For almost a decade beginning in 1989, the human and locomotive characters of Shining Time Station delighted PBS viewers with stories of friendship, overcoming challenges, and plain old wackiness. After three original seasons, the series continued on in re-runs through 1998. Even if you spent countless afternoons recreating Thomas’s adventures on your own wooden train set, there are probably a few things you don’t know about this classic program’s characters, its creator, and the mythical, magical Island of Sodor.
1. IT’S BASED ON A BRITISH SHOW CALLED THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE & FRIENDS.
The long-running series first hit UK televisions in 1984, and its 4.5- or 9-minute segments were repackaged with additional material as Shining Time Station for American viewers beginning in 1989. Between the UK and U.S. versions, direct-to-DVD releases, and other repurposing of show footage, the franchise has had seven different narrators, including Ringo Starr, George Carlin, Alec Baldwin—all of whom also portrayed Mr. Conductor—and Pierce Brosnan (whose narration can be heard in this fan reenactment video). In 2003, the British series became known as Thomas & Friends.
2. THE SERIES IS BASED ON WILBERT AWDRY'S BOOKS, WHICH HE WROTE WHEN HIS SON HAD THE MEASLES.
The character prototypes for Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends were born in 1942, when Anglican cleric Wilbert Awdry—better known as Reverend W. Awdry—was entertaining his bedridden son, Christopher, with stories about very special steam trains. Awdry took to writing the stories down because his son would correct him when they weren't told exactly the same way; the tales were published in 1945 as The Three Railway Engines, the first of 26 books in The Railway Series that Awdry penned (after which his son picked up the torch).
3. THE ISLAND OF SODOR AND ITS TRAINS ARE ROOTED IN REAL LIFE.
In a 2010 interview with NPR, Christopher Awdry explained that his father’s lifelong fascination with trains brought a lot of reality to the engines of Sodor—and to the fictional island itself. Many of the steam-driven characters are based on specific trains that made an impression on the Reverend when he was young, especially the Billington E2 Class 0-6-0T locomotives built for the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway between 1913 and 1916. "They are all based on original prototypes of locomotives that are run in this country," Christopher Awdry noted, " … and Father wanted them right."
The younger Awdry also said that his father, a dedicated minister, was inspired to create the Island of Sodor’s pastoral paradise after traveling to a Sunday school festival on the Isle of Man:
[My father] discovered that the bishop [at the Isle of Man] is actually called the Bishop of Sodor and Man … On the way back, in the airplane from the Isle of Man to Liverpool, he realized that there was a wide-open space of sea between the two places and had the idea that if he were to create an island, he could call it Sodor—and he could give the bishop of Sodor and Man the other half of his diocese back.
4. RINGO STARR ENJOYED BEING MINUTE AND MAGICAL AS MR. CONDUCTOR.
The former Beatle was charmed by the fact that his character, whose scenes were shot separately and superimposed into those with his young co-stars on the American Shining Time Station, was so tiny. "I'm miniaturized—that really appeals to me—and I do just appear and disappear like Mr. Magic, so I like magic," Starr said in 1989. He enjoyed his two-year stint as the narrator of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and his one year as Mr. Conductor for more significant reasons, too. “Doing a children's show ... keeps you in tune with children," Starr said. "And I am a grandfather now, so I have to keep in tune."
5. GEORGE CARLIN SURPRISED AUDIENCES WITH HIS “SWEET” PERFORMANCES.
When Ringo Starr left the show in 1991 due to unspecified “scheduling problems,” comedian George Carlin took over as the narrator and miniaturized lead for the show. After getting the gig, Carlin joked to the Associated Press, “I’m the anti-Pete Best!” (referring to the original Beatles drummer that Starr replaced). In reality, though, Carlin wanted to play the Conductor because the show was so high-quality. "There's usually a theme that runs through a show which respects, I think, a child's ability to follow," Carlin explained. "And yet there is an interesting, broken quality to the run of the show. It doesn't linger anywhere too long."
Nevertheless, fans and critics alike needed time to warm up to Carlin as Mr. Conductor. According to a 1992 review of the show by Entertainment Weekly, Carlin’s first few episodes of filling Starr’s teeny shoes were “awkward and self-conscious ... Where Starr narrated the Thomas tales with a lilting, conversational murmur, Carlin puts a cutesy archness into his delivery that’s condescending and annoying.” By the end of his first season on Shining Time Station, though, Carlin proved he could tune his famous bark down to a gentle purr; in 1992, the Associated Press cheered Carlin’s signing on for another season as the "sweet, elfin Mr. Conductor" (however, the service did caution comedy audiences not to expect to see a guy onstage who's "mellowing," but rather one who is "angrier than ever").
6. MR. CONDUCTOR HAD AN EVIL TWIN.
Carlin got to play both the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde versions of his character in two episodes. This mischievous, distinctly unhelpful version of Mr. Conductor shows up in “Double Trouble” and “Mr. Conductor’s Evil Twin.”
7. THE SHOW WAS PACKED WITH OTHER ESTABLISHED AND RISING STARS, TOO.
Starr and Carlin weren’t the only showbiz heavies in the Shining Time Station cast. The renowned Canadian First Nations actor and philanthropist Tom Jackson, for example, played the wise engineer Billy Twofeathers, while seasoned character actor Lloyd Bridges stepped in as Mr. Nicholas. Didi Conn of Grease fame made station master Stacy Jones unforgettable, and Leonard Jackson, after memorable roles in The Color Purple and The Brother From Another Planet, played engineer Harry Cupper in the show’s first season.
The show featured a lot of creative talents, too. Jason Woliner, who played Stacy’s nephew Matt, went on to become a well-known comedy writer, director, and producer who has worked with Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Bob Odenkirk, among others.
8. THE JUKEBOX BAND EXISTS BECAUSE OF A NATIONAL LAMPOON WRITER.
Found inside a 1937 Wurlitzer 616-style jukebox, The Jukebox Band and its totally rockin’, semi-educational tunes were among the most celebrated of Shining Time Station’s features that built upon the original British program. However, according to Flexitoon founder Craig Marin, who helped lead the the puppets’ development, direction, and storyboarding, the band wouldn’t have gotten together in the first place if it weren’t for a tip from tenured comedy writer Sean Kelly. Marin explained in a 2008 interview,
We were working with eccentric National Lampoon writer Sean Kelly on various projects, and he called us up and said he was over at WNET-THIRTEEN [PBS] and that "the producers were working on a show that needed puppets, and they need the Flexitoon puppets but they just don't know it yet." So we packed up some of [our puppets and marionettes ... and went over to meet the producers. This was on a Friday. They called Monday and said that "the other puppeteers said they could bring something different to the party, and we were the only ones who proved it."
9. RENOWNED ARTIST WAYNE WHITE DID THE PRODUCTION AND SET DESIGN.
The production and set designs (and, in Shining Time Station’s first season, the voice of Tex) were courtesy Wayne White, “a major creative force behind the Eighties gonzo kiddie show Pee-wee’s Playhouse … [and whose] design work featured prominently in game-changing videos like Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ and the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Tonight, Tonight,’” wrote The Austin Chronicle. Overall, the show’s unique look reflected White’s style—“a ribald mix of grotesque and burlesque.”
10. "STACY JONES" IS A HAT TIP TO CASEY JONES, A FAMOUS RAILROAD ENGINEER.
Word on the streets of Sodor Island is that Stacy Jones, Shining Time Station’s inexhaustible station master, is named in honor of Casey Jones, a real-life hero of railrord lore. The show makes ample reference to Mr. Jones, too: In the episode “Billy’s Runaway Trains,” the station regulars organize a play about the famously brave engineer, and the Jukebox Band’s “Ballad of Casey Jones” is among the best versions of the song.
11. THOMAS AND CREW HAVE HELPED PROMOTE STEAM TRAIN PRESERVATION IN THE UK.
Shining Time Station isn’t the only medium through which Thomas and the other engines have helped promote history. As writer Melanie Wentz explained, diesel-powered trains had already been steadily replacing steam-powered ones (like Thomas) on UK rails by 1945, and Reverend Awdry’s books about sweet-tempered engines “became a voice for preservation” shortly after their publication. Wentz writes, “Today, with more than 100 preserved railways run by volunteers all over Britain, Thomas and all his fellow steam trains have no more worries about being left on the sidings and forgotten.”
12. REVEREND AWDRY DIDN’T HAVE ANY FAVORITE CHARACTERS.
With the help of their toys, perhaps, many Shining Time Station fans felt special connections with particular characters. Even Christopher Awdry “vividly remembers the day back in August 1952 when he was allowed to stand on a locomotive for the first time [on] the type of engine after which Toby was modeled … as ‘a very special thrill,’” NPR noted. However, his father refused to show any favoritism. "Father always used to say that he didn't have favorites … because the engines were all his family, and in a family you don't have favorites," the younger Awdry recalled.
13. THERE WAS A MOVIE.
BBC News described Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000)—featuring Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin, and child star Mara Wilson—as a “misconceived mess,” and it only just made back its $19 million budget between both domestic and international sales. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert reflected,
What a lugubrious plot. What endless trips back and forth between the Isle of Sodor and the full-sized town of Shining Time. What inexplicable characters, such as Billy Twofeathers (Russell Means), who appear and disappear senselessly. What a slow, wordy, earnest enterprise this is, when it should be quick and sprightly ... This is a production with “straight to video” written all over it.
All images courtesy of Getty Images unless noted otherwise