Take a Look: An Oral History of Reading Rainbow

RRKIDS
RRKIDS

For students, the summer months represent freedom from the shackles of regimented learning. For educators, they were becoming a problem. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was growing concern that children were becoming so captivated by both television and warm weather during their summer vacation that they had abandoned reading altogether. When they returned to school in the fall, their literacy skills had noticeably plummeted.

For a group of broadcasters and teachers, the solution was unusual: Air a new program during the summer months, and use television as a means to get kids excited about opening up a book.

The result was Reading Rainbow, a magazine-style series that celebrated books by reading them out loud to viewers, then exploring their themes in on-location segments. Hosted by LeVar Burton, the show grew from modest trials at PBS affiliate WNED in Buffalo and Great Plains National out of Nebraska. It ran for 150 episodes and 26 years, making it one of the most enduring children’s shows to ever air on public television. If Sesame Street taught kids the alphabet, Reading Rainbow helped them develop a love of words, paragraphs, and narratives.

Despite Rainbow’s altruistic aim, the series was frequently in danger of halting production due to a lack of funds. Lacking merchandisable characters or licensing opportunities that boosted shows like Barney, its producers struggled to convince financiers of its importance. In 2006, succumbing to a changing media and public television landscape, Rainbow shot its final episode. But the show's fans—and Burton—never gave up hope.

With the Reading Rainbow brand once again visible via apps and electronic devices, Mental Floss reached out to several members of the production team to revisit its origins, the approach to the very static practice of reading for the dynamic medium of television, and how Burton didn’t let little things like elephant snot discourage him from helping generations of kids learn to love reading.

In a 1984 survey by the Book Industry Study Group, young adults under 21 years of age were experiencing a marked decline in their interest in reading. In 1978, 75 percent reported they read books. Six years later, the number was down to 63 percent. In Buffalo, New York, and Lincoln, Nebraska, two public television employees grew fixated on how television—long thought to be a thief of a child’s attention—could be repurposed to combat the phenomenon.

Twila Liggett (Co-Creator, Executive Producer): I had been hired by ETV in Nebraska, which distributed programming to classrooms. One day my boss came to me and said, “You know, we’d like to make some television rather than just distribute it.” So I started to think about something in the area of reading.

Cecily Truett (Producer): Putting books on television wasn’t unheard of. Captain Kangaroo had done it. It was Tony Buttino who conceived of the summer loss concept for television.

Tony Buttino (Co-Creator, Executive Producer, Former Director of Educational Services, WNED): I started looking into the summer reading loss phenomenon, which came out of research being done in California. The basic idea was: Kids don’t read during the summer. When they come back to school in the fall, teachers spend two to three weeks bringing them back to their past reading level.

Pam Johnson (Former Vice President, Education and Outreach, WNED): The station would talk to their educational advisors, and what Tony kept hearing from professors, librarians, and teachers was that there needed to be something that explored a love of reading during those summer months. Having that capability early on puts kids on a path to doing well in school.

Larry Lancit (Director, Producer): There was always interest in getting kids to read more, but this was more of a highly-targeted mission. We wanted to make reading fun for kids and encourage them to participate.

Buttino: I started looking at programs that were available to run during the summer. One was called Ride the Reading Rocket, which we aired for a couple of years starting in 1977. I didn’t like the show, but it was something. We’d give out workbooks for classrooms that wanted to use them.

Liggett: There was a lot of stuff made for the classroom then, but it was not that great.

Johnson: Tony went back to 1959, 1960, when WNED first went on the air with live television. You’d have a nun come and read books, or a guy from the zoo come talk about science. It was seeding that notion.

Buttino: After Rocket, I went to see Fred Rogers. He turned us over to David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and we shot some short wraparounds with him over the next few summers.

Johnson: WNED would take some preexisting shows and basically use them as experiments. They were all a precursor to Reading Rainbow. It was all building a case for why TV could be good for that kind of thing. WNED was like an incubator.

Liggett: I wanted to do something to mirror what I did in the classroom, which was read to kids out loud, get kids involved in the experience of reading, and have kids talk to each other about reading. Those became the three basic elements of Reading Rainbow.

Buttino: Before Reading Rainbow, we had the Television Library Club. That worked well, but eventually we started thinking, “Well, what kind of show would we make if we had money?”

Lynne Ganek (Writer): The original mission was to create a summer series for inner-city kids who couldn’t go to camp to remain interested in reading. Larry, Cecily, and I sat down and said, “Well, this could be more interesting if we took a different route.”

Buttino: I basically copied some research that had been done for The Electric Company, which showed that if you can get kids in second grade to love to read, it’s a real turning point. Fifth grade might be a little too late.

Liggett: Nebraska's ETV and Great Plains wound up partnering with WNED in Buffalo. Ride the Reading Rocket was not fitting the bill anymore, so I suggested we take my idea and latch it onto the summer reading phenomenon.

Johnson: They compared notes and it really seemed like all roads were leading to the same thing. Different players were having different conceptions of how it might work out.

Ellen Schecter (Writer): The question was: How do you keep kids reading over the summer? There were all these studies showing that reading plummeted, but not solutions.

Ganek: The idea was not to teach kids how to read, but to encourage a love of reading.

Liggett: It was never about sounding out words, but a love of narrative. It was the perfect follow-up for kids who [had moved beyond] Sesame Street. You’d grab them with Sesame Street and then send them on to Reading Rainbow.

Truett: It was Tony who recognized the phenomenon, and Twila who said, “Why not make a TV show about it?”

Liggett: Tony has been known to claim it was his idea, and I take no umbrage at that. Success has many mothers and failure is an orphan.

Buttino: The word “creation” is interesting. I would say I created it, but then Cecily and Twila and Larry came along and recreated it. If I hadn’t done five summers pulling together what was important to the program, I’m not sure how it would have come together.

Ed Wiseman (Producer): What I remember is Ellen Schecter being the heart and soul of the show. Larry and Cecily organized it and put it together. Watching that dynamic with the three of them was wonderful.

With Liggett and Buttino convinced that a show about reading was viable, its execution was left to Cecily Truett and Larry Lancit, a married couple who owned New York City's Lancit Media. Having produced the kids' show Studio See and medical education programming, the couple knew how to navigate informational television with imagination on a budget.

Truett: Tony introduced us to Twila and explained what the goal was, which was to keep kids interested in reading. I thought, “Whoa, how do you do that on television?”

Schecter: We would sit around Cecily and Larry’s apartment at West End Avenue and talk about what kind of show we wanted.

Wiseman: I remember getting a call to come meet with this producing couple who worked out of their apartment. I went there in a three-piece suit, which is what I thought you did. They were so casual and relaxed.

Truett: I answered the door for Ed in a bathrobe.

Ganek: At the time, I was working for WNET in New York. Tony and Cecily hired me to be the associate producer when I was nine months pregnant.

Liggett: Cecily and Larry were responsible for the design of the show. They were and are brilliant producers.

Ganek: Cecily was good about allowing people to speak their mind and doing the same. I’d have an idea and she’d say, “Lynne, that sucks canal water.”

Schecter: An early idea was just to have people sitting around a library, but it was too static and boring. That got shot down.

Liggett: We briefly thought about putting the words on screen and having kids follow along as they were read to. We looked at Zoom. We looked at Sesame Street, of course, the giant of kids' TV. We looked at Mister Rogers.

Ganek: I grew up with Mr. Rogers and even got to know him a little bit later on. He always felt it was important for kids to be spoken to directly by the host. He was a huge supporter of the show.

Truett: We met with Fred, who was a great mentor to us. We wanted to have the kind of relationship Fred had with his audience.

Liggett: The name came from knowing that kids like alliteration and that we wanted to have “reading” in the title.

Buttino: An intern at WNED came up with the name Reading Rainbow.

Ganek: The formula we developed was used for the next 26 years of production, so I think we did something right.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting agreed to fund roughly half of the first season’s 15 episodes, leaving Liggett to petition corporations for the rest of the $1.6 million budget.

Liggett: It took about 18 months. I became sort of impossible to live with. People were telling me to let it go. My then-husband said, “You love this project more than you love anything else,” implying he was the anything else.

Ganek: Twila was very significant in getting Kellogg’s.

Truett: Twila was a relentless Nebraska girl with a will of steel. She was indomitable.

Liggett: I had written proposals for grants and funding before, but nothing on this scale. My big break came when I asked someone I knew at the University of Nebraska Foundation for assistance. He couldn’t get the money from the school. Then he said, “But I do sit on the Kellogg’s Foundation. I’ll contact the CEO and tell him he should see you.”

Schecter: We were always asking things of people in positions where normally you wouldn’t dare approach them.

Liggett: I went to Kellogg's by myself. How I had the guts, I don’t know. I had enough of the show laid out to convince them it would be a good idea.

Rev. Donald Marbury (Former Associate Director, Children’s and Cultural Programs, CPB): At CPB, we funded about half the budget. That’s the way it works in public broadcasting. There’s nothing PBS can fund in full. We become the initial money to parlay that into leverage to find other granters.

Liggett: Between Kellogg’s and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, we had enough money for 15 episodes. Without Kellogg’s, the show never would’ve gotten off the ground.

Money was only part of the production’s concerns. Without an engaging host, Reading Rainbow was in danger of being passed up by viewers in favor of more exciting programming.

Truett: [The original host was going to be] Jackie Torrance, a highly-regarded storyteller. But we also knew boys were at a greater risk of reading loss and were in need of a good role model. We looked at probably 25 people or so.

Buttino: I wanted the kind of host you’d buy a used car from.

Lancit: We had been thinking about—who was that guy who spoke at the Republican Convention? Scott Baio.

Buttino: I didn’t want a robot. I didn’t want anyone in a costume, someone dressed like a sheepdog or something. I wanted someone sincere. In the proposal, I think I mentioned Bill Cosby.

Ganek: We had gone to a kid’s TV conference and LeVar was there. He was just coming off Roots at the time.

Truett: Lynne said, “Have you seen LeVar lately? He’s so handsome, articulate, magnetic.” We thought, “Gosh, this guy is perfect.”

Schecter: Everyone knew him as Kunta Kinte from Roots. He was so 'live' and expressive.

LeVar Burton (Host): I had done two seasons of a PBS show out of Pittsburgh called Rebop. I had an affection for PBS. It made perfect sense to me, because of the reaction to Roots. You felt the sheer power of the television medium. Over eight nights of television, you experienced the transformation of what we meant when we talk about slavery in this country.

Lancit: I remember Lynne called us and said, “You really need to see this guy. He’ll be on the six o’clock news.” We turned it on and he just had this sharpness about him.

Liggett: Larry sent me a note saying I wouldn’t believe how camera-friendly he was. I saw a thing where he recited poetry on stage for Scholastic high school contest winners and he was so compelling. You could not take your eyes off of him.

Ganek: We decided to get in touch with LeVar, and he agreed to shoot the pilot.

Schecter: Once LeVar said yes, that was it.

Burton: I loved the counter-intuitive idea of it. It was no secret children were spending time in front of the TV set, so let’s go to where they are and take them back to the written word.

Ganek: At the time, LeVar was being managed by Delores Robinson, who was married to Matt Robinson, who played Gordon on Sesame Street.

Liggett: She was a former English teacher.

Truett: Lynne called her when LeVar was doing ABC’s Wide World of Sports on the Zimbabwe River. She said, “He’s not even in the country, but he’ll do it.”

Ganek: [Delores's] heart was in kids' TV and she was instrumental in getting LeVar to do it.

Burton: I was all in. It made perfect sense to me.

Truett: At the time, having an African-American kids' TV host was completely unprecedented.

Marbury: He was the first black host, surely. And more than being an African-American male, he was the first genuine celebrity we had landed for a public broadcasting series.

Burton: It wasn’t on my mind from day one, but it came into my awareness the longer we were on the air. I like to ask what Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, and LeVar Burton have in common: We all worked in children’s television.

Schecter: I’d go over scripts with him and ask how he felt. He really brought a lot of himself into the show, stuff that would relate to him—like how he learned to ride a bike and how scary it was until he realized his father wasn’t holding on to him anymore. That’s a perfect story for kids to hear, and it came off as very genuine because it was.

Wiseman: I would say LeVar on the show was 70 percent him and 30 percent refined for the viewer. He was playing himself, but a character, if that makes sense.

Liggett: The power of LeVar was remarkable.

Truett: No young black men were taking the lead in this kind of show. He was like Fred Rogers, talking directly to the audience.

There was little precedent for Rainbow’s format of focusing on a single book. Out of 600 possibilities for the first season, 67 were selected. While producers assumed publishers would appreciate the free advertising, not all of them fully understood the goal.

Ganek: I’d go to the library and just start pulling out books from the shelves, sit on the floor, and read them.

Schecter: The idea was to pick a book with enough juice to build a show around. If it was about dinosaurs, we’d go dig up dinosaurs at Dinosaur National Park. If it was a book about camping, we’d go camping. We went to film a volcano erupting—anything dynamic to hook kids. To pick out a book, it would have to be something that just jumped off the page and became alive within the context of the show.

Ganek: We wanted something whimsical or serious.

Schecter: When we picked out the books, we went to the National Library Association to make sure the titles we featured would be available when kids went looking for them. If you’re turning a kid on to a book, they have to be able to find it.

Ganek: The first season, we had to pay for the rights to use the books. No one was going to let us use them for free. It wasn’t much, but we had to pay.

Liggett: It was hard. That was why we used mostly unknown authors that first season.

Schecter: I think there was some apprehension over how the books would be presented.

Truett: We went to Macmillan and told someone there we were doing a series about summer reading loss and we’ve got no budget, so could we please have it for free? He was dumbfounded. He said, “I don’t see how this is going to sell any books for Macmillan.”

Liggett: They could not wrap their brain around how we could take the story and stretch it over half an hour.

Truett: I think we paid a few hundred dollars for the first book.

Schecter: Once publishers figured out they’d be on TV, they’d be pretty dumb not to say, “Fine.”

Liggett: We had to negotiate with both the author and the illustrator, since many of them were picture books.

Once a book was chosen, it was up to Lancit Media to figure out how to film its pages while remaining visually interesting.

Ganek: Maintaining the integrity of the artwork in the books was huge.

Liggett: I like to say we were Ken Burns before Ken Burns. We moved the camera across an illustration the same way a child’s eye would move across it, from left to right. That was Cecily’s idea.

Truett: I had been working for Weston Woods, a company that adapted books to slideshows way back when. The kids could see the illustrations rather than have the teacher hold up the book for everyone to look at. We knew we couldn’t be static.

Lancit: We realized early on it would be beyond our budget to do cel animation. We adapted books in what we called an iconographic manner, basically moving the camera on still images. We’d get copies of the books from publishers, cut the pages out, and send them to a company in Kansas that would adapt them by extending characters or adding art in case one of them was cut off by a page. Later, we would do limited animation if it made sense.

Reading Rainbow was divided into three segments: the book recitation, a field trip relating to the content, and a concluding segment where kids reviewed other, similar titles. It was one of the few times children on television had an opportunity to voice their opinions.

Schecter: That was a big thing, to have kids review the books. Kids talking about books didn’t happen often on TV.

Buttino: We found the kids in Buffalo for the first few years.

Johnson: Those were real kids from real neighborhoods in Buffalo. We’d test hundreds and hundreds of them and go, “OK, which one of these 6-year-olds has a presence?”

Ganek: I want to give credit to a librarian I spoke to in New Jersey. She came up with the idea for the kids to do book reviews. She had a little file on her desk where kids had left reviews and said, “Here, you don’t have to take my word for it.” That’s where LeVar’s line came from.

Schecter: I recall I wrote that line and that was my idea to have kids review the books. There would be the main book, and then it would be something like, “If you love this, you’ll love these.”

Truett: That was Ellen Schecter, pure and simple. It found its way into one of the scripts and we thought it would be a nice way to end each show.

Ganek: We found a little girl who was spectacular at doing the review and we were going to use her throughout the entire series. Eventually, we decided to use different kids every time.

Truett: Our research showed kids loved watching kids review the books.

Ganek: We were later accused of coaching the kids, and there was some of that, but it was really in their own words.

With funding and plans in place, shooting for the pilot episode began in early 1983.

Liggett: At first, Kellogg’s said they’d fund us but wanted to see a pilot episode first, which was only reasonable. But essentially, one of the assistants there took me aside and said, “Don’t worry. We love the show. Just go do it.”

Truett: LeVar showed up to shoot in New York City having just gotten off the red eye from Africa. It was 7 a.m. He asked me if he could have a toothbrush and a glass of orange juice.

Burton: I had no time to prepare. Talking directly into the camera and breaking the fourth wall is not something actors do often. I had to learn how to feel like I was very specifically talking to one kid.

Wiseman: He was just so incredibly sincere. I remember shooting that and he was developing his character through the smallest things. He had a backpack, and it was like, “Does he carry that? Does he not? Does he swing it over his shoulder?”

Burton: I just assumed that it was me they were looking for. Over time, I really dialed in the voice of LeVar on Reading Rainbow, and I recognized it as the part of me that either was a 10-year-old or appealed to 10-year-olds. They’re kind of one and the same.

Schecter: We did spring for some animation, where a woman opens a book and this big cloud of activity comes out of it.

Liggett: We contacted the people who had just done an animated Levi’s commercial. We wanted real kids to turn into animated kids. We almost ran out of money just doing that.

Truett: We did take one segment out of the pilot that was a bomb. It was called, “I Used to Think But Now I Know,” which was about first impressions not necessarily being the correct ones. It was a barker.

Lancit: When we took that out, we needed to fill time. We shot footage of a tortoise out in Arizona crawling around. I went to our music guy and said, “Can you get me a tortoise song?” I had no idea what he’d come back with. It was a clever little song. It was just two minutes of this little tortoise.

Ganek: I did have one incident after the pilot. I went to visit Dorothy and Jerome Singer, two professors at Yale who had done work in children’s television and had a column in TV Guide. I really looked up to them and so I brought the Reading Rainbow pilot along with me so they could take a look. They later wrote and told me it was awful and would never go anywhere. So much for academia.

Reading Rainbow premiered July 11, 1983 as the first summertime program funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While it wasn’t the first episode to air, the pilot, featuring the book Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport, proved to be a memorable introduction to the series for the crew.

Ganek: Someone at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting thought it would be too scary.

Wiseman: The title had “monster” in it, and that led to discussions.

Schecter: Often, self-important people will have ideas about what kids will or will not like. The book was not at all scary.

Truett: One of our advisers had a traumatic experience as a kid because someone brought a Gila monster to her house. It slept in a cage next to her.

Liggett: Our hearts were set on that and we went after it like gangbusters.

Truett: Gila Monsters was perfect because it showed how we would take a book and relate it to a kid’s life, like the fear of moving.

Ganek: I was in the pilot while I was still pregnant, and I remember PBS wasn’t comfortable having a pregnant woman on the show. They shot me from the neck up.

Truett: The response was extremely enthusiastic. We had real Gila monsters on the show. People loved it.

Schecter: The response was extremely positive from the public. It wasn’t like it was with Sesame Street. Older kids were watching it and enjoying it.

Wiseman: It was the most adult-watched kid’s show out there. They’d watch it without their kids.

Liggett: Sometimes we’d be criticized for not picking up the pace, to go faster. But we trusted a kid’s attention to let us take time to get to where we were going.

Not all of the debates surrounded the books. Over time, Burton’s choice of hairstyles and facial grooming would become popular topics of conversation off-camera.

Truett: One of the things we would always have to come to grips with what hairdo LeVar would have in a given year ... There were conversations about his mustache.

Burton: And when I got my ear pierced.

Marbury: We had some wonderful conversations about his haircuts.

Burton: I remember those conversations, and I remember saying, “Look, if you want me, you’ve got to take all of me.” Whether I had a mustache or not, or an earring or not, my authenticity and enthusiasm was coming through.

Wiseman: His hair and style would change from year to year depending on his acting projects. He was partial to a mustache, and the concern was that it aged him. Like, here’s a dad instead of a friend.

Truett: The producer called and said, “Hey, tell him to get rid of that thing.” They wanted more continuity since he didn’t have one in the first season. He shaved, but he was not happy about it.

As Reading Rainbow grew in popularity, publishers and authors began to understand what it could do for their business. Some titles experienced such a surge in sales that books would go back to presses or issue paperback editions to meet the demand.

Burton: The joke was that we would wear kneepads because we were begging publishers to allow us to put their books on television. In the 1980s, TV was still being discussed in academic circles as evil. It was seen as a direct competitor for readers.

Ganek: After the first season, we could barely fit all the books we were getting sent into the office. Publishers would send us practically anything they had.

Wiseman: Boxes came in every day.

Schecter: The whole children’s book business exploded. Some titles went up by 800 percent in sales.

Liggett: Kids would come into libraries asking for books they saw on the show.

Truett: The publishers started making little Reading Rainbow stickers to put on the featured books.

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Ganek: The show changed the way children's books were published. They would do very small print runs until Reading Rainbow, and then the numbers got big.

Truett: They finally got it when they saw the show. Reading Rainbow was tied to the sale of thousands of books.

Schecter: Once they saw how carefully we were treating the work and how we were getting celebrities like Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep to narrate the books, they understood.

Ganek: We had no budget, so anyone you heard reading the stories was doing it because they thought it would be good for kids.

Liggett: Some donated their fee to a charity, and some did it for nothing.

For the second season, Rainbow’s episode count would be cut down to just five installments. Plagued by budget constraints, it would join a number of other public television projects that had problems finding funding. “It’s a very scary time for children’s television,” PBS head of programing Suzanne Weil said at the time.

Liggett: We never did 15 episodes in a season again. It was too hard to raise the money.

Schecter: Money was always a worry. We would get it, but not always in time to keep a steady flow of episodes going. The problem was that we needed a schedule to get shows in production and on the air.

Lancit: Few series get continual funding with no risk. Sometimes we’d be within weeks of putting people on hiatus, then somehow we’d get it going again.

Ganek: Twila was the person responsible for continuing to get money to produce the show.

Truett: Every time we were on the brink of letting everyone go and moving on, Twila would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. She’d turn people upside-down and shake the money out.

Liggett: It was never guaranteed. One year, I thought we had money for a season and then my contact at Kellogg's went on vacation. The budget got redirected. When she got back, she told me our money was gone.

Schecter: Places like Kellogg’s and CPB didn’t really understand that you needed to keep the production moving. There would be a month or two of waiting, then everyone would have to hurry up.

Marbury: We funded it each and every year. It became a centerpiece for us. It was a marquee value children’s series we just embraced.

Liggett: Barnes & Noble funded us at one time.

Schecter: The questions would always be: How much will they give us? How much can we afford to spend?

Liggett: The National Science Foundation was suggested by a friend of mine. We did science-related books, so it made sense. But after a few years, it’s, “OK, you’ve had your stint here. We can’t fund this show forever.”

Unlike Sesame Street’s large cast of easily-merchandised characters, few elements of Reading Rainbow translated into licensing opportunities, which is one way series can meet their financial needs.

Liggett: We left no stone unturned in an effort to get us licensing deals. A friend set up a meeting with Joan Ganz Cooney, who ran Children’s Television Workshop. She told me, “I can tell you this, you’re not going to make much money selling book bags.”

Truett: We didn’t have the cuddly guys you could take to bed.

Wiseman: The thing that made us special was not having gimmicks, but it also made us less marketable. We didn’t have those licensing dollars flowing back into the show.

Liggett: At one point I wasn’t far from Hallmark in Kansas City. I went over there and thought, “Surely, Hallmark can see their way clear to do something with this.” And their licensing guy basically said, “The problem is, you have these books, but you don’t own these books.”

Truett: Publishers were the largest beneficiaries of the show. We talked about maybe adding a character to the show we could license. We thought about maybe the butterfly from the intro, but that felt very cheesy.

Burton: I was very, very wary of that idea. Thank god we never put it into play. I felt introducing another major character all of a sudden would have a negative impact in how I related to the audience.

Wiseman: I remember in college, a professor was talking about kids' TV, and said that animation and puppets were losing that humanity. LeVar was so sincere. It was back to the Fred Rogers model.

Johnson: We never had LeVar dolls, or ways to leverage those ancillary rights.

Liggett: We never figured it out.

Despite the financial constraints, there was always an allotment set aside for location shooting. In some of the more memorable segments, the show visited a zoo, a Chinatown parade, a live birth, and a high-security prison.

Ganek: Once we settled on a book, we sat down in a circle and talked about what we could do with it. That led to going on field trips depending on what we could afford. We went to a lot of interesting places. We did whitewater rafting in Arizona. We didn’t have money to pay the experts on the show, but when you’re doing work for children, people are very willing to give their time.

Schecter: LeVar was such a good sport. When we did the camping episode, it rained all the time.

Liggett: When he got Star Trek [in 1986], he’d shoot for a week there and then do our show on weekends. Unbelievable stamina.

Burton: I actually thought I was done with Reading Rainbow when I got Star Trek: The Next Generation. I felt I had done it for long enough and it was time to hang them up. They actually started looking for another host. Then Rick Berman, the executive producer on Trek, told me he used to work in children’s programming and had a soft spot in his heart for it. He made sure I could go out and shoot Rainbow when I needed to.

Schecter: I remember LeVar shooting at a zoo and an elephant had a cold and kept blowing snot all over him. He never lost his cool. “OK, let’s try it again.”

Truett: That was hilarious. The elephant was going for the apples LeVar had, and this stream of snot was coming from its trunk.

Burton: My whole thing was to not interrupt the flow of conversation with the viewer. That’s sometimes difficult to do when you’ve got elephant snot on you. I had goats trying to eat my clothes.

Truett: We pulled him out of a goat pen before he got pummeled to death.

Wiseman: I remember shooting near a live volcano. We left our editor about a mile from the eruption.

Liggett: We did an episode on the Starship bridge. Patrick Stewart remains one of the most courteous people I have ever met.

Truett: The biggest mistake Trek made was covering up [LeVar's] eyes with that device. People knew him from Trek, but on our show, he was talking directly to the audience.

Ganek: The biggest, and really only, arguments we’d have would be where to go on location. Someone would ask, “Where do they have the best dinosaur collection?” Someone thought it was Pittsburgh, and someone else would say otherwise.

Schecter: Chinatown [in Manhattan] was a problem. We did Liang and the Magic Paintbrush there, but it was not easy. There are gangs there and you have to be on the right side of them. We managed to ingratiate ourselves.

Truett: As time went on, we delved into more mature topics. We talked about the Underground Railroad, about slavery. We did Badger’s Parting Gifts, about losing someone you love when they die.

Wiseman: We filmed in Sing-Sing, in parts where cameras had never been allowed before. We pushed the envelope in quiet ways. We live-filmed the birth of a baby! We choreographed it with an OB/GYN and a mom. It had never been done in children’s TV before.

Lancit: We coordinated it with a doctor and didn’t show anything graphic. It was all above the waist.

Wiseman: Every PBS station aired it but one: WNET in New York, of all places.

As Rainbow rolled on, it drew considerable attention from libraries, publishers, and the television industry itself, taking home 26 Emmys for excellence in children’s programming.

Wiseman: People at the Daytime Emmys would look at us sideways. “Here come the Reading Rainbow people.” I think we won in just about every category.

Buttino: That was always wonderful, to dress up and attend those shows.

Wiseman: During the 2003 Emmys, LeVar went on stage to accept and said, “This might be the last time we’re up here. There’s no funding.” And we wound up getting funded because he said that on TV.

Burton: I don't remember that, but it sounds like something I would do. Year in and year out, we continued to stay afloat despite a continuous need for funds. I think Reading Rainbow always had a guardian angel that was looking out for us.

Lancit: I always said we had Reading Rainbow karma. Whatever we needed, we would eventually wind up getting. People were always willing to help.

In 2006, Reading Rainbow had seemingly run out of goodwill. The culprit: the No Child Left Behind Act, which placed restrictions on how the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could allocate funds.

Wiseman: We just kind of always thought there would be more money, that Twila would find a way to get it. Like, this show is too good to just die.

Liggett: We ran out of money in 2006 and did our last show in 2006.

Truett: Part of it was the gradual move to other shows. Even though parents wanted their kids watching PBS, they’d leave the room and the kids would go back to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Liggett: To this day, I’m bemused by the funding issues we had. Everyone is obviously in support of reading and literacy—until you start asking for money.

Ganek: Encouraging a child to want to read was our downfall in some ways. No Child Left Behind wanted kids to be taught the mechanics.

Burton: No Child Left Behind was the death knell. The money was marked for the rudiments of reading. There was no mandate for encouraging a love of reading. All the sources we had come to depend on were no longer able to help us.

Liggett: The mechanics of it would make your toes curl, but basically, CPB got ready-to-learn funds and then shows would come in and plead their case. I argued. I can’t tell you how hard I argued.

Marbury: There were greater demands from Congress to venture out into other areas. We had to start questioning how much we put into the series year after year.

Truett: PBS had to justify its existence to political constituencies. The programming choice for a lot of public television became animation. Stuff like Blue’s Clues.

Burton: We shot our last episode in 2006 but weren’t pulled from the lineup until 2009. After three seasons with no new content, we were pretty much canceled.

Although the show aired in reruns through 2009, Burton was adamant that Rainbow not be forgotten. In 2012, he and partner Mark Wolfe launched an iPad app that capitalized on interactivity and the digital age of entertainment. In 2014, their Kickstarter campaign raised more than $6 million to become the most-funded project in that site’s history.

Burton: When it was taken off the air, it was like a light bulb moment for me. “Wait a minute. There’s something I can do.” We spent most of 2010 and 2011 gathering the rights that had been scattered to the winds and throwing a rope around them to make a deal with WNED.

Wiseman: It was, at the time, the biggest Kickstarter ever, with $6 million. That shows you the power this show had.

Burton: It held the record for the biggest number of backers. It was pretty overwhelming, seeing the depth of passion and enthusiasm for the brand.

Schecter: I thought it was kind of strange. LeVar owns Reading Rainbow? How could this be?

Burton: There was an opportunity to raise seed capital and hire a team.

Liggett: My understanding is that WNED made a deal with the University of Nebraska, and that LeVar and his company made a broad licensing arrangement with WNED, but WNED still owns it.

Truett: I’m thrilled LeVar is keeping the legacy of Reading Rainbow alive.

Buttino: I’m not sure LeVar and WNED are getting along too well right now. I think WNED sold some stuff to him and they’re not happy about it. [WNED and RRKidz are currently involved in litigation concerning the Reading Rainbow license, with WNED accusing RRKidz of “illegally and methodically” trying to “take over” the brand by pursuing projects that were not part of their original agreement.]

Burton: There’s nothing I can say about it right now. I hope and believe we’ll get it resolved soon.

Today, Reading Rainbow remains a touchstone children’s television series, its impact on both viewers and its production team immeasurable. Burton's RRKidz continues to reach children via apps and other online iterations of the series.

Ganek: The cast and crew of Reading Rainbow loved each other.

Wiseman: If we had a crew member come in and say, “It’s just a kids' show, it doesn’t matter,” they’d be gone. It was because it was a children’s show that it had to be the best.

Truett: We started out as kids ourselves, really, and grew up over 26 years.

Wiseman: I married Orly [Berger, a fellow producer]. Our kids wound up appearing on the show.

Liggett: We made kids want to read, and that makes a huge impact. It’s like playing the piano. The more you do it, the better you get.

Truett: It was one of the first shows that shined a light on books and literacy, of enjoying books and enjoying books with your kids.

Johnson: PBS would commission surveys, and over an 18-year period, teachers reported Reading Rainbow was the most-used video in their classrooms. They saw it not only as a reading show, but as a way for disadvantaged kids to see things they might not otherwise get exposed to. They can see a bee farm, or a live volcano.

Wiseman: People will talk about the show with tears in their eyes.

Marbury: I’d put it up there with Sesame Street. I really would, in terms of undergirding the cruciality of reading to our young people.

Burton: Part of the secret sauce of Reading Rainbow was tying literature to a real-world experience. I cannot tell you how many people I have met who told me they became a writer or librarian or bee keeper or were inspired by the show to some degree or another and that it had a major impact on their life.

Ganek: So many people today do their own version of the Reading Rainbow theme song on YouTube. I saw Jimmy Fallon dressed as Jim Morrison from The Doors doing it on his show with The Roots.

Liggett: People will sing the theme song to me.

Marbury: I could sing it right now! Butterfly high in the sky, I can go twice as high …

Buttino: Friends will say I was involved with Reading Rainbow at restaurants. Waiters will come up to me and show me the theme song is their ring tone. It happens all the time.

Lancit: I think there was a purity in the way we presented the program that reached kids and touched them in a way where they didn’t feel patronized. We spoke to them at a level that made them feel confident. That I had something to do with giving a generation of kids that feeling is a wonderful thing.

Truett: I believe in my heart that the relationship LeVar created with young people was one of the factors in bringing them to embrace a relationship with an African-American man. It changed a generation’s perspective.

Wiseman: He made color both an issue and not an issue at the same time. LeVar transcended race, gender, and age.

Burton: That’s something emotional about that sweet spot of childhood, and Reading Rainbow triggers that for people. It was during a much simpler time in their lives. The world is a lot faster now.

Marbury: I don’t think enough children’s programming has followed Reading Rainbow’s lead. There is nothing more important in education than reading. We must continue to make it foundational to the educational process.

Schecter: Sometimes I’ll meet friends of my kids who go, “You wrote Reading Rainbow? That was my favorite show. I’d get a book, close my bedroom door, and let my imagination go.” That’s what we wanted.

Burton: It was very pastoral. We allowed that conversation with the audience to breathe. I think that’s part of the appeal. I felt they believed they had a friend. Someone who was rooting for them, that knew and cared about them. And that was real.

All images courtesy of RRKidz unless otherwise credited.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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

Bat Boy Lives! An Oral History of Weekly World News

Popular Weekly World News cover monster Bat Boy.
Popular Weekly World News cover monster Bat Boy.
Courtesy of Weekly World News

In 2000, longtime Weekly World News editor Eddie Clontz discussed the legendary tabloid newspaper’s standard of journalistic ethics with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We don’t sit around and make [stories] up,” Clontz said, "but if we get a story about a guy who thinks he is a vampire, we will take him at his word."

From 1979 to 2007, Weekly World News captured the attention of supermarket customers with its bombastic headlines about a world that seemed to mirror, but not quite reflect, our own. In this reality, Elvis was alive, alien visitors were common, weird science ruled, and a half-human, half-bat child named Bat Boy became a folk hero.

At the height of its popularity in the late 1980s, circulation reached 1.2 million copies per week. Headlines like “Bigfoot Kept Lumberjack as Love Slave” ruled its covers. A team of dedicated journalists filled its pages with satirical fiction. If fact happened to stumble its way inside, it would be adjusted to fit the paper’s mission statement. An undertaker arrested for selling body parts became “My Brain Is Missing!” A mild story from The Wall Street Journal about a small Australian town boasting of large earthworms became a histrionic, breathless tale of giant worms burrowing underground and creating ruptures in the ground that swallowed cattle whole.

As news outlets have increasingly become subject to controversy over what some label “fake news,” Weekly World News can lay a legitimate claim to having invented the genre. More than 40 years after it debuted, Mental Floss spoke with more than a dozen former editors, writers, and contributors about the paper’s origins, its process, and how it went on to influence the news satire of today, from The Onion to The Daily Show. Or, to borrow a cue from the paper: “Grifters Reveal How They Fooled World for Decades!”

I: The Paper Chase

Weekly World News was initially focused on celebrity gossip.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Generoso Pope Jr. could be considered the father of the modern supermarket tabloid newspaper. With the aid of a $25,000 down payment reportedly borrowed from the mob, Pope purchased The New York Evening Enquirer (which later became The National Enquirer) in 1952. The lurid paper specialized in tawdry headlines like “Starving Mom Eats Own Child” before softening its content to gain retail space at grocery stores in the 1970s.

When rival tabloid The Star went to a color format, Pope was forced to follow suit. That left him with an unused black-and-white printing press, which he saw as an opportunity to return to the bizarre news of the early Enquirer. In the summer of 1979, a small staff supervised by editor Phil Bunton, stationed inside the Enquirer offices in Lantana, Florida, began work on what would become Weekly World News.

Paul Kupperberg (Editor, 2004-2007): I remember the Enquirer from its grisly early days when I was a child. It was kind of a rag in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Stuff like “Boy Trapped in Old Fridge Eats Own Foot to Stay Alive.” It was kind of spooky to a little kid.

Sal Ivone (Managing Editor, 1981-1988): Pope was stuck with this black and white printing facility near Montana. He basically said, “OK, let me just publish another magazine.”

Barbara Grover (Editorial Assistant, 1981-1985): They had moved the color printing up to New York and told people at the publishing house he’d create a new newspaper in black and white so they could keep their jobs. I worked there as a clipper at first.

Iain Calder (Editor-in-Chief, The National Enquirer, 1973-1997): He could’ve gotten rid of it, but Gene was friendly with the family that ran it. He felt he couldn’t have them, plus a lot of other people printing it, not have jobs. So he and I sat down and kicked around all kinds of different things to do on black and white paper. Finally, he said, “Why don’t we do what Reader’s Digest did?” Reader’s Digest, when it started out, took the best stories from around the world and reprinted them. He said, “Why not just do the best stories, the really wacky stories?” So that’s what we did.

Joe Berger (Editor, 1981-2001): I went to work there in 1981, so almost from the beginning. I was a reporter for Newhouse News Service in Washington and covered the White House. Washington wasn’t like it is now, not quite as exciting. So every day, like most reporters, I scanned through job openings, and Weekly World News, which I had never heard of, had an ad in there. Gene Pope paid good money, at least twice as much as what I was making at the time in Washington.

Bob Lind (Writer, 1990-1998): We had brilliant journalists like Joe Berger and Jack Alexander. One came from The Washington Post, one was from The New York Times. Berger was a White House correspondent.

Calder: What we had as an advantage was that we pretty much owned the front end of supermarkets. The National Enquirer was one of the first to get into supermarkets, after TV Guide and a couple of [food] magazines. It cost a fortune, but that was one reason the Enquirer surged in circulation in the early 1970s to mid-1980s. Hundreds of millions of people would see it.

Berger: Pope was like the Godfather to the staff. He ruled with an iron fist. One day we wrote a story about Albuquerque and Pope insisted we spelled it wrong. We looked it up a number of times and were all sure we were right, but he insisted you spelled it another way, so we changed Albuquerque to the way he wanted it. No one argued with him. People were afraid to challenge him, so we ran the story with the name of the city spelled wrong.

Grover: Pope was a tough, no-nonsense guy, but he would do anything he could for people he liked. He got my neighbor a job at the Enquirer, and the neighbor later died from an infection. Pope gave his family $85,000 in cash to help out.

Calder: We got newspapers and magazines from all over the English-speaking world and brought in people to read the papers, piles of them, 8 feet high. They were the clippers. We would rewrite the stories.

Berger: About 80 percent of the stories were clipped from newspapers. We had three or four clippers who were surrounded by mountains of newspapers. We spent the day looking at newspapers throughout the world, clipping weird stories. About 50 percent were about people narrowly escaping death; someone falling off a cliff, or hanging off a tree branch for four days until they were rescued. We would write the story [and] put in a splashy headline. Most stories were very true and accurate.

Ivone: In 1981 and 1982, before Google, you’d go into the newsroom and piles of mailer containers full of newspapers would be there. You’d take a break every other day and clip stories from all over the world. We thought if we were fascinated, readers would be fascinated, and it proved to be correct.

The first issue of Weekly World News was released in October 1979 and sold a respectable 120,000 copies. Over the course of the next several years, however, it became clear that recycled weird news items held only limited appeal for readers. To hold the attention of buyers in the competitive supermarket sales space, Weekly World News would have to find another beat besides the celebrity gossip genre owned by its sister publication, The National Enquirer.

Berger: In the beginning, we were very careful about facts. And then several years later, we were writing about space aliens, Bigfoot, and Bat Boy.

Calder: It slowly morphed into that. It didn’t change overnight. The paper wasn’t able to get fantastic stories from clippings, and so it slowly used less and less stuff from other newspapers and became more about things from the minds of the editors.

Ivone: We kept a careful running tally on sales and noticed when we drifted away from celebrity stories and differentiated ourselves—went to bigger headlines and bolder stories—it worked.

Berger: It was all factual but kind of boring, and people weren’t buying it. So Pope kept hitting the editors hard to make it more and more exciting. No matter how they jazzed it up, he wasn’t happy. They didn’t want to lose their jobs, and he was the kind of guy where if you didn’t please him, you were gone. They were running for their lives and gradually had to come up with wilder and wilder stuff to please him. The only way to do it was to gradually add stories that weren’t true. That’s when stories about aliens and the weirder stuff, “Bigfoot Tried to Eat My Little Boy,” came up. It was a demand from the boss for more exciting stuff. There just wasn’t any way to adhere to the truth and give him what he wanted.

Ivone: We tiptoed into fiction. We’d exaggerate now and then, and then exaggerate more, as we went through newspapers and magazines. “This is a good story, it’s already covered, but what would make it more compelling? What would yield the most compelling headline?” That’s how we got into thinking about this imaginary world with recurring characters, like Bat Boy, Bigfoot, aliens, and all the rest.

Lind: We wrote these things straight, for people who wanted to believe these things. We wrote it like a news story. We wrote a lede with a dash in it, filled it in, and then had a money quote.

Ivone: It was an incremental process. We didn’t fight it. We were being rewarded by readers.

Lind: We didn’t make all of it up. A lot of them were true stories.

Ivone: We used “borrowed credibility.” On the left-hand side, there were stories people recognized, and then there were the more outlandish, mythical, urban legends on the right side. It was all juxtaposed with recognizable, legitimate stories to get readers to think about it. “This is true, this farmer in Idaho saying his wife ran away with Bigfoot.” It’s given a little bit of credibility, a platform to give people permission to believe it.

C. Michael Forsyth (Writer, 1996-2005): I used to read it in college and get a kick out of it. I sometimes got buffaloed into believing the stories.

II. Faking It

Headlines were crucial to enticing impulse buyers at the grocery store checkouts. Courtesy of Weekly World News

By most accounts, Weekly World News developed its voice when Eddie Clontz was named managing editor in 1981. Clontz pushed staff to increasingly delirious heights.

Ivone: Eddie was a certifiable genius. What Eddie did was create an atmosphere where we could explore those stories.

Lind: Eddie had an uncanny feel for what worked, what readers were looking for.

Dick Kulpa (Artist, 1987-2003): I came in with an ultrasound of my daughter. He said, “That’s a galaxy shaped like a human fetus.” That became our page one. He had a knack for this. He was a twisted genius, but a genius. Joe West was editor, Eddie managing editor, but Eddie had a big mouth and was very influential.

Calder: Eddie was the real key to the whole thing.

Berger: Eddie made Weekly World News what it is, with a lot of help. But it was his vision, his idea.

Lind: Eddie was loved and hated. I happened to love him.

Ivone: We were friends but we had disagreements. I liked the idea of the way he ran the newsroom. There were no meetings, just pitching. The proof is in the pudding. The product was very successful.

Lind: Eddie had native intelligence, an excellent feel for what people wanted to read. He knew balanced reporting was dull reporting.

Ivone: There was tension. I was the city mouse and he was the country mouse. I grew up in New York City.

Lind: It was interesting between him and Sal. Sal was very educated, cared about arts, knew literature, knew art, knew classical music. Eddie’s most memorable night in the theater was seeing Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. Eddie had a fifth or sixth grade education. Sal would talk about great art, Eddie would say it’s a bunch of sh*t. Sal would say, “You wouldn’t know great art.” Eddie would say, “I see a security guard with a red rope, that’s great art.”

Ivone: Eddie had a great voice. He’d stand up on his desk. He had a big squirt gun. It was unlike any office in the country. It was regimented and run like a business, but it was relaxed. There were no meetings or suits or ties.

Charlie Neuschafer (Executive Editor, 1986 to 2002): I had at times a good relationship with Eddie, at times a little bumpy. He was a smart guy. We were a pretty animated bunch of people having a lot of fun and some occasional disagreements. Nothing that led to any harm.

Ivone: I felt he came off as a tough guy but so appreciative of staff. There was a duality to his personality. He was a tough guy to work for in many ways; not for me, but for other staff.

Berger: I won’t speak badly of Eddie. He was very mercurial. Eddie could be nice and could have temper tantrums. He could be smiling and laughing one minute and flying off the handle about something the next minute, like Pope. If he liked you, fine. If he didn’t, you were in trouble and never got a minute’s peace.

Grover: Eddie was an unusual, difficult human being. But Weekly World News required someone unusual. A real journalist couldn’t do that.

Berger: Joe West was appointed editor and was there for a while until he got fed up with Pope. He couldn’t stand it. He was kind of a fiery guy. He left, quit, stormed out. Eddie Clontz, who was then assistant editor, became editor-in-chief. Eddie was the editor-in-chief during most of the time Weekly World News enjoyed its greatest success in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

Calder: Eddie worked for West but it was clear [Eddie] was the driving force. When West left, Eddie took over as editor and Sal became managing editor. He was a smart journalist and a good organizer. Eddie was a terrible organizer, but he came up with front page ideas.

Before long, Weekly World News submerged itself completely in the fantastic. While some readers were annoyed—one police department in Mobile, Alabama complained they had not captured a werewolf, as reported—almost everyone else was amused.

Derrik Lang (Writer, 2004): I think they were really looking for things to grab people’s attention that had a humorous element to them. And maybe have them be a little bit shocking.

Neuschafer: I did one about a renegade rooster on a rampage. The banner on that was “Cock-A-Doodle-Doom.”

Lind: My favorite story that I wrote was about Siamese twins where one was a good cop and one was a bad cop. And there was a bungling crook, a guy who writes a “give me money” note on his own check receipts. Whatever would be outlandish enough to get the attention of people. They want to believe in ghosts, space aliens.

Neuschafer: There was a baby born with a wooden leg. We did a lot of variations on that theme. Babies born with a tattoo, a mustache.

Kulpa: As soon as we read about Photoshop, we acquired it. Prior to that, photos were airbrushed. How could you do a half-dog, half-cat that looks real? We had visuals, but it was the stories that carried weight.

Neuschafer: We'd do something about the world’s heaviest cat, then another heavier cat would come along, which we’d spin off. We’d airbrush it to make for a really fat cat. Anything could be a spin-off.

Forsyth: We would have ongoing narratives. The serialization of some stories were great. There was one we did about a more obscure sea monster, the Lake Champlain monster up in one of the Great Lakes. We did a story that the creature set sail across the Atlantic on a mission to go toe-to-toe with Nessie. We built it up: He’s on the way, he gets there, and it turns out he went there to mate with Nessie. Then we followed up that they had a baby. Then we had a contest to name the baby.

Lind: Leskie Pinson did a column, "Around the World with Leskie Pinson," that was really a short story. One was about Leskie getting badly injured in Samoa when he was attacked by a boa constrictor. His ribs were broken. Now he's recovering. He’s getting thousands of get-well cards. Not a word of it was true.

Forsyth: Sometimes reporters took on a role in the story. We had a character named George Sanford who went and broke into Area 51. It was a serialized story. He vanished, and another reporter escaped, went missing, was somehow rescued.

Lind: We said we had a Weekly World News jet flying all over the world to get stories. There was no such jet.

Neuschafer: I did a rafting trip in Colorado, took pictures of ancient hieroglyphs on the canyon, brought it back, and wrote a story about how they were made by space aliens. It was anything you could come up with.

Forsyth: As a reader in college, I remember a story about a baby being born who spoke as soon as it came out of the womb. It said “Not again” and never spoke again. It was written with credibility and so it puts chills up your spine, but it’s also darkly funny.

Ideas weren’t solely a result of imagination. The staff of Weekly World News would hear from readers and even called up legitimate sources to help validate their fables.

Berger: I remember doing a story about a guy who had been on a diet and got so hungry that he spotted a little person on the street, thought he was a chicken, and took off with a hatchet down the street after him. I had to have a psychiatrist come in and explain how it was possible someone could starve themselves so much they became delusional. We had to have someone explain how that was possible.

Facts were often optional. Courtesy of Weekly World News

Neuschafer: There were times when we had sources and reporters who did phone work or were sometimes on assignment somewhere. For crime stories, someone calling a police department about a case. Some things were bizarre enough in life to report straight.

Forsyth: We would report those stories like any other reporter would. For crime stories, you'd get a quote from the district attorney, the sheriff. There was real reporting that went on.

Berger: If something was too difficult to believe, we’d come up with a quote from a baffled scientist who would provide a reason it might be true. We used to joke about the Academy of Baffled Scientists.

Lind: A lot of times, people would call or write with ideas. Someone claimed to have found a dinosaur somewhere and wrote a paper about it. I treated them with respect. I called them and said, “Tell me about this.” We took people’s word for it, even though we knew it was bullsh*t.

Forsyth: We would say we were from Weekly World News, but most people, though they may have seen it, it doesn’t register. It just sounds generic. If you approached it in a serious manner, people would speak to you. I spoke to scientists, university professors. People are all too eager, especially scientists, to tell you something they want the world to understand.

Berger: Our mantra was, "Never talk yourself out of a good story." If a lady called and said aliens ate her laundry, The New York Times might say, “Do you have evidence?” We’d say, “Oh, do you know if he liked jeans or frilly stuff best?”

Neuschafer: The National Enquirer would get sued and had some pretty well-publicized lawsuits, but we didn’t deal with celebrities. Space aliens really didn’t take anyone’s laundry. But there were still lawyers who read it. Everything had to be approved by a big law firm in Washington, D.C. We had to conform if they said to do something.

Forsyth: There were only a couple of times the paper got into legal trouble but it was mostly avoided. If we made up a story, we checked to make sure no one was in the city or in the world with that name. We’d make up names. The first part of the name would be Anglo-Saxon, and the second part would be Italian. The name wouldn’t even exist.

In experimenting with different stories, from alien abductions to prophecies, Weekly World News quickly learned which types of tales on the cover would move copies.

Berger: Sometimes there was one big splashy headline, then some ticker heads. If one didn’t grab them, something else would. It was important to keep circulation up. You’d hold your breath when the circulation figures came in. On a big day, you'd go to the boss and say, “Look how many copies we sold.” If you sold half that many, you might not be there next week. There was no real method to it, just keeping track of what sold and getting a feel for what would sell the next time around. If a story sold, we tried to find a way to revive it in a few weeks. We knew Bigfoot stories would sell if done right.

Kulpa: Sometimes we would do three versions. Three covers went into a focus group area. We would get numbers back on those, and the winner would become next week’s cover.

Ivone: We picked Roanoke, Virginia. It was a good bellwether. It was very much marketing, very much driven by data.

Kulpa: One thing that did well for the Enquirer and for us were predictions. In the 1980s, it was World War III. People were concerned and would grab predictions to see what the future holds. They were upbeat. Predictions imply there will be world a year from now.

Forsyth: For a while, prophecies were selling. Who could provide a prophecy? We did Unabomber’s prophecy, the Donner party prophecy.

Ivone: We always had covers with miracle cures of garlic, apple cider vinegar, but we also wanted alien abduction stories. There was always a blend. We never abandoned self-help stories. We were baffled by it, but they always did ok. They were good performers.

Kupperberg: Heaven and hell stuff was strong. Things discovered in the Titanic were also pretty good. And coming disasters, an apocalypse of some sort. Giant monsters.

Forsyth: I once did gay skeletons found in a Titanic life ring, which is—what the hell is that? That makes no sense. But I wrote it and people said it was actually quite touching. The sailors died in each other’s arms.

Calder: There were things you couldn’t do. Nothing like sex. If supermarkets say no, you’re out of business.

Ivone: We often found that people who bought tabloids bought two or three, like The Star or The Sun. We wanted to be the second buy.

III. The Madhouse

The staff of Weekly World News had to come up with compelling covers every week.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Departing from fact to create fiction, the staff of Weekly World News developed a kind of bullpen in their offices.

Neuschafer: It was an old-school kind of newsroom, cigarettes in ashtrays, manual typewriters banging away on desks, like a newsroom you’d see in movies in the 1940s, but it worked.

Forsyth: You walked into the Enquirer building and it would look somewhat like a real old-fashioned movie newsroom. It was just desk after desk, one gigantic open space. We’d hang out at the Hawaiian after work, a local motel/bar on the beach. It was a dream job, waking up in the morning, writing two long made-up stories and three to five filler stories, and then going to the beach after work.

Neuschafer: There was always a chance after work to get together, have a beer, and have more story ideas.

Berger: I remember [co-worker] Jack Alexander used to complain to me that he would go home at night and had been laughing so hard during the day that his face hurt. That’s the kind of atmosphere we had. People laughed all day, threw ideas around. People would throw out headlines for a story.

Forsyth: There was definitely a family feeling with a small staff. We had affection for the paper and for what we were doing.

Berger: It was like the atmosphere of a fifth grade class when the teacher leaves the room. Everyone was yelling, screaming, throwing things at each other, calling each other names in a humorous way. People with their feet on the desk.

Calder: The office was a big, big area, and one little corner was Weekly World News with very few employees. The Enquirer attitude was they thought it was entertaining. “What will they come up with next week?” The Enquirer offices were a very high-powered editorial space and had a blank front page to sell 4.5 million copies every single week.

Berger: Pope called us all into the conference room one day after we had gotten cubicles and it had changed the atmosphere. He said, “I don’t like the way things are going in the newsroom. When I stick my head out, I want to hear you guys yelling and screaming and laughing. If you guys aren’t having fun putting out the paper, readers won’t have fun.” The cubicles went and we went back to laughing and that fifth grade atmosphere. He was right about that.

Neuschafer: We sold a lot of papers and were always scratching our heads. The news was fake, or mostly so, but the ads were very real. Advertisers were paying good money to advertise in the paper.

Kulpa: Occasionally I would go to schools and give speeches. I would ask how many people read Weekly World News, and half the kids raised their hands. They were 12-year-olds. I was shocked. We had a college following, too.

Berger: It became satirical. We were playing to two different readers. There were people who read Weekly World News and enjoyed it as a humor and satire publication, and there were people who read Weekly World News and wanted to believe every word in there. In every story we gave the reader a chance to believe what they wanted to believe. We were walking a fine line. People believed in ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot. If they wanted to believe a space alien ate someone’s lawn mower, let them believe it.

Kulpa: Who the readership was is something we never got a handle on. I couldn’t tell you. A guy once asked me, “Where do you get those stories?” I pointed to my head and his jaw dropped. A lot of people wanted to believe those stories.

Neil McGinness (Editor-in-Chief, 2008-2018): I grew up with it, in college. I loved it, used to read it all the time. I would pore over every detail in the publication, the presentation, the headlines, the cleverness of it. It functioned like a portal into another reality, like ours, but portraying a world that was more fun, with aliens, zombies, Bigfoot, and sea creatures.

Kulpa: The Weekly World News philosophy was like what Stan Lee was to the original Marvel Comics. Both were grounded, both were believable. You read a comic and believed the Hulk could have actually existed through radioactivity. It gave it plausibility. Weekly World News did the same thing: You run a story, have an expert to debunk the story, print it with the story, and it gave it credibility.

Berger: With the weird stuff, we went from selling 100,000 copies to 1 million a week. There was no looking back. No one thought about sticking to the facts after that.

IV: Bat Boy Begins

Bat Boy stories proved immensely popular for the paper.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Under the gleefully demented leadership of Eddie Clontz, Weekly World News came into its own in the late 1980s. In order to keep readers coming back for more, it developed a number of stories that were serialized in nature. One of their biggest recurring hits began with a May 1988 headline that declared Elvis Presley, who had died of a heart attack on August 16, 1977, was still alive. In 2004, The Los Angeles Times declared that Clontz “gave birth to the Elvis-is-alive phenomenon.”

Ivone: The biggest seller was anything with Elvis. “Elvis is Alive” was an all-time bestseller.

Calder: The National Enquirer used to get the credit for that.

Ivone: All the credit for Elvis goes to Eddie. We would get books all the time. One book was about this idea Elvis faked his own death. We called the author, did a book review, put it on the front page, and trumpeted it as a news story.

Berger: Some lady in England had written a book claiming Elvis faked his own death and was still alive and hiding out somewhere. So the original “Elvis Is Alive” headline was about that lady’s book, which claimed he was in hiding, couldn’t stand publicity, and was out there roaming around in secret.

Ivone: People who loved Elvis, it was giving them some hope it might be true. Some genuinely said, “I saw Elvis.”

Berger: People started writing in. There were sightings around the country. Real sightings.

Lind: Elvis would appear in all kinds of places.

Berger: Anytime we could get an “Elvis Is Alive” story on the cover, we had to do that. A woman wrote in and claimed she spotted Elvis in a McDonald’s in Kalamazoo. That was good enough for us.

Calder: We’d say Elvis was still alive and run a picture of what Elvis would have looked like at that time. We’d get dozens of phone calls. If someone calls and says, “I saw Elvis,” you didn’t try to disprove the headline. If you’re an Elvis fan and see something about Elvis still being alive, how could it not grab your attention?

Forsyth: It started to get old. You’d have a waitress seeing him. I can’t remember one story, but it played on the fact that Elvis had a twin brother. After a while, things become self-parody. Elvis became “Ha-ha, this is a joke.” We wanted to give people a chance to believe in the story.

Berger: There was a lady somewhere in the south who claimed with a straight face she lived with Elvis for three or four years. He was her boyfriend. She told us the whole story of living with Elvis. She was very sincere.

Neuschafer: We used stand-ins for Elvis with a little bit of airbrushing. I was never Elvis, but I was used for a couple of other stories.

McGinness: In many instances, the stories contained journalistic sleights of hands or twists that really drove home the thematic element to the story. It wasn’t just that Elvis was spotted in a Burger King, but that the person at the counter was surprised he ordered a Double Whopper, or two Double Whoppers.

Weekly World News ran at least 57 “Elvis Is Alive” stories between 1988 and 1992. At one point, nationally syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry suggested to Clontz that the paper should report that Elvis had just died. “Elvis Dead at 58” was printed not long after.

As Elvis headlines began to wane, editors found a new protagonist. And unlike the King, he was birthed inside of the company’s offices. “Bat Child Found in West Virginia Cave,” which ran on June 23, 1992, introduced the world to Bat Boy, a 2-foot tall, 19-pound hybrid beast-child highly sought after by government officials.

Kulpa: Bat Boy was created by accident. I was asked to do a space alien baby and I did. The editor saw it and put it away, saving it. I did a number of versions, and six weeks later, the bat child was born. It went on page one and sold 975,000 copies—a great seller for us.

Lind: Dick Kulpa was a brilliant artist. He did a space alien with big ears and a mean look. Sal Ivone said, “Maybe he’s not a space alien. Maybe he’s half-human, half-bat.”

Kulpa: I see Bat Boy as more like the It’s Alive baby. He’s strangely vicious yet lovable.

Ivone: Dick Kulpa did a drawing with big ears, big eyes, and wanted to do it as an alien baby. I said, “I’m sick of alien stories. Can we do something different?” I sketched out an idea for a subterranean civilization, and someone who becomes a stranger in a strange land. The idea being, this would be a story that had legs. We could make it episodic. Those stories seemed to sell well.

Berger: Bat Boy was obviously a figment of someone’s imagination. Dick was doing some artwork, trying to come up with a picture of a space alien. He came up with a drawing of a guy with giant, pointy ears and big teeth. He looked and said, “Oh, we gotta do something with that,” and handed it over to a reporter. It might have been Eddie’s brother, Derek Clontz. Derek came up with the story of Bat Boy being found in a cave in West Virginia.

Calder: “Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave.” Who would think of that?

Ivone: After seeing the visual, I sketched out four or five talking points, but Derek Clontz gave it life. Like the idea he consumes 300 pounds of bugs a day. That made it compelling.

Kulpa: Look at the painting The Scream and you’ll see a connection.

Lind: We had to be careful. Anything that smacked of bestiality was kept out of the paper, but we didn’t go into how he was conceived. We just said he was found in a cave and built on the image.

Ivone: It had nothing to do with interspecies comingling. He was representative of a different civilization.

Kulpa: The comic book side of me said, “We need to develop the character,” but newspaper people didn’t understand what that meant.

Ivone: The first Bat Boy story did very well, and so we kept repeating it.

Kulpa: Kids love monsters, especially friendly monsters, hero monsters who will save the day for them. I see him as a staunch defender for the innocent, but he could also be one hell of an a**hole. You don’t offer candy to Bat Boy. There might be more than candy getting chewed up.

McGinness: Bat Boy is unique in that he’s not a heroic figure. He’s more of an antihero. You can draw parallels to Don Quixote in that you have a protagonist who isn’t a hero but fallible and subject to lapses in judgment. Like the time he stole a Mini-Cooper and led police on a chase.

Authorities often found it difficult to keep Bat Boy in custody.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Lind: He was found in a cave, he escaped, the FBI would catch him and hold him in some undisclosed location.

Berger: An FBI agent called the paper and asked us to retract it. They were getting so many calls demanding Bat Boy be released that their switchboard was being flooded. I think Eddie took the call.

Lind: One day Eddie gets a call from the FBI. Like, “Hey, we’re getting all these calls, knock it off." Eddie said, “We’ll never do it again.” As soon as the receiver hit the hook he turned around and said, “OK, Bat Boy escapes from the FBI ..."

Ivone: The FBI called me once, hysterical. It was because of a story about a Civil War orphan or a child suddenly appearing on a battlefield, and I guess the FBI felt we had given them a villainous role by having them take the child into custody. They said we were giving them a bad name and saying they don’t do those kinds of things. They didn’t seem to realize they were calling a funhouse. It had nothing to do with reality.

Forsyth: Characters take on a certain reality. Bat Boy became our mascot.

Kulpa: People fell in love with the image. It became the iconic image of Weekly World News.

Lang: They said, “Don’t pitch us Bat Boy stories. We take care of Bat Boy.” It was the crown jewel of Weekly World News.

Lind: We always featured him on the cover. We tried to put some time between stories. Every once in a while, we’d decide it was time for Bat Boy or time for Elvis.

Kupperberg: Most of us at this point who were coming from comic books understood how to use characters, how to spread them out over the run of a series. You don’t throw characters into every issue or it becomes boring. We knew how to juggle things. Someone would go, "Time for Bat Boy," or "Time for another devil visitation." You get a feel for things, parsing them out and not ruining them for readers.

Berger: We knew Bat Boy attracted readers, and we kept using him over and over again. If we could find a Bat Boy story that would put Bat Boy on the cover, it seemed to sell.

McGinness: The appearance was always somewhat masked. Every eyewitness account of Bat Boy was obscured. He was caught in fleeting glimpses. That let readers fill in the details.

Kulpa: The appeal of Bat Boy is the face, eyes, and mouth. There’s an emotion in that face. It connects. It’s sort of a "What am I doing here?" emotion, not an emotion of terror or horror. It’s the emotion of, "The f*ck is going on?" I think a lot of people have that emotion.

Joe Garden (Features Editor, The Onion, 1993-2012): It’s such an arresting graphic. It’s a compelling image of something like Nosferatu as a child. I still remember the cover splashing out on the newsstand. Any time they’d put him on the cover, this baby Nosferatu baring his fangs, it was really engaging.

Forsyth: In World War II, different fictional characters like Superman and Donald Duck were recruited for the war effort, so we did one where Bat Boy was recruited for the Marines. He could use his superior sense of hearing. Eventually he left the Marines to capture Saddam Hussein.

The success of Bat Boy eventually led to merchandising, a 1997 off-Broadway musical, and even talk of a feature film.

Neuschafer: There were Bat Boy T-shirts. We did Elvis Is Alive T-shirts, too.

Kulpa: We had an America Online site in the mid-1990s that I would create images for. One day I drew Bat Boy on a beer bottle. It was a Photoshop. I posted it, and lo and behold, someone paid a $10,000 license fee for Bat Boy Beer.

Ivone: There were always people who had developed movie scripts, but no one finished it off.

Kulpa: I discussed a Bat Boy movie with several people but got nowhere with anybody in terms of people running the show at the paper.

Lang: Everybody loves Bat Boy. It was basically an operatic tale. It was fitting that it was turned into an off-Broadway musical.

Kulpa: I posted a Bat Boy musical theme I composed. It was just an amateur thing. I posted it on the site and within four months we were hearing from a company who wanted to do a Bat Boy musical. I never saw it.

Lind: That was all out of my hands. Merchandising was a different department. I was glad when it became a musical, but I don’t think Kulpa got money for it. None of us did.

Kulpa: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man, but you didn’t see that Dick Kulpa created Bat Boy because he was supposed to be a real character. It wasn’t until a 2007 Washington Post story that it was revealed. I warned staff for years that we were working in anonymity unless we do something about it. Of course, it never happened.

Forsyth: It was the most fun when you stuck to whatever reality we had established. He was a feral child raised in a cave. Then someone got stupid. Bat Boy running for president. No, I don’t think so.

Kulpa: I saw Bat Boy shaking hands with politicians. What a bunch of crap.

McGinness: I think the core appeal of Bat Boy is the notion that someday, somewhere, someone is going to find something. Something is going to appear that will shake everyone’s foundation and what we hold to be true.

Bob Greenberger (Writer, 2006-2007): It goes back to a fascination with sideshow attractions that P.T. Barnum celebrated. Maybe Bat Boy is real. Being found in a cave is just on the other side of plausible. Being from West Virginia, he’s one of ours, like Bigfoot.

Lind: I don’t know that the story ever ended. It probably ended with him still on the loose.

Berger: I don’t know why we didn’t do Bat Boy meets Elvis. Maybe it was too silly.

V: Alien Concepts

Politicians and aliens got along well in the pages of the paper.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Even with Elvis and Bat Boy dominating headlines, Weekly World News still kept up with the latest in an underserved area of reporting: politicians fraternizing with aliens, including P’lod, an extraterrestrial with a keen interest in human politics. Eventually, the real Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were photographed reading the paper.

Lind: Obviously space aliens were a great favorite for us.

Lang: All of the alien stories really fascinated me as a reader. Aliens in the Senate. Hillary Clinton having an affair with an alien.

Forsyth: Some of them got a lot of attention, like Bill Clinton catching Hillary with a space alien. P’lod endorsed Clinton.

Berger: I remember we had a story about Hillary adopting a space alien baby. We ran Hillary on the cover carrying a space alien baby. That sold. We had a picture of Bill meeting an alien called P’lod, who was hanging out in Washington. Every once in a while, we’d Photoshop them shaking hands. Those covers sold.

Garden: The Clinton alien covers are the covers I remember the most after Bat Boy. There were these pale aliens reaching out to Bill Clinton and him with a welcoming face.

Berger: We got a really irate letter from a woman who insisted that was not Hillary holding the baby, that Hillary was not a nice, warm-hearted lady who would adopt a space alien baby. The reader was perfectly willing to believe it was an alien baby, just not that Hillary was holding it.

Calder: Eddie decided that we wanted to say several senators were aliens from outer space. So they went to seven senators and asked if it would be ok. Six of the seven went along with it and even gave interviews. They obviously knew it was tongue-in-cheek.

Berger: The senators as space aliens took a lot of work. The first story was that five senators were aliens, and we later found a few more, and it became 12. I had worked in Washington, and things were a lot less divisive at the time, a lot more relaxed. We called senators, talking to their press aides, making sure they knew who we were. We said, "We understand Senator Nunn and his colleagues are extraterrestrials, space aliens who have come to Earth to help us out, and we wanted to know if he was ready to confess to that." Some slammed down the phone, but we called enough of them, and pretty soon we had some aides laughing. We got several callbacks. “Yeah, Senator Nunn admits he was a space alien.” They would even give us quotes. Once we had a couple who admitted to it, then it was quite easy to call others. “Well, we got Senator [Orrin] Hatch, Senator Nunn, Senator [J. Bennett] Johnston, they already confessed, would Senator so-and-so like to fess up?” It’s not nearly as hard as we expected to get written statements admitting they were aliens.

Kulpa: The senators played along. George H.W. Bush, we’re told, hung a picture of him with space aliens in the Oval Office.

Berger: It was not hard to get George H.W. Bush to cooperate to run a picture with him with an alien. We even got Janet Reno to cooperate. If people knew what Weekly World News was and liked it, they weren’t afraid of it.

The Clintons meeting aliens was not the paper’s only contribution to politics. From 1979 to 1987, staff writer Rafael Klinger wrote a column as conservative pundit “Ed Anger,” an alter ego that was later adopted by other writers following Klinger's departure. (Klinger sued for trademark infringement and unfair trade practices in 1989, arguing the paper had no right to continue the column without him. A jury found in the paper’s favor in 1994.)

Forsyth: Ed Anger’s voice was so strong. He was so ahead of his time, before Rush Limbaugh in terms of being an out-there, over-the-top right-wing firebrand.

Berger: Ed Anger was a column written every week and created by Rafe Klinger, who worked on staff. Rafe began writing, from a liberal point-of-view, as a stark-raving mad conservative. He started out his column telling us how mad he is, pig-biting mad, madder than Batman with a run in his tights. We had other columnists, but Ed Anger was the prize, the column that got the most responses.

Kulpa: People would ask, 'Do you know Ed Anger?' I looked at it, though it was a bit rough, and I was not that impressed. Ed Anger was more like an internet rant, but he was highly popular. I heard he got boxes of mail.

Calder: Rafe was quite brilliant at what he did. Put it this way: It was so outrageous, it made other journalists in the office laugh.

Garden: I remember picking the paper up and reading it with my friend Jeff. The thing we liked most was Ed Anger, the absurd right-wing columnist. I think I have a book of his called Let’s Pave the Rainforests. He would just make absurd claims, take absurd stances, and carry them to their logical end. It would start with how mad he was, madder than Daniel Boone with a musket, madder than a computer nerd with a busted mouse. He probably had a big influence on a column I did for The Onion, Jim Anchower. He was not a political character, but I stuck to the idea. The column had sort of the same template. “Hola Amigos, long time since I rapped at ya,” blah, blah, then some reason for why he hadn’t written a column in so long.

McGinness: If you look at a character like Ed Anger, in terms of a cultural touch point, Ed is significant. He really was the prototypical blueprint for the narrow-minded, right-wing, bigoted commentator. It was almost like a playbook. He hated vegetarians, loathed the French, endorsed capital punishment. He wanted to turn high school bleachers into mass electric chairs. Some of what he trafficked in became very real.

VI. Reduced Circulation

Weekly World News took the occasional detour into gruesome tabloid journalism. Courtesy of Weekly World News

While Weekly World News earned a place in popular culture in the late 1980s with fictional headlines—there was even a 1986 movie directed by singer David Byrne, True Stories, loosely inspired by the paper—there were some very real forays into controversy. In February 1989, the paper published three photos depicting serial killer Ted Bundy’s corpse after his execution. It was a rare departure into real-life morbidity. It also sold a record 1.5 million copies, outpacing the legendary “Elvis Is Alive” headline.

Ivone: Eddie pushed the envelope at times. I’m not sure why. There were a couple of stories I thought we shouldn’t have run. A lot of fans were kids.

Kulpa: Bundy came from the top. Iain Calder wanted to run it. Someone took a photo and sold it. I remember the discussions we had. I heard Eddie and others discussing it, that the paper met with so-and-so. It was not Eddie’s decision. It was above him.

Lind: I’m not sure if the photos were real or Photoshopped.

Neuschafer: We worked late to get that in the paper. They were very real pictures. People who had taken the pictures had offered them to The National Enquirer, but the Enquirer decided it was too harsh for them, so Weekly World News bought them.

Calder: I can’t believe that. The Enquirer never would have run it. We would have been thrown out of supermarkets in the Bible Belt. I doubt it ever happened. It did not get to my level. I would’ve laughed at it.

Berger: I’m surprised Iain doesn’t remember. Somehow, I don’t know how, Weekly World News was able to get photos smuggled out, photos taken by someone in the prison system, shortly after Bundy’s autopsy. There was a full-page photo of the body. It was a little shocking to us. People were holding their breath about the controversy over it. We weren’t sure if it was a good idea or not.

Kulpa: We put it in a double-page spread and ran it on the cover, but we split the edition. On the East Coast we put the photo of Ted on a slab, and on the West Coast, we put that human footprints had been found on the moon. The sell-through for human prints was bigger than Bundy on the slab, which surprised us.

Berger: This was a time when Bundy was in the news and was a very evil, cold-hearted person who murdered a lot of women. There was a lot of hatred for Ted Bundy. It was a like a picture of a monster. At the time, not many people were opposed to the notion that Bundy was dead. There wasn’t much of a protest against executing Ted Bundy.

The Bundy story wasn’t the only major milestone of 1989 for the paper. With Generoso Pope Jr. having passed away in 1988, his largest assets—The National Enquirer and Weekly World News—were sold off for a total of $413 million to Boston Ventures and Macfadden Holdings, which was later renamed American Media. It would be the beginning of several shifts for the paper.

A short-lived 1996 USA Network television series hosted by broadcaster Edwin Newman failed to find an audience; the paper was moved a second time in 1999 when Evercore Capital Partners purchased American Media and named David Pecker as chairman. Eddie Clontz left the following year. (Clontz died in 2004.) For many staffers, his departure was the end of Weekly World News as they had known it.

Forsyth: Initially it was good. We were told Pecker was a big fan and loved the publication. Then Eddie was promoted to something else, and from that point on, there was a series of editors. All of them tried their best, but the paper went through seven editors in a few years.

Calder: Eddie was still the genius behind it, and when the new people came over, around 1999, 2000, he was retired by then. Without Clontz around, circulation went down dramatically.

Kulpa: By 1995, 1996, we were starting to get into some wilder stories, like “Woman Gives Birth to Human Eyeball.”

Calder: When Eddie died, the heart and soul went out of it.

Neuschafer: By that point, the paper had changed. It was not as much fun. After Pope died, the paper got sold, got sold again, and with each sale, the emphasis on making money became paramount.

Berger: When Peter Callahan and his crew took over, the owner after Pope and before Pecker, they told us, pound for pound, we were the most profitable publication in their history.

Forsyth: For some reason someone decided we should only do true stories, and it killed circulation. Then it swung the other way, where the higher-ups decided they wanted completely silly stories that no one would think were real. That’s not a good formula, either. We were torn between two directions that took it off the essential formula, and the circulation really went down catastrophically.

Berger: They hired comedy writers to come in, and it just got silly. There was a comic strip. The whole paper was ridiculous, and it went from a circulation of 1 million to below 100,000.

Kupperberg: We were looking at sales around 100,000 a week when we first started, and by the time they pulled the plug, it was well under 65,000 copies a week. We were just trying to hang on at this point. Part of the strategy, which I didn’t think was all that successful, was putting part of the budget into the online equivalent, making videos. But the website didn’t do well.

Forsyth: I think around maybe 1999 or so, I started telecommuting, which was a new thing for them. They had never tried it before. It seemed amazing at the time. I was in North Dakota making up these stories and sending them over the internet. It worked so well they brought in freelancers, and then the paper began to depend more on freelancers. At a certain point, they were laying people off. I was laid off in 2005, and they shut down in 2007.

Berger: It went belly up when it became too silly to believe. For some reason, it was difficult for people to grasp the tone of what we were doing.

Kulpa: Everything was grounded. But over the years, it lost ground. After 2003, it basically turned into a comic book.

Kupperberg: The Onion had a strong online presence even then and was starting to take hold.

Greenberger: Competition suddenly showed up in the form of The Onion. We didn’t have the tools or corporate support to grow. They had the better online presence.

Berger: There are only so many checkout slots available. The Enquirer devised the idea of selling it there, and it worked so well that other publications like People, Cosmopolitan, and a million others wanted to sell theirs at the checkout stand, too. Weekly World News got squeezed out in a way. Stores would use the ones that could pay them the most. Cosmopolitan could afford to give them more than Weekly World News could.

Kulpa: Humor has got to resonate with the reader. There has to be a reason behind it. Something like Mad magazine touched a nerve. It was anti-establishment. It was what kids wanted to read in school and couldn’t. Trying to replicate that is not easy. In the 1990s, in the Clinton years before 9/11, nothing was going on. There were no wars, no controversy. People were profiting. People were happy.

VII: Bat to the Future

Weekly World News lives on.Courtesy of Weekly World News

The end—or at least a version of it—came for Weekly World News in 2007, when American Media made the August 27 issue its last. In 2008, the brand was acquired by investors including Neil McGinness, a former National Lampoon executive who kept Bat Boy busy online and maintained a sense of mischief. (In 2010, a story about the Los Angeles Police Department purchasing 10,000 jetpacks was picked up as a legitimate report by Fox and Friends.) In 2018, McGinness exited the editor-in-chief role; Weekly World News writer Greg D'Alessandro stepped in. The website is active and D'Alessandro has plans for the brand in other forms of media. And while both readers and journalists struggle with the concept of “fake news,” Weekly World News alumni see its legacy as something more.

Lind: We invented fake news. But ours was harmless.

Ivone: We didn’t really set out to be a news parody. We set out to be true to ourselves, creating this alternate universe, a place to believe the unbelievable. Humor was a secondary thing. We started with wild headlines and humor came along with the package.

Kulpa: With fake news, we showed the world how, and sorry to say, people learned from that. People believe that the truth is not so important as what they want to be the truth.

Ivone: Something like “Baby Born with Angel Wings,” in one sense that’s funny, but a baby born with angel wings, that’s also maybe inspiring. It confirms something readers may believe.

Lang: In the time we’re living in, it’s almost kind of quaint to look back and the main outlet for fake news was Weekly World News, which was clearly outlandish and crazy. Now the line is much blurrier between what’s real and what’s fake.

Garden: They treated everything seriously. There were some intimations, [but] it was bullsh*t. They wouldn’t outright tip their hand. That’s what The Onion did, which was write incredulous things with a serious tone of voice with a serious news angle. It’s a lot funnier that way.

Lind: I think The Onion is the most brilliant American satire ever, and they liked us. Some of our writers were in touch with theirs.

Neuschafer: Around 1988, a couple of young guys from Madison, Wisconsin, came in and wanted to see how we ran the paper. Then they went and started The Onion.

Garden: It did what The Onion did, which was play everything straight. Ed Anger was a satire of conservative right-wing thinking. "Dear Dottie" was kind of the same, a satire of no-nonsense advice columnists like Ann Landers. They were poking fun at all the other media conventions at the time. Maybe they have political beliefs they were trying to advance, but more than anything, they were trying to amuse themselves.

Kulpa: People think Weekly World News was funny. It was in a sense, but it wasn’t meant to be funny.

Lind: When I think of Weekly World News, I don’t think of it as having any lasting impact on culture. The impact at the time was minimal. Most people treated it like fiction. It made people laugh. Unfortunately, some people it scared to death. If the story was that the world will end on April 14, people believed it, and it scared the sh*t out of them, but they kind of enjoyed the fear. Television kind of took it over. Basically, Unsolved Mysteries took over for what the paper was doing.

Forsyth: I think it invented the format of made-up news before it was popular. I think it’s something that has influenced a lot of people; people put references to it into shows like The X-Files and Supernatural. It was kind of how it was for people who grew up with The Twilight Zone, Mad magazine, or National Lampoon. I think it was an influence on creative people. I hope that’s how it’s remembered and not just as fake news as it’s brought up today.

McGinness: I wouldn’t underplay the significance of the impact Weekly World News had to a generation of Americans. It was like alternative radio, something counter-culture.

Berger: I met some of the most talented people I’ve ever known there. We tried to be as harmless and as entertaining as possible. We were very dedicated to doing our job and doing it the right way.

Kupperberg: It was just ridiculous enough if you were of that frame of mind, you could believe a lot of what we printed. I had a neighbor at the time whose parents would often come visit. His father was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he was a nice guy. When he learned I worked at Weekly World News, he was very excited because he and his wife went to 7-Eleven and picked up all the publications. The National Enquirer, Weekly World News, The Globe. He asked me, “Where do you get these stories from?” The unofficial thing at the paper was to maintain the fiction at all times, so I said that we had sources. Then my wife nudged me and I said, “We make it all up." He was disappointed.

McGinness: My vision in 2008 was to create The Huffington Post for otherworldly news, and continue what we could do with American Media. We did some publishing, book compilations, the creation of a whole online site, and made digital archives available to the public.

Greg D’Alessandro (CEO, Editor-in-Chief, 2018 to Present): It never really went away. We’re working on a half-hour sitcom, a podcast, and a Bat Boy film. The sitcom would be more about the reporters, like The Office.

Calder: I still remember the front covers. I’m 80 years old now, and it still brings a smile, and so does Eddie Clontz.

Kupperberg: The fact that we were able to sit around and make up a new world every week was an amazing thing. And they paid us for it.

Berger: People called us a sleazy supermarket tabloid and in a way we were, but we were not embarrassed by what we were doing. We were having the time of our lives, making good money, and enjoying ourselves.

Ivone: A lady once called us and said her toaster was talking to her. I said, “Put the toaster on the phone.” We took it seriously,

Kupperberg: That’s what Weekly World News is about. Put the toaster on the phone.