At the age of 15 I saw Alan Alda juggle vegetables on”MASH” and I decided to teach myself how to juggle. I took juggling very seriously–I take most things very seriously–and I practiced hard and I became a pretty good juggler.
By the age of 20 I could juggle five balls, ride a unicycle and eat fire (though not at the same time). I began writing jokes to tell while I juggled. “I will now attempt to throw this rusty meat knife under my leg. And I wish I could say I had nothing to lose.” I had terrible stage fright but I worked through it and I began performing at colleges, resorts, a wedding and on the streets of New York City.
In 1985, I had an experience while performing in Times Square that, to this day, impacts almost every decision I make in my personal life and at Little Airplane.
In the ‘80s, the sidewalks and curbs outside the Broadway theatres were considered prime spots for street performers. The only area that was off limits was Schubert Alley where legend had it that a street violinist had his fingers broken by a security guard when he wouldn’t stop playing.
But all the other theatres were fair game. Here’s how it worked: The performer would wait outside the theatre for intermission when all the smokers would come outside and light up. The performer had roughly seven minutes to get their attention, do a show, and pass the hat before the house lights would flash and the smokers would disappear. The average take for an intermission was about $40, which feels like a lot more when it’s all in coins and singles.
Each theatre had been staked out by a different performer and it was very dangerous to try to move in on another performer’s turf. Fights were not uncommon. (The best spot was outside the Wintergarden where “Cats” was running. “Cats” had two intermissions and a wide sidewalk and was therefore prime real estate. It was controlled by a tough magician named Mundaka whom we all respected and feared.)
I had two smaller theatres, the Neil Simon, where “Brighton Beach Memoirs” was playing and, just across the street, the Virginia Theatre, where the show was, “On Your Toes.”Each night I would arrive at 8:15 pm, just after curtain, and I would carefully set up my props (which included balls, a unicycle, juggling torches and lighter fluid). Occasionally, I would have to speak to the limo drivers and politely ask them to move their limousines a few feet forward or back in order to clear “my stage.”
One day while I was waiting for the smokers outside the Virginia Theatre, the actor and comedian Dom DeLuise came out of the stage door. He noticed me standing there and he walked over. He didn’t say anything at first. He just looked carefully at my props, which were lined up neatly along the curb. Then he looked me up and down a few times, the way a doctor might take in a new patient.
And then he started screaming at me.
“See how nice your juggling stuff is laid out! That’s very good! It shows you care! It shows you respect your audience!” Then he got closer and wagged his finger at me. “Now, look at your clothes! Your shirt is not tucked in! You should be ashamed of yourself! Tuck in your shirt! You’re in show business! And in show business, everything matters! Everything matters! EVERYTHING MATTERS!”
Then he stormed off and I never saw or heard from him again.
But now Dom DeLuise is in my head. And whether I am reading a script, looking at a character design or watching a piece of animation, I can always hear Dom DeLuise screaming in my face, “Everything matters!”
And he’s right. So often we let ourselves off the hook with creative or business decisions. We say, “This is good enough,” or “This is all we can afford,” or “The kids won’t know if it’s a real flute or a Midi-flute.”
Well, the little things do matter. It’s the details that separate a good show from a great show. And in a competitive market like preschool television, you can’t afford to present just a good show. Not to a production company, not to a broadcaster and certainly not to a child.
Because young children often cannot discern good from great (or even good from lousy), the onus falls on us, as show makers, to provide kids with the highest quality content. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but we must never disrespect our young audience by providing them with anything less than our very best efforts.
So, let’s all tuck in our shirts. Everything matters.
I invite you all to share your own stories or anecdotes of events that have shaped the way you work–or why you work–in preschool TV. As J.J. Johnson has proven, there is no restriction on the length of a blog comment so don’t be shy! Share your stories! I look forward to reading them!