Classic Nick Wed. –
Interview with George James
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
As promised here is the long awaited interview with Mr. George James who played “Jake” on Nickelodeon’s long running show, Pinwheel.
A very special thank you goes out to Mr. Andy Anderson who helped me with this interview by submitting his own set of questions which were integrated into this interview.
I would also like to send out a very special and loving thank you to Mr. George “Jake” James for sending me that very first email and for his time in answering these extensive interview questions. Andy and I didn’t make it easy on him but he’s a very lovely man who graciously gave us a bit of his precious time. Thank you Mr. James.
PSC: What were you doing before you became an actor?
GJ: From as far back as I can remember I had certain passions. I say passions because my interests were far from casual. These passions were music, nature, musical theatre, theatre and horses and not necessarily in that order. I played the trumpet as a youngster, listened to everything from Gershwin to Ray Charles to Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Bernstein, as well as the pop and country music of the day. My father was very theatrical having been a child actor on Broadway. Although very shy, I had a fascination with reading and writing poetry and how something well-crafted could evoke and express feelings. I usually had leading roles in performances during my early years in school. My mother was a heavy influence with frequent outings to the symphony, movies and theatre. Both parents were very culturally minded.
AA: How did you become interested in performing and composing music? What is your musical background?
GJ: As I have mentioned I had great support and exposure from my parents when it came to music and the performing arts. I started playing the trumpet at the age of 7 and took part in plays and reciting poetry at the same time. It was strange because I was indeed very shy but almost compelled to express myself in these ways. I remember seeing West Side Story and The King and I and being totally fascinated and captivated by the power created by the marriage of music, words and story. How these elements when artfully put together could make one laugh, cry and feel something deeply universal to all who witnessed. It was magic!…and something I wanted to do.
AA: What inspired you to get into acting?
GJ: Acting is something that has always been somewhat illusive to me. I was a theatre student at Hofstra University but acting wasn't my focus. The study of voice and the part that music played in producing good theatre were more interesting to me. Although I thoroughly enjoyed reciting Shakespeare and expressing myself vocally, I wouldn't consider myself an actor in the classical sense. On Pinwheel I was pretty much myself, just believing in the characters that I interacted with. From time to time I would be a character that the writers created like the Game Show Host or the Yeti but most of the time I was pretty much myself.
PSC: How did you first hear about Pinwheel and what made you decide to audition? Can you tell us what the auditioning process was like?
GJ: My friend, noted music producer, John Simon, heard that Warner Communications was looking for a person of some ethnicity to help develop a children's show for their CUBE project which was the first attempt to create programming for the network of cable companies across the country. They were looking for someone who could act and write songs as well as produce the songs and music for the show. He gave them my name and I received a call asking if I would like to audition. For the audition they asked if I would write a song and come to their offices at Rockefeller Plaza and perform the song that I had composed. I was thrilled by the opportunity and wrote a series of songs called The Dream Songs. About 5 songs with the same melody and different words about imagining that you were different animals. They taped me singing these songs and I went home and waited. After about two days I got a call asking If I would (come) one to their offices to discuss being part of this project. They already had the name of the show, Pinwheel, but nothing else. This was a happy day and the beginning of many happy times.
PSC: Can you tell us about the development of Pinwheel? What sparked the idea for it? Was it an individual or a group of people?
GJ: Well I believe that the idea for a young children's show for the CUBE project came from Dr. Vivian Horner who was also connected with Children's Television Workshop and the Electric Company. Dr. Horner was the executive producer and Sandy Kavanaugh was the producer of the yet undeveloped show. Andrea Cvirko and Gabi Lopez were also on board as assistant producers. The talent, as we were called, on the development team consisted of Brad Williams (puppet creator and art director) and myself. We would meet at the Warner Communications offices about four times a week and toss around ideas. This was the development team at the very early stages of Pinwheel. The result of these meetings was the 1977 production of Pinwheel for the CUBE project in Columbus Ohio. The later more developed productions were done in New York a few years later. The New York productions are the ones most people are familiar with.
PSC: Looking back we see that Pinwheel taught children simple life lessons, was that the original intent of the writers or did it just turn out that way? If intentional did the writers work with professional educators just as Bill Cosby had done with the Fat Albert cartoon series?
GJ: I think that it would be correct to say that it was the original intent for Pinwheel to teach simple life lessons and to have a positive message in general. We didn't have as strict a curriculum as Sesame Street where reading and preschool academic skills along with life experiences were researched and organized. We were more loosely pointed toward positive interpersonal relationships, self-expression and conflict resolution. The direction of the scripts and character development were overseen by the Producer and head writer. The cast, staff and crew were comprised of people whose hearts and minds were in a good place and that is basically what gave life and energy to the show.
PSC: A lot of people compare Pinwheel to Sesame Street, is that a fair assessment? If not, how was Pinwheel different from Seamy Street?
GJ: I mostly answered this question in the last paragraph. Many of the people involved in Pinwheel came from The Children's Television Workshop which produced Sesame Street so naturally there are commonalities. The target audience and ideals were also the same and with Sesame Street being such a great invention and model we all wanted the same feelings of inclusion and universality.
AA: Can you tell us about the character of “Jake”? Was he a set character or did you help to develop him?
GJ: Jake is actually my middle name and as I stated before he is basically me. I've always thought that if you want an elephant don't get a giraffe to play one…get an elephant to play one. I guess that's what happened here. Children's television had always been a place that I wanted to go to. Children's entertainment was also something that I had given quite a bit of thought to. I really disliked any condescending elements in children's programing and saw Jake and Pinwheel as an opportunity to present myself and the music with a sense of respect and integrity of the audience. Being African American this took on an even more special meaning.
PSC & AA: You wrote and performed many of the songs on the show, were there any guidelines for composing the music and songs for Pinwheel?
GJ: Everything was left up to me as far as the songs were concerned. I tried to have everyone involved in the music with a special musical spot for each character. I firmly believed that the music for such a young audience should be totally appropriate for an older audience as well. Only the lyric content should have certain considerations.
PSC: Was there ever a Pinwheel record album or songbook, for the general public to purchase that is? If not, why not?
GJ: There was a Pinwheel Songbook and I have no idea what happened to it. Nickelodeon changed hands and companies many times and I think that many things got lost in the shuffle.
PSC: Going off that last question, there are many (MANY) fans who would like to know what happened to those songs? Do you still have them? Have you ever thought about producing a Pinwheel CD of your own?
GJ: I do have copies of a few but my thoughts are forward and I've been thinking of writing new material to produce. We'll see what the future brings. There is a song on YouTube which is performed by John Legend on Sesame Street that I wrote. I really like this performance as well as the original version which was performed by David and Olivia on Sesame Street many years ago. That version is on YouTube also.
PSC & AA: We know that for the first two years Pinwheel was filmed in Columbus, Ohio and aired on QUBE before Nickelodeon bought it. How did it come about that they (Nickelodeon) bought the show? Were there any major changes made and if so how did it affect the cast or the show in general.
GJ: Pinwheel and the other shows which were produced in Columbus Ohio, only one season, actually became Nickelodeon. After the CUBE project American Express joined Warner Communications and became WarnerAmex and Nickelodeon was formed with Pinwheel being one of the surviving shows from CUBE. The name Nickelodeon came from Pinwheels producer Sandy Kavanaugh. When we moved to New York the cast, staff and aspirations for the show grew. It was all for the better. The Pinwheel most people know is the result of the New York production which lasted for two seasons. I wish it had gone on longer to get more of a chance to grow with it. Many characters, both human and puppet were added. Craig and Olga Marin, both very talented performers and puppeteers were a great addition to the show, adding many characters and depth to the cast. Sal and Smitty were also added as was Kim. It was a much more professional full blown production than the experiment in Ohio.
PSC: Why were those changes necessary?
GJ: CUBE wasn't a full commitment to programming for cable. At that time there was no programming for cable. Cable was only a way to get broadcast television to outlying areas. So this was a really revolutionary idea at the time and sort of an venture into the unknown. With the positive results in Ohio Warner Communications and other entertainment companies made more of a commitment to programming for cable so the next season of Pinwheel were approached with bigger budget and grander dreams. It was a good thing, the beginning of Nickelodeon and on a bigger scale the beginning of major programming for cable television.
PSC: Again going off the previous two questions. I found this link and of course I recognize you, Brad Williams, Ebenezer and very fuzzy headed Plus & Minus, but I have no idea who the other people and characters are. Can you please tell us who these people and other characters are? http://www.qube-tv.com/qube-tv/PINWHEEL.html
GJ: The top picture is of the Wonkels, some of the first puppets on the CUBE version of Pinwheel. Then there are early versions of Plus and Minus with the brilliant creator Brad Williams with the red hair and producer Sandy Kavanaugh on the left. Brad also created Ebenezer Squint and Aurelia. Next is director Andy Furgerson formerly of the Electric Company (he also taught me to play tennis after shoots). I don't know who the next gentleman is. In the next photo with the frizzy hair is Robert Morton producer of How Do You Like Your Eggs, who went on to produce the tonight show with David Letterman. Andy and Me.
PSC: Could you please, officially, tell us who took over the role of “Coco the Mime” when C.C. Loveheart left? Why did she leave and did the character change any when the other actress took over the role?
GJ: Lindanell Rivira filled the spot left open by CC Loveheart leaving the show. I don't know why she left.
AA: Do you believe that having Jake (an African-American) and Kim (an Asian-American) as the main characters on the show was a revolutionary step for Pinwheel? Were issues such as race and diversity discussed on a children's show such as Pinwheel?
GJ: I think that the thoughts of race and diversity on Pinwheel and all quality children's shows of the time were expressed by example. With very young children there are no issues, only people.
PSC: As with “Jake” and “Kim,” can you give us the backstory on “Sal and Smitty?” They were older characters, were they meant to represent parents or grandparents and the wisdom that comes from age?
GJ: They certainly represented older folks but more than that was the care and love with which they interacted with each other.
AA: Pinwheel was originally a live show that was broadcast to children in Columbus, Ohio, on the QUBE system for twelve hours a day. How did it stay on air for that long?
GJ: Pinwheel was never live.
AA: What was the typical shooting/production schedule on the set of Pinwheel?
GJ: Arrive at 8am…makeup and wardrobe at 8:30…shooting at 9:30…lunch from 12-1… wrap at 5pm.
AA: Do you remember the first time Pinwheel ever went on air?
AA: What was it like touring on the road for the Pinwheel roadshow? Did you enjoy meeting any Pinwheel fans across the country, or was it too hectic for you?
GJ: Touring with the Road Show and meeting the many Pinwheel fans is one of the great adventures of my life. To meet the many people who wanted to see you, take a picture with you and get your autograph was an incomparable joy and honor. To see that what you were doing was bringing happiness into so many lives is something I could never tire of. I could go on and on about the Road Show.
AA: Could you tell us how you got involved with Hocus Focus and how you came to compose the music for the show? Do you have any insight into the creation and development of Hocus Focus?
GJ: I was asked by Andrea Cvirko, the producer, to compose the theme music for Hocus Focus.
AA: What fond memories do you have working on those two shows? Were there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories?
GJ: **For some reason this question was left unanswered. My guess is that it was a simple mistake.**
AA: Do you think Pinwheel still has an impact on the children who grew up watching it? How popular was it at the time?
GJ: I certainly hope that Pinwheel has had some positive impact on its viewers. That's why I am communicating with you, because you seem to have an appreciation and interest in the heart of the matter.
PSC & AA: Do you ever have fans just come up to you on the street and recognize you? What is that like after all these years?
GJ: Many years ago being recognized was a common occurrence but so much time has gone by and the viewers have grown so I don't think that Jake or Pinwheel are in their consciousness these days.
PSC: Has anyone ever sent you any fan art or a fan fiction about Pinwheel?
GJ: During Pinwheels hey day…yes!
PSC: How do you feel about the two Nickelodeon books that have come out on the market for the last few years? Namely “Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics, and Economics of America's Only TV Channel for Kids” by Heather Hendershot, and “SLIMED!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age’ by Mathew Klickstein?
GJ: Before I read this question I had never heard of them. I doubt if I'm mentioned.
AA: Do you still have any Pinwheel or Hocus Focus memorabilia?
GJ: A few pictures and fan mail for old times’ sake.
PSC: Do you have any direct, or indirect, knowledge as to why Nickelodeon canceled both Pinwheel and Hocus Focus?
GJ: Not really. After producing two seasons in the early 80's they would flip flop the seasons on the rational that new audiences emerged each year. Economics is my guess.
PSC: Is there any truth to the rumor that Pinwheel was actually canceled in 1982 but Nickelodeon kept airing reruns of it until 1990?
GJ: They stopped production after 84 I think and then showed reruns…yes.
AA: Some sources say that Nickelodeon started under the name of Pinwheel in 1977, while others say that Pinwheel was just a show that was on Nickelodeon, which began in April 1979. Can you clear up this dispute?
GJ: Pinwheel was the flagship pre-school show on Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon was comprised of many shows…not that many.
PSC: There have been many rumors as to why Nickelodeon has never put Pinwheel, or Hocus Focus, on DVD. Do you think they will ever will released it? Why or why not?
GJ: I really don't know.
PSC: For those fans who collect Classic Nickelodeon videos/DVDs and other memorabilia, do you have any insights as to where we can find copies of these programs? For privet use – not to be distributed; at least I (PSC) would never distribute them.
GJ: I'll give this some thought.
AA: How does it feel to know that there are so many fans out there who have such wonderful memories of both Pinwheel and Hocus Focus?
GJ: Very Gratifying…are there many?
AA: Did you have any involvement with the young channel of Nickelodeon? If so what was the full extent of this?
AA: Many early Nickelodeon viewers remember the, "Put Another Nickel In (The Nickelodeon)" segments which featured a mime. Do you know who the mime was or how those were produced?
GJ: I recorded the music for these promos but had no involvement in the production and I have no idea who that mime was.
AA: What acting, or music, projects have you done since Pinwheel?
GJ: I have produced several records, written for Sesame Street, performed with Twyla Tharp's stage production of Hair and have produced and directed many audio books.
PSC: Internet Movie Data Base has you listed as being in a Dukes of Hazard episode entitled “Granny Annie.” I’ve seen that episode a few times and that gentlemen is not you. So were you on the show and if so which episode was it?
GJ: Not me…
PSC: Do you have a website or Facebook page where fans can keep up with your career or send you a message?
GJ: I don't have either…I'm a bit of a recluse when it comes to social media, but maybe I should lighten up a bit.
PSC: Our final question isn’t a question at all, it’s a message from an old friend of yours. Craig Marin sent me a message to pass on to you:
"Please tell Jake that Molly O'Mole sends him "worm regards.""
GJ: They don't come any better than Molly or Craig and Olga for that matter. Three of the most talented people I have ever met!
All the Best,
George Jacob James