I researched the show's history, from Portland to Hollywood to YouTube, to find out why.
Film stills courtesy of YouTube
When I was 16, my friend Jessica and I smoked in her basement in Dix Hills, New York as we watched a VHS tape of our favorite childhood movie, the 1989 children’s musical Wee Sing in Sillyville. As we ate nachos, we recited the dialogue and danced in front of the TV while speculating whether the actors had finger-banged each other between takes.
Wee Sing in Sillyville is the fourth of ten titles in the Wee Sing series, a collection of hour-long, direct-to-VHS children’s musicals featuring colorful characters, spoon-fed morals, and catchy renditions of public-domain children’s songs, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Created by Pamela Beall and Susan Hagen Nipp, two stay-at-home mothers from Portland, Oregon, the Wee Sing ethos—described by Nipp as “wholesome, safe, educational, nothing negative”—dominated the children’s entertainment market in the 80s and 90s, selling more than 65 million products worldwide.
Wee Sing in Sillyville was perfect entertainment for teenagers like Jessica and myself, who came of age during the the VHS home entertainment boom, because 16 was an interesting age: We still had vivid memories of our childhood, but we also had enough of a distance from our early memories to make snarky comments about them. Compared to other mid-1980s and early 1990s ephemera, like Saturday morning Disney cartoons, Wee Sing hasn't had quite the same online resurgence, but it has enjoyed a second life on YouTube, where a user who identifies himself as Mysterious Producer has posted full versions of the videos on his channel, as well as videos ranking the best and worst Wee Sing videos. (His criticisms mostly consist of minute details like, “the effects didn’t really seem magical to me” and “I hate these paper doll characters.”)
Like me, Mysterious Producer watched the videos as a toddler and didn’t think they had much of an audience until he rediscovered them as an adult. Unlike me, Mysterious Producer has turned his nostalgia into a hobby. After he posted the videos on YouTube, he discovered there was a “massive fanbase of Wee Singers.”
“Nowadays, there’s very little children’s programming that’s fun and educational while also being age-appropriate,” Mysterious Producer told me. “[The Wee Sing] videos were made for the very young, and no one else. When someone knows their audience, they are far more likely to hit their mark, and they did.”
Wee Sing is far from the only 1990s children’s home entertainment phenomenon to have amassed an online cult following. Thanks to websites like Buzzfeed (which devoted a listicle to Wee Sing in Sillyville last August) and Everything Is Terrible, even the shittiest, low-budget children’s TV shows have experienced a resurgence of popularity, for reasons mostly related to nostalgia rather than artistic quality. The internet has never made it easier for us to delve into our pasts, even the parts that we’d probably be better off not revisiting.
The same goes for the Wee Sing series. Wee Sing in Sillyville is a 58-minute-long, direct-to-video movie about Laurie and Scott, two children who are sucked into a magical world inhabited by a coloring book character named Sillywhim, a relentlessly upbeat, adorable woman with pigtails. The acting is wooden, the aesthetic low-budget (according to IMDB, the film was shot for $70,000), and the anti-racism narrative ham-handed, but the movie has struck a chord with many people.
As former elementary school teachers who specialized in music education, Beall and Nipp, who created the brand in 1977, certainly knew their audience. After they quit teaching to become stay-at-home moms, they regularly set up playdates with their children to sing traditional American songs. Beall said, “We couldn’t remember the third verse in ‘Farmer in the Dell,’ or what was the tune for ‘John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,’ so we went looking for a collection we could use as moms to refresh our own memory.”
Unlike today’s entertainment market, which is flooded with a plethora of music education resources, from Baby Mozart to an iTunes app that teaches infants the “Jazzy ABCs,” children’s entertainment included few educational programs for children in the late 70s and early 80s. “There was really nothing out there that we could find on the marketplace, no handy-dandy little booklet of fingerplays and songs,” Beall said. “We were scared of what was going to happen to these songs we’d loved so much as kids.”
Following an initial $200 investment, the women self-published a series of $5 booklets of children’s songs like “If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” with lyrics and illustrations to help guide musically-challenged parents. At first, they sold these short books at airports.
The West Coast publisher Price Stern Sloan picked up the booklet, Wee Sing Children’s Songs and Fingerplays, after it sold 20,000 copies within the year. The publisher encouraged Beall and Nipp to create audiotapes. They were initially concerned that the cassettes would inhibit the interactions between parent and child, but they relented and started releasing audiotapes in 1981.
Three years later, Nipp and Beall took their first steps into the burgeoning children’s VHS market, developing a treatment for their first film, Wee Sing Together. Written by Nipp and Beall, the first video is the story of Sally Smith, a cherubic (and insufferable) 10-year-old whose stuffed animals come to life and throw her a birthday party in Wee Sing Park. The hour-long video was long enough to have a sustained narrative and just short enough to hold the attention of kids between the ages of two and eight.
As Claudia Sloan, Price Stern Sloan’s executive producer, remembers it, the decision to enter the unproven field of children’s direct-to-video entertainment was a “big leap of faith”: “At the time, there were certainly kids’ videos on the market, but there was nothing really substantial, but video was sort of just coming into its own at the time, [so] it made sense for us to jump on that bandwagon.”
“We benefited from the musical theater formula,” said Nipp, who, like Beall, grew up watching musicals. “Lots of singing, lots of dancing, and not a whole lot of dialogue between songs.”
Compared to the rest of the videos, Wee Sing Together is not very impressive: The plot is threadbare, and the set looks like it was painted by a high school tech crew whose budget only allowed for the purchase of exactly two cans of paint (both unfortunately resemble mucosa at various stages of rhinovirus). Only the musical numbers are consistently on point. In “Rickety Tickety,” a hip-hop number that might as well be a Kidz Bop version of “Rapper’s Delight,” Sally flounces around on a table and raps about counting her birthday presents.
Yet the movie is also the most representative of the Wee Sing ethos because of how sharply it diverges from current family-friendly fare. Unlike contemporary kids’ movies, which tend to appeal to parents in the audience with sly in-jokes and pop culture references dating back to the Clinton administration, Wee Sing Together refuses to cater to grown-up tastes—as an adult, it’s impossible to watch the movie without being bored or resorting to snarky analysis, but you understand why Sally’s red party dress appeals to young children.
“Pam and I always told people, ‘It’s all about the kids, let’s keep that in mind,’” Nipp said. “We wrote the songs in the right tempos for kids, in the right keys for kids. Even in the choreography we worked hard at what tempo to do those in, and what motions kids could follow along.”
Inspired by the success of Wee Sing Together, Beall and Nipp signed on to make more videos. Between 1986 and 1995, they shot videos in Portland, with a predominantly local cast and crew. While Nipp and Beall mostly adopted a hands-off approach during filming, they were not afraid to step in when they saw saw someone compromising their vision. During final edits for 1988’s Grandpa’s Magical Toys, the women clashed with an editor over a scene featuring an anthropomorphized crayon doing the hokey pokey. When the lyrics called for the toys to put their “right hip in,” the crayon, who doesn’t have any hips to speak of, gets upset, and, in the original take, sticks his tongue out in defiance.
“The editor thought that was so cute, and Pam and I are going, ‘No, we will not do it that way, because we don’t want kids to mimic what the other characters do,’” Nipp remembered. “And they said, ‘That’s what kids do.’ And we said, ‘Well, we don’t want kids to do that.’”
The editor, of course, had a point—anyone who has a passing familiarity with children knows that kids stick out their tongues—but Beall and Nipp stuck to their guns. In the final cut of the scene, the crayon walks around in befuddlement, bellowing, “What’s a hip?” as the other toys enthusiastically comply with the instructions of “The Hokey Pokey.”
The bit is one of the wrier, more self-referential moments in the entire Wee Sing series—to the writers’ credit, it actually is funnier than the original shot. The scene also highlights what makes the series so refreshing to contemporary viewers to watch: In the age of Miley Cyrus, it’s impossible to imagine a contemporary parent or producer getting up in arms about something as innocuous as a tongue.
Wee Sing in Sillyville is the definitive film of the series—the Rashomon of the Wee Sing canon, if you will. Although the series as a whole tackles cultural issues of diversity and tolerance—albeit in a refracted, candy-colored sort of way—the movie's thinly veiled anti-racism narrative has the most obvious political bent.
“The other [Wee Sing] videos have entertaining storylines and silly songs, but to me Sillyville is a different kind of story,” said Renee Margolin, who played Sillywhim in the film. “There’s more of a concern, a gut feeling about it, where these kids have a serious dilemma and they independently come up with a solution.” The more grown-up theme partially stems from its grown-up source material—an Aryan Nation rally Nipp had witnessed in her neighborhood.
“It was a heart-wrenching situation, and we in the community thought, What are we supposed to do about this?” she said. “So I thought, How can we present this to children in a small way that they can understand?” The result was a magical world where colors didn’t like each other because they were different.
The thematic takeaway was simple, but obviously effective, since the film continues to resonate with its now grown-up fans. Fans even regularly recognize Margolin and her co-star Ryan Willard, who was cast as Scott at the age of seven, although Margolin is in her early 60s and Willard is in his early 30s.
“I get a lot of random Facebook friend requests with no messages, or emails saying, ‘Is this really you?’” Willard said. “I had no idea this movie was even going to be seen outside of Portland, but I’ve been recognized from it since I was, like, nine. It’s definitely an example of the smallest budget/biggest impact you could have.”
Although Margolin said she, along with other characters, appeared at the 1994 White House Easter egg roll, the brand didn’t expand like other children’s franchises. Nipp and Beall refrained from franchising Sillywhim or the other characters. Each video lived in its own independent universe, making it difficult for them to create a signature character for the brand.
“We didn’t necessarily have one character to hang our hat on. Each video was its own story,” Sloan said. “Whereas when Barney was created, that was one of the things they did differently and probably better than us—they had Barney, so they had a single branded character.”
Barney & Friends’s enormous overnight success in 1992 also signaled a shift in the traditional children’s entertainment market. “By the time they were doing the videos, there was this explosion with the market, which didn’t last very long,” said Wee Sing in Sillyville director David Poulshock, who also directed other films in the series. “So by our ninth title, things had changed pretty dramatically. There were all sorts of children’s performers, Barney-type projects out there, but by the mid-90s, they all just sort of seemed to implode.”
In 1993, Penguin purchased Price Stern Sloan, and MCA/Universal subsequently took over production of what would become the last of the Wee Sing videos, Wee Singdom, in 1996. The film, which features all of the Wee Sing characters and one new character (a stunningly uncharismatic musical note), was what Sloan referred to as Universal’s attempt to “create a Barney they could hang the series on.” When Beall and Nipp arrived in Burbank for production of Wee Singdom, they quickly realized they would no longer be working with local talent or controlling the series, as they had in Portland.
“When we did the videos in Portland, we were such a team,” Nipp said. “But in LA it was totally different. We didn’t have as much oversight, and Pam and I were trying to explain how we wanted things done, but Universal just knew better.”
It’s clear that the franchise had lost some of its luster: Wee Singdom’s songs weren’t as catchy, the characters weren’t as charming, and the budget was more strained. When I spoke to Mysterious Producer, he pointed out “that not one character in Wee Singdom blinks!” Even Sillywhim, who makes a cameo appearance in Wee Singdom, seemed a little bored. Margolin was in her 40s when they filmed Wee Singdom. An IMDB commenter referred to her as “long in the tooth.”
The executives at MCA/Universal apparently felt the same way. After the film’s release, they axed the series. The cancellation was painful for Nipp and Beall, but in many ways Wee Sing had reached its natural conclusion: The children’s VHS market was changing (Wee Sing's competitor, Kidsongs, ended in 1997, while production of Barney & Friends stopped in 2010), and its original audience from the days of Wee Sing Together had already reached pubescence.
During the mid-90s and early aughts, the children’s entertainment industry essentially became an oligarchy, falling into the hands of a select few major companies, like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. It became increasingly difficult for locally-owned companies to gain a foothold in the market. It also became increasingly difficult for Beall and Nipp’s original intent for the series—for kids to stay kids, for as long as possible—to hold true.
With the advent of PCs and the internet’s growing popularity, even their target audience was becoming too savvy for Sally, Sillywhim, and their ilk. “Markets were changing. Kids were becoming more sophisticated,” Sloan said. “Everything that Pam and Nipp were hoping wouldn’t happen, started to happen.”
What Beall and Nipp were somewhat surprised to learn was that although children’s market tastes were changing, Wee Sing was enjoying a renaissance online among nostalgia-happy adults like Mysterious Producer and myself. Now, Beall and Nipp regularly receive appreciative emails from adult fans, who often attach clips of themselves lip-synching and dancing to the songs on YouTube. One of them, Beall said, even danced to “Risseldy Rosseldy,” from Wee Sing in Sillyville, down the aisle during her wedding.
Wee Sing Productions has continued to try to evolve with the changing market. For the past several years, Beall and Nipp have worked tirelessly to transfer the videos to DVD, releasing dozens of books and CDs—Wee Sing America, Wee Sing Bible Songs, Wee Sing More Bible Songs—in the process. They’ve even brought Wee Sing's ethos into the 21st Century with two apps, Wee Sing & Learn ABC and Wee Sing & Learn 1, 2, 3.
Although the children’s entertainment market has changed drastically since the early days of Wee Sing, Beall and Nipp believe children haven’t. “We still think Wee Sing has great value for kids, because kids learn the best through music,” Nipp said. “If people want adult humor, negativity, tension, like what you see on most kids’ series today, then we’re done. But we don’t think that’s the case.”
To test this theory, and to determine whether Wee Sing was just as relevant to today's kids as it was to me, I recently showed Wee Sing in Sillyville to Annabel, the five-year-old girl I nanny for. In many ways, Annabel encapsulates the challenges Wee Sing faces in their contemporary target audience: She has her own iPad and loves high-budget, frenetically-paced cartoons like Phineas and Ferb and Littlest Pet Shop, which routinely lampoons adult-oriented phenomena like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and America’s Next Top Model (she also understands the context of both jokes).
Even though Annabel is only five, she already sees the world through a slightly adult lens. I wanted to gauge if Annabel was still wholesome and innocent enough to enjoy the colorful world of Sillyville, or if she was simply too jaded to fall for Wee Sing; perhaps she would see it as I did at 16, through a gauzy filter of snark, and speculate whether the actors had finger-banged each other between takes.
I am now 24 years old: still young enough to be nostalgic for my early childhood, but old enough for my most vivid memories of that period to start to ebb in my consciousness. As I watched Wee Sing in Sillyville with Annabel, her eyes fixed on the iPad screen, I realized that Annabel was not any savvier than I was at her age. If anything, the internet nostalgia factory has put Mysterious Producer and me in a perverse state of arrested development. Thanks to YouTube, we can turn on our iPads and re-experience our childhoods, over and over and over again.
I wondered how emotionally healthy that was, and if the same would be true for Annabel when she got to be my age. I wondered if it was still possible, in a world where kids have their own iPads and understand the context of cartoon animals’ America’s Next Top Model jokes, for the Wee Sing wish to come true and for Annabel to stay a kid for as long as possible.
When the movie ended and Annabel announced that she wanted to watch it all over again, I knew that it was.
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