The Lost Magic of Zoobilee Zoo

Sarah Bynum via YouTube
Sarah Bynum via YouTube

It wasn’t easy to impress Peggy Charren. As the founder of the Action for Children’s Television (ACT) organization, Charren was a tireless crusader for quality kids' programming. She resented the glorified toy commercials posing as juvenile entertainment and successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation limiting the number of ads aired during shows. She hardly ever promoted or endorsed a specific series.

But Charren made an exception for Zoobilee Zoo.

The 1986-1988 syndicated series about six anthropomorphic, artistically-inclined animals—including Bill Der Beaver, Van Go Lion, and Talkatoo Cockatoo, with Ben Vereen as the leopard-spotted host—so impressed Charren with its determination to foster creativity among its preschool audience that she praised it in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. It was racially diverse, she said, and tackled subjects (like disabilities) not commonly found in adolescent television.

Charren wasn’t alone. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers both acknowledged Zoobilee as important. So why didn’t more kids watch?

According to Steve Binder, the producer and director who supervised all 65 episodes of the original series, Zoobilee Zoo was conceived by the entertainment division of Hallmark greeting cards for one reason: to win awards. “That was their number one focus,” Binder tells mental_floss. “And we did.”

Zoobilee Zoo was originally a joint project between Hallmark and Mattel. When Mattel bowed out, children’s distributor DIC was brought on board. Binder’s production company was responsible for delivering 65 half-hour episodes, all of them to be completed in the spring and summer of 1985.

“When I got to Hallmark headquarters in Kansas City, the characters looked like theme park people,” Binder says. “I thought they needed to have expressions.” The director lobbied—and got—make-up and prosthetics rather than sports mascot costumes.

Back in Los Angeles, Binder sought out actors with theatrical experience who could sing, dance, and memorize the hundreds of pages of script required for the shoot. For the host, who appeared in wraparound segments, Binder approached well-known performer Ben Vereen: “I had had a relationship with him for years and asked him to be the mayor.” While Vereen was only around for a few weeks, the other actors “had no social life” for the duration of the shoot. “It was like doing a Broadway show every day,” Binder says.

When Zoobilee Zoo premiered on September 22, 1986, Binder was dismayed to find it confined to a too-early 6 a.m. slot in Los Angeles. While that was quickly changed to 7 a.m., it foreshadowed a recurring problem: Zoo bounced around the dial, appearing in the early-morning hours on PBS and local affiliate stations. Those who saw it loved it; those who didn’t had no idea it existed.

“I think we developed a tremendous cult following,” Binder says. “The cast would go to different libraries and perform in character. But when I’d walk into a Hallmark store, there wouldn’t be any merchandise. I found it so odd.”

Strangely, Charren’s endorsement—that the show avoided peddling toys to kids—may have contributed to its premature end. Without Zoobilee merchandise on shelves, awareness was muted. The series aired to modest ratings for years, eventually winding up on the Disney Channel in 1992 before Hallmark (who declined comment) produced 14 additional episodes for home video release in 2000. Though Vereen seems open to a revival, it never quite materialized into what Binder imagined could have been a franchise.

“This was pre-Barney, and we basically had six Barneys,” Binder says. “I once had someone offer to build an entire theme park. Hallmark turned them down. I never understood it.”

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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

Why Steve Carell Required a Cold Set on The Office

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon

Many people know from personal experience how frustrating it can be to disagree on the ideal office temperature. Some people tend to run warm, while others keep a handy stash of blankets and scarves at their desks to keep the goosebumps at bay. If you're in the latter category, you'd probably have a tough time as an actor or crew member on the set of The Office. Though it would be a cool opportunity to see the Dunder Mifflin team in action, you'd have to work on a set that was consistently kept at 64°F.

As Insider reports, Steve Carell, who played Michael Scott, insisted the set remain at such a chilly temperature because of his very active sweat glands. As silly as it might sound, it's not a myth. Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight Schrute, revealed this behind-the-scenes secret in his 2015 book, The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy.

Insider notes that Carell's requirement was not always appreciated by his castmates, who apparently suffered through the crisp temperatures until they finally got space heaters. Though the set's frequent frigid feel was rough, it probably saved the crew from having to re-shoot scenes spoiled by sweat stains.

[h/t Insider]