To Lois, Skinnamarink
How do you know you were influenced by something when you can’t remember it?
Psychoanalytically we tend to scrub childhood memories for any lasting impact on our adult beings. That time I was caught smooching with Monica behind the partition in kindergarten — that must signify my fascination with voyeur, right? Not so fast. It’s not that easy and it’s never that easy. Our minds are sponges, sure, but they absorb any combination of any number of memories and non-memories — the things we forget happened at all but somehow stick in there, remaining well beyond imagined expiration.
Take, for instance, peanut, peanut butter. … And jelly.
At parties and when meeting new people, the topic of childhood television seems to surface. It’s an obvious focus of small talk. Most of us at dinner parties, of like age, have the same experiences growing up and watching some sort of television, whether educational or entertaining. We millennials talk often about “Full House” and “Boy Meets World” like they defined our era, but really they were shows about people like us, dealing with situations we may have endured. Stephanie lost the dog while walking him. Cory has weird feelings about a girl who kissed him. These things happened to us. We related. The fond feelings grow.
But then there’s earlier childhood television — the shows we watched between ages 2 and 8. For millennials a split appears, but it’s not always perfect. Late millennials are all over the place. They watched “Barney” on PBS and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” on Fox, then switched to the Britney-Justin “Mickey Mouse Club” on the Disney Channel, returning to Nickelodeon for “All That.”
Then there are early millennials, who mostly could rely on just one network: PBS.
All of my early millennial friends fondly remember “Sesame Street” and all of Jim Henson’s Muppets. They worship Mr. Rogers and carry strong feelings about “3–2–1 Contact.” And of course, there’s “Fraggle Rock.” Oh how there’s “Fraggle Rock.”
I can’t remember sitting down to watch “Sesame Street.” Our family leaped over PBS, so between 1988 and 1992 I scrounged to find the programming I could watch as a small, impressionable, and decently intelligent tyke. That programming? Game shows. Countless game shows. “Press Your Luck,” “Jeopardy!,” and “Wheel of Fortune.” Child-friendly game shows like “Finders Keepers” and “Fun House.” And, of course, the mother of them all, “The Price is Right.” Those who knew me as a 4-year-old will admit I was practically raised by Bob Barker, however odd that sounds.
Despite all of those game shows — and “Small Wonder,” which I loved because I felt a kinship with the hyperactive robot girl VICKI — there was one true children’s show, one show meant especially for children, that I couldn't live without.
Peanut, peanut butter. … And jelly.
Lois Lilienstein died Thursday. In Toronto in 1978, Lois and two friends — Sharon Hampson and Bramwell Morrison — created a three-part vocal group rooted in folk but incorporating numerous styles, and aimed at educating and entertaining children. Their first album, “One Elephant, Deux Elephants,” was one of the most successful children’s albums ever produced in Canada. And it provided an instant template for a career of children’s music that would live on for three generations.
Sharon, Lois & Bram soon starred in their own Canadian television show, “The Elephant Show.” And Nickelodeon — which brought many Canadian series to America in its 1980s infancy — began airing episodes in the mid 1980s. The show’s concept was simple, as it should be for children’s shows: Sharon, Lois, and Bram, with friend Eric Nagler, would play with kids and their mascot life-size elephant, then sing a bunch of songs and smile and wave and generally be good people. Sometimes they might tackle an issue small children face. Always they would each wear one or two solid colors — for example, Bram sporting a green jump suit that exposes half his chest hair, and Sharon wearing a yellow sweater and bright blue pants. They wouldn't lay it on thick. They wouldn't repeat everything. They just sang and taught and had fun.
They also toured. Sharon, Lois, and Bram brought “The Elephant Show” to Philadelphia in 1988, and my parents bought us tickets. From what I remember, my dad, grandmom and I were going downtown to see Sharon, Lois & Bram live and in concert, and it was unquestionably the most exciting moment of my young life.
First we had to pick up Grandmom from her house in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, some 45 minutes away from our house in Philadelphia. Now, without fail, every time we visited her, I would get carsick on the ride up. And this time was no different, but unlike in times past, and maybe because I was so excited, I vomited more than ever and felt sicker than ever. I arrived at grandmom’s and rested on the couch for hours.
We never went. I never saw Sharon, Lois, and Bram live. The most excited day of my life became the saddest day of my life.
To this day if I think of peanut butter I sing, quietly and only to myself, “Peanut, peanut butter. … And jelly.”
That’s Sharon, Lois, and Bram.
Sometimes it won’t be peanut butter and jelly — maybe it’s maple syrup and butter, let’s say — but it’s the same tune, the one I learned from “The Elephant Show” some 25 years ago, at least. And I didn't realize that came from them until only recently, when I stumbled across a clip of the trio singing its song “Peanut Butter (And Jelly)”
So what else could there be? How many other ways did Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein, and Bramwell Morrison influence me?
It’s hard to say, and truthfully, I’ll never accurately know just how much they helped me grow and learn. If you sat me in front of an episode of “The Elephant Show,” I’m sure I could recall snippets of skits, a song here or there, but in no way could I instantly flash back to the moment I heard it back in 1987, or the look on my face as I imitated their hand gestures while singing to me that they loved me.
I don’t need to remember because just as I write these words, simple tears and forming at my eyes. Three adult singers — two Canadians and an American — somehow through television communicated to me, a fidgety three-year-old boy learning a whole lot of things at once — that love was in the morning and in the afternoon, and in the evening and underneath the moon. That simple gestures and politeness and song could make people happy and want to be around one another. That joy was everywhere, even in the very big and slow elephant.
And I can say that during those very crucial years of my life — those years when a bit of information connected with another bit of information, developing the patterns that formed the basis of my intellectual being — it was Sharon, Lois, and Bram who spoke to me and not away from me. It was they who smiled to me and waved to me and let me into their world of childlike wonder. It was they — and no other indirect influence — who told me repeatedly that they loved me.
I’m sure countless people told Lois Lilienstein how much joy she shared over her life. Sharon, Lois, and Bram each received numerous awards and plaudits for educating and entertaining children for more than three decades. People bought their albums and watched their show, and people attended their concerts and sang along and smiled and hugged them. They knew they had an impact on others.
Well, they had a huge impact on me. To this day I smile when I think about their show. And to this day I subconsciously sing about peanut, peanut butter. … And jelly.
Thank you, Lois, for giving a little more love to this young boy.
Skinnamarinky dinky dink, skinnamarinky do, I love you.
Email Timothy Malcolm at email@example.com.