Add Some Color to Your Life with Reading Rainbow

Reading Rainbow was an American 30-minute children’s series that was broadcast on PBS. The show began in 1983. Producing 155 episodes, the series aired new episodes until 2006 and then showed reruns until 2009.

How Reading Rainbow Inspired Me
Photo: bookriot.com

The show was developed to encourage children to read. Twila Liggett created the show with Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit of Lancit Media Productions. Lynne Ganek, Tony Buttino, and host LeVar Burton were also part of the creative team. The group met with Fred Rogers, Joan Ganz Cooney, and The Electric Company crew to explore ways to make television more engaging to fans. During an interview in 2003, Burton said “I think reading is part of the birthright of the human being. It’s just such an integral part of the human experience—that connection with the written word.”

Many educators found that during the summer, children lost a lot of their reading abilities because they were watching “uneducational” television and not reading. The producers of the show wanted to air a new program during the summer months that would keep kids excited about reading even when they weren’t in school. It was a great goal, but the show was often threatened with cancellation due to a lack of funding.

The show received more than 200 awards including a Peabody Award. Ten of its twenty-six Emmys were for Outstanding Children’s Series. It was the third-longest children’s show on the air right after, you guessed it, Mister Rogers and Sesame St.

LeVar Burton Asks Fans to Help Bring Back 'Reading Rainbow' | The Takeaway  | WNYC Studios
Photo: WNYC Studio.com

A topic was introduced in each episode and then a featured children’s book was read, often narrated by a celebrity. After the story, Burton visited places relating to the theme of the day. The show ended with book suggestions for kids to read. In an Esquire interview in 2019, Burton discussed why listening to books is so important: “It gives you the opportunity to, without the mechanism of reading, engage immediately in your imagination. When you’re reading, you’re multitasking. You’re reading and making the movie in your head. When you’re listening to storytelling, there’s no activity, there’s no multitasking—you’re indeed in your imagination as you’re engaged with the content of the story. It’s a shortcut for visualization.”

Steve Horelick was the composer of the theme song with Dennis Neil Kleinman and Janet Weir writing lyrics. The show had three versions of the song with the third version sung by Chaka Khan.

There are a lot of great stars who showed up to read to kids, including Ruth Buzzy, Julia Child, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Kermit the Frog, Peter Falk, Jane Goodall, and Run D-M-C.

Margret Aldrich in wrote an article in 2014, and she chose the top ten books from the series. It’s a great place to start if you want to find a couple of books to read to your child.

To Be A Drum read by James Earl Jones - YouTube
James Earl Jones Photo: youtube.com
  1. All the Colors of the Race by Arnold Adoff, read by Maya Angelou.
  2. Sunken Treasure by Gail Gibbons, read by Robert Morse
  3. On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier, read by Patrick Stewart.
  4. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, read by Tyne Daly.
  5. Animal Café by John Stadler, read by Martin Short.
  6. The Magic Schoolbus Inside the Earth by Joanna Cole, read by Keshia Knight Pulliam.
  7. Paul Bunyan by Steven Kellogg, read by Buddy Ebsen
  8. Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown, read by Bill Cosby.
  9. Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema, read by James Earl Jones.
  10. Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger and Michael Hays, read by Pete Seeger.

So, why was the show canceled? According to John Grant, who is in charge of content at WNED Buffalo, the show’s home station, “The show’s run is ending because no one—not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights.” And, just like that, the last chapter was closed for good.

Burton Calls On 'Star Trek' Fans To Bring 'Reading Rainbow' To The Next  Generation | KRWG
Photo: npr.org

Reading Rainbow was an essential motivation for kids to read. However, adults have to realize that they also have to make time for reading. Let’s allow Levar to have the last word. In that Esquire interview, he also talked about why all of us need to read:

“You need to make the time. You have time to eat; you have time to sleep; you have time to love. I think reading for pleasure is an act of self-care, genuinely. I really do, especially in today’s world. You’ve gotta turn off the news; you’ve got to create some escape time in your imagination. You have to feed yourself, people! Otherwise, we have a tendency to get locked into the circumstances of life, and less engaged in the solution aspect of ourselves. It’s really critical for us to read for pleasure. One of the miracles of the modern era is that on my iPad, and consequently, because of the Cloud, on my phone, I carry a library of reading material. I mean, literally a library. It’s so available. We just have to shift our awareness a degree in that direction.”

Ruth Buzzi: Born to Be a Comedienne

As we continue our look at actors and actresses who made great character roles their own, our last meeting is with Ruth Buzzi.  While she was primarily known for her characters on Laugh-In, she has had a long and full career.

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Ruth was born in July of 1936 in Rhode Island. Her father was a famous sculptor who was born in Switzerland. He carved the marble eagles at Penn Station in New York City, the Leif Erikson Memorial in Providence, and several animals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For his family business, he created thousands of tombstones. In one article I read that he was asked to work on the Mount Rushmore presidents, but declined because he had a fear of heights.  I was not able to confirm that story however. She was raised in Connecticut. Her brother took over the family business and sold it a couple of years ago.

Ruth was head cheerleader in high school. At 17, she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse for the Performing Arts where she studied voice, dance, and acting, graduating with honors. Her classmates there included Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman.

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Her first job was while she was still in school, traveling with Rudy Vallee in a musical and comedy act. After graduation, she moved to New York City and appeared in revues throughout New England. She teamed up with Dom DeLuise in a skit where he was an incompetent magician and she was his assistant. Buzzi decided to name her character, who never spoke, Shakuntala. They appeared to a national audience when they were booked on The Garry Moore Show in 1958. In the late 1960s Buzzi received a role on The Steve Allen Show.

Buzzi married Bill Keko in 1965. They would divorce a decade later.

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During this time, Ruth was hired by Bob Fosse to perform in a Broadway show, “Sweet Charity.” She also had an appearance on The Monkees. While she was in the play, she auditioned for a role on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1967.

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She received the role, and it was on that show that many of her funniest characters were created. Along with Dick Martin and Dan Rowan, she was the only person to appear in every episode of the show. (Gary Owens also appeared every series episode, but he was not in the Laugh-In special.) Buzzi was a versatile performer; her quirky characters included Busy-Buzzi, a Hollywood gossip columnist; a prostitute, Kim Hither; Doris Swizzle (sometimes Sidebottom), who ends up drinking too much with her husband; and one of two inconsiderate flight attendants.

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Her most beloved character was Gladys Ormphby, a spinster dressed in a hair net and drab clothing. She always carried a purse and would use it to hit people when she was frustrated. Gladys was often paired with Arte Johnson as Tyrone, a dirty old man who was hit many times. (I have read about a lot of strange cartoons in the 1970s and one of them was The Nitwits, a cartoon about Gladys and Tyrone. Johnson and Buzzi voiced their characters.) Her performances on Laugh-In earned her a Golden Globe Award and five Emmy nominations.

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While I remember Buzzi from Laugh-In, the role I knew her best in was Pete Peterson, Ann Marie’s friend on That Girl which she appeared on during her Laugh-In tenure.

Buzzi was one of the many starts who frequently appeared on Sesame Street. She was nominated for an Emmy on that show for her role of Ruthie, a store owner. She later appeared at the dedication of Jim Henson’s star on Hollywood Boulevard after his death.

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In the early 1970s, Buzzi would continue to appear on television series, including Walt Disney, Night Gallery, Here’s Lucy, Love American Style, Lotsa Luck, and Medical Center.

In 1975, she starred with Jim Nabors in The Lost Saucer. This was a Sid and Marty Krofft production, so you know it was a bit odd. The stars were time-traveling androids Fi and Fum. The show was cancelled after 16 episodes.

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During the 1970s, Ruth also was the spokesperson on a number of products, including Clorox 2, Clairol, Ban deodorant, the Santa Anita Raceway, and Sugar Crisp Cereal. In the Sugar Crisp ads, she was Granny Goodwitch, a role she created for a 1960s animation show, Linus! The Lion Hearted.

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In 1978, another important milestone occurred for Ruth when she married her husband, Kent Perkins.

Her television work continued into the 1980s when she appeared on CHiPs, Trapper John, and The Love Boat. She was Chloe, the never seen, but often mentioned wife of Henry Beesmeyer on Alice. She also made eight appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She was in 25 films during her career including The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again and Freaky Friday. She currently has two movies in post-production:  One Month Out with Barry Bostwick and John Schneider and Glen’s Gotta Go.

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Buzzi is also well known as a voice actress. Most of her roles since 1985 have been for animation series. She voiced characters in the series Pound Puppies, Mama Bear in The Berenstain Bears, Smurfs, Chip and Dale, Darkwing Duck, Rocket Power, and Angry Beavers.

She also had a nightclub act which toured the United States for a year. In addition, she was on most of the Dean Martin Roasts, typically playing Gladys.

Ruth currently lives with her husband in Texas on a 600-acre ranch. Her hobby is painting. The couple also collects antique automobiles, primarily post-war English cars. She also volunteers for a variety of charities.

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Like Fanny Flagg, Bill Daily, and Howard McNear, Buzzi can be described as delightful. I’m happy to celebrate such a full career for such a fun woman.