The Magic School Bus: Encouraging Us To “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy”

Knowing the theme for this blog series is Valerie, if I asked you to think of “Valeries” from television history, it might take you a while to come up with our subject for today. We are learning about Valerie Frizzle, an eccentric teacher who takes her class on educational field trips on her magical school bus on The Magic School Bus.

Based on the books that are written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, the original television show ran from 1994-1997, producing 52 episodes. It was created by Joanna Cole, Bruce Degen, and Laskas Martin. (A reboot The Magic School Bus Rides Again began recently.)

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The premise of the show is that a class taught by Valerie Frizzle at Walkerville Elementary take field trips to learn about science. Mr. Ruhle is the principal, and he is not aware that the bus is anything other than a simple school bus. However, the “Friz’s” bus can change shape and form to explore anything: far into outer space, deep in the ocean, back to the days of dinosaurs, and even into the human body. The bus can transform itself into a plane, a jeep, or other form of transport. It can become a frog or another type of animal to get into a specific ecosystem.

The Friz has a pet lizard named Liz who accompanies the class on its trips. Liz eats insects, but when the bus shrinks, she is very frightened by bugs.

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Apparently Walkerville is in a small community, because there are only eight children in her third-grade class: Arnold, Carlos, Dorothy Ann, Keesha, Phoebe, Ralphie, Tim, and Wanda.

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The Bus

The bus itself is a 1970s Ward International R-183 manufactured by Ward International Trucks, Inc. The bus is painted the typical school bus yellow. The magic part comes in with the devices that are installed in the bus. There is the shrinker scope that can shrink and re-size the bus when Ms. Frizzle asks it to. There is also a portashrinker that doesn’t work if the bus is wet and if someone tries to use it then, the Dew Dinger alerts them. There is also a mesmerglober which can change the shape of the bus. A magic battery runs on solar power.

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The bus seems pretty indestructible. In one episode it floated around in lava. The bus has eyes and a mouth and often shows emotions like fear, anger, and sadness.

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The Friz

Valerie Felicity Frizzle is a quite a character. She has fiery red hair that is usually seen in a bun. Static electricity makes her hair frizzy. So, what do we know about Ms. Frizzle? She was a Shakespearian actress at one point in her life. She also had a band called The Frizzlettes and toured with rock star Molly Cule. She then went back to school for education. She learned about “busanautics” from a mechanic she knows, R.U. Humerus.

Voiced by the funny Lily Tomlin, the Friz is always optimistic. She cares about her students and is passionate about science. She lives in a mansion that has a bridge on the property as well as a fountain with a statue of Liz. You can often spot the bus parked in her driveway. She keeps a framed photo of Mr. Seedplot, suggesting that they may be romantically involved. She loves to tell jokes. She is very protective of her students who love and respect her.

Miss Frizzle has an interesting wardrobe and most of her clothing is science themed.

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Some of her taglines are “To the bus!”; “Okay, bus, do your stuff!”; and “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

During the four years the show was on the air, we got to know her students very well.

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Arnold

Arnold was not a fan of field trips. Like The Friz, he is a redhead. Arnold wears glasses. He was the shyest kid in the class, but he was brave. He cares about the environment and is interested in rocks. His aunt, Arizona Joan, is a famous archaeologist. He also has an uncle who is a firefighter in a national park.

Arnold’s favorite color is orange and he is Jewish. Pollen and pepper both make him sneeze. He also loves cold weather because that means he can drink hot chocolate.

His most famous sayings are “I knew I should have stayed home today”; “We’re doomed” and “Carlos!”

In one of his interviews, illustrator Bruce Degen mentions that Arnold was based on his son.

Photo: wikia.com

Carlos

Carlos, a brunette, is the class clown. He tells a lot of jokes, some not so good which always gets the reactions, “Carlos!” from his classmates, especially Arnold. Carlos and Dorothy Ann often butt heads about learning because he is a hands-on learner while she is not.

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Dorothy Ann

Dorothy Ann likes to learn by reading. Her favorite science area is astronomy and she has a telescope at home. She tends to argue with many of her friends and one of her favorite sentences starts, “According to my research . . .”

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Keesha

Keesha can be a bit sarcastic. While Arnold and Dorothy Ann have different perspectives, Keesha and Ralphie are opposites. Keesha is a realist. Like Ms. Frizzle, she keeps her curly hair in a bun most of the time. Unlike most girls her age, she likes garter snakes.

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Phoebe

Phoebe keeps her brown hair in a flip with a yellow hairband and bangs. She is kind-hearted, sweet, very bright, and patient. She’s left-handed and she cares a lot about animals. She often refers to her previous class, saying “At my old school . . .” When her father visits the school one day, he also refers to her old school.

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Ralphie

Ralphie is a heavyset boy who often wears a baseball cap. He loves baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey and is athletic. He daydreams a lot, learning through imagination. He is a fun-loving kid. He has a dog named Noodles. We learn he loves comic books and superheroes but dislikes anchovies and roller coasters. He worries about creatures like vampires which probably comes from overusing his imagination. His mother is a doctor and they seem to have a lot of fun together.

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Tim

Tim is quiet and artistic; we often see him off drawing somewhere. Sometimes he tells jokes with Carlos. An interesting family fact is that his grandfather is a bee keeper and he delivers honey every winter.

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Wanda

Wanda is a tomboy. She is the smallest member but may be the toughest. She dreams of being a pilot and loves it when the bus can fly. She hates cold weather. Her mother visits class now and then; she is a science journalist. It’s often mentioned that her mother keeps reptiles around the house; one time an alligator is found in the bathtub and a gila monster in the sandbox. Wanda is a gaming expert; she also likes to play the guitar.

We often hear her say, “What are we gonna do, what are we gonna do, what are we gonna do?”

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Famous Guest Stars

For an animation show, this series featured an incredible number of famous guest stars. Tyne Daly was Ralph’s mother; Elliott Gould was Arnold’s father; Swoosie Kurtz was Dorothy Ann’s mom, and Eartha Kitt was Keesha’s mother. Ed Begley Jr. showed up as Logaway Larry; Carol Channing was Cornelia C. Contralto, Cindy Williams was Gerri Poveri; Dolly Parton was Katrina Murphy; Sherman Hemsley was Mr. Junkit; Rita Moreno was Dr. Carmina Skeledon; Dabney Coleman was Horace Scope; and Bebe Neuwirth was Flora Whiff. Tony Randall took the role of mechanic, R.U. Humerus while Wynonna Judd became rock star Molly Cule. Dom DeLuise was a baker; Ed Asner a general; Alex Trebek an announcer; and Tom Cruise played himself.

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Theme Song

The theme song is sung by Little Richard. The show begins with:

 (Bus honks, drives up, doors open)
 

Valerie Frizzle: Seatbelts, everyone!
 

Arnold: Please let this be a normal field trip.
 

Wanda: With the Frizz?
 

Kids except Arnold and Dorothy Ann: No way!
 

Arnold: Ohh!

Little Richard: Cruising on down main street. You’re relaxed and feeling good! (Yeah!)
 

Next thing that you know, you’re seeing…
 

Valerie Frizzle: (driving into ocean) Wa-ha-ha-hoo!
 

Little Richard: An octopus in the neighborhood?!

Surfing on a sound wave! Swinging through the stars!

Ralphie, Wanda and Carlos: Yee-ha!

Little Richard: Take a left at your intestine. Take your second right past Mars!

Kids: On The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Navigate a nostril!

(Ralphie sneezing)

(class gasping)

Kids and Little Richard: Climb on The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Spank a plankton, too!

Wanda: Take that!

Kids: On our Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Raft a river of lava!

Kids: On The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Such a fine thing to do!

Kids: Whoa!

Little Richard: So, strap your bones right to the seat, come on in and don’t be shy….

Come on.

Just to make your day complete,

You might get baked into a pie!

Kids and Little Richard: On The Magic School Bus!
 

(Dorothy Ann, Keesha and Ralphie run up to Bus and enter before Bus shapeshifts)
 

Little Richard: Step inside, it’s a wilder ride!
 

Come on!
 

(Bus appears under big title that reads “The Magic School Bus…”)
 

Kids and Little Richard: Ride on The Magic School Bus!
 

(Bus disappears to reveal title of episode)
 

(Bus honking)

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I did not watch The Magic School Bus a lot. It went off the air about the time my older boys would have been the age to watch it. However, we read most of the books, and my kids learned a lot from them. Along with Arthur, this is probably one of my favorite cartoons for combining fun with learning.

I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

As we continue our crime-solving duos series, today we learn about I Spy featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They were a pair of spies who traveled the world posing as tennis pro, Kelly Robinson, and his coach, Alexander “Scotty” Scott. They work for the Special Services Agency which was part of the Pentagon. The show aired on NBC from 1965-1968.

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David Friedkin and Morton Fine, writers, and Fouad Said, cinematographer, formed Triple F Productions. The show was filmed at Desilu Productions. Fine and Friedkin took on co-producing the show. Friedkin also appeared as a guest actor in two of the episodes. Continuing the job-sharing duties was was Sheldon Leonard. Leonard was the executive producer. He also directed one of the episodes and guest starred on the show.

The theme music was written by Earle Hagen. (For more on Hagen and his composition of music from the series, see my blog dated)He also wrote specific music for each of the countries the team visited. He received Emmy nominations all three years, winning in 1968.

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Cosby’s character was written as an older mentor to Robinson, but Sheldon Leonard changed the role once he saw Cosby perform. Culp said Cosby was not very interested in the series and insulted the producers during his audition. Culp acted as a mediator and Cosby was hired.

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Like future shows such as Miami Vice, The X-Files, or Castle, the partners had great chemistry. They had witty and clever dialogue and often improvised much of their banter. Friendship was the main theme of the show, not the crimes. The actors developed a close friendship that lasted long after the show did. The characters were also very different. Culp was the athlete who lived by his wits. Cosby was the intellectual who didn’t drink or smoke.

This was the first TV drama to feature a black actor in a lead role. Some of the NBC affiliates in the south refused to air the series. Truly a color-blind series, the two spies did not encounter racial issues. It also made history– being one of the first shows to be filmed in exotic locations around the world. The pair visited Acapulco, Athens, Florence, Hong Kong, Madrid, Morocco, Paris, Tokyo, and Venice.

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Like the western genre in the 1950s, spy shows were popular in the 1960s. Unlike Get Smart or the Man From UNCLE, I Spy was more realistic. The duo didn’t rely on unbelievable gadgets or campy villains.

Some of the episodes had more comedy than others. “Chrysanthemum” was inspired by The Pink Panther. The episode, “Mainly on the Plains” starring Boris Karloff, was about an eccentric scientist who thinks he’s Don Quixote. However, many shows took on more serious and contemporary themes. “The Tiger” was set in Vietnam.

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During the three seasons the show aired, an incredible number of guest stars chose to work on the show. Some of these talented celebrities included Jim Backus, Victor Buono, Wally Cox, Delores Del Rio, Will Geer, Gene Hackman, Joey Heatherton, Ron Howard, Boris Karloff, Sally Kellerman, Eartha Kitt, Martin Landau, Peter Lawford, Julie London, Vera Miles, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, George Takei, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, and Mary Wickes.

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Both Culp and Cosby were nominated all three years for Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, with Cosby winning all three years.

While the series was extremely popular, it was always over budget due to the high costs of filming. During the third season, ratings began to decline. The show was moved from Wednesdays to Mondays. It was on against The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the network refused to move the show back to its original night. They offered Sheldon the choice of renewing the show in the current time slot or the chance at creating a new series. Leonard realized that Culp and Cosby were tired of the show and ready to move on. In all, 82 episodes were filmed. 

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The show holds up well today.  The dialogue is timeless, and scripts are sophisticated and well written. The plots are realistic, but they are secondary to the relationship of Robinson and Scott. The exotic locations add a romance and intrigue to the show as well. The complete series is available on DVD and well worth watching.

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Of course, it’s hard to talk about a Cosby show without acknowledging the effect his legal issues have had on his work.  While I don’t condone his behavior and am sad that someone so talented (and preachy about character) would resort to such offensive actions, what makes me even sadder is that both I Spy and The Cosby Show were wonderful shows that featured talented casts. That so many people have to suffer because one person’s actions were unethical and selfish seems unfair.

One thing I’ve had to learn doing my research on all these classic shows is sometimes you have to separate the character from the actor. It’s possible to love a character even when the actor or actress who portrays them is a crummy human being. Of course, there are more of the other scenarios. Fred MacMurray was every bit as nice as Steve Douglas and Howard McNear was even nicer than Floyd.

Hopefully these shows get their due and their reputation for their well-written scripts overcomes the stain Cosby saddled the shows with.

In Memory of Adam West

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Adam West was born William West Anderson on September 19, 1928 in Walla Walla, Washington.  He just passed away this summer on June 9. His father farmed and his mother gave up her career as an opera singer and concert pianist.  Like all kids, he had a collection of comic books including Batman. When his parents divorced, he moved to Seattle with his mother. He attended Whitman College in Washington and graduated with a BS in literature. He was drafted into the Army and became an announcer on the American Forces Network television.

After his service career, he became a milkman until he moved to Hawaii to pursue a career in television. In 1959, he took on his stage name of Adam West and moved to Hollywood with his wife and children. He quickly became an actor and appeared in 33 television shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Hawaiian Eye, Tales of West Fargo, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, and Bewitched.

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In 1966, William Dozier, producer for a new show about Batman decided to cast West over Lyle Waggoner after seeing him as a James Bond-type character in a Nestle Quik commercial. DC Comics described Batman as 6’2” and that was West’s height.

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When the series ended, he and Burt Ward found themselves typecast as Batman and Robin.  He did a series of appearances about the Batman character while pursuing a movie career. He ended his career with 49 movies to his credit.

He appeared in 78 television shows after Batman ended including The Big Valley, Emergency, Alice, Police Woman, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, Murphy Brown, Diagnosis Murder, News Radio, Drew Carey, King of Queens, and 30 Rock.

After 1990, he apparently embraced his Batman character and appeared on numerous television shows as himself or Batman. When asked about this, he said, “I think it evolved. I learned a long time ago that because people love Batman, I should too. I learned that I shouldn’t resent it even though it prevented me from getting other roles. I really had to become fond of Batman in order to deal with it. I embraced it.”

In 1957, he and his first wife Billie divorced.  He married  dancer Frisbie Dawson in 1957 and divorced in 1962. In 1970, he married Marcelle, and they were together until his death.  He had two children with each of his wives and two stepchildren.

In 1994, he wrote an autobiography Back to the Batcave. In 2012, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

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West loved outdoor activities and had a lot of hobbies including fishing, sailing, hiking, skiing, golfing, riding motorcycles, swimming, surfing, dancing, traveling, as well as spending time with his family, listening to classic rock, reading, and watching movies.

West died after a short battle with leukemia at age 88. The next week, LA shined the bat signal on city hall to honor him.

While West certainly had a full and varied career despite his typecasting from Batman, I would like to spend some time looking at the series that gave him his fame. Typically, I am not really into super heroes, but I loved this show when I was younger and still get a kick out of watching the campy comedy. I can still hear the narrator saying, “Same bat time, same bat channel.” The show was canceled not only because of low ratings but also because the special effects and lighting had tremendous costs.  When ABC dropped it, they tried to find another network to take it over.  They had no offers, so they dismantled the set. Two weeks later, NBC offered to pick up the show, but decided it was too expensive to start from scratch.

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In the 1960s, Ed Graham Productions received the rights to the comic strip Batman and intended to produce an adventure show similar to Superman or The Lone Ranger. ABC was thinking about a prime time show so DC Comics bought back the rights and sold them to 20th Century Fox. 20th Century gave it to William Dozier to produce.  Dozier had never read comic books and felt that the show should take a campy, pop-art approach. The show was originally an hour-long series, but with only half-hour time slots available, it was changed to a bi-weekly half-hour show.

The concept of the show was that millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson lead a double life in Gotham City.  When they move a shelf in their library and slide down the bat pole to the bat cave, they become Batman and Robin.  Only their butler Alfred is aware of their real identity. Police Commissioner Gordon calls them on the batphone, often referring to them as the dynamic duo. They usually hop in their bat mobile and speed to city hall to learn what villain is up to no good in their city.

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Adam West took the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Burt Ward was Robin/Dick Grayson. Other cast members included Alan Napier as Alfred the Butler, Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, Stafford Repp as Chief O’Hara, Madge Blake as Aunt Harriet, and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.

My favorite villians included Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Cat Woman, in love with Batman but not willing to give up her criminal life; Burgess Meredith as Penguin always carrying an umbrella; Frank Gorshin as The Riddler leaving riddles for clues; Vincent Price as Egghead a bald-headed genius who loves eggs; Cesar Romero as the Joker who leaves jokes for clues; and Victor Buono as King Tut when evil and Professor William McElroy as his non-evil personality.

The show aired twice a week on back-to-back nights. The first episode would set up the situation and end with the dynamic duo in some dangerous situation. Batman and Robin would get their assignment from the Commissioner and then, using a series of clues, try to figure out who the villain is and then how to defeat them. At some point, there was always a fistfight with the villain’s entourage at which time the villain typically escaped. During the fight, words would pop up on the screen like POW, BAM, ZONK, BOOM. Then the crime fighters would go to look for them at which point the dangerous and perhaps deadly situation occurred and the next episode would summarize what happened on the previous episode before defeating the bad guys for good. They often used inventions like shark repellant bat spray to aid them in their search.

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In Season 3, Bat Girl was added to the cast. The ratings were starting to fall so Dozier wanted to bring in a girl character to attract female viewers. Her real identity was Barbara Gordon, the Commissioner’s daughter.  The Commissioner never seemed to realize she was familiar to him. Because of low ratings, the show also became a once a week series in the third season.  Eartha Kitt took over the Catwoman role since Newmar was filming a movie at the time. Madge Blake’s health was failing, and her role was limited to two appearances during the last season.

The show was cancelled before the next season but it has continued to be popular in reruns. In 1966, an album was released “Batman: The Exclusive Original Soundtrack Album.” It included music by Nelson Riddle, dialogue excerpts from several of the characters in the show, as well as the Batman theme song, Batusi A Go Go, and several other tunes.

A lot of collectibles were produced during the run of the show including trading cards, Batmobile kits, coloring books, lunch boxes, board games, and View-Master reels. In 2013, Mattel designed an action figure line based on the tv characters, and several Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars have been produced. The Batmobile from the show was auctioned in 2013, selling for $4.2 million.  The huge profits from the car as well as the line of action figures prove the continuing interest in and success of this show now 50 years old.

Here are some fun facts I found about the series:

A total of 352 “Holy” words were used by Robin from “Holy Agility” to “Holy Zorro”.

Cesar Romero’s Joker laugh was created almost by accident. Shortly after being cast, Romero met with producers to discuss his role on his series. While waiting to meet with them, Romero happened to see conceptual art of Joker’s costuming. Romero felt the pictures almost looked absurd, and as a result spontaneously broke out into a playfully loud and almost manic laughter. A producer overhearing it responded by telling Romero “That’s it, that’s your Joker’s laugh!”

Burgess Meredith had not smoked in 20 years when he was cast as the Penguin. He came up with the Penguin’s distinctive squawking sound because the cigarettes were irritating his throat. Like his trademark “quack”, the Penguin’s waddling was largely a result of improvisation by Burgess Meredith, as he found it difficult to stand and walk straight while wearing the rubber padded fat suit that was part of his costuming.

Before going on the air, this show received the worst audience test scores in the history of ABC. It only went on the air because so much money had already been invested in it.

This was one of the “in” shows to appear on if you were a big name in Hollywood during the 1960s, and many top names guested on the show, including many who didn’t do much TV otherwise. Those performers who weren’t cast as guest villains could frequently be seen popping their heads out of windows to exchange a few words with Batman and Robin when the latter would be climbing up a building wall. Frank Sinatra, Natalie Wood, and Cary Grant were all fans of the show, and wanted to be on it, but the producers were never able to come up with the right roles for any of them. During the run of the series, this show crossed over with The Green Hornet (1966).

The “Giant Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City” is a reverse image of St. Louis, right down to Forest Park, Fairground Park, Tower Grove Park, Lafayette Park, and Horseshoe Lake on the Illinois side, as well as the other river and road networks.

Each main villain had their own theme music.

In the first season, Burt Ward (Robin) was paid $350 per week.

Yvonne Craig has stated that she briefly did have a stunt double, but did most of her stunts herself. She actually operated the Batgirl Cycle herself as well. She was an accomplished biker at the time, and actually owned a bike.

Adam West (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Burt Ward (Dick Grayson / Robin) and  Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) are the only actors to appear in all 120 episodes of the series.

Suzanne Pleshette was one of the original choices to play Catwoman before Julie Newmar landed the role.

The show aired from January 12, 1966 to March 14, 1968 on ABC for 120 episodes. It was one of few TV series to be seen on 2 different nights a week: 7:30 Wednesdays and Thursdays. It remained there for a season and a half (Jan. 1966-Aug. 1967) until it was moved back once a week (Thursdays 7:30) for its final season. The episodes were generally two-parters: Wednesday’s episode was a cliffhanger, resolved in Thursday’s episode. The 1966-1967 season had 2 3-parter episodes (“The Zodiac Crimes/The Joker’s Hard Times/The Penguin Declines”[ep. #2.37-9, 1/11-12 & 18/1967] and “Penguin is a Girl’s Best Friend/Penguin Sets a Trend/Penguin’s Disastrous End”[ep. #2.42-4, 1/26/, 2/1 & 2/1967]) which left cliffhangers that would be solved the following week. When the series was reduced to (mostly) one part episodes during season three, the cliffhanger death traps and threats were still used, but greatly scaled back and occurring at the middle commercial break.

The three primary cast members of The Addams Family each made appearances on Batman. Carolyn Jones played the villainess Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, and John Astin played the Riddler during the second season. Additionally, Ted Cassidy had a window cameo, appearing in his part as Lurch from The Addams Family. Interestingly, Cassidy’s cameo took place in a story involving the Penguin, with whom Jones’ character Marsha teamed up in one of the three-part stories.

In episode 7, Alfred refers to Robin as Mr. Ward, and not Mr. Grayson.

While Superheroes and the movies and television shows they appear in seem to cycle up and down throughout the decades, the popularity of the Batman television show has never wavered.  The fact that Mattel would create action figures based on the original stars almost 50 years after the show debuted says a lot about the fans and the place the show holds in their hearts.

Thank you Adam West for creating such a memorable and well-loved character.  Rest in peace.

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