Zoom, the children’s program with the infectious theme song that first aired a half-century ago, took an odd turn at the very beginning. Christopher Sarson, a British-born Boston transplant who earlier helped bring Masterpiece Theatre to WGBH, originally pitched the idea to WBZ and even shot a pilot for a show called Zoom-In featuring a few children, local TV personality Rex Trailer, and a baby elephant.
Although WBZ passed on Zoom-In, Sarson persuaded WGBH to let him use $30,000 left over from another program to film a second pilot. Over the course of a week in September 1971, the station aired it every evening as a test. The rest is history, and historical.
Zoom became the first television program for children and by children. From the first episode, which premiered on Channel 2 on January 9, 1972, Zoom differed from other shows for kids that all relied on the presence of adults. Here, the grown-ups were behind the camera. For 155 episodes across six seasons, a rotating cast of preteen children told jokes, acted out skits, sang and danced, and rapped about their thoughts and feelings.
Zoom quickly gained a critical and popular following, with The New York Times hailing it in 1972 for its “non-violent, non-hardsell, often delightful fun and games.” And unlike other programs vying for the attention of the younger audience — notably Sesame Street and The Electric Company, with their defined educational goals — Zoom focused on fun. Or, as the Zoomers themselves might put it in Ubbi Dubbi: Zuboubom fubocubusubed ubon fubun.
Read on for how it all happened, in the words of nearly two dozen people who were there.
Christopher Sarson, series creator: My kids were 7 and 8 when the show started. I like giving people a voice. Kids that age didn’t get a voice. They were in the hands of adults.
Henry Becton, former president of WGBH: Back then, creativity was encouraged, and you could try risky things, and nobody would fault you if you failed. WGBH’s upper echelons of management at that time were, on average, under 30 years old. I was only 29, I think, when I was given the responsibility for this department that included Zoom. So, we were young, we were inculcated by the cultural trends of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And Zoom kind of grew out of that.
James Field, director for the first three seasons: Some people don’t realize how different an idea it was. The thumbnail version is that it’s a show where all the ideas come from the kids. A show by kids, for kids. But, as you can imagine, that’s a lot harder to do than it sounds.
The first challenge was finding a cast. It might have been easier in Hollywood, but Sarson wanted something very different than Hollywood.
Sarson: We sent requests out to schools asking for kids who have a good personality. We didn’t want “talented” kids. We wanted kids who were willing to try things and had a spark of ingenuity about them. That’s what I was after.
Thomas White, actor from the first season: I did the pilot show. I was a kid that was doing puppet shows in Boston, and that’s how I got pulled in to audition for Zoom, which was described to me as a children’s Laugh-In.
Nancy (Tates) Walker, from the first season: I went to the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, which was an after-school art program in Roxbury. Channel 2 had hired Billy Wilson, who was the choreographer of Zoom. He said, “Well, listen, I work at a fine arts school. Why don’t I bring a bunch of kids out to audition?” He brought Kenny [Pires] and me and Leon [Mobley] and a slew of other kids. After the first audition, they pared it down to 13 of us. Kenny and I made the cut, Leon didn’t. So, I thank Billy Wilson, who was also my ballet teacher, for me being on Zoom.
Leon Mobley, from the second season: I was very disappointed. I really felt as if I should have made it. By not making it, that lit a fire under me so at the next audition I really tried my hardest and made it.
Tracy (Tannebring) Tomson, from the first season: I was in the original cast. We had no idea what we were auditioning for. The later casts knew that they were auditioning for Zoom and they’d seen it and heard of it, but those of us in that first group of seven really had no idea what we were getting into.
What they were getting into was a show made largely on the fly, and centered on the actors themselves. It had to feel professional, but the crew also kept in mind that the kids were kids.
Joseph Shrand, from the first season: We were just a bunch of kids hanging out together having fun, and it was really exciting.
Becton: There was also a great artistic team working on Zoom at that time. Chris had done things with Newt Wayland, who was a composer and musician, and Billy Wilson, who is a dance choreographer and dancer, and they both became part of the regular Zoom team.
Sarson: I couldn’t have done Zoom without those two.
Monia Joblin, studio producer: They both had an ability to relate to the kids. Newt had to be able to organize the kids and teach them the songs and the harmony or whatever and get them to actually get it done within a certain amount of time. They only had the studio booked for a certain amount of time. Billy then would have to capture what kids can do naturally, organize it into a dance, teach them some steps, teach them the routine.
Maura Mullaney, from the second season: These are really talented people who had already put together quite a résumé, and here they are working with these kids.
Kate Taylor, a producer who revived Zoom in 1999 and created Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman: We never took kids out of school. We wanted them to be living their normal lives. We would have Wednesday afternoon rehearsals and Friday night tapings, so they’d come in after school. It might be 3:30, 4 o’clock they got there. You might rehearse or tape until 8 o’clock at night. We wanted to make sure kids got home and got a good night’s sleep. And then we would have some weekend tapings through the season in order to get enough segments on tape.
Shrand: We were in there for hours and hours and hours at a time, but it didn’t feel like that. I don’t think any of us felt, This is too much. The most difficult part was figuring out the carpooling — you know, like, whose mom is going to drive? — because four of us were from the Newton area. So John, Tracy, Nina, and myself all carpooled together. And Tommy, Nancy, and Kenny carpooled together.
Mullaney: It was always so much fun, but I missed an awful lot of neighborhood street hockey games. That was kind of an aggravation. But yeah, I wouldn’t trade it. It was a phenomenal experience and just so much fun.
‘We ended up with 10,000 letters a week — from the end of the very first week, until the show went off the air.’
Christopher Sarson, series creator
The pilot was a sensation — it seemed like everyone watching at home could imagine themselves on TV. That sense of engagement would prove essential.
Lori (Boskin) Boyle, from the second season: I watched the pilot from my living room. And I was like, Are you kidding me right now? I have to be on the show.
Sarson: It was fascinating because for the first year, we picked seven kids. As soon as the show went out, the phone started ringing and they said, “Can we audition for Zoom, please, for next year?”
Bernadette Yao, from the second season: I did have fantasies about being on TV or being in a rock group or pop group, which was virtually impossible in the ‘70s as a Chinese American in this country. So, when Zoom came about, I just thought, Oh, that might be kind of fun.
Mullaney: I was so not your typical kid that you would expect would be interested in being on TV. I was a tomboy from day one and I never had singing or dancing lessons or been involved in children’s theater — nothing like that. I think it really speaks to the original cast making it so much fun to watch that it just looked like a blast to do something like that.
Sarson: What was extraordinary was when the show went on the air on a Sunday, guess what? We didn’t get any letters. The song that we wrote: “Send it to Zoom, Box 350, Boston, Mass. Oh-2134.” We didn’t get any mail on the Monday [after the premiere]. On Tuesday we got about 700 letters, and we couldn’t believe it. We opened a couple of the letters and said, “Oh, that’s great. We’ll look at them tomorrow.” When Wednesday came, we got a thousand and when Thursday came, we got 2,000. We ended up with 10,000 letters a week — from the end of the very first week, until the show went off the air.
Field: That was the lifeblood of the show. People stop sending in stuff? We’re screwed.
Sarson: That’s where the ideas came from. Everyone who wrote got a Zoom card back with a thank you for writing, a picture of a Zoomer, or a picture of the cast.
Walter Breitzke, Zoom archivist and administrator of a Zoom group on Facebook: I wrote over 300 times. I would write almost every day and every one of them had a poem or a play or a recipe or a game idea or an activity or something to do. I got four of my ideas on the fourth season, one on the fifth, and five on the sixth season. That was a big thrill.
Leslie Paris, associate professor of history, the University of British Columbia: Today, in an era of widespread Internet access and social media, we might take for granted the fact that children can use media to connect and learn from one another. But Zoom’s promise of active participation in a communal media project was innovative for its time. Zoom took kids seriously as people with interesting skills and creative ideas.
Dick Heller, director for Zoom’s last two seasons: I think it had some impact on kids when they were young and watching it and connecting to kids from all over the country. That’s one thing I always thought was fun. You know, here’s a story from somebody in Wisconsin and here’s a recipe from somebody in Arizona, and you get the sense of being part of a community, which I think it built.
The series featured recurring segments such as Zoom Play of the Week, Zoomdo, and Zoomrap, the latter of which gave the children a chance to talk through sometimes-difficult subjects.
Shrand: That very first Zoomrap was completely spontaneous.
Tomson: I was dancing my way backward and took one more step than I should have and fell back. I still have a bump on my head from that fall. They took me to the hospital and so the kids were all sitting around talking about how scared they were, and then talked about their stories about breaking a bone or going to the hospital.
Walker: We talked about hospitals, and being scared and things like that, but they just rolled tape. I remember Chris was sitting beside the camera and was asking us questions.
Jay Schertzer, from the second season: They really wanted us to be very human and really speak from our heart. I can look at it now and kind of cringe a little bit, but at the time I didn’t have any reservations about sharing.
White: I never felt comfortable with that. I let Joe and Nancy do all the heavy lifting. That was the most awkward part. I came from doing puppets. That was great because I could stay behind a curtain.
Boyle: They were very cognizant of who we were as kids. There was never yelling, scolding. No pressure, nothing. Here’s an example: I have dyslexia; I’m not a very good reader, and they noticed that. They’re aware of that so they didn’t make me pull the [viewer] letters out and read in front of the camera, which was very smart of them — it didn’t put pressure on me, and it didn’t waste their time and their money filming.
Heller: You really didn’t want to get them stressed about all this. A staff member, who shall remain nameless, said to one of the kids after a take, “Ron, you should be more laconic.” And I knew Ron had no idea what was being said to him. So, I did the translation and helped him kind of figure out how to play it.
Sarson: We were shooting in the words of the song: “Come on, give it a try.” We allowed the mistakes. We said to the audience: Life isn’t perfect, things will go wrong. And if they do, you recover from them. And that was very important to us.
Zoom was a breakout success and won an Emmy in 1973. But rather than stick to a proven formula, producers would bring in new cast members every season. Meanwhile, Sarson had also popularized one of the show’s lasting hallmarks, a language called Ubbi Dubbi.
Taylor: One of the big changes was the cast. Every year we would hold auditions. There were seven kids in the cast, and usually, maybe three or four would have grown, become a little too adolescent, and we weren’t looking for adolescents. We were looking for kids who were still, you know, in that less-than-adolescent age and stage. We’d pick three or four new kids, and we’d unveil our new cast. Auditions were a big deal in terms of how much time they took, because we let [in] every kid in Boston, anybody who could commute to the station.
Schertzer: I watched the original cast on Zoom all the time when I was a kid. It was on every night at 6 p.m. At the time, my mom was making dinner. We had a little black and white TV on in the kitchen. One day, Nancy looked right at me [from the TV] — and I know that sounds really strange — but Nancy looked right at me, and she said, “We’re auditioning for new Zoomers, why don’t you come join us?” So that was it. I turned to my mom and said, “Mom, I want to audition for Zoom.”
Yao: Our auditions were not what you would think. It wasn’t like we had to be a great singer or a dancer. They wanted to know how we played with the other kids.
Joblin: When we auditioned kids, you could see some of them who were trying to be what they thought a Zoomer was. And what we were looking for were kids who were just who they were. They weren’t trying to be something else.
Taylor: There were some kids who came with a lot of acting experience. They had been in plays and stuff like that. Most of those kids did not make it, because they had been trained how to be somebody else, and they would come into an audition and try to be who they thought we wanted them to be.
Cate Wadsworth, from the fourth season: I hadn’t done a bloody thing before that.
Schertzer: When I auditioned it started with 500. Then there was a callback. The callback was 100. And then there was another callback, and that callback was 30. And then I think that was the final callback and from the 30, they picked four new cast members. Chris was the finger pointer: I want Jay, I want David, I want Maura, I want Ann. He picked the four of us.
Boyle: I did not have experience. I was a very outgoing kid. Loved to sing, loved to dance. I was not shy, let me tell you. I was not shy. Not at all.
Schertzer: Chris in particular was very, very hands on, very involved with us. I remember very specifically him teaching me Ubbi Dubbi, which was our language. I’m pretty sure we sat down as a group and learned Ubbi Dubbi, and then I think he gave me some remedial training.
Mobley: I’ll give you the secret: It’s “ub” before every vowel. Say “yes.” Now put “ub” in front of it. “Yubes.” Dubo yuboubu subeube?
It was important to the creators that the show reflect the diversity of its audience — and the tenor of its times.
Yao: When I was on, I was there because I was Bernadette. I happen to be Asian. They did specifically try to make it so that we were multiethnic. But once we were on, I wasn’t in any type of stereotypical role that an Asian would play.
Mobley: We all had come from different backgrounds. This was a multicultural situation before they even thought of the word. We had Chinese, Spanish, Anglo, Black all together.
Shrand: The cultural background is not insignificant. A few years before, we landed on the moon. There was busing going on. There was the Vietnam War. There were race riots. And going from all these things, for this brief moment in time, you could watch television and it was gone. Black kids, brown kids, Asian kids, white kids, Catholic kids, Jewish kids, boys, girls — recognizing the bond that we have just because we’re human.
Yao: Before I was on Zoom, I experienced some racism. We lived in a town where I was maybe one of two or three families that were of color. Maybe two of us were Asian. That was it. And yeah, I experienced some racial violence. In third grade, I was choked and beaten up by two girls in the parking lot hidden behind some cars. But after I was on Zoom, things really changed for me. I don’t think people saw me as being Asian at that time; they just saw me as Bernadette on Zoom.
Boyle: Everyone was just a kid with a T-shirt. The one thing that made us all the same was the T-shirt.
Sarson: The shirts that became the Zoom shirts came from Sears because they had these rugby shirts that were on special: $5 each.
Donna Moore, from the third season: I have my Zoom shirt in storage, but I’ve moved so many times recently that I don’t know where it is. It still fits, by the way.
‘Everyone was just a kid with a T-shirt. The one thing that made us all the same was the T-shirt.’
Lori (Boskin) Boyle, second season cast
WGBH worked hard to insulate the kids from their growing celebrity. They weren’t even allowed to read their thousands of fan letters (though they were photographed with them), some of which professed crushes on them. But the producers did once make an exception for Bernadette Yao, whose arm movements had become instantly iconic.
Mullaney: The kids who had grown up with me and went to school with me, who knew me, weren’t real fazed by it. I was still just Maura. I happened to be on a TV show. But you know, they went to great lengths at GBH to instill in us that we were not stars and we were not famous.
Schertzer: We did not see any of our fan mail. I think it was Bernadette who at one point got to look at some of hers. I think she got a bucket of letters dumped on the table in front of her at one point. She was lucky enough to see that.
Yao: I recall the producers telling me there were letters coming in asking how I did my arm thing. Some people thought it was edited to look like my arms were moving around and around. The producers asked me to instruct [on camera] how to do the arm thing. While we were in the Zoom Room [production office], I remember Christopher Sarson dramatically emptying a box of some of these letters on the desk, showing me how many viewers were asking about the arm thing. So, seeing the amount of mail coming in convinced me to teach the viewers on camera.
Nicholas Butterworth, from the sixth season: Bernadette came to my class and showed off how to do her arm-twisting thing. She was the biggest star I’d ever seen. I think I was in the first grade.
Goodbyes were always difficult, especially when it was time for the creator of the show to leave. But with new people behind the cameras, new ideas emerged, too.
Sarson: I was there for three years. We dealt with 21 Zoomers and there are 16 of the 21 who are still in touch with each other. And it is quite remarkable. They’ve corresponded with each other, and they have a lot in common. It’s extraordinary how rich the conversation has become, in terms of politics and in terms of things they believe in. Philosophy — all kinds of things.
Mullaney: We call ourselves the Sarson 21. We are the 21 cast members that worked directly under Christopher.
Shrand: He is the Zoom Papa.
Mullaney: It’s really amazing to think that Christopher had such vision and foresight to create something like this. Not only did he create this amazing show, but I’m also proud as can be of the fact that there are not cautionary tales that have come out of the 21 of us. He picked not only kids that were great for the show but people who turned out to be just good people. I don’t know what everybody’s growing up years were like, but everybody is normal and well-adjusted and has done OK for themselves — some really well for themselves.
Boyle: It was so hard to leave. I hated the transition. I hated the transition day. I remember it like it was yesterday. I hated it. The song, the way we had to say goodbye. I was mad because I didn’t want to leave.
Shrand: The old kids left, the new kids came up, but it was important to have that continuity.
Sarson: My favorite shows have been the ones where the new cast came into the last show of the old cast and were welcomed into the program by the people who were leaving the show, and it was very touching. It was going into a new situation. It was leaving an old situation. It was something you enjoyed doing and you have to leave it and go do something else.
Yao: When we joined, three of us were the core that would replace the three old members that were the core three. And then we’d merge in with the four veteran members, so that the changes weren’t too much for the viewers because they’re seeing four familiar faces.
Sarson: It didn’t change much during the first three years. They went to other executive producers after I left and went to another job.
Austin Hoyt, executive producer after Sarson: The big challenge was that the former executive producer left and the whole operation ground to a halt.
Ron Blau, studio producer: Austin Hoyt, whose background was not children’s television, came on as executive producer.
Hoyt: Ron and I did it in the spring of ‘74. I’d never even seen the program before. I’d been in news and public affairs, and Michael Rice, the [WGBH] program manager, asked me to do it and I couldn’t say no. So, I went into the Zoom Room, and it looked as if it was a public health hazard. Nobody had been in there for weeks. The mail was backing up and nobody quite knew how to handle it because there was nothing in production. We had to hire a cast.
Wadsworth: For our year they got rid of everybody and cast all 10 of us and we did it for the full year. I have no idea why they switched it up, but it was five girls, five guys.
Blau: That year we decided to do a mock soap opera called As the World Zooms and among other things, I would take the individual jokes and gags that people sent in and weave them into a plot. So that involved some writing on my part. Some people thought that it wasn’t entirely kid-done, because an adult was weaving them together, but it was actually a fun project for me. I enjoyed that, and I think the segment worked.
Susheel Bibbs, executive producer after Hoyt: I did something that had never been done before, which was we created shows that were theme-oriented around the experiences the children had. The first show was called “Changes,” and it was all about all different kinds of changes that children undergo.
‘It just really boggles the mind to think that 50 years later we’re still talking about “Zoom.”’
Maura Mullaney, from the second season cast
One type of change was constant: The kids always grew up. They moved to other schools, to other towns, and to college. Out in the world, being recognized could be fun — though not always.
Wadsworth: I made $60 a show and my first year of college it went for books.
Mullaney: The money went in the bank, but I do remember that we used [some of it] to buy for the family our very first color TV. Watching the Boston Bruins games and seeing all the different uniforms from other teams with color, that was a big deal.
Boyle: My parents saved it, and then I got my first car. I think I bought a Toyota Tercel after college. It was like $5,000. It was not a lot of money. But I didn’t do it for the money anyway.
Tomson: I moved to a new city at 12 years old, and I immediately was called “Zoom girl.” Someone figured it out and then the word spread. Whereas back at home in Boston, I was just Tracy that they’d always known so no one really said anything. I learned about corporal punishment. Because at Texas schools back in the ‘70s, if you got in trouble and you got sent to the principal’s office, you had to go get licks. There was a boy who was teasing me on the playground at recess, calling me “Zoom girl,” and he took a playground ball and threw it at me and was saying “Zoom girl, Zoom girl.” He had to go to the office and he got paddled for that.
Schertzer: I was in junior high school and yeah, some of my classmates were a little bit mean. I had surrounded myself with a good core group of friends that were not mean. The kids that teased me and were kind of mean to me, somewhere deep in my head I kind of knew, Oh, well. At least they’re watching the show.
Yao: I think I had an easier time in high school than other people who were people of color and Asian. Maybe being on the show helped me. But it also brought a lot of attention to me, which I wasn’t comfortable with. I was very, very shy.
Walker: Oh, Lord, I couldn’t go anywhere. They did a nationwide [marketing] campaign, and it was “Zoom is coming.” There was a giant picture of me. I’m in front of the Z, and then they had a smaller picture of the cast. Well, because now I’m the poster child for Zoom, and I’m all over, every place I was I got chased. I got screamed at. The parents were the worst.
Mullaney: My family and I, we went out to McDonald’s for dinner one night, and somebody asked if I was Maura from Zoom and could I have dinner with her and her children. I just remember how odd it was to sit there and they literally just stared at me. I was 10. How do I make small talk with these strangers who were just staring at me?
Shrand: It was a remarkable experience to be visible in that way. I credit my mother for helping guide the way I managed it because kids would come up for autographs. And my mother told me, “Never forget how anxious they may be coming up to ask you because you’re a celebrity. And always treat them with respect. Be polite.” That was a really important lesson.
Zoom stopped filming in 1978 when funding ran out. It was rebooted in 1999 and ran for seven seasons, retaining the spirit of the original series. For what’s been called the “re-Zoom,” children could contribute their ideas via e-mail.
Mullaney: It just really boggles the mind to think that 50 years later we’re still talking about Zoom and that it’s still so revered by so many people. I’m just so lucky to have been able to be a part of that.
Schertzer: My dad carried my Zoom card in his pocket all the time. Anytime he encountered someone that looked about the right age, he would whip out the Zoom card and ask, “Hey, you remember my boy? My boy was on Zoom.” It made me laugh and cringe at the same time. This was well, well, well into my adult life.
Field: The show has been referenced on The Simpsons. I’m a total Simpsons fanatic, by the way. Sideshow Bob is under arrest again and he’s going to be taken away. He says, “I wasn’t always like this. I was a good child. I watched Zoom.” And then he goes, “Oh-2134.”
Taylor: When I wear my Zoom hat out for my walk, people go by and start singing the ZIP code. I think the lasting impact is that it did become kind of a cultural phenomenon.
Mullaney: The goal was to choose cast members who were relatable and just your average kid, and I really think they succeeded with that. People that reach out to me on Facebook or different things, they recall us as just like friends that they remember so fondly from their childhood. That’s such a gift to have that connection.
Sarson: We went to a rancher’s dinner where there were 10 places at the table. There were four couples and one couple had bought their two daughters. Their two daughters were 14. This was 30 years after Zoom had been on. The rest of us were all over 60. We were talking about the weather and we were talking about the cattle that had escaped from the pen. It was pretty damn boring, the conversation. Halfway through the meal one of these daughters leaned over the table and said to the other one, in Ubbi Dubbi, “Aren’t we sitting with a lot of boring people?” Can you imagine their surprise when I said, in Ubbi Dubbi, “Yes, I agree with you.”
L. Wayne Hicks is a freelance writer in Colorado. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Interviews have been edited and condensed.