Weird Science: The Mr. Wizard Story

NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, it was unusual for television programs to address the topic of sex. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy. Both were forbidden by network standards to even use the word pregnant. (For all viewers knew, Little Ricky was the product of an immaculate conception.) Teens on sitcoms rarely investigated anything other than chaste dating.

But for the juvenile audience of Watch Mr. Wizard, viewers got what may have been television’s earliest widespread discussion of sex. More specifically, the gestation period of hamsters.

Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible. A revolving cast of kid assistants, none of them particularly interested in science, stood at Herbert's side and marveled at how Newtonian laws influenced their day-to-day existence.

Hebert was so popular that NBC gave him free rein to blow things up or discuss hamster sex. And then, nearly 20 years after Watch Mr. Wizard's cancellation in 1965, Herbert was given the opportunity to captivate a brand-new generation of kids with Mr. Wizard's World, which made its debut on the fledging Nickelodeon cable channel in 1983. Forget Bill Nye: For millions of viewers, Herbert was the original "science guy."

 

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show.

But acting, while promising, wasn’t foremost on Herbert's mind. He enrolled in the Army Air Forces in 1942, eventually piloting a B-24 bomber in 56 bombing missions over Europe. He was also involved in the invasion of Italy. Herbert was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his contributions. (His dual role as war hero and kid show host may have been the origin of the infamous myth about Fred Rogers being a sniper.)

After arriving back home, Herbert's love of the arts led him to Chicago, where he felt he might be able to find a way back into the entertainment industry.

Eventually, he did.

Don Herbert appears in a publicity photo for 'Watch Mr. Wizard'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Herbert agreed to begin hosting a science-oriented show for WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate. Just a few years after the introduction of the atom bomb and with Americans troubled by reports of Soviet space technology like Sputnik, the time seemed right for a series that focused on the scientific laws governing the world. An ad executive thinking of sponsoring the program wanted to call him “the Wizard.” Herbert, feeling that was perhaps too pretentious, added a “Mr.” to the title.

Watch Mr. Wizard premiered in 1951. Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen. His first assistant was 11-year-old Willy, Herbert’s real-life next-door neighbor.

Herbert was adamant that science not be confined to sterile lab settings. He reasoned that by using everyday household items to conduct his experiments, kids would be able to replicate them at home.

“Milk bottles are your flasks,” Herbert said. “Glasses your beakers, and the whole house your laboratory.”

There was no barrier between a child and their curiosity. Herbert would present situations—a rising cake, blowing wind—and then explain the “trick.” He considered entertaining his audience to be his primary job, not educating them, but was thrilled if he could succeed at doing both.

“I do a kind of educational television but the difference between what I do and educational television is like night and day,” Herbert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961. “The primary purchase of educational television is to teach and the primary purpose of Mr. Wizard is to entertain, to stimulate, to intrigue.”

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers [PDF]. While the audience was not as sizable as a primetime hit, it was a substantial number for an educational program. (Though it was ostensibly for kids, half of Watch Mr. Wizard's viewers were adults.) His audience was also devoted, with 5000 fan clubs springing up across the country that eventually claimed 100,000 members. Herbert’s notoriety helped him sell 200,000 copies of various science books.

In 1965, NBC announced it would be canceling Watch Mr. Wizard. The show had run its course, the network claimed, and audiences were increasingly looking at television as an empty-calorie prospect—not an educational tool. Even so, a 14-year run was something only a handful of shows had ever achieved. But Herbert wasn’t done.

 

Though NBC briefly revived Watch Mr. Wizard in 1971, Herbert felt his skills were best-suited to areas outside of weekly half-hour television. He produced 18 films that were meant to be screened in classrooms; the National Science Foundation helped fund a series of 80-second segments titled How About for local newscasts across the country. Though most of the footage didn’t use the “Mr. Wizard” name, Herbert was often introduced with that moniker regardless.

The news spots led to renewed interest in Mr. Wizard. After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere. More than 30 years after his television debut, Herbert was back, once again dispensing with the confines of laboratory settings.

For Herbert's Nickelodeon series, the pace was much quicker, with eight to 10 segments per episode. The kid assistants, he later said, were savvier about molecules and computers than their 1950s counterparts. But most everything else remained the same.

In both incarnations of the show, Herbert refused to cater to gender stereotypes. Girls were by his side as frequently as boys, and Herbert remarked they were probably better equipped to get into the sciences. He had a cutoff age of 13 for the boys. After that, he said, they “became know-it-alls.”

Mr. Wizard’s World ran through 1990, at which point Herbert largely disappeared from public view. Though he had never expressly set out to teach science and even believed television was a poor fit for educational purposes, his relaxed approach to the subject proved to be a huge inspiration nonetheless.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."

The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith

Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images
Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube—until now. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
Getty Images

Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
Matt Campbell/Getty Images

To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. But at least one survived: In October 2018, a YouTube user named "Nancy Thomson," a nod to the Heather Langenkamp heroine who appeared in several of the Nightmare movies, shared the video in its entirety.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

The Bloody History of Fangoria, the Magazine That Changed the Way We View Horror Movies

Andrew C. Wood
Andrew C. Wood

During a gathering of Parliament in the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher held up a copy of an American periodical. Declaring it “absolutely appalling,” Thatcher referenced England’s Obscene Publications Act of 1959 as cause for banning it.

It wasn’t Playboy, Penthouse, or any other pornographic material. Thatcher was waving around a copy of Fangoria.

From 1979 to 2015, the monthly magazine cast a spotlight on horror films, long considered the red light district of cinema. But Fangoria never turned its nose up at genre filmmaking: It treated both the industry and its fans with reverence, taking a measured and thorough approach to covering the directors, actors, makeup artists, and other behind-the-scenes artists who powered everything from the slasher explosion of the 1980s to the self-aware postmodern horror of the 2000s.

“Horror was exploding in all directions,” Michael Gingold, Fangoria’s former editor-in-chief, tells Mental Floss. “You had movies like [1981's] An American Werewolf in London, which won an Oscar for Best Make-Up, and [1982's] The Thing. It launched at the right time and became a force in covering horror.”

Why would Thatcher care? Like the movies it covered, Fangoria didn’t shy away from the grotesque, granting coverage to some of the grisliest special effects in the industry. If Good Housekeeping was known for its holiday dinner table spreads, Fangoria was instantly identifiable for the severed limbs, dangling eyeballs, and mucus-covered creatures that adorned its covers and interior spreads. For gorehounds who might not yet have been old enough to see an R-rated movie, Fangoria was the next best thing.

“It was the forbidden fruit aspect,” Gingold says. “You couldn’t get in to see the movie without a parent, but you could see the images.”

A 'Fangoria' cover featuring 'An American Werewolf in London'
Courtesy of Cinestate

When Fangoria launched in 1979, there was little indication it would go on to become the premier horror chronicle on newsstands. The magazine was conceived by Starlog publishers Kerry O’Quinn and Norman Jacobs. That publication, with its heavy emphasis on sci-fi properties like Star Trek, seemed a poor fit for the growing number of creature-feature titles arriving in cinemas and hitting the burgeoning home video market.

O’Quinn put Godzilla on the cover of the first issue, which was originally titled Fantastica before Jacobs recommended changing it to Fangoria. It didn’t sell well, though it had at least one fan in a then-adolescent Gingold. “Godzilla was what attracted me to it,” he says, “but that first issue also had something about Dawn of the Dead. This was the post-Halloween era, and Newsweek had even done an article on the horror boom. Slowly but surely, horror took over more and more of the magazine.”

By its seventh issue, Fangoria had found its focus and its audience—one underserved by traditional movie magazines. “No other magazine was covering horror like Fangoria,” Gingold says. Famous Monsters of Filmland—the first major horror magazine, which debuted in 1958—was more of an earnest look at the Universal-style monster icons, but it was largely written for a juvenile audience. Fangoria, Gingold says, “got into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. It would cover Tom Savini movies.”

Savini, who rose to prominence with his work on Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, was a horror makeup master. Along with other effects experts like Rob Bottin (The Fog, The Thing) and Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Thriller), Fangoria’s coverage made them celebrities. “Savini basically became a rock star of horror,” Gingold says. “They became as big a name as the actors or directors.”

While fans were curious to hear what Robert Englund had to say about the latest A Nightmare on Elm Street entry, they were equally fascinated with whether effects artist Robert Kurtzman would be returning to perfect Freddy Krueger’s deep-fried appearance.

The lurid visuals of Fangoria became the publication's hallmark—one that incited Thatcher and probably prompted a lot of concerned parents to take stacks of their kids' saved copies out to the recycling bin.

“We wanted the most gruesome image possible without being distasteful,” Tony Timpone, who became Fangoria's editor-in-chief in 1987, tells Mental Floss. “We loved putting slasher icons on the covers. Zombie movies always sold well. We were kind of the bad boy of newsstands.”

Magazine distributors would periodically junk Fangoria if controversy arose, like the time an actress’s nipple was visible in a photo. Timpone also caught flak when one of his writers quoted a scene from 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, where Freddy drops a four-letter profanity. “Some kid in grammar school started screaming it and told his mother he learned it in Fangoria,” Timpone says. “We got thrown off newsstands that month.”

A 'Fangoria' cover featuring a Tom Savini creation
Courtesy of Cinestate

Because of its reach, Fangoria sometimes did more than just chronicle a film’s release; it could help change the fortunes of filmmakers whose work editors endorsed. While Gingold was still a reader—he joined the magazine full-time in 1990, fresh out of college, and later became managing editor—he recalls how the magazine’s heavy coverage of 1981’s The Evil Dead was crucial in helping spread the word about director Sam Raimi’s inventive gorefest about a sap (Bruce Campbell) trapped in a cabin with access to a dimension of evil. “Stephen King first endorsed it in Twilight Zone magazine, and then Fangoria saw it and loved it,” Gingold says. “That launched it into the consciousness of horror fans.”

As managing editor, Gingold once screened an amateur film by a then-unknown director named Guillermo del Toro. He wrote del Toro a brief note with some words of encouragement, a fact del Toro later said inspired him to continue his career. (Earlier this year, del Toro won two Oscars for his most recent film, The Shape of Water—one for Best Director, the other for Best Picture.)

Gingold also recalls seeing a draft of From Dusk Till Dawn, a vampire tale written by a then-largely-unknown filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino. “It was a dot-matrix printout.”

A 'Fangoria' cover featuring the film 'Ghost Story'
Courtesy of Cinestate

Perks aside, Gingold joined the magazine's staff at a time when the horror genre was beginning to struggle a bit. While Fangoria’s fortunes soared with Krueger—the magazine’s ad sales department claimed a circulation of 250,000 in the late 1980s—the slasher genre was fading, as Freddy, Jason Vorhees, and Michael Myers were slowing. “It was the post-slasher era, and horror had kind of a bad rep," Gingold says. "Sometimes a serious filmmaker would make a serious movie, like [1992’s Francis Ford Coppola-directed] Dracula, but it often wasn’t taken seriously.”

Fangoria was, of course, ready to carry the torch, but studios weren’t always amenable to cooperating. “Later in the 1990s there was this idea of, 'Well, let’s not give everything away,'” Gingold says. “I remember one time we couldn’t get Dimension to send us photos of Michael Myers, even though he’d been in several sequels already.”

Sometimes, studios wouldn’t even acknowledge that a film they were releasing was a horror film. “New Line didn’t consider Se7en a horror movie,” Gingold says. “They wouldn’t set up coverage.” In cases where studios didn’t care to address the fans they should’ve been catering to, editors would go through alternative contacts. In almost all cases, “actors and directors would be happy to talk to us.”

When the horror genre slowed down, the magazine found itself going off-brand. One cover featured 1991’s big-screen reimagining of The Addams Family; the following year, it was Batman Returns. It may have been the only time a Fangoria cover subject had a Happy Meal tie-in.

A 'Fangoria' cover featuring Michael Myers
Courtesy of Cinestate

While horror eventually experienced a massive resurgence thanks in part to the Scream franchise, a proliferation of found footage films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, and a steady stream of reasonably budgeted thrillers like The Purge series that cost studios little and paid dividends, Fangoria grew mired in the transition of film coverage from print to the web. Gingold was let go in 2016, prompting an outpouring of support from industry names like del Toro. The year prior, Fangoria printed what would be the last issue of its original incarnation.

“It was actually able to hang in there for a long time because it was a niche publication,” Gingold says. “It lasted long after other movie magazines like Premiere had folded.”

Like the most durable horror villains, it’s also coming back from the dead. This month marks the resurrection of Fangoria as a quarterly print publication under the leadership of film company Cinestate, which bought the brand in early 2018 and plans to release films under the Fangoria banner—including the recent script acquisition After Birth, described as a female-driven take on the Frankenstein fable. Former Birth.Movies.Death. editor-at-large Phil Nobile Jr. was named editor-in-chief of Fangoria's new iteration. For Nobile, it’s an opportunity to perpetuate a brand that’s become synonymous with taking the horror genre seriously.

“Outsiders and people who just don’t get it did—and do—see the mag as a celebration of blood and guts, but for those who know what’s up, Fangoria was a celebration of hands-on filmmaking,” Nobile tells Mental Floss. “Hopefully we’ve retained that in the new iteration.”

Both Gingold and Timpone will be contributors. And what would the late Margaret Thatcher think? “She would still be appalled,” Timpone says.

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