30 Fun Facts About The Voyage of the Mimi

Bank Street College of Education
Bank Street College of Education

In 1984, The Voyage of the Mimi debuted on PBS. The groundbreaking educational science series, part of the curriculum of many elementary and high school students (including this writer!), captivated kids throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, spawned a sequel, and kicked off Ben Affleck’s career. Here are 30 things you might not have known about the show.

1. The Voyage of the Mimi was created because of a U.S. Department of Education proposal.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. Department of Education put out a request for proposals for a middle school multimedia science curriculum that would include TV, computer software, video disks, teacher guides, and other educational materials. “It was a time when two important trends were converging: the U.S. was losing its preeminent position as a world leader in science and math, and computer technology was in its infancy and people were beginning to think of it as a potential tool for education,” says Lorin Driggs, who at the time was working in the Publications Department of New York City’s Bank Street College of Education, which created Voyage of the Mimi. “The goal as stated by the Department of Education's RFP was to encourage more elementary-age students—including minorities and girls—to be interested in and pursue careers in science and math while also exploring/demonstrating the potential of microcomputing as an adjunct to conventional classroom teaching/learning methods.”

2. The Voyage of the Mimi was the brainchild of educational entertainment heavyweights.

Director and cameraman D’Arcy Marsh (center) and Peter Marston, the owner/captain of the Mimi who also played Captain Granville, between takes.

The late Richard Ruopp, then the president of Bank Street, put together a small team to create the proposal and recruited Children Television Workshop’s Samuel Y. Gibbon, Jr., a producer on shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, to help. At the time, Gibbon was working on the show that would become 3-2-1 Contact (then called "The Science Show") and was frustrated because “I couldn’t seem to find an entertaining way to design that show,” he tells mental_floss. “I just didn’t feel that the comedy variety format, which we’d used to good effect in Sesame Street and The Electric Company, was appropriate for science. I thought that we ought to be getting kids excited, and they ought to be encouraged to dive into the science, not stand outside it and be amused by it.” He jumped at the chance to work on the proposal, and when it was chosen, he stayed on as executive producer. Bank Street’s Driggs was also on the team, serving first as Gibbon’s special assistant and later as managing editor of the program’s educational classroom materials.

When the series got the greenlight from the Department of Education, Gibbon hired Jeffrey Nelson—a producer on director John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna—to serve as on-location producer, and recruited filmmaker D’Arcy Marsh to direct and shoot the episodes. Dick Hendrick, who Gibbon taught at Harvard while he was on a break from production with Children’s Television Workshop, was brought on to write the scripts.

3. Research done for 3-2-1 Contact influenced the topic of Voyage of the Mimi.

From formative research done at the Children’s Television Workshop, Gibbon knew that shows with a plot were more interesting to kids than ones without. “Even a comedy bit with a plot line was preferred over one that just had a bunch of jokes—and if it was a semi-serious story or a drama, that was the most appealing thing of all,” he says. “I was very struck by that, and it seemed to me to support the notion that we could teach science in a storyline.” The team decided that their proposal would be for a 13-episode series; each episode would be broken down into a 15 minute dramatic segment followed by a 15 minute documentary—later called “expeditions”—hosted by one of the young stars that would show real scientists at work.

But what would the show be about? Gibbon again drew on what he had learned at 3-2-1 Contact, this time from an idea for an article in the show’s magazine about a sick whale. Testing had shown that it "was far-and-away the most interesting story to kids,” he says. Plus, at the time, “there wasn’t a hell of a lot known about whales. Whale research had been done, but not very much of it. I found it very interesting, so I sort of inflicted it on my chums.” The dramatic portion would feature a multicultural cast and take place on a sailboat chartered by two marine biologists—a man and a woman—who were studying humpback whales. They'd be joined by two high school students, the captain’s grandson, and a deaf graduate assistant. “Frank Withrow, who was in charge of technology and education projects at the Department of Education, started his professional life as a teacher of the deaf, and was very eager for us to include somebody with a hearing disability,” Gibbon says.

4. The Voyage of the Mimi had a board of science advisors.

“We had consultants and an advisory board that met regularly throughout the project,” Driggs says. There were 18 total, including math consultant Magdalene Lampert, who recently wrote Building a Better Teacher; Ted Ducas, a professor at Wellesley College who taught a physics course on whales; Kristina Hooper, a cognitive scientist who later founded Apple’s Multimedia Lab; Bob Tinker, a designer of science probeware; and teachers and faculty at Bank Street.

5. The Voyage of the Mimi had a number of challenges unique to a kids' show.

Nelson was excited to book the Mimi job—and nervous. Most children's shows were filmed in studios at that time, but Mimi “would be shot at sea and on a remote island off the coast of Maine, with a cast that consisted mostly of children, and that was highly dependent on the cooperation of whales and weather, both of which featured prominently in the story,” Nelson says. “There were many scenes that involved whales, and we needed to have lots of good weather as well as a big storm at sea. What if the actors got seasick? What if the whales never appeared? What if there was no big storm? Or worse, what if we got a monster storm that would endanger the cast and crew? There were all these elements over which we had no control. These were not typical challenges for a children’s TV show.”

6. Marsh almost didn’t do The Voyage of the Mimi.

Ben Affleck and Marsh.

The filmmaker had to choose between doing second unit filming on Gorillas in the Mist—which featured a group of gorillas he had filmed five years earlier with primatologist Dian Fossey—or directing Mimi. Meeting with Gibbon convinced him that Mimi was the way to go. "Mimi ultimately seemed a much more important project," he says. (Marsh later worked on The Making of Gorillas in the Mist. Mimi turned out to be the right choice, for one very big reason we’ll get to in a bit.

7. Captain Granville was the first person cast for The Voyage of the Mimi

When he was looking for a boat for the series, Gibbon talked to some friends he had made while teaching at Harvard between producing The Electric Company and 3-2-1 Contact. His friends recommended he check out MIT professor Peter Marston’s boat, an old tuna trawler that had been converted into a sailboat. “I went up to see Peter and he was such an interesting character with his beard, and clearly a very experienced skipper—but also he had science connections,” Gibbon says. It wasn’t hard to convince Marston, a plasma scientist, to play the part. “We knew Peter had to come with the boat because he was the one who knew how to run it and knew all of its quirks," Gibbon says. "But then he’s also a wonderful character. He had done some performing—he would sing shanties around town, and he was part of a group that did theatrical productions. So he was accustomed to being visible, and it was a short hop, skip and a jump to his being Captain Granville.”

8. The Mimi in The Voyage of the Mimi has a strange history.

The 72-foot boat was built in Camaret, France in 1931, and was originally used as a cargo barge. In World War II, German soldiers used the boat to haul munitions. At some point, it was sunk in France and was basically a wreck when, in the 1960s, it was bought by a Frenchman who, with his family and two others, fixed the Mimi up with the intent of sailing it around the world. When they were converting the trawler into a sailboat, “they forgot to get the masts for the Mimi—and they had no money," Marsh says. "There was a national monument shipwreck that was sitting there rotting, so they got a chainsaw, cut the masts down and loaded them on a truck in the middle of the night, and had a car chase with the police. They were just filled with idealism and impracticality, but they did a great job fixing the boat up.” Still, it wasn’t long into their trip that the voyagers began fighting, and eventually, the owner sold the Mimi to Marston, who owned it until 1999.

9. Parts of The Voyage of the Mimi were run past real kids.

Gibbon believed in testing almost everything, from potential cast members’ audition tapes to the classroom educational materials to rough cuts of the documentaries. That work was carried out by people like Bill Tally, who joined Bank Street’s Center for Children and Technology (no longer a part of Bank Street) right after he graduated from college in 1983 (he's still a research scientist there). “As formative researchers, our role was to give the producers timely feedback about what, in their rough cuts, storyboards, scripts or software prototypes, was working and not working for kids, often in response to questions they had about which way was the best way to go with a particular set of design decisions,” Tally says. “What we did is to assemble small numbers of children, maybe 4 to 10 at a time, from Bank Street School for Children and often from nearby NYC public schools, and sit with them, while they watched, played with, and talked about a rough cut, or prototype.”

The researchers showed almost all of the expedition rough cuts to kids. “I would say we made tweaks in all of them based on those sessions,” Tally says. “Changes often included editing and re-sequencing of segments to make concepts and information clearer, the scientists more appealing, and provoke kids' curiosity more.”

In the rough cut of the expedition called “Boatshop,” for example, documents in Bank Street’s archives show that kids thought that the portions showing the boat makers bending wood were boring, and that, according to one kid, “everybody talked too much." ("It gets boring cause they just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk," another kid agreed. "Not enough action.”) In this case, the researchers recommended, among other things, “edit[ing] down the longer parts of the tape which are not critical to the structure or content” and adding “some more ‘humorous’ moments to ‘lighten’ up the documentary,” according to the document.

“The producers weren't always happy about our recommendations,” Tally says. “There's a built-in struggle between making appealing stories and making science concepts comprehensible to kids, and that led to a constant, fruitful and productive tension between the basement (production) and the 6th floor (research) at BSC. It was a lot of fun arguing and trying to make each piece better.”

10. After filming The Voyage of the Mimi pilot, they recast two parts.

In July 1982, the production filmed a pilot episode, starring Marston as Captain Clement Tyler Granville, future Batman Ben Affleck as his grandson C.T., Edwin De Asis as scientist Ramon Rojas, Judy Pratt as graduate research assistant Sally Ruth Cochran, Mark Graham as Arthur Spencer, and MaryAnn Plunket as scientist Ann Abrams.

Previously, Affleck had been in a low budget movie that Marsh had filmed; Mimi was only his second role. “When we were auditioning kids for C.T., D'Arcy suggested Ben,” Gibbon says. “Ben was absolutely adorable. He came from a family that knew a lot about film and he had some experience on camera. He was a natural. Nobody else we auditioned could hold a candle to him.” They had found Pratt at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The pilot took about a month to film. Afterward, the National Science Foundation agreed to help the Department of Education fund the full series, and production was slated to begin the next summer (to accommodate the kids’ school schedules). But they needed to recast two parts: One actress, who was playing a high school student named Rachel “was a sweetheart, but she became very self-conscious and it was difficult for her to act and to become naturally emotional,” Marsh says. She was replaced with Mary Tanner. Plunket, meanwhile, had to drop out when she replaced Amanda Plummer in Agnes of God on Broadway; Victoria Gadsden was hired to play Ann Abrams. After two weeks of rehearsals in Gloucester, The Voyage of the Mimi officially got underway in the summer of 1983 and filmed for two months.

11. Gadsden did her research to play a scientist in The Voyage of the Mimi.

Gadsden’s character was supposed to be fluent in sign language to communicate with her deaf research assistant, so “my biggest concern when I was in New York getting ready to go was learning sign language,” she says. “So I did what I could to learn sign language and then during the shooting, Judy Pratt had an interpreter named Jo with her at all times—even when you’re not talking to Judy, she needs to be included exactly the way everybody else is. Once we were all together, Judy and Jo taught me. I never got fluent, but I was able to communicate with Judy, and they taught me how to do my lines.” Gadsden also went on a whale watch with a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and picked his brain.

12. The Voyage of the Mimi was shot with a very small crew.

Cast and crew shooting a scene on Dyer Island, Maine.

Marsh directed and shot the series on 16mm with just a few people to help: In addition to a chase boat with its own camera crew helmed by producer John Borden, on the Mimi there was an assistant cameraman, a sound man, a lighting guy, a continuity person, and a producer. Then there was the crew, with the actors sometimes helping out. “You can't fit many more people than that on the Mimi,” Marsh says. “I shot handheld almost all of the film. The only time I used the tripod was when it was like getting long telephoto shots of the boat out at sea or something like that. I had a Bosun's [also called a boatswain] chair and I would go up and down while [the crew was] climbing in the rigging.”

13. What should have been the most challenge scene in The Voyage of the Mimi was a snap to shoot.

Tagging a whale.

Nelson thought the scene would be tricky to pull off: In it, fictional scientist Ramon would attach a transmitter to a whale using a crossbow. De Asis couldn’t do it, of course, so the plan was to fly in from California the only real scientist who was authorized to tag whales, dress him up like Ramon, approach a whale in a Zodiac, and use a crossbow with a suction-tipped arrow to attach the transmitter. “We needed a calm sea and a still or ‘lolling’ whale, and we needed to get a good shot of the scientist firing the arrow and attaching it to the whale, with the other characters watching from the Mimi in the background,” Nelson, now a senior curriculum/instructional design associate at the Center for Children & Technology, recalls. “I thought the chances of all of those things coming together successfully were slight, at best.” Jokingly, he called for extra calm weather and asked the whales to appear on set at 8 a.m.

He shouldn’t have worried: The day was calm, the whales were right on time, and the scientist had great aim. The sequence was completed by 9:30, exactly as the script had mapped it out. “We were stunned and exhilarated—and hugely relieved,” he says. “I thought it would be the most difficult scene of the entire shoot, and it turned out to be one of the easiest. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had on a set.”

For Gadsden, the day was a once in a lifetime experience. “I got to go with the scientist and really and truly drive the Zodiac and get an arm’s length away from a whale that he tagged,” she says. “What a day. What an incredible day.”

14. Ben Affleck was a total pro.

Affleck in the Mimi, listening for signals from the radio transmitter on the whale.

“I’ve worked with a bunch of people who’ve gone on to become celebrities, and they have something in common—this intense focus,” Gadsden says. “It’s completely logical that Ben is where he is. He was adorable, number one. And he had a very intense overdriving ambition—he was incredibly mature and focused and had a sense of career even then.” Affleck, who had been in the pilot, even filled Gadsden in on the history of the project and gave her advice. “He was a very sweet, fun kid, and he was really into us all hanging around and having fun,” she says. “I’ll never forget one time running into him on one of our days off, and he was coming out of a story, and he’d gone in and gotten us all name tags, like a waitress would wear. He thought it would be fun if we wore these cheesy name tags. That was just Ben.” The young actor—just 11 at the time—wrote to his classmates, Gadsden says, and to his brother Casey, “who was at home and bummed not to be included.”

15. Seasickness was sometimes an issue while filming The Voyage of the Mimi.

Marsh, a former camp counselor, knew that “like an army, kids travel on their stomachs.” So, on the cast’s first trip on the Mimi, he picked up a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins. “Everyone ate them in the car and they were all excited,” Marsh says. “We got down to the dock and we got in the boat and the harbor was flat, no problem. And we went out of Boston Harbor and as soon as we rounded the breakwater and we got in the open water there was some hurricane out in the ocean and there were huge waves and the boat was going up and down. Everybody got seasick,” he laughs. “So much for the Munchkins.”

One person who never got seasick was Gadsden. “Some people did suffer,” she says. “But I never did. During the big storm sequence, everyone ended up really sick except for me, Peter, Judy, and D’Arcy. At one point everybody else was puking, and we were up on the deck doing whatever we could.”

16. The Mimi's former owner returned to help film a crucial scene.

When Marston was acting, he had another skipper, a woman named Kate Cronin. “Of course, he was watching her like a hawk, and she was nervous,” Marsh says. “At one point she bumped into the dock and scraped the whole side of the boat!” But for a scene that required the Mimi to be beached and its crew stranded—which was filmed on a remote island off the coast of Maine—Marston called in the big guns: the Mimi’s former French owner. “He was fantastic—‘ah, it's no problem, no problem!’” Marsh remembers. “He brought the Mimi in on a high tide, and let the tide go out, and we had to shoot the whole thing between two tides. We filmed the whole thing, with the boat on its side—it's approximately 12 hours from low to high to low tide, so we probably had six hours to shoot in. But it never felt like a rush.”

17. The whales were very cooperative—and impressive.

“From the beginning we were saying, 'Sam, you know, there's very good chance that we're never gonna get any whales,’” Marsh recalls. “But it was an unbelievable summer, with the humpback whales all over the place.” Another crew, filming in a second boat, was able to get incredible close-up shots of the whales, while Marsh—who was shooting handheld—could get up in the rigging and shoot down on the cast interacting with the creatures. “We sailed out to where they were, and the whales came right up to the boat—you could see it in the film. It was just unbelievable. People could spend years trying to get shots like that.” Says Nelson, “There were many times when we’d be out at sea on a beautiful day, watching humpbacks breaching in the distance or swimming along right next to the boat, when I’d think how amazing it was that this was a job and I was being paid to do it. Seeing these magnificent animals close up is an experience I’ll never forget—and I’ll certainly never forget the indescribable stench of their breath when they exhaled just a few yards away.”

Even science teacher-turned-actor and New York City native Edwin De Asis, who played Ramon, found the experience incredible. “Native New Yorkers are not easily impressed,” he wrote in press materials. “Let me tell you, anyone, including New Yorkers, would be impressed when a humpback whale breeches—even the winos will give a deserving second look, and nothing impresses a wino.”

18. There was a love connection on The Voyage of the Mimi.

Marsh and Gadsden met on the Mimi set, and it wasn’t long before “D’Arcy struck up his romance with her during production in the Gulf of Maine. He was much envied by many others in the group,” Gibbon says, laughing. The pair later married.

19. The Voyage of the Mimi could have had a rock ’n roll soundtrack.

Gibbon wanted the series to have rock ’n roll music, but Marsh disagreed—he thought the show needed a more traditional score. So they did a test, putting both kinds of music over the scene were the Mimi shipwrecks on a deserted island and Captain Granville gets hypothermia. “One soundtrack was with flute and guitar and the other one I used the music from [the movie] Day of the Dolphin,” Marsh says. Everything in the episode was the same, save for the music; Gibbon and the researchers took it around to schools and showed it in two classrooms, then asked questions. "The kids who saw the [rock soundtrack] said, 'They come to land, Captain Granville collapses, and has hypothermia, and then they walk around and discover they are on an island,'" Marsh says. "The second group, which saw the movie music, said, 'They come to an island, Captain Granville collapses and almost dies, they find they're lost on an island, and then they save Captain Granville by keeping him warm, and he lives.’” The movie score helped the students better comprehend what was happening, so the movie score stayed.

20. The Voyage of the Mimis theme music was composed by Jeff Lass—with some guidance from Marsh.

As with the score, Marsh had some very particular ideas about what the theme should be: “’I said to Sam, ‘I think what we want is a theme that carries them through this journey.’ It’s got to get more and more exciting, and then they got to get to the top, and then they get to the other side and they get down. So that’s why the music is like going up and down hill.” Marsh gave that direction to composer Jeff Lass, who Marsh says was “a brilliant guy. He was fantastic—I came up with the idea of what the theme should be, and then he was very good musically.” The earworm of a theme song is one of the best-remembered things about Mimi.

21. The Voyage of the Mimi's “expeditions” were shot after the dramatic episodes were completed.

In each mini-documentary, one of the young actors—playing him or herself—would act as host, visiting real-life scientists who were doing research that connected to the content of the dramatic portion of the episode. “The initial impulse was to show some real science, lest kids think that everything was just wonderfully sexy and interesting and with beautiful people doing fascinating things all the time,” Gibbon says. “We needed to inject a little bit of reality into that. And we wanted to show real scientists at work, as opposed to just the fictional ones in our storyline.” Affleck, Graham, Tanner, and Pratt visited places like the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the New Alchemy Institute, and the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory. (Among the documents in Bank Street’s archives is a slip, signed by Affleck’s mother, giving Nelson and scriptwriter Hendrick permission to take Affleck there, who “take full responsibility for him during the course of that visit.”)

22. To test The Voyage of the Mimi's computer materials, researchers went analog.

Back when Mimi was being created, computers existed, but they were by no means prevalent in the classroom. In order to test the concepts of the software they were developing, Tally and his colleagues had to test things on paper before the software was built. “We would take the crude screen mock-ups that the programmer created and test them with students at Bank Street School—in the lobby before school, during lunch, and after school,” Tally says. “From the beginning, Sam's idea was to model in the classroom uses of the computer that reflected adults' and scientists' use of real tools: simulations, programming environments, modeling tools, data recording, and graphing tools.”

The formative research led to tweaks in the materials: “A good example of formative research influencing design in specific but significant ways was a session that involved the 'Rescue Mission' game,” Tally says. “In the early prototype, the narrative was that a ship was lost, and kids were trying to navigate toward a Target Ship. We found that while boys were really engaged, girls were far less so. When we probed them about why, the boys talked about 'hitting the target' and generally invoked video game language. We talked to the producers and decided to shift the story and graphics around slightly—making the ship a fishing trawler that had accidentally caught a whale in its net, and the players' job a 'Rescue Mission’—and girls were just as avid about the simulation, and navigation skills, as boys. Given the project's goal of helping avert the well-known drop-off of interest in science and math among girls as they approach middle school, this was an important change."  

In addition to "Rescue Mission," which helped kids develop geo-spatial mapping and navigation skills, other computer software included "Island Survivors," a Sim City-esque game in which kids used software to model an island ecology, set parameters, and try to survive multiple seasons, and "Lab Tools," which allowed kids to plug probes into the Apple IIe and “learn to measure and graph heat, light and sound data from their bodies and the environment around them, conducting experiments that compared their own world to the whale in its environment,” Tally says.

23. One episode of The Voyage of the Mimi was banned in some states.

In the episodes “Tracking the Whales” and “Shipwrecked,” the Mimi is damaged and begins taking on water, and Captain Granville is swept overboard. Although he is pulled back on board, he gets hypothermia; to save him, Ramon and Arthur strip to their underwear and climb into a sleeping bag with a nearly naked Granville. “We knew it was saucy, and that was why we wanted to do it,” Gibbon says. “It illustrated something about hypothermia and about heat flow and the fact that a fire isn’t the best way to warm up somebody who is suffering from hypothermia; you’ve got to have contact. It’s not just heat transmitted through the air, it’s actually flesh-to-flesh. So that was quite deliberate.” But the episode caused some controversy: According to Marsh, it was banned in three states, including Texas, because “people almost naked in a sleeping bag with kids was a big no-no.”

It caused some trouble with the educational materials, too: According to Gibbon, “When the salesman that had to sell the materials to Texas and other conservative southern states saw the illustration in the book, he said, ‘I can’t show this to teachers in the south. They will go crazy.’ When they said we had to replace that illustration, we were devastated.” Ruopp persuaded the distributors of the educational materials that the story had to stay the same, but that the illustration could be replaced. “The publisher had to pay for an additional painting to be done,” Gibbon says, “and they had to cut out that page in all of these books—which had been bound and were waiting in the warehouse to be shipped—and paste in another page with a less provocative illustration on it."

24. The Second Voyage of the Mimi was greenlit before The Voyage of the Mimi premiered.

The Second Voyage of the Mimi focused on Maya archaeology and incorporated social studies and language arts as well as science and math. “The decision to go ahead with number two—our decision to apply for funds for number two—was made very shortly after we finished production on the drama episodes for the first voyage,” Gibbon says. “We had done enough testing of those materials to suspect that [the show] was going to do alright.”

Still, the second Mimi almost never made it to the classroom. “The Reagan administration tried to defund the second Voyage of the Mimi,” Gibbon says. “We were on location in Mexico for the second Voyage, and they wanted to pull the project. But Frank Withrow [from the Department of Education] persuaded them not to do that.”

25. Affleck’s mom taught the kids when they were on location in Mexico for the sequel to The Voyage of the Mimi.

“Chris, she's a great teacher,” Marsh says. “The first class that she had when she got to Mexico was math class, and so the math class was you take U.S. money and change it to Mexican currency, back and forth. The second one was Social Studies—you go out and spend the Mexican money in a local shop. She could make any situation a teaching, a learning situation.”

26. Gibbon would not fudge the science for one scene in The Second Voyage of the Mimi—and it was worth it.

Margaret Honey, now the president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, came in after the first Mimi to do formative research for the second series. She remembers when the crew returned from filming a particular scene “looking a little worse for wear,” she says. “There was a lot of grumbling, and people were like ‘We went three days longer than we were supposed to, we went way over budget.’ And I’m listening to all this—I’m just a young thing in the office, kind of soaking it all up—and somebody says ‘Sam wouldn’t fake the science.’ So I’m like ‘What does that mean?’”

In the story in the second season of the Mimi—which deals not just with Mayan archaeology and the search for a lost city, but also a smuggling plot—the Granvilles and some archaeologists are trying to find a Mayan stele that they know exists because of stolen artifacts, which contain clues to the location of the lost city, that are showing up on the black market. The archaeologists discover the giant, half-buried stele on a dive, and realize that the clue to the location of the hidden city is on it—so they have to figure out how to raise the stele off the ocean floor. Which meant that the real production had to figure out a way to do it that made sense scientifically. A real stele would have weighed 5000 pounds; what the production used was much lighter, made of fiberglass. "What Sam wanted to do was have an authentic, plausible, legitimate way of how you would raise an object like this off the ocean floor,” Honey says. “What they settled on—and this is what caused them to go three days longer on the shoot and over budget—was, they ended tying rope around the stele and then inflating strong garbage bags with air from air hoses on the backs of divers.”

Though the production went over time and budget on the sequence, it clearly paid off. When Honey played the rough cut of the scene for students in a Harlem classroom, “the kids were riveted and they had a million questions,” she remembers. “It was clear that this episode hit a major league home run.” The next week, she returned to the classroom, and the teacher told her to go talk to a student named Jose. “Jose says ‘Margaret! You won’t believe what I did!’” she says. “He proceeds to tell me how he recreated that entire scene in his bathtub. I’m like ‘what did you use for the stele?’ He said, 'I used a brick and I used string.’ I said ‘What did you do about air?’ And he said ‘You know those bendy straws? Well, that didn’t work so well.’ And I’m like ‘Oh my god, Jose, that is so cool.’ And that, to me, exemplifies the power of Mimi.” (The fiberglass stele, by the way, is in the lobby of the Center for Children & Technology!)

27. There could have been a third Mimi.

It would have been about the Mississippi River, “from all points of view—geological, historical, engineering—and we were going to include the Indian settlements, the mound-builders along the river,” Gibbon says. The inspiration was John McPhee’s book The Control of Nature, about the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to reshape the bottom of the Mississippi River so it would stay within its banks. “It was just a ridiculous idea that anybody can control the Mississippi River,” Gibbon says. “But that effort, which the Corps of Engineers continues to this day, to keep the river in its banks and keep it from overflowing and flooding places and being navigable for its full length—that effort was so interesting and so fraught with difficulty that that became an inspiration for this third voyage. We wanted to do the biology of the river, the fluid mechanics of the river, the economy of the river, the history, and pitch it as an entire curriculum for a year of school. It makes me drool to think about it even now.”

Sadly, Bank Street couldn’t get the project funded. “I guess the [first Bush administration] was already in office, and they were not happy with spending money on educational television,” Gibbon says. “It’s expensive, and the Republican administrations were very interested in reducing government expenditures. So we were lucky that we came along when we did. Sesame Street and The Electric Company never would’ve hit the airwaves had it not been for the Johnson administration. There was sufficient acclaim for those shows and others like them that momentum carried us through the first two seasons of Voyage of the Mimi. But after that, the conservatives had their way.”

29. The Voyage of the Mimi has fans in some strange places.

Years later, Marsh was shooting a fishing series called The Salt Water Fisherman. "The fishing captain that we were going out with was a Portuguese guy from New Bedford—very, very tough," Marsh remembers. "He had won the equivalent of the Silver Star for saving people's lives during a hurricane ... and he had also gone to federal prison for smuggling drugs. He immediately told the story and said 'I didn't do it, it was a set-up, it wasn't me.' He looks and me and says, 'So what kind of movies you've done?'" Marsh told him that he'd done Spenser: For Hire and Mimi. "He said, Voyage of the Mimi? When I was in prison, we watched two shows: NYPD Blue and The Voyage of the Mimi. He knew everybody in Voyage of the Mimi."

29. The Mimi went on a tour.

In the early ‘90s, Marston spent a couple of days a week taking the Mimi to ports along the East Coast, where students who had seen the show could take a tour of the ship, learn about its history, and sing shanties with the Captain. (When the ship came to Philadelphia, I was there!)

30. The Mimi was eventually destroyed.

In 2010, two University of Vermont graduates named Joe Fraker and Dan Koopman, who had watched The Voyage of the Mimi as kids, went looking for the ship during a trip to Boston. They found the ship languishing in East Boston bay. The Mimi was in bad shape, its hull rotting. Experts determined that it would cost $1.2 million to fix the ailing ship, and the funds couldn’t be raised; in 2011, it was scrapped. Most of the wood was turned into mulch.

Many thanks to Jeffrey Nelson, without whom this story would not have been possible, and to Bank Street’s Lindsey Wyckoff for letting me spend an afternoon looking through the Mimi archives!

All images courtesy of the Bank Street College of Education.

This story was updated in 2019.

25 Surprising Facts About Love Actually

Bill Nighy stars in Love Actually (2003).
Bill Nighy stars in Love Actually (2003).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Though it’s officially classified as a romantic comedy, Love Actually—Richard Curtis’s intertwining tale of love and loss in London in the midst of the Christmas season—has become a staple of holiday movie marathons everywhere. Here are 25 things you might not have known about the hit 2003 film.

1. Love Actually‘s airport footage was shot with hidden cameras.

Footage of passengers being welcomed and embraced by loved ones at Heathrow Airport was shot on location with hidden cameras for a week. In the film’s DVD commentary, writer-director Richard Curtis explains that when something special was caught on camera, a crew member would race out to have its subjects sign a waiver so the moment might be included in Love Actually. This was a fitting production device, as Curtis claims that watching the love expressed at the arrival gate of LAX is what inspired him to write the ensemble romance in the first place.

2. Four plot lines were cut from Love Actually.

Curtis initially aimed to include 14 love stories in the film. Two were clipped in the scripting phase, but two were shot and cut in post. Those lost before production involved a girl with a wheelchair, and one about a boy who records a love song for a classmate who ultimately hooks up with his drummer. Shot but cut for time was a brief aside featuring an African couple supporting each other during a famine, and another storyline that followed home a school headmistress, revealing her long-time commitment to her lesbian partner.

3. A fifth of Love Actually is commonly cut from television broadcasts.

Martin Freeman in ‘Love Actually’ (2003)
Universal Studios

It might be of little surprise that the raciest element of this holiday movie rarely makes it on TV. The love story of John and Judy has Martin Freeman and Joanna Page playing a pair of stand-ins on an erotic drama. Their scenes have the pair mimicking sex acts, but even as simulations of simulated sex, their storyline is usually deemed too hot for TV.

4. Martine McCutcheon’s role in Love Actually was penned just for her.

Curtis wrote his screenplay with some stars in mind, including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, and McCutcheon, the charismatic English ingénue best known for her role on BBC drama EastEnders. So sure was Curtis that he wanted McCutcheon for the role of the love interest to the Prime Minister that he had the character’s name as "Martine" in early drafts. Curtis explained in the DVD commentary that the name was changed to "Natalie" before McCutcheon’s audition, "so she wouldn’t get cocky."

5. Richard Curtis sent request letters to his American talent.

Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton, and Denise Richards received letters asking them to consider a role in the film. Both actresses were impressed by the unconventional move, but Linney told The Daily Beast she was even more flattered by its contents.

"I got a letter in the mail from Richard Curtis saying that he’d been trying to cast this part, and he’d kept saying to his partner, Emma Freud, that he’d been looking for a ‘Laura Linney-type,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you ask Laura Linney?’"

6. Bill Nighy didn’t realize he had auditioned for Love Actually.

Bill Nighy in ‘Love Actually’
Peter Mountain, Universal Pictures

This was the first collaboration between Nighy and Curtis, with the former playing the shameless, comeback-seeking rocker Billy Mack. On the film’s 10-year anniversary, Nighy recalled to The Daily Beast, "I did a rehearsal reading of the script as a favor to the great casting director, Mary Selway, who had been trying to get me into a film for a long time. I thought it was simply to help her hear the script aloud and to my genuine surprise I was given the job."

7. Love Actually‘s actors had their own trailer park village during production.

"We didn’t all film together, but we had a big trailer park for all the cast," Nighy told The Guardian. "There were so many famous people in there, we used to talk about being on Liam Neeson Way or Emma Thompson Road or Hugh Grant Avenue. And it was a masterpiece of diplomacy, too; we all had the same size and type of trailer." Linney remembered the place having a warm sense of community.

8. One scene from Love Actually was lifted directly from Four Weddings And A Funeral.

In Four Weddings and a Funeral, also penned by Curtis, there was a scene where Hugh Grant’s character Charles flirts with a woman at a wedding by mocking the terrible catering, only to discover that she is the caterer. The scene was cut from the 1994 film, but was reshot nearly a decade later with Kris Marshall acting out the flirtatious faux pas. In the commentary track, Curtis admits that some drafts of the Love Actually script still had Charles’s name on portions of the scene.

9. The late Joanna was played by a real-life Richard Curtis crush.

In the commentary, Curtis also confessed his affection and admiration for writer-director Rebecca Frayn and how it led to a heartbreaking scene in Love Actually. She’s uncredited in the film because she never has a scene to perform. But when Curtis needed images to create a slideshow of Sam’s beloved mum/Daniel’s departed wife, he turned to Frayn, asking for "all the prettiest pictures of her from her whole life." In real-life, Frayn is married to Oscar-nominated Scottish producer Andy Harries.

10. Emma Thompson shot her crying scene 12 times.

Arguably the saddest moment in Love Actually is when Thompson’s character realizes her husband has been unfaithful. In the privacy of their bedroom, she listens to Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides Now" and weeps.

"We decided to do it like how Mike Newell did it in Four Weddings—I shot in medium-wide, and didn’t move the camera," Curtis recalled. "We just let it happen, and Emma walked into the room 12 times in a row and sobbed. It was an amazing feat of acting." He also noted this was the only scene she was asked to perform that day.

11. Hugh Grant did not want to dance.

Though Grant and Curtis had worked together on Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, they had a deep disagreement on how the Prime Minister should be played. Grant wanted it to be a grounded performance and resented Curtis’s push to make the part more whimsical. This came to a head when shooting Grant’s dance number, which the actor refused to rehearse.

"He kept on putting it off, and he didn’t like the song—it was originally a Jackson 5 song, but we couldn’t get it—so he was hugely unhappy about it," Curtis explained. "We didn’t shoot it until the final day and it went so well that when we edited it, it had gone too well, and he was singing along with the words!" It was a tricky thing to cut, but the final result with Girls Aloud’s cover of “Jump (For My Love)” speaks for itself.

12. Tony Blair found it impossible to live up to Hugh Grant’s fictional prime minister.

In 2005, when facing criticism for his dealings with the United States, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair responded by saying, "I know there’s a bit of us that would like me to do a Hugh Grant in Love Actually and tell America where to get off. But the difference between a good film and real life is that in real life there’s the next day, the next year, the next lifetime to contemplate the ruinous consequences of easy applause."

13. It took 45 minutes to pick out Aurelia’s underwear.

When the loose pages of Jamie’s (Colin Firth) in-progress novel blow into a nearby lake, Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) is quick to strip down and dive in to rescue them. But in the DVD commentary, Curtis admits that what she wore beneath her cozy sweater was a major matter of debate that involved a lengthy meeting with his producers and 20 different sets of bras and panties to be considered.

14. Simon Pegg auditioned for Love Actually.

Before he broke out with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg was best known for his work on the British sitcom Spaced. It was in this stage of his career that he was eyed for the role of Rufus, the jewelry salesman in Love Actually. However, Curtis ended up casting Rowan Atkinson, who was not only a bigger star but a longtime friend from their college days; the two had previously worked together on Four Weddings and A Funeral, Mr. Bean, and Black Adder.

15. Rowan Atkinson’s character was meant to be an angel.

Rather than just an overenthusiastic gift wrapper with a good Samaritan streak at the airport, Atkinson’s Rufus was initially written as a heavenly helper in disguise. A scene was even shot were he’d evaporate after helping Sam get past security at Heathrow. "But in the end," Curtis said in commentary, "the film turned out so sort of multiplicitous that the idea of introducing an extra layer of supernatural beings was (too much)."

16. Sarah’s apartment is based on Helen Fielding’s.

When Sarah (Laura Linney) takes her office crush Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) back to her flat, a crane shot reveals that her bedroom is perched above the first floor, with a half-wall serving as a sort of balcony. In the DVD commentary track, Curtis mentioned this layout was poached from the Bridget Jones’s Diary author’s home. To him, it seemed a charming staging place for this tender seduction scene.

17. Test audiences spurred a change to the ending of Sarah’s story.

Curtis originally intended for Sarah and Karl’s love story to fizzle out after the phone call from her brother. However, when Love Actually was screened to test audiences, the feedback begged for a clearer resolution. So Curtis provided it, creating an extra scene in reshoots that made it unmistakable that Sarah and Karl would not end up together. "Be careful what you wish for," he warned on the DVD commentary.

18. Andrew Lincoln hand-wrote those romantic signs.


Peter Mountain, Universal Pictures

In 2013, The Walking Dead star reminisced about his climactic gesture in Love Actually with Entertainment Weekly, and revealed, "It is my handwriting! It’s funny, because the art department did it, and then I said, ‘Well, can I do it?’ because I like to think that my handwriting is really good. Actually, it ended up with me having to sort of trace over the art department’s, so it is my handwriting, but with a sort of pencil stencil underneath."

19. The American bar scene included some improv.


Peter Mountain, Universal Studios

Regarding the scene where three American girls (Elisha Cuthbert, January Jones, and Ivana Milicevic) flirt with Kris Marshall, Cuthbert told VH1, "It was such a creative space and we were allowed to improvise and try different things and it wasn’t just completely set into Richard’s writing. I mean we were allowed to sort of venture … It was nice that we got to sort of play around.”

Curtis remembers it differently, noting in the commentary track that the Brits were "respectful" with his script, but these Americans wanted to "pep it up a bit."

20. Bernard is a running joke based on a real man.

Every film Curtis writes contains a "Bernard," and he’s always the butt of a joke. In Love Actually, he’s the son of Thompson’s character who is described as "horrid." This all dates back to a love triangle that didn’t turn in Curtis’s favor. Bernard was the name of a young man who won the heart of Curtis’s crush Anne, and so he will forever be lampooned. In real life, Bernard is a successful politician, namely Bernard Jenkin, Member of Parliament for Harwich and North Essex since 2010.

21. Olivia Olson’s performance of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was too good—which was problematic.

Over 200 girls auditioned for the part of Joanna, the talent show star that young Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) falls hard for. But with pipes that blew away the casting director, Olivia Olson blew the competition away. In the commentary track, Curtis notes that Olson sang the song "All I Want For Christmas Is You" so flawlessly that he feared it sounded manufactured. He had sound editors cut in breaths to the performance to make it more believable.

22. Sam and Joanna reunited in 2008.

Child stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Olivia Olson were utterly adorable together as drum-playing Sam and his grade school crush Joanna. But Love Actually wasn’t the end of the pair’s onscreen romance. They were reunited in 2008 when Olson joined the voice cast of the Disney Channel cartoon show Phineas and Ferb. While Brodie-Sangster lends his voice to the oft-silent Ferb, Olson often sings as Ferb’s crush, the sleek and cool Vanessa Doofenshmirtz.

23. The movie has already been remade—three times!

The central concept of a movie packed with stars and intertwining love stories has been translated into a trio of films. The first is the Indian offering A Tribute To Love, an unofficial remake in the Hindi language. Next, Poland took a turn with Letters to St. Nicolas. The most recent version is Japan’s It All Began When I Met You, which borrows the concept as well as the film’s poster layout.

24. Love Actually got a sequel (of sorts) in 2017.

In March 2017, in celebration of Red Nose Day, Curtis and several members of the original cast—including Grant, Knightley, Firth, Neeson, Nighy, Lincoln, and Atkinson—reprised their characters for a short film, Red Nose Day Actually, that caught viewers up on what the characters are doing today.

"I would never have dreamt of writing a sequel to Love Actually, but I thought it might be fun to do 10 minutes to see what everyone is now up to," Curtis said when the project was announced. "Who has aged best?—I guess that’s the big question ... or is it so obviously Liam?" The short debuted in the U.K. on March 24, 2017, but American audiences had to wait until May 25, 2017 to see what happened to their favorite characters. (Here’s a cheat sheet.)

25. Alan Rickman’s death prevented Emma Thompson from appearing in the sequel.

Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in Love Actually (2003)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When it was announced that Curtis would be revisiting some of the Love Actually characters for a short sequel, he knew right away that out of respect for Alan Rickman—who passed away in early 2016—he did not want to revisit Emma Thompson’s character.

"Richard wrote to me and said, ‘Darling we can’t write anything for you because of Alan,’ and I said, ‘No of course, it would be sad, too sad,’" Thompson explained. "It’s too soon. It’s absolutely right because it’s supposed to be for Comic Relief, but there isn’t much comic relief in the loss of our dear friend really only just over a year ago."

But the 2003 film wasn’t the end of the story for Thompson and Rickman’s characters. In 2015, Curtis’s longtime partner Emma Freud live tweeted some details of what happened to the couple after the credits rolled. The short version? "They stay together but home isn’t as happy as it once was," according to Freud.

8 Bizarre Fan Theories About Your Favorite Holiday Movies

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

We all love a heartwarming holiday movie. On a cold winter’s day, few things are more comforting than curling up on the couch and getting into the Christmas spirit with a holiday movie marathon—no matter how many times you've seen the films in the lineup before.

While the plot lines rarely yield any surprises, multiple viewings of a movie can allow you to start to notice some things going on under the surface. With the rise of Reddit and other social media networks, fan theories have become a popular pastime for many pop culture fiends—and these alternate interpretations can sometimes go to some pretty dark places.

From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Home Alone, here are some bizarre fan theories about the holiday movies you only thought you knew.

1. The Santa Clause proves that the North Pole is full of cannibals.

On the surface, The Santa Clause series is the heartwarming tale of Tim Allen taking on the duties of a fallen Santa in need. But Twitter user Hannah Priest thinks it’s about something else entirely: The North Pole is inhabited by cannibals. Her evidence? The elves’ casual attitude toward death and a “new” Santa just taking over, the hundreds of elves (and Mrs. Clauses) who apparently go missing over the course of the series, and the size of the oven in the kitchen. “The elves are clearly baking women (& possibly children) in their oven, then using the bodies to make ceremonial cocoa, which they then feed to future Santas,” Priest tweeted. But this is one theory that’s best read in full (which you can do here).

2. Santa in The Santa Clause is actually an exiled wizard from Harry Potter.

Another theory about The Santa Clause would have you believe that Santa is an alumnus of Hogwarts. We all know Santa is magical, but the evidence does stack up. How does Santa get up and down chimneys? Floo powder, of course. And why can’t we see him? And how does he get to every house in one night? These jobs are made a little easier with an invisibility cloak and a time turner, of course.

3. Home Alone's Kevin McCallister grew up to be Saw’s Jigsaw.


20th Century Fox

In 2014, Grantland’s Jason Concepcion proposed a brilliant, if dastardly, theory that suggested a connection between holiday classic Home Alone and the terrifying Saw horror franchise. In a nutshell, he believes that Kevin McCallister and Jigsaw are the same person—and he made some pretty solid points.

For one, even at the tender age of eight, Kevin shows a talent for setting up some pretty elaborate traps, and he also has a clear obsession with recorded video. He’s also almost too interested in the rumor about Old Man Marley, his neighbor, who is rumored to be a serial killer. Some of the torture from the Saw movies also end up being eerily similar to the “pranks” Kevin pulls on the Wet Bandits. Concepcion goes even deeper, and you should read all of it here.

4. John Candy’s Home Alone character is the devil.

Kevin McCallister isn’t the only Home Alone character with a purported dark side. There’s a lot of suspicion surrounding John Candy’s character, Gus Polinski (a.k.a. the “Polka King of the Midwest”) as well. One Reddit theory goes like this: at one point in Home Alone, Kevin’s mom says that she would “sell [her] soul to the devil” if could just get back to Chicago to be with her son. The next time we see her, Gus Polinski appears and offers her a ride back to the Windy City. Coincidence? Not everyone thinks so—and this theory goes even deeper. Gus plays the clarinet, which is a woodwind instrument, and woodwinds are considered the instrument of Satan.

5. No, wait: Mia from Love Actually is the devil.

Not to be outdone, yet another popular holiday movie fan theory states that Mia (Heike Makatsch)—Alan Rickman’s wannabe-home wrecker of an assistant from Love Actually—is actually the devil. This one is actually a two-part theory, which posits that Rowan Atkinson is an angel while Mia is the devil. Adding credence to the latter part of this is the fact that the film’s writer/director Richard Curtis actually confirmed the former part.

Atkinson’s character was meant to have a larger role and serve as a sort of guardian angel to several of the film’s characters, but the filmmaker eventually decided it would be too much. But Mia’s devilish behavior is on full display: in addition to her repeated attempts to lure Harry (Rickman) away from Karen (Emma Thompson), she shows up at a company holiday party wearing devil horns.

6. Buddy the Elf is a creep.


Warner Bros.

Buddy, Will Ferrell’s maple syrup-loving character in Elf, is beloved for his childlike demeanor and over-the-top Christmas spirit. But some people believe this supposed naiveté may all be a ruse. And if that is in fact the case, then Buddy’s behavior is … questionable at best. Buddy, under this theory, would be a sociopath who forces his way into a random home through coercion and befriends a young child, all while stalking a random woman (Zooey Deschanel) he met through a job for which he was never actually hired.

7. Rudolph is Donner’s bastard son.

As compelling as it is absurd, one Redditor believes that Rudolph isn’t being told the truth about his parentage. We know, of course, that Rudolph doesn’t look like either his mother or his father. And that the other reindeer “used to laugh and call him names.” And that the father of Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice, seems incensed at the idea of his daughter being seen with a red-nosed reindeer. “The only explanation is that the red-nose is like a scarlet letter A,” the theory goes. “Rudolph is an illegitimate child, a bastard, an unclean birth.” (You can read the full docket of evidence here.)

8. Arnold Schwarzenegger is psychotic in Jingle All the Way, and Sinbad is a figment of his fractured mind.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely seems stressed out about trying to acquire a Turbo-Man—the hot toy of the holiday season—for his son. But has all that stress led to a psychotic break with reality? One Redditor believes that might be the case, as Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) suspiciously only seems to see Myron (played by Sinbad) in his most stressful moments. It could be a coincidence, but as Arnold’s hijinks escalate, there’s Sinbad egging him on every time.

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