Weird Science: The Mr. Wizard Story

NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, it was unusual for television programs to address the topic of sex. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy. Both were forbidden by network standards to even use the word pregnant. (For all viewers knew, Little Ricky was the product of an immaculate conception.) Teens on sitcoms rarely investigated anything other than chaste dating.

But for the juvenile audience of Watch Mr. Wizard, viewers got what may have been television’s earliest widespread discussion of sex. More specifically, the gestation period of hamsters.

Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible. A revolving cast of kid assistants, none of them particularly interested in science, stood at Herbert's side and marveled at how Newtonian laws influenced their day-to-day existence.

Hebert was so popular that NBC gave him free rein to blow things up or discuss hamster sex. And then, nearly 20 years after Watch Mr. Wizard's cancellation in 1965, Herbert was given the opportunity to captivate a brand-new generation of kids with Mr. Wizard's World, which made its debut on the fledging Nickelodeon cable channel in 1983. Forget Bill Nye: For millions of viewers, Herbert was the original "science guy."

 

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show.

But acting, while promising, wasn’t foremost on Herbert's mind. He enrolled in the Army Air Forces in 1942, eventually piloting a B-24 bomber in 56 bombing missions over Europe. He was also involved in the invasion of Italy. Herbert was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his contributions. (His dual role as war hero and kid show host may have been the origin of the infamous myth about Fred Rogers being a sniper.)

After arriving back home, Herbert's love of the arts led him to Chicago, where he felt he might be able to find a way back into the entertainment industry.

Eventually, he did.

Don Herbert appears in a publicity photo for 'Watch Mr. Wizard'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Herbert agreed to begin hosting a science-oriented show for WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate. Just a few years after the introduction of the atom bomb and with Americans troubled by reports of Soviet space technology like Sputnik, the time seemed right for a series that focused on the scientific laws governing the world. An ad executive thinking of sponsoring the program wanted to call him “the Wizard.” Herbert, feeling that was perhaps too pretentious, added a “Mr.” to the title.

Watch Mr. Wizard premiered in 1951. Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen. His first assistant was 11-year-old Willy, Herbert’s real-life next-door neighbor.

Herbert was adamant that science not be confined to sterile lab settings. He reasoned that by using everyday household items to conduct his experiments, kids would be able to replicate them at home.

“Milk bottles are your flasks,” Herbert said. “Glasses your beakers, and the whole house your laboratory.”

There was no barrier between a child and their curiosity. Herbert would present situations—a rising cake, blowing wind—and then explain the “trick.” He considered entertaining his audience to be his primary job, not educating them, but was thrilled if he could succeed at doing both.

“I do a kind of educational television but the difference between what I do and educational television is like night and day,” Herbert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961. “The primary purchase of educational television is to teach and the primary purpose of Mr. Wizard is to entertain, to stimulate, to intrigue.”

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers [PDF]. While the audience was not as sizable as a primetime hit, it was a substantial number for an educational program. (Though it was ostensibly for kids, half of Watch Mr. Wizard's viewers were adults.) His audience was also devoted, with 5000 fan clubs springing up across the country that eventually claimed 100,000 members. Herbert’s notoriety helped him sell 200,000 copies of various science books.

In 1965, NBC announced it would be canceling Watch Mr. Wizard. The show had run its course, the network claimed, and audiences were increasingly looking at television as an empty-calorie prospect—not an educational tool. Even so, a 14-year run was something only a handful of shows had ever achieved. But Herbert wasn’t done.

 

Though NBC briefly revived Watch Mr. Wizard in 1971, Herbert felt his skills were best-suited to areas outside of weekly half-hour television. He produced 18 films that were meant to be screened in classrooms; the National Science Foundation helped fund a series of 80-second segments titled How About for local newscasts across the country. Though most of the footage didn’t use the “Mr. Wizard” name, Herbert was often introduced with that moniker regardless.

The news spots led to renewed interest in Mr. Wizard. After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere. More than 30 years after his television debut, Herbert was back, once again dispensing with the confines of laboratory settings.

For Herbert's Nickelodeon series, the pace was much quicker, with eight to 10 segments per episode. The kid assistants, he later said, were savvier about molecules and computers than their 1950s counterparts. But most everything else remained the same.

In both incarnations of the show, Herbert refused to cater to gender stereotypes. Girls were by his side as frequently as boys, and Herbert remarked they were probably better equipped to get into the sciences. He had a cutoff age of 13 for the boys. After that, he said, they “became know-it-alls.”

Mr. Wizard’s World ran through 1990, at which point Herbert largely disappeared from public view. Though he had never expressly set out to teach science and even believed television was a poor fit for educational purposes, his relaxed approach to the subject proved to be a huge inspiration nonetheless.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

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