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July 21, 2015 6:50 AM   Subscribe

In the 1970's, Sesame Street wasn't the only educational puppet show in town. The Letter People was a literacy program and television series that taught phonics with an unusual bunch of 26 characters. Here's the entire 60 episode run. The production values improved a bit as the show went on, evolving from black backgrounds and simple sets to more elaborate ones. Every Letter Person had their own theme song, featured in their introductory episode; here's all twenty-six of those in alphabetical, and thus wildly anachronic, order. Absent from the show are the songs of Misters R, X and Q (the last three Letter People to debut in the show - they'd clearly gone through design changes by then, ESPECIALLY Mr. X).

Some more Letterpeopleology: a trip back in time to Progressive Boink articles covering each Letter Person (Part 1, Part 2 - the latter has many broken images, but you can see what the characters look like in the videos above and below). And what the hey, have an article about Nickelodeon's first show, Pinwheel.

In the 90's, as mentioned in those PB articles, the Letter People program was bought out and retooled to have less-weird character designs, remove most references to junk food (Gooey Gum remains) and attain a 13:13 gender ratio. YouTube has all 26 songs from that program, including tunes old and new: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
posted by BiggerJ (31 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Wow! Great post, BiggerJ!
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:55 AM on July 21, 2015

This is terrific!
posted by JHarris at 6:58 AM on July 21, 2015

I was in kindergarten in 1978, some 37 years ago. But the *second* I started reading this post, I heard in my head, "Mr. T has TALL teeth."
posted by Chrysostom at 7:07 AM on July 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

Wow, I never knew there was a television show. In our kindergarten class we had the inflatable letter people and would just listen to a record about them including their song.
posted by dances with hamsters at 7:07 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Didn't they face some controversy as far as sexism? IIRC, the 21 consonants were all male, but only the 5 vowels were female. I believe they even ended up redoing at least some of the vowels because they were largely negative, which made it even worse.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:09 AM on July 21, 2015

Oh my God! Yazzzzzzzzzz!

I remember this coming on before school let out, so we only caught it as a treat when the teacher was particularly nice or when I was home sick. Great!
posted by absalom at 7:18 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

When does the Skin-Taker show up?
posted by Rock Steady at 7:18 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I know we watched these (or at least listened to the songs) in kindergarten (~1985) and had the inflatable letters but I have so few memories of these beyond "I know this is something I've seen/heard." But then, I went into kindergarten already knowing the alphabet and how to read, so I think I kind of just checked out during these lessons.
posted by darksong at 7:25 AM on July 21, 2015

OMG the inflatable letters.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:30 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think of this as a St. Louis thing (I think it was produced by the local PBS station). Growing up in St. Louis in the 80s, this was on all the time. My favorite part is the theme song, and you'd get to hear it four times during a half-hour airing (before and after each 15-minute segment).
posted by mama casserole at 7:30 AM on July 21, 2015

Holy shit, this was THE way we did the letters in kindergarten and I had know idea it was a thing other than something my horrible kindergarten teacher used.

(I have never hated a teacher the way I hated my kindegarten teacher and up until that point, I had never disliked an authority figure at all even once.)

Didn't they face some controversy as far as sexism? IIRC, the 21 consonants were all male, but only the 5 vowels were female.

I don't know about any controversy (though it seems likely since they changed it), but I do remember girls in my class being pissed about it, which is pretty awesome in hindsight since the awesome girls who were pissed about it grew up to be fairly awesome women if Facebook is any indication.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:43 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was sick often as a kid, and so I got to watch a ton of midday PBS educational TV, the stuff they'd play so teachers could record material for classroom use. The Letter People was often among it.

I've considered writing an AskMe to find out about some of those shows that I've forgotten the names of, to try to track them down. Shows like:
  • A show I think set in a candy store, with a little boy I think was named Eric, and what I think were his grandparents, who illustrated concepts from arithmetic with candy and these little number magnets.
  • A show about a newspaper copy writing department, where I learned about the word gobbledygook.
  • A show for older people about a husband and wife team of house painters who were studying for their GED and went over concepts in geometry and algebra, who would use the blank walls of the house they were painting as a giant whiteboard to illustrate concepts they were learning. I credit this show for a lot of my interest in math.
  • A show with early CG rendering of robots in a 3D world who were also learning algebra. I remember the humor in this being pretty good for its genre
  • A cartoon series of fable-like stories illustrating math concepts. I remember particularly a story where the three little pigs bought lengths of wolf-proof rope for keeping out the Big Bad Wolf, but had to figure out how much area a given length of rope could bracket so they could build a large house within it.
  • One I did manage to rediscover was the Canadian kid sci-fi series Read All About It. Link is to a post I made about it some years back.
posted by JHarris at 7:56 AM on July 21, 2015

Male/female isn't quite as bad if you look at English letter frequency - vowels are 38% of letter usage.

Not, obviously, that that excuses anything.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:03 AM on July 21, 2015

Mr. T has TALL TEETH! Thanks for this!
posted by Stewriffic at 8:08 AM on July 21, 2015

I slip into my super socks! I had no idea this was a show, we just listened to the songs when I was in kindergarten in 1977/78.

A show about a newspaper copy writing department, where I learned about the word gobbledygook.

Could this have been The Write Channel? It's about a TV reporter bug named R.B. Bugg, but the concept sounds similar.
posted by schoolgirl report at 8:16 AM on July 21, 2015

It's not that, I remember the characters in the show in question were all human beings, and played by live actors. Thanks though. I'll probably write an Ask about these before long.
posted by JHarris at 8:27 AM on July 21, 2015

Meanwhile, in Canada: Readalong.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:47 AM on July 21, 2015

When does the Skin-Taker show up?

Common mistake, you're thinking of Candle Cove.

I seriously could not look at the screen when the skin taker showed up. He just descended out of nowhere on his strings, just a dirty skeleton wearing that brown top hat and cape. and his glass eyes that were too big for his skull. Christ Almighty.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:49 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

We had these too. I remember it being a Big Deal if you were the kid who got to go fetch the inflatable letter person from the cabinet. I got to do that once, but I don't remember the letter. I also knew how to read already so I don't think I paid much attention aside from being disappointed that I couldn't play with the inflatable toy (we passed it around the circle, but were not allowed to keep it long). I remember that classroom, though. It was a temporary building right next to the swingsets, and there wasn't much grass around outside (new school). I remember my giant green pencil, Big Chief red exercise book, and the hard plastic desks with the sliding bins under the top.

And not much else. So I guess Letter People were a success, if they are one of my few remaining kindergarten memories.
posted by emjaybee at 8:49 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

From the episode guide that JHarris posted:

NOTE: This is Mr. Q's only appearance in the length and breadth of the series. Never again will you get the sense that Mr. Q talks remarkably like Paul Lynde.

Not only that, but he's introduced as "very unique" and "fast with a quip".

He sounds a little bit more Snagglepuss than Lynde does, but that doesn't really remove the queer from the Q if you know what I mean.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:07 AM on July 21, 2015

When I would look into the history of these magical learning devices, my takeaway was always how hilarious it was that both my brother and I had these in Kindergarten, as that would put them still in active use until 1993. It would seem laughable occasionally that a show so clearly set in the 70's would still be used over twenty years later, but then I'd utter hysteria around the letter people themselves, and it made sense.
My school was one building with K-8, so every kid in town went to the same building until high school. So everyone knew when a new letter person was showing up. Because as far as everyone was concerned, the letter people were real, and you'd see Mr. K in the gym, or Mr. M behind the cafeteria counter with a hairnet and eventually the class would be chaperoned in and they'd see the particular letter person and a whole class just lose their damn mind and it was adorable. Of course, if one of them met with an unfortunate accident and started deflating, they'd be sent off to the nurse who would inflate them back up and put a big band-aid over the hole and all was right again.
It wouldn't surprise me whatsoever if they were still being used there to this day.
posted by WeX Majors at 9:09 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

and after a quick scrounging through my desk, I found some buried treasure:
The oldest thing I probably have considering it was made over a decade before I was born.
posted by WeX Majors at 9:18 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I checked with my local Letter People expert, MeFi's own Wendy McClure, and she confirmed the reworking of the Letter People to address sexism:
Miss O was originally "Obstinate" and they changed her to "Optimist." Miss I was "Itchy" and then became an "Incredible Inventor." And then after that they opened the consonant jobs to females, who no longer had to dwell in the vowel secretarial pool. It became a more equal-opportunity alphabet.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:17 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is relevante to my interests.
posted by comealongpole at 10:26 AM on July 21, 2015

When I was in kindergarten (1986), we had the Letter People inflatables and their songs (on vinyl), and I lost my damned mind every week when a new letter was introduced. I loved these characters. Loved them so much that my parents somehow managed to acquire Q, U, and W inflatables for me to keep. My father had a tube of whatever epoxy was best at sealing broken seams, so whenever an inflatable was injured, I got to take it home for repair. Somewhere in the family album is a photo of kindergarten-me surrounded by Letter People on the couch. I'm holding Miss E in my kindergarten class photo. Yes, Letter People were my jam back then.
posted by Servo5678 at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Holy shit, it's so weird when whole chunks of childhood memories are unearthed like this. I had completely forgotten about these, other than the inflatable letter people dolls we had in kindergarten (1977). All it took was the first bar or so of the theme song, and boom, memories flooding back, like a key opening a door that I hadn't even remembered was there.

And it was THE BEST that Mr. S was a superhero because I have a double-S name so that made me feel like a superhero.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:38 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wasn't going to post in this thread again, but then I had the revalation that the fact Miss I is not still an Incredible Inventor who likes to imbibe on Information and posts on the Internet and has an Instagram account (where a teacher could post pictures of their Miss I) is a perfect example of "behind the times"
posted by WeX Majors at 4:37 PM on July 21, 2015

JHarris: A show with early CG rendering of robots in a 3D world who were also learning algebra.

I remember the humor in this being pretty good for its genre
- I remember this. Whenever I was sick, I loved watched the educational shows that were on during schooltime. This was one of TVOtario's educational specials. I still remember this gag:

ROBOT A: There, I've covered the walls in this room with a grid so large that I can find where any two lines intersect!

ROBOT B: Neat. ...Where's the origin?

ROBOT A: ...What?

ROBOT B: You know, where x and y are both zero? Where do you start counting?

ROBOT A: ...I did not think this through.
posted by BiggerJ at 8:31 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes! I don't remember that exact bit, but that's exactly the kind of humor it had! Man, this isn't the first time I wish I could identify it and find it again on the internet.
posted by JHarris at 10:13 PM on July 21, 2015

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