I began my career as a television writer in the spring of 1972. Nixon had just returned from his historic trip to Red China, the Apollo astronauts were still landing on the moon, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine was on the stands. On television, the debut season of “All in the Family” was breaking new ground and America was just beginning its love affair with Mary Richards. And there I was in the middle of it.
Okay, I wasn’t exactly writing for Norman Lear. In fact, I was only 12 years old and still in elementary school, but my writing did appear on a popular TV show that year. “Zoom” premiered on PBS in January 1972, just a few months after “The Waltons” began its run. It was a ground-breaking program for its day. Instead of precocious child actors, the show featured a group of non-professional children from the Boston area. Where “The Mickey Mouse Club” was all glitz and glamour, presenting a well scrubbed version of childhood fun, “Zoom” was written by kids and for kids (with help from an adult staff, of course). To avoid turning the working class Zoom kids into the next Brady Bunch, the children had to sign contracts saying they would not appear in any commercials or other professional gigs for five years. I recently discovered my prized cache of Zoom cards featuring the seven original cast members who I came to view as close friends.
We’re gonna zoom zoom zoom-a-zoom
Come on and zoom-a-zoom-a-zoom-a-zoom
Come on give it a try
We’re gonna show you why
We’re gonna teach you to fly high
Come on and zoom! Come on and zoom zoom!
Can you even count the number of early 70s drug references present in that frenetic theme song? It’s worse than “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that the young producers of the show had just emigrated from Haight-Ashbury and were still working the psychedelic drugs out of their systems. The quick-cut pacing, bizarre Ubbi Dubbi language used by cast members, and freaky production numbers had the definite feel of a flower-powered acid trip! Every week the kids would sit on the floor and have a ZoomRap about important and controversial topics. It was obvious the opinionated kids were not being fed a network-approved script. During one heated discussion about racism, one cast member blurted out, “I just think the whites should stay with the whites and the blacks should stay with the blacks!” The rest of the cast lashed into the poor kid. Now that’s reality TV! Can you imagine such a conversation making it to the air today?
The show was integrated, 1972-style. Two token blacks in a sea of white kids. This looked just like the new court-ordered integration in my grammar school. On "Zoom" we had Nancy and Kenny and in my class we had Patricia and Mark, who were bussed in from an undisclosed location. Now remember kids, Black is Beautiful, but do try to blend in, won’t you? It might be better if you don’t talk about your neighborhood that much since we won’t be visiting, and please don’t use any of that black lingo—you want to get ahead here in our privileged world, don’t you? But oh my God, let’s talk about how COOL we are now that we have black friends! Oh, and don’t even look for any Latino or Asian kids on “Zoom” or at school, we’re not quite ready for that. Oh well, at least the nod to integration on “Zoom” was better than “The Mickey Mouse Club”—can you even imagine a black kid on that show? But then again, there were no black people living in the United States in the 1950s, right? Not on TV, anyway.
The main premise of “Zoom” was that kids from around the country would send in original sketches, songs, stories, crafts, recipes, and discussion topics, which the cast would read or perform, giving the real kids full credit. The show received tens of thousands of entries every week and the Zoom cast constantly begged for more with their hypnotic chant:
Write Zoom, Z-Double-Oh-M!
My sister’s friend Debby Becker sent in an activity where you draw a picture with crayon and then cover the whole thing with a wash of watery black paint producing something that looked like a black-light rock concert poster. When I heard Joe and Tracy read Debby’s name on the air I couldn’t believe my ears. Someone I know is FAMOUS, I thought. I had to have a piece of that. And I could do way better than such a tired old art project. The next day I ran home from school and began writing and illustrating a 12-page book called “Tommy the TV.” I only wish I saved a copy of this story because I could spend several therapy sessions reviewing the psychosocial implications of this tale which involved a talking television taking control of a boy’s life until the boy finally blows the set up and rebuilds it so that it only plays good shows and becomes the boy’s best friend. Oy. My story was read on the show by Jon and my dear black friend Nancy and they even animated some of my drawings. If I won a Pulitzer Prize I’m not sure it could ever match the thrill of hearing my words read on national television 33 years ago. I was a mini-celebrity the next day in school since everyone in my class had seen the episode. My fame lasted until art class when a girl named Michelle snapped “Aren’t you a little OLD to be on “Zoom?” at which point the other kids started laughing and singing the Zoom theme song in a sneering voice. They’re just jealous, I thought, sinking deeper into the shame that would forever accompany any sense of accomplishment I’d have in my life.
Before I leave the LSD-laced world of “Zoom,” I must mention another reason I watched the show. NINA! Gorgeous, alluring, demure, sensitive, sweet thirteen-year-old Nina. Oh my God, I had such a crush on this cast member that I was prepared to drop my girlfriend Erin Walton like a hot potato. Nina was my generation’s Annette—I think every American boy born between 1957 and 1964 lusted after this beautiful creature. Nina and Tommy were the older kids on the show and I became livid whenever Nina made googley eyes at him during some of the musical numbers or when they were talking Ubbi Dubbi. Stubop ubit, Nubinuba! Tubommuby duboesubn’t lubove yubou lubike ubI dubo! On one show Nina strummed her guitar and sang a heartbreaking song she wrote herself. Her lyrics brought tears to my eyes—so what if they were wildly inappropriate for a thirteen-year-old:
It began in March and it ended in May
I can tell you the hour I can tell you the day
I can tell you how long it’s been since he went away
So Lord please bring him back to me…today!
Did some bastard dump my precious Nina? Or did she have an eighteen-year-old boyfriend who was just shipped off to Vietnam? At the end of that first season, several of the cast members left the show, including Tommy and Nina, to make way for a constantly evolving and younger cast. I’d love to know what happened to that original group, especially since their contracts forbade them to capitalize on their fame until it was too late. All would now be in their mid-40s. Did some of them become drug addicts? (This was the 1970s after all.) Are they now accountants or lawyers or producers for public television? I doubt any of them made a dime off the show. I once met a guy who went to high school with Joe in Boston and he said that the other kids used to taunt him with the nickname “Zoom-fag!”
I heard that there’s a new version of “Zoom” on PBS now and I’m sure the show is fully integrated with Guatemalan and Palestinian and Hmong Zoom kids. But no matter how PC the cast gets, I bet the 2005 ZoomRaps aren’t nearly as honest as the 1972 ones.
Come on and zoom
Come on and zoom zoom!