Created by and for kids, with its young cast members romping through skits, songs and jokes sent in by viewers and speaking their secret language (“Ubbi Dubbi”), ZOOM, created by GBH, debuted on PBS in 1972 with a pure focus on fun. Now 50 years and three national Emmy Awards later, creator and original producer Christopher Sarson takes a look back at the origins of this iconic series.
“My objective in life is to let people have fun,” he says.
ZOOM ran from 1972-78, and each year, about 1,000 kids tried out for the coveted seven roles — and GBH auditioned every single one. “Out of those 1,000 kids, 993 were not going to be accepted,” Sarson recalls. “I didn't have the heart to say no, so I made sure the auditions were fun and exciting.”
His affinity for children, he adds, is part of his nature.
“I deeply believe in kids. I deeply believe that if you are clear and say what you want from children, nine times out of ten, you can get it.”
While ZOOM is lauded for being ahead of its time, with its racial and gender diversity and kid empowerment, Sarson says he was looking for something else.
“We weren't looking for color of skin. We weren't looking for good looks,” he says. “We were looking for intelligence and imagination. And you find that in kids of all races.”
Sarson worked at GBH during the heady 70s, when Julia Child was strolling the hallways and NOVA and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE were garnering growing critical acclaim. A native Brit, he had also just secured GBH’s rights to air MASTERPIECE. At one point, he recalls, MASTERPIECE was number one in all-adult programming on PBS and ZOOM was number one in off-peak programming.
The spark for ZOOM (which he originally pitched as Zoom In/Zoom Out) came one day as he brought his own two children to a birthday party.
“The look on their faces, when they entered this crowded room where they didn’t know everyone, really spoke to me,” he recalls. “Everything in their affect said, ‘we'd like to be your friend, we'd like to get to know you — it was that feeling that I wanted to bring to other children.” GBH’s successive children’s programs, such as Arthur and Molly of Denali, built on that legacy of empathy and kindness.
ZOOM’s energy, captured in its buoyant song “C’mon and Zoom!” caught on instantly, thanks to the cast. Sarson recalls that when he heard the first cut of the tune at one of the early rehearsals, it didn’t grab him. “I thought we could do better,” he recalls. “But the kids who had been casually listening picked up on the tune right away and they were right — kids rule.”
He’s amazed at the effect that ZOOM has had on people. Over the years, in the least likely settings, he hears again and again how influential it was.
“We moved to Colorado and we were at a dinner party with a number of older adults and their grown children who were about 40 — this was about 30 years after ZOOM,” he recalls. “The older adults were talking about ordinary topics, like the weather and local news, and about halfway through the dinner, one of the kids turned to the other and said in Ubbi Dubbi, ‘aren't we sitting with a lot of boring people?’”
They were amazed when Sarson responded in Ubbi Dubbi and revealed his role in the program. The lasting impact and recognition, he said, is “enormously flattering and humbling.”
“ZOOM got into the fiber of kids’ minds and hearts,” he says. “We hit a nerve. It was fun and it worked.”
As to the 50th anniversary, says Sarson, “the best part is that 21 of the ZOOMers that I worked with as the show’s producer are still in touch — we are a family, no question.”
More to explore here:
· Globe Magazine published a feature article “50 years ago, ‘Zoom’ took over TV with Ubbi Dubbi, that ZIP code song, and 10,000 letters a week” on Sunday, January 9. The piece includes reflections from creators, GBH-ers, cast members and more.
· Join Sarson and original cast members as they share their favorite memories at this GBH event on January 26.
· Celebrate ZOOM’s 50th anniversary in style with official apparel including hoodies, hats and t-shirts! Shop now at zoom.shop.pbskids.org.
· Explore 50 years of ZOOM here. Explore this look-back and these videos from ZOOM from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, a collaboration of GBH and the Library of Congress.