
The series was notable for its extensive, innovative use of early computer-generated imagery, especially Scanimate, a then-state-of-the-art analog video-synthesizer system. They were often used for presenting words with particular sounds. Sometimes a cast member would be seen alongside or interacting in another way with a word animation.
A total of 780 episodes were produced in the show's six-season run, 130 per season. As with Sesame Street, each episode of The Electric Company was numbered on-screen instead of using traditional episode titles. Seasons One through Four were numbered 1–520 (1971–1975). Season five was numbered 1A–130A (1975–1976), while season six was numbered 1B–130B (1976–1977). The last two seasons were designated as such because they were designed as year-long curriculum for schools.
Starting with season three, a show's number would be presented in the sketch-of-the-day teaser segment, a parody of soap-opera teasers, which would highlight a particular sketch that would be shown during that episode. The voice of a cast member would say a variant of, "Today on The Electric Company, the so-and so says, '(censored),'" and the action would freeze as the graphic of the word of the day (or a card with the word of the day printed on it) became visible to viewers. The censored words were replaced by a series of harsh electronic sounds (similar to the sound of a theremin) roughly mimicking the tone and cadence of the word in question. The still action would linger on the screen for several seconds, then fade to black, where the show number would become visible in a Scanimate animation in a random color. The music for this segment was a repetitive, funky instrumental groove featuring a call-and-response between horns and a scratchy wah-wah electric guitar.
The next-show teaser, which was introduced in season two without music, worked in the same way, and usually used a different take of the music heard during the sketch-of-the-day teaser, except that the voice said "Tune in next time, when...," and there was no show number shown.
In Season One, however, after the title sequence, the sound of a striking match would be heard, and a fade-up from black would reveal a hand holding a lit match and "Show #x" handwritten on a piece of paper that was placed in such a way so that it could blend with the surrounding objects in-frame. Instead of the next-show teaser, Ken Roberts's voice could be heard, saying, "And now, the last word," and the trademark light bulb would be shut off by a hand doing whatever the last word was. In Season Two, after the opening sequence the words "The Electric Company" would disappear from the familiar logo, and the show number would appear in its place through the use of a Scanimate animation and an electronic whooshing sound.
Notably, some episodes in seasons three through five had serious technical errors with either their sketch-of-the-day teaser segments or their next-show teaser segments, which was probably because of the failure of the linear analog video-editing equipment. Episodes that have these errors in their sketch-of-the-day teasers include 297, 390, 1A, 8A, and 15A—sometimes the music started too late, ended too early, or played too long; sometimes the errors are negligible, with the teaser music only playing a fraction of a second longer than usual.
For season six, because the teaser music was changed to a shorter, self-contained composition, these errors do not occur, with the exception of the teaser of 33B shown at the end of 32B (available on iTunes), where the teaser was accidentally cut by a fraction of a second.
The Electric Company was canceled in 1977 at the height of its popularity. Unlike its counterpart Sesame Street, which licensed its Muppet characters for merchandising, The Electric Company never had a stand-alone brand or character that could have helped to generate additional profits. The only significant items the show licensed were comic books and a Milton Bradley board game of the Fargo North, Decoder character. Licensing rights were also granted to Mattel Electronics for two educational-based video games for the Intellivision console in 1979. These games featured both the show's title logo on the game's packaging and label and the first several notes of the theme song played on the title screen of the games.
In addition, the PBS stations and statewide networks that aired the show often complained of the Children's Television Workshop "soaking up so much money in public television," said veteran television producer Samuel Gibbon, who worked on the show. "The stations demanded that one of the programs—either Sesame Street or The Electric Company—be put into reruns to save money. By that time, Sesame Street was a cash fountain for the Workshop. The show was almost supporting itself by then with all the productions, books, records, and games. There was no way, it was felt, that they could reduce the number of original shows of Sesame Street. But the thought was that if we produce two final seasons of The Electric Company that were designed to be repeated, that would give the show four more years of life." Most PBS programs at the time were produced entirely by local stations, instead of being the work of independent producers like CTW. The final episode of The Electric Company featured a short musical and dance number featuring the final cast members (with the exception of Rita Moreno who did not take part in this) including the then-current members of the Short Circus. The lyrics of the song summed up the closure of the series:
"We're glad you came to call. We really had a ball. The show is done; we hate to run; we're sorry, but that's all."
Following the last original episode on April 15, 1977, The Electric Company continued on PBS in reruns until the fall of 1985, which gave the show about the amount of life expected at the time after production ended, with the final two seasons (1A through 130B) shown in rotation. These are the episodes that are the most familiar to younger viewers.
The earlier shows did not resurface until February 2, 1999, when the Noggin network, which was partly owned by Sesame Workshop at the time, rebroadcast the show as a result of its co-ownership of the network. A two-hour feature-length compilation special, which was aired on TV Land, re-introduced the series to a new generation whose parents had grown up watching the show.
Noggin ran 65 select episodes until 2005, when they were pulled from the program lineup because Sesame Workshop sold its half of the network to Viacom, which already owned the other half. The shows were cut subtly to fit Noggin's shorter running time and free up time for various interstitial segments produced for the network. These deletions included the episode numbers, the Scanimate word animations, the segments of up to 15 seconds, and the teasers of the next episodes (in seasons 2–6).
During the same period as the Noggin rebroadcasts, numerous fans of the program produced QuickTime and MP3 clips from the Noggin rebroadcasts, old over-the-air recordings, and, in some cases, from master recordings. These were hosted online at various places and received heavy attention from the blogosphere (e.g., Boing Boing) until a cease-and-desist letter took down the most prominent of these sites in 2004.
The series was not seen since it was pulled from Noggin's schedule until Sesame Workshop, under license to Shout! Factory and Sony BMG Music Entertainment, released a DVD boxed set on February 7, 2006, called The Best of the Electric Company that included 20 uncut episodes from throughout the show's run, including the first and last episodes, plus outtakes and introductions and commentary by Rita Moreno and June Angela.
Due to the overwhelming—and somewhat unexpected—popularity of the initial DVD release, a second boxed set was released on November 14, 2006 (The Best of the Electric Company: Volume 2). This second volume contained 20 episodes from seasons one through five plus a 30-minute documentary on the effects of in-school viewings of The Electric Company from 1975. Cast members Luis Ávalos, Jim Boyd, Judy Graubart, Skip Hinnant, and Hattie Winston provided commentary and reflected on their years on the show. However, the original content of nine episodes presented in this set were altered. In some cases, material that was originally broadcast in a particular episode was removed completely while material from other episodes was included. For example, 60A originally contained the Spider-Man episode "Spidey Meets the Prankster" and used a scene from that sketch as the opening teaser, which was removed completely after the opening credits, leaving only the episode number, and at the start is an episode of "The Six-Dollar and Thirty-Nine Cent Man", which supposedly aired only during season six. Also removed following the Letterman sketch in this episode was the clip of the Short Circus singing "Stop!" and a Road Runner–Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Clayton appeared in this episode as well, even though he supposedly only appeared in season six. These altered episodes also contain special effects used to segue from one sketch to another that were not used in the show's original run. The other altered episodes are 197, 227, 322, 375, 35A, 57A, 77A, and 105A. The material seen in these altered episodes was not what was originally shown when the episodes were first broadcast.
It is believed that these changes were probably made to avoid repeats of segments that were on the first DVD set, but it is more likely that it was due to ownership rights—the segments that were used to cover up the material not under Sesame Workshop's control (Spider-Man, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, etc.) were longer than the excised segments, so the episodes were cut further to get them down to their required 28-minute length.
An hour-long television show called The Electric Company's Greatest Hits & Bits was broadcast on many PBS stations in late 2006. It included interviews with cast members, voice talent, and creator-producer Joan Ganz Cooney. The special was produced by Authorized Pictures and distributed by American Public Television, and was designed to be seen during pledge drives. It was released on DVD on March 6, 2007.
In early 2007, Apple Inc., through its iTunes service, started selling 15 previously-unavailable episodes of The Electric Company. "Volume 1" contained Episodes 5, 13, 23, 128, 179, 249, 261, 289, 297, 374, 416, 475, 91A, 8B, and 32B.
In late 2007, another collection of 15 episodes dubbed "Volume 2" became available from iTunes. The new additions were Episodes 2, 36, 40, 75, 142, 154, 165, 172, 189, 218, 245, 290, 337, and 350. Repeated from Volume 1 was Episode 8B, erroneously labeled as 658, even though it is correct if the A–B designations were disregarded (1A–130A are 521–650, 1B–130B are 651–780).
It is unclear if these episodes were altered from the versions originally shown on television. Shout! Factory representatives indicated that it had no plans for another DVD set, implying that episodes distributed via iTunes would not be available in another format.
In May 2008, Sesame Workshop began production on a new version of The Electric Company that began airing on PBS on January 23, 2009. The revival included interactive Web elements and community-outreach projects. Karen Fowler served as executive producer. Unlike the 1970s series, in which the Electric Company referred to a troupe of actors in comedy sketches, the new series referred to a group of super heroes who battle villains in the name of literacy.
Season one premiered on January 23, 2009, and consisted of 28 episodes. None of the segments used in the 1970s were used in the revival (with the exception of new versions of the soft-shoe silhouettes and an occasional appearance of Paul the Gorilla, although these were infrequent), nor were any of the original actors, although June Angela had a cameo as a woman on the street. In addition, the theme used of the new version had no musical relation to the 1970s theme. The show was nominated for eight Emmy Awards in 2010 and won five. After three seasons, it was canceled.
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