Oral History: The Strangest Super Bowl Halftime Show Ever

Dan Witkowski
Dan Witkowski

January 22, 1989: The San Francisco 49ers edge out the Cincinnati Bengals 20-16 to become the National Football League champions at Super Bowl XXIII at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Florida. It was a thrilling game, tied at the half—a Super Bowl first—and decided only in the closing moments with a successful pass from 49ers star quarterback Joe Montana. There was enough action to keep any football fan’s mind occupied for days.

But the next morning, all anyone wanted to talk about was Elvis Presto.

In one of the most unusual halftime presentations in the 50-year history of the event, the NFL commissioned a 1950s musical revue, led by a magician dressed as Elvis Presley who performed “the world’s largest card trick.” It was also, by the estimate of at least one soda company, the world’s largest eye exam: Coca-Cola and NBC presented the entire spectacle in 3-D, urging the show’s 54 million households to pick up a pair of disposable glasses at their local distributor. (They also cautioned that if the effect didn’t work, your lack of eye coordination meant you might need to see an optometrist.) The end result was a curious blend of retro-kitsch performance and a 1980s version of interactive television.

To understand how this uneven mix of magic, music, and carbonation came together, mental_floss spoke with several of the producers and creative partners behind “BeBop Bamboozled,” including the magician who created it, the man whose Elvis was heard but not seen, and the soda marketing genius who turned a 3-D glasses shortage into priceless publicity. As it turns out, Katy Perry's Left Shark has nothing on fire-eaters in poodle skirts.

I. OUT OF THIN AIR


The story of 1989’s Super Bowl begins in 1986, when the NFL started soliciting proposals from entertainment production companies to plan for halftime shows in the years ahead. In addition to fielding presentations from Disney, Paramount, and other massive entities, the league heard from a man in Minnesota named Dan Witkowski. A veteran stage illusionist, Witkowski owned MagicCom, a small business focused on increasing revenue for companies by being “disruptive" and encouraging them to think outside the box.  

Dan Witkowski (Founder, MagicCom): I was looking to sell some network specials, but I would get laughed off. I thought, “Well, what’s bigger than a special? What has a built-in audience?” By going after something big, it would put us on the map. So I went after the Super Bowl.

Jim Steeg (Senior Vice President of Special Events, NFL, 1979 to 2005): Basically, we had the same people producing the halftime show over the years. By the time we did Up with People for a second time in 1986, we decided we wanted to bring in different producers with ideas for the halftime show.

Witkowski: I have something I call the Pretty Girl Theory: Everybody thinks somebody else is calling the pretty blonde to go out on a Saturday night, yet there she sits at home. People are just intimidated to make calls. I wasn’t.

Steeg: We were looking to book people for the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows. We brought in probably six or seven different producers, and Dan was one of them. He called us.

Witkowski: Obviously, he got a lot of calls. But what I did was put the problem ahead of the pitch. And the problem I presented to the NFL was this: How do they take something big and make it even bigger by attracting more people? Historically, the halftime show meant it was time to get up and get a sandwich.

Steeg: I agreed to meet him in New York and hear him out.

Witkowski: I think he was intrigued about the magic idea. I didn’t give him an idea for a specific type of show, but I told him we’d welcome the opportunity to give an official presentation.

Steeg: [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle only sat through a couple of them. He sat through Dan’s.

Witkowski: What the NFL did that tripped us up was when they requested a written outline sent in advance. It’s like trying to describe a cartoon. You can’t do it. You need visuals and sound. I had one of those projectors for a slide show. But it was in their rules, so I sent everyone there a leather-bound folder with a padlock on it. I had the key. They couldn’t open it until I arrived. I got calls from secretaries saying, “They’re going nuts. They’re trying to pick the locks.” It caused a big stir.

Steeg: Dan kind of wowed everybody at the meeting. He made a bowling ball appear out of a suitcase. It got things rolling.

Witkowski: He remembered that? The funny thing is, I had to do a performance in Nebraska that same night. I couldn’t get out of it, so I had to carry the bowling ball and the suitcase through Kennedy Airport. I got in line at security, put the ball on the conveyor belt, and was immediately surrounded by guards who wanted to know where it had come from.

Steeg: What we decided to do was have him co-produce the 1988 pre-game show so he could get some experience and learn the math. It was important for him to understand the logistics and the magnitude of the Super Bowl.

Witkowski: What I basically presented was the idea of hooking the audience through their involvement. At the time, we had developed a technique that would have allowed us to distribute millions of game cards through McDonald’s with a mechanism that could be triggered by holding them up to the TV screen at a certain point. It would reveal an image. I can’t go into details on how it works, but that was the essence of it.

John Gonzalez (Director, NBC): I recall going to the NFL offices in Manhattan for the first presentation about the magic show. I was excited about it, realizing it would be a challenge in the middle of a huge football production to shoot live magic and not give any of the tricks away. To figure out the correct angles, we were going to have to do it in a very controlled, very planned-out manner.

That planning would eventually grow complicated by another influence over the halftime proceedings. With Witkowski pitching Steeg and the NFL on a magic-themed, participatory show for the 1989 game, the league was also being courted by a more established partner: Coca-Cola, who would wind up becoming the Super Bowl’s first sole sponsor that same year. The company had been working on a promotion involving 3-D glasses with a twist: a California company, Nuoptix, had developed a process where an image would be clear (not distorted or blurry) to a viewer not wearing the cellophane lenses.

Michael Beindorff (Vice President of Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1978-1992): Steve Koonin, who runs the Atlanta Hawks now but worked for Coke back then, came to me with the idea for 3-D glasses. He brought the whole Moonlighting idea to me.

Steve Koonin (Vice President of Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Coca-Cola, 1986-2000): I met Terry Beard from Nuoptix on an airplane. He was a sound guy, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and had invented what was called stereoscopic 3-D. He sent me a demo of it. Basically [by covering one eye with a dark lens, which you can do using sunglasses with the video below], it slows down one eye and tricks the brain. It’s the Pulfrich Effect. At the time, Moonlighting was the hottest show on TV, and I called the producer, Glenn Caron, and sold him on the idea of doing the season finale in 3-D. He loved it. We made 26 million pairs of glasses and wound up on the front page of over 200 newspapers.

Beindorff: They had actually written a script, but then the writer’s strike happened, and the whole deal fell apart.

Koonin: We’re sitting there paying rent on warehouses across the country full of glasses. We had taken over a Kleenex factory in Mexico to make them.

Beindorff: We were still excited by the idea of the 3-D. For its time, it was very well-done. We went to the NFL and NBC with the concept of doing the halftime show in 3-D.

Steeg: Coke was our partner at the time. We were always in constant communication.  

Beindorff: Really, the whole strategy behind the Super Bowl partnership was to launch a campaign around the fact that people were switching from sugary drinks like Pepsi to Diet Coke. It was intended for Diet Coke to surpass Pepsi as the number two drink.

Gonzalez: I first heard it as a rumor: “We might do it in 3-D.” I was excited about the idea, but wondered, “How would we do that?”

II. ELVIS PRESTO


In the summer of 1988, Witkowski had no idea Coca-Cola would come in at virtually the last minute with their 3-D promotion. Instead, he and Steeg tried to hammer out what his stadium-sized magic show was going to look like.

Jack Barkla (Production Designer): I think Dan initially had the idea of a 1950s retro drive-in theater, with dancers carrying picnic baskets onto the field. They’d sit down and pull a ripcord in the basket that would turn them into inflatable cars.

Witkowski: We knew we were going to have a magic theme. Whether it was contemporary or Medieval was all flexible during the presentation. The whole 1950s thing was pretty big at the time. Baby Boomers were trying to relive their youth, so we hooked on that.

Steeg: These things evolve on a daily basis. Whatever we discussed at the pitch meeting wasn’t what wound up happening. There is no, “This is what it is.”

Barkla: There was also something to do with pizza, large colorful slices of pizza being moved around by various people.

Witkowski: There was another illusion where the concept was, as everyone came into the stadium, we were going to take a Polaroid picture that would be developed by the time they got to their seats. At random, one was going to be selected, brought down to the field, and asked to hold up their photo. Everyone else held up a card under their seat, and the whole audience would form a pictogram of the audience member selected. But we realized we didn’t have time to bring people down to the stadium floor for the pictures.    

Steeg: Everything about it was big. I remember we had a press conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York to announce it, which was unusual. No one had ever announced a halftime show before.  

Coca-Cola

Witkowski: For some reason, we had Oscar-Mayer around. They came forward and wanted to supply lunch for all of the dancers. As a kind of joke, I said, “Okay, but I want to ride shotgun in the Wienermobile.” Sure enough, it showed up.

Witkowski would eventually settle on a trick that involved the audience using an “Applause-o-Meter” to pick one of four giant cards in the stadium, with the selected card's edges made up of held-up seat cushions. What he needed now was a master of ceremonies—someone to guide the audience and lead the melody of classic pop songs.

Steeg: Elvis Presto, yes. We felt it was a novel thing that got a lot of play. Who is he? What is he?

Witkowski: It was divine inspiration. [Laughs] I think once we settled on the 1950s music, it was natural to make Elvis Presley the lead magician. It was a nice play on words. We also had the Magic Wandas, who were his back-up singers.

Barkla: I had nothing to do with that.

Witkowski: We cast a guy who had played Elvis on Broadway. He had a very good look and had the moves down. Alex Cole, who had been a back-up dancer on Solid Gold, was his choreographer. And he wouldn’t have to sing. That was all prerecorded in New York.

Jody LoMedico (Vocal Performer, “Elvis Presto”): I had been performing since the 1970s, singing and doing commercial jingles. Someone once told me I sounded like Elvis, and it devastated me. I was never an impersonator.

Witkowski: We went to the Elvis estate. I felt that rather than it be a surprise for them, they would want the courtesy and an opportunity to respond. They couldn’t have been nicer and did it for minimal consideration.

LoMedico: A vocal contractor I knew said she had heard I did a pretty good Elvis. I had been trying to destroy any kind of resemblance to him. You want to be your own person. But it was the Super Bowl, so I was all in. We went in there and sang and sang and sang this seven-minute piece. "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Rock This Town," Stray Cats stuff, everything. I was there probably seven hours. When we were done, I couldn’t talk.

Witkowski: We had Donald Pippin, a Broadway legend, doing all the music.

LoMedico: When they saw me sing, they liked me so much they asked if I wanted to come to Florida and lip-sync my own voice. But I couldn’t be out of town for three weeks for rehearsal and everything else for $1500. They said, “Most people do this for free.” Well, your dancers, these kids from universities, they live to be on television. Great for them. No disrespect. Not for me.

While Witkowski tried to assemble a complete Elvis, Barkla and choreographers were thinking of how best to stage a production on something as volatile as a football field. Only cars made of plywood would be allowed on the grass.

Barkla: The grass in Florida is very different from the grass in Minnesota. It’s like moss. It doesn’t take much to destroy the surface.

Steeg: It’s about protecting the field, and also about what you can move on 100 yards of grass.

Barkla: They’d bring truckloads of dirt and grass seed on the field and dump it. I remember asking one of the NFL guys, “Doesn’t that change the height of the goalposts?” Because you keep raising the ground. He looked at me like no one had ever considered the question before.

III. SHOWTIME


As the clock wound down to perfect an elaborate show full of visual effects, dancers, and a stadium-sized card trick, Witkowski was dealt two of the worst hands possible: His in-person Elvis was about to split, and Coca-Cola was about to introduce a new dimension in frustration.

Witkowski: The guy playing Elvis suddenly had an opportunity to go shoot a commercial in Japan that was going to be very lucrative. We made a mutual decision to recast. My first thought was Alex, since he was essentially the other Elvis’s choreographer and knew a lot of the moves.

LoMedico: The guy who did Elvis—whoever you are, I wasn’t a fan, man. Doing Elvis at that time with anything was just hokey. Maybe in Middle America, but the East and West Coasts were done. It was Elvis and The National Enquirer. It was corny.

Alex Cole had roughly 10 days to learn a complex routine involving dancers and illusions with a hollowed-out jukebox and an electric guitar that materialized out of thin air. At the same time, NBC and Witkowski were struggling to cope with the late addition of 3-D.

Gonzalez: We both understood the sudden importance of the 3-D overlay and all the money it represented. The NFL and the executives at NBC didn’t interfere, but they did say, “This represents a whole lot of valuable promotion, so we need to make it work.” In the final week, the focus largely went away from the magic and onto re-blocking for 3-D.

Witkowski: We recorded the audio track before the 3-D element came into play, so we decided that because of time, we would edit what we had and work with it from that standpoint. We knew the magic would suffer, knew the event would be a bit corny, but felt people would watch.

Barkla: The input we got was way late in the game. That was very frustrating. If it hadn’t been so late, things would’ve been better than they were. It’s typical corporate stuff. The people making decisions didn’t have a clue as to how the whole thing worked.

Gonzalez: The choreographers had been planning their part of the show for months. To tell them two weeks before, “Throw it out, make everything counterclockwise rotational,” was not what they wanted to hear.

Witkowski: We thought of some effects where girls would appear to float outside the image of your TV set and had some other levitating effects. But with the 3-D process, things had to be in constant motion left to right to separate the field of vision for the effect to work. In many ways, the 3-D fought with the way to present magic, which was to keep a continuous camera on something so you’re not cutting away.

Steeg: To do the 3-D, everything had to move left to right. It was basically a mind trick.

Gonzalez: Fearing that the 3-D on the field would be less than what was expected, I went to my bosses at NBC with a request to spend additional funds on some animations. There are three or four spots in the show where we independently developed some effective use of the 3-D apart from the action on the field.

Koonin: Kevin Costner came up to me at a [pre-game] party in Miami. He said, “Hey, I hear you’re the 3-D glasses guy. Want to comp me a pair?”

With a pre-taped introduction by a wry Bob Costas (“This is the single proudest moment of my life”) and a 3-D Diet Coke commercial, “BeBop Bamboozled” got underway. Elvis Presto appears to materialize out of a jukebox; dancers defy gravity by leaning against parking meters horizontally; 102 custom-made Harley-Davidson bikes engulfed the margins of the field.

Gonzalez: Bob Costas was hesitant about pre-recording the opening. “Trust me,” I told him. “I need to do this to guarantee some effective 3-D effects.” We watched it together in the controlled environment of the studio and it looked quite good.

Barkla: Of course, we didn’t wind up using the inflatable cars. Those might have cost $3000 to $4000 each.

Witkowski: I remember in the planning stage, we had some early computer effects that showed how 2000 people would be moving on the field. That was unheard of back then. You could have 200 people fall over and it wouldn’t even be noticed.

Barkla: The question was, how do you get things on and off the field? You have to be able to set it up and dismantle it very quickly.

Presto's inciting of the crowd to "pick a card, concentrate real hard" left most viewers befuddled: the Applause-o-Meter led to the King of Hearts, one of four giant cards on the field and a choice Presto predicted. Because of the camera movements, it was also one of the few illusions actually picked up by the broadcast. 

Witkowski: I will say the card trick is not nearly as effective as what we had anticipated.

Steeg: I don’t think everyone got the card trick. You had to think about it.

Barkla: There was one master box for power, and it was at the 50-yard line. All the skyboxes would need wires running out of it. The place where we stored all the sets underneath wasn’t wired and it wasn’t lit at all. I found that really strange. We were running electric lines all over the place to get power.

Witkowski: We didn’t have theatrical lighting. In magic, you adjust it depending on how the performers are moving. Here, the lights were either on or off. We couldn’t rely on that. Everything was out in the open.

LoMedico: I think I made the right choice [not appearing on camera]. When I saw it, I thought, “Mmm. This isn’t working.”

Witkowski: I would say that Alex, as Elvis, didn’t have the right look. But he didn’t have the opportunity to practice, either. With magic and its complexities, it’s hard to just drop someone in.

LoMedico: The stuff sounded good in the studio. Everyone was really happy. But when it got on the air, whatever they did with the sound processing, somebody mixed that improperly.

Gonzalez: You get one rehearsal Friday night to try to put it all together, and the crew, the best in the business, was excited and cooperative. The next time the camera crew saw it was live at halftime.

IV. OVERTIME


With an estimated 120 million people tuning in, Super Bowl XXIII was a resounding success. Despite some complaints that the card trick made little sense, news media responded favorably to the 3-D effects. This was presuming the viewer had the glasses: Because Coke had only made 26 million pairs, many had to share or go without.

Koonin: There wasn’t time to make more. If it had cost the consumer money, yes, they probably would have been disappointed. But this was about getting past Pepsi. It was just a fun stunt.

Barkla: It was the beginning of a time when the shows got more inflated and slicker.

Witkowski: I remember being interviewed after. Apparently, I was dancing in the stands with the dancers.

Steeg: I think it was a good show. It was just so hyped. People were expecting this Pixar 3-D animation thing. It was just a halftime show.

Beindorff: We got a huge uptick in sales that month. And that went on for some period of time, though you can’t attribute it all to the Super Bowl. We also had George Michael.

Witkowski: Coke was kind enough to send us binders of all the press after the game. I think it was $60 million worth of promotion. It was confirmation that we were successful in creating something people were going to talk about.

Beindorff: I got a call a year or two ago that Diet Coke finally surpassed Pepsi as the number two drink. It took a while.

Steeg: The only one you’re concerned with is the Commissioner, and he [Rozelle] was happy.

Witkowski: Jim said to me, “You’ll reap the benefits of this for years.” And we have. MagicCom has been very successful. I appreciate that the NFL took a chance on the little guy.

Steeg: The next year was the 40th anniversary of Peanuts. They approached us and wanted to get involved, and we liked that.

Gonzalez: If you were to pick a halftime show that would be designed for the rotational 3-D effect, I don’t think it would be something that demands the precision and accuracy of a magic show.

Steeg: We experimented. We took chances. With the Super Bowl, it’s very easy to just say no. We rolled the dice.

LoMedico: At the time, I lived in the Poconos with no cable and had to watch it with rabbit ears. The whole thing was kind of a letdown.

Barkla: I didn’t watch it. I don’t like football.

All images courtesy of Dan Witkowski.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Cyber Monday has arrived, and with it comes some amazing deals. This sale is the one to watch if you are looking to get low prices on the latest Echo Dot, Fire Tablet, video games, Instant Pots, or 4K TVs. Even if you already took advantage of sales during Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday still has plenty to offer, especially on Amazon. We've compiled some the best deals out there on tech, computers, and kitchen appliances so you don't have to waste your time browsing.

Computers and tablets

Amazon

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet 64GB; $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 8 Tablet 64GB; $84 (save $35)

- HP Pavilion x360 14 Convertible 2-in-1 Laptop; $646 (save $114)

- HP Pavilion Desktop, 10th Gen Intel Core i3-10100 Processor; $469 (save $81)

- Acer Nitro 5 Gaming Laptop; $973 (save $177)

Headphones and speakers

Beats/Amazon

- Bose QuietComfort 35 II Wireless Bluetooth Headphones; $200 (save $100)

- Sony Bluetooth Noise-Canceling Wireless Headphones; $278 (save $72)

- JBL LIVE Wireless Headphones; $100 (save $30)

- JBL Charge 4 - Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $120 (save $10)

- Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker II; $79 (save $50)

- Powerbeats Pro Wireless Earphones; $200 (save $50)

Video Games

Sony

- Watch Dogs Legion; $30 (save $30)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

- The Last of Us Part II; $30 (save $30)

TECH, GADGETS, AND TVS

Samsung/Amazon

- Amazon Fire TV Stick; $30 (save $20)

- Echo Show 8; $65 (save $65)

- Nixplay Digital Picture Frame; $115 (save $65)

- eufy Smart Doorbell; $90 (save $30)

- Samsung 75-Inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $898 (save $300)

home and Kitchen

Ninja/Amazon

- T-fal 17-Piece Cookware Set; $124 (save $56)

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Curved Round Chef's Oven; $180 (save $136)

- Ninja Foodi 10-in-1 Convection Toaster Oven; $195 (save $105)

- Roborock E4 Robot Vacuum Cleaner; $189 (save $111)

- Instant Pot Max Pressure Cooker 9 in 1; $80 (save $120)

- Shark IZ362H Cordless Anti-Allergen Lightweight Stick Vacuum; $170 (save $110)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

Oral History: In 1985, Mr. Snuffleupagus Shocked Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

On November 8, 1971, during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus was introduced to the world and proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.

No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.

Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.

So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?

The solution? Get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, Mental Floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.

I. The elephant in the room

Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.

Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.

Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-2017): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.

Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-2016): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.

Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.

Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.

Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.

Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.

II. Identity crisis

2004 Sesame Workshop

“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the first 10 years, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.

Martin P. Robinson (via Still Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.

Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.

Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."

Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.

The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.

Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.

Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.

Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.

The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.

Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.

Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.

Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.

Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"

Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.

For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.

Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."

Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.

III. The reveal

The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.

Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"

Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."

Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"

In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.

Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.

Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.

After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.

Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.

Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.

Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.

Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.

Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"

Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”

Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."

Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.

IV. Aftermath

Sesame Workshop

In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.

Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.

Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.

Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.

Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.

Delgado: He got a little sister later on.

Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.

Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.

Delgado: Kids freaked out.

Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."

Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.

Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.

Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.

Davis: Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.

Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.

Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.

Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."

This story has been updated for 2020.