The Lost Magic of Zoobilee Zoo
By Jake Rossen
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.”