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Words Are Made of Letter People
February 21, 2009 9:29 AM   Subscribe

The Letter People started as a collection of vaguely trippy drawings by illustrator Elizabeth Callen in the early 70s, but viewers of Midwestern PBS in the 70s and 80s might have learned to read from the Letter People puppet show produced by PBS station KETC in St. Louis. Set in the black void of "Letter People Land", the show allowed each character to introduce him or herself with a song, from the laid back, Carole King vibe in Miss A's song, to the bizarre sound collage of Mr. X (audio with fan-made video). And of course cashing in on the nostalgia craze, the new and improved letter people without references to junk food or the pesky marital status of the vowels.

Sing along with the other Letter People songs: Mr. B, Mr. C, Mr. D, Miss E, Mr. F, Mr. G, Mr. H, Miss I, Mr. J, Mr. K, Mr. L, Mr. M, Mr. N, Miss O, Mr. P, Mr. Q (and his lack of a song), Mr. R (an introductory skit from the show- the song that follows was only recorded for the album), Mr. S (voiced by Joneal Joplin, local actor and favorite of the St. Louis theatre scene), Mr. T, Miss U, Mr. V, Mr. W, Mr. Y, and Mr. Z. Feel like it's a bit of a boyzone with all those consonants? Watch the vowel ladies band together and get their girl-group on.
posted by Thin Lizzy (34 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes. The Letter People were on my TV and in my kindergarden classroom when I was a youngster growing up in St. Louis/Florissant. I forgot about this, probably on purpose, because I now remember that they totally freaked me out and gave me really bad nightmares when I was sick.

Thanks.
posted by chillmost at 9:43 AM on February 21, 2009


I was a big Mr. S fan in grade school, 1977. Not sure I ever saw the TV show, but we definitely listened to the music.
posted by schoolgirl report at 9:50 AM on February 21, 2009


Count me among those the letter people freaked out as a kid. There was something uncanny about them that I always found unsettling.
posted by MasonDixon at 9:54 AM on February 21, 2009


Grew up in St Louis with this in the 70s too, now I have the theme song looping in my head. I had no idea until this post that is was actually produced by KETC. Thanks.
posted by cgk at 9:56 AM on February 21, 2009


Ahhhhh PBS in the 70s.
Just innovative enough to be creepy as hell.

I remember sentient alphabet creatures, women trapped forever in badly-lit castle towers forced to read books and, most horrifically... I remember Outerscope I from Vegetable Soup

BONUS LATE 70s PUPPET CHILD-SCARRING TERROR VIDEO > Clicky
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:06 AM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, wow. I grew up in St. Louis, but like cgk I had no idea the shows were produced locally. Watching the letter people was one of the best parts of being sick. I remember having mono as a 7th grader and watching the letter people in a state of semi-hallucination. Only way to watch.

The song stays with me even now.

KETC
also has made a whole raft of documentaries.
posted by Monsters at 10:07 AM on February 21, 2009


The Letter People have genders-- consonants are male, vowels female.

I have some quirk where I feel that letters and numbers have genders along with some other qualities specific to the number or letter. It was especially pronounced when I was a kid, and I didn't understand that most people don't think that way. We had the Letter People in my kindergarten class, and I could not make my teacher understand that the genders were often wrong. The first time in my mind that the "real" gender and the assigned gender had conflicted, I remember telling my teacher But 'E' is a boy," as though it were self-evident. She disagreed, and said that since the character was Miss E, E was a girl. I didn't understand how she could not get something so obvious to me.

That was 30 years ago and I got frustrated a little bit recounting it!
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:20 AM on February 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh man, this is going to bug me. When I was in kindergarten (early 90s) we watched a similar program, except each "letter person" was the letter itself, rather than a puppet wearing a letter. I'm pretty sure it dealt with numbers, too. I've thought about maybe tracking it down since then, but never got around to it. Thanks for the reminder, though.

Mayor Curley: "I have some quirk where I feel that letters and numbers have genders along with some other qualities specific to the number or letter. It was especially pronounced when I was a kid, and I didn't understand that most people don't think that way. We had the Letter People in my kindergarten class, and I could not make my teacher understand that the genders were often wrong. The first time in my mind that the "real" gender and the assigned gender had conflicted, I remember telling my teacher But 'E' is a boy," as though it were self-evident. She disagreed, and said that since the character was Miss E, E was a girl. I didn't understand how she could not get something so obvious to me."

Heh, same here. Though it wasn't innate for me -- I'm almost certain it's because of the program I watched back then. In fact, I knew this PBS one wasn't the one I saw because the genders were "wrong".

I wonder if anybody else thinks the same re: letters/numbers and gender. Here are the ones I'm pretty sure about:

Male:
B E F H J K N P R S T X Y Z
1 2 3 5 7 8

Female:
A D G I L O Q U W
4 6 9 0

Ring any bells for anyone?
posted by Rhaomi at 10:45 AM on February 21, 2009


Run, it's the Silly Bull!
posted by JHarris at 10:49 AM on February 21, 2009


Ouch ouch OUCH.

I'm glad to see the Letter People, partly because it reminds me that I started planning my own knock-off called, ahem, "The Numbers". I got so far as drawing a picture of the numerals 1, 2, and 3 with googly eyes and stick arms but I realized, somehow, that I was a total hack and gave it up.

But, damn, Senor Cardgage, Outerscope II. Wow. Over the years, in times of extreme stress, food poisoning or staying up longer than 24 hours, that sort of thing, I have had quick flashes of Outerscope II in my mind. I thought it was like a night terror, some horrible short circuit in the common unconsciousness - I had no idea it was real.

But man, that got me to the Vegetable Soup intro, which is totally killer. And seeing that again made me massage search terms until I found the intro to Think About. That stuff was so great, and I only got to see it when I was home sick from school. I want to watch some whole episodes.
posted by dirtdirt at 10:59 AM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I should also remark....

Yeah, this was on local PBS quite a lot in the middle-of-the-day dead zone where most kids were at school and most people watching TV were housewives. I think they aired them then to allow teachers to record them for later classroom use.

I was out of school a fairly large percentage of the time, so I got well-acquainted with a lot of these weird little shows. I can remember the words (well most of 'em) of the theme song, which were overlaid over a cartoon drawing of a dog and a bunch of cartoon people running into an arch marked "Letter People Land":

"Come and meeeet the letter people,
come and see the whole family!
Words are maaade out of letter people,
A, B, C, D, follow me!
"

It was a weird, and occasionally frightening, show. I remember there was actually a profound sense of melancholy around their clip shows, which feature a lone night watchman puppet in a pitch-black room with a flashlight, wandering the Museum of Letter People Land, where the exhibits relate to past episodes. We heard his thoughts as he wandered the abandoned exhibits; the place seemed so deserted that there was a sense that this was the only person remaining in the show's odd little world, thinking back and remembering the good times filled with color and songs. Those shows got repeat a lot on local PBS, which drove the feeling home. He'd end some shows, thinking with his corny Humphrey Bogart voice, with:

"There are (some number? 216?) stories in Letter People Land... who knows? Maybe someday, there will be more."

It was like Gandalf mourning the passing of the elves from Middle Earth.
posted by JHarris at 11:03 AM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


dirtdirt, that's Outerscope II even.

A few months ago there were far more disturbing clips up of Outerscope I, but they have since been taken down by the user.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:08 AM on February 21, 2009


Wow, was just talking about this last night with a friend at a party. This was how I learned to write.
posted by sswiller at 11:20 AM on February 21, 2009


Kirkwood kid here who vividly remembers the Letter People, and must now try to get some intellectual work done while his brain sings "Come and meet the Letter People..." over and over.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:38 AM on February 21, 2009


The opening credits (plus bonus offensive racial stereotype!) are here.

I remember there was actually a profound sense of melancholy around their clip shows, which feature a lone night watchman puppet in a pitch-black room with a flashlight, wandering the Museum of Letter People Land, where the exhibits relate to past episodes.

God, yes! I loved those episodes when I was a kid.
posted by EarBucket at 1:54 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, this wasn't all a dream?

Is it also possible Mr. P did something bad to me? It's still kinda hazy...
posted by orme at 1:59 PM on February 21, 2009


We had inflatable letter people pinned to the wall above the chalkboard in my circa 1984 kindergarten classroom, I'm glad that those were real, and not just something I made up in my head.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:26 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ah, yes. Haven't seen these since the late 1980s, but the Miss O song still pops into my head whenever I read the word obstinate: "I'm Miss O, I'm obstinate. So obstinate. So obstinate" (sung to a marching beat). It's an unlikely word to learn as a kindergartner; perhaps that's why the little tune has stuck with me so long.
posted by c lion at 3:20 PM on February 21, 2009


I wonder if anybody else thinks the same re: letters/numbers and gender.

Mine are a bit different, and I also had character traits associated with some of the letters and numbers as a kid. For instance, 8 was a bully who picked on 6, and P was possessive of O, who just wanted to hang out with L, M, and N. Anybody?

Male:
ACDEFGILOQTXZ
124570
Any number ending in these excepting:
30, 60, 80, 90

Female:
BHJKMNPRSUVWY
3689
Any number ending in these.

Also, despite being a St. Louis native, I don't have any memories of watching this show, other than knowing all the words to the opening sequence and recognizing the cartoon dog and people. (The second song in that first link, that is.) Could be that it was a show my mom didn't like to watch with me and I only got to see the opening before she realized what it was and switched to a different channel or made me go play.

It's not that far-fetched. We never read any Dr. Seuss books either...
posted by Kimothy at 3:28 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


One of the few things I remember from Kindergarten was that every time we were introduced to a new letter, there would be a big production where our teacher would go into the closet and there would be a giant stuffed letter person there. There was a PBS show that had them interacting, but you wouldn't be exposed to a letter in the storyline until the character had been introduced. I was soooo hooked on the Letter People. In fact...

Dig dig dig...

I have a home made stuffed letter person, Mr.H, that my mother made for me as a child. Oh, God, the memories...
posted by cimbrog at 3:36 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Mine are a bit different, and I also had character traits associated with some of the letters and numbers as a kid. For instance, 8 was a bully who picked on 6, and P was possessive of O, who just wanted to hang out with L, M, and N. Anybody?

I can't remember most of the characteristics, but numbers CERTAINLY had personalities to me. Oddly, not genders.

I think I thought 9 was kind of a jerk.

To those others than felt like numbers has personalities: were/are you good at math? I'm pretty good at it (up until abstract algebra or so, anyway), and I've thought before that it might be related.
posted by flaterik at 5:26 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Branson, MO here and I was raised with plenty of exposure to the Letter People. I had absolutely no idea they weren't a national thing. One day a week in kindergarten we would all pile into the hallway to sit around the single TV cart to watch our episode of the Letter People. I can still see the way they speak before I even click through to the videos. All kinds of awesome. My three year old son is now sitting on my lap to watch some Letter People goodness for himself.
posted by shinynewnick at 8:21 PM on February 21, 2009


I'm getting really creeped out, all of a sudden.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 8:27 PM on February 21, 2009


Wow. So this is why none of my friends had seen this show, me being from St. Louis and most of my friends from the coasts. What show was this on after? Sesame Street? Mister Rogers? This show used to terrify me, with its black void and trippy characters, and it always seemed to sneak up on me after one of those shows.
posted by gc at 8:44 PM on February 21, 2009


I think I thought 9 was kind of a jerk.

Really? I thought his comeuppance was kind of tragic. You know, when seven ate nine.

I'm gonna pay for that one in confession.
posted by JHarris at 9:17 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh shit, I just watched that Outerscope clip, not thinking it was something I had ever seen. I think this must be what it feels like to recover a repressed memory.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:33 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow. I thought it was some sort of fever dream from my childhood, but damned if I couldn't have sung every word from that theme song. No wonder I feel obsessive about certain letters. Thanks KOZK.
posted by bayliss at 11:06 PM on February 21, 2009


I myself grew up in Oakville, a suburb of St. Louis in the 80's and remember watching this when my neighbor was babysitting me and my sister while my mom was working. I thought it was kinda cool at the time (I loved puppets as a child), but as I've gotten older and found clips of it, I can't help but feel a sense of creepiness to the show.
posted by Chocomog at 6:28 AM on February 22, 2009


"Come and see the letter people, come and join the family, words are made by the letter people, A B C D....follow me." I once made it a requirement for a former paramour to learn The Letter People theme song. I have serious Letter People love.
posted by psylosyren at 2:17 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another St. Louis native who didn't realize this show was local! I did like the Letter People, trippy though they were. I think it was the cleverness of some of the letter-play that did it--e.g., "v" never appeared at the end of a word because Mr. V tore his vest on the left side and was embarrassed if it showed; Mr. C. and Mr. K. fought about their shared sound and who would begin words, which is why you don't have hard-C words if the vowel is E or I (though he kind of cheated on that one, arranging with Mr. S. to borrow his sound. That stuff was just fun, because it made weird sense.
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:17 PM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Chocomog: hello from a fellow Oakville kid.

I loved the Letter People as a kid and was surprised to learn it was a St. Louis thing. Thanks for this post; it will be fun to show my kids the kind of stuff dad watched when he was their age.
posted by AgentRocket at 6:58 PM on February 22, 2009


Wow - locally produced - who knew?!

I won't lie. The letter people were never my first choice on TV, but as a kid, it beat the daytime talk shows or soap operas when you were spending a sick day in front of the tube.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:56 AM on February 23, 2009


I grew up in Southeast Michigan. I never knew there was a Letter People TV show, but my kindergarten teacher used the audio/visual materials in class, circa 1976.

There were two kindergarten classrooms in that school, but only set of inflatable Letter People. I can remember the first time I ever delivered a note for my teacher -- it was a request for the return of Mr D, which the other teacher denied having. I wonder if they ever found him?

After first grade, I moved to town that didn't use Letter People in the schools, and never quite could convince people that I was taught the alphabet by a inflatable donut-man and his friends. Good to know I'm not a crazy as everyone said!
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 12:06 PM on February 23, 2009


We did a Letter People-themed play in kindergarten. 30 years later, if I hear the phrase "Mr. T" I don't think of the mohawked gentleman, but, "has TALL teeth."
posted by Chrysostom at 1:11 PM on February 23, 2009


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