The true story of a typing application with a lady's face on the box.
Earlier this month, VICE ran a story about the now-famous Berenstein/Berenstain Bears conspiracy theory, positing that we live in a Matrix-style reality simulation, not the reality of our childhoods, where "Berenstain" had a third "e" in it. Conspiracy theories, aside, however, it's spelled "Berenstain" and it always was.
But maybe it'll also blow your mind that there was never a living, breathing human being named Mavis Beacon, and that you learned to type from an emotionless robot with a human face slapped on it.
"She's our Betty Crocker. She's our symbol of excellence," Joe Abrams, one of Mavis Beacon's creators told VICE in an interview. Abrams was one of the founders of The Software Toolworks, the company that designed Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!.
If you grew up in the 80s, some tech-savvy person you knew forked over a whole $39.99 to get their hands on Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!, a sensational new educational tool. If you grew up in the 90s, maybe you remember Mavis as the least appealing "game" in the bundle of CD-Roms your dad picked up at Costco. Either way, it was always around.
And someone probably made you spend some time practicing on it. While there were actual great PC games out about killing Nazis, killing space demons, and killing it at puzzle-solving, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing! wasn't so much a game as, well, a system for teaching you how to type without looking at the keyboard.
Abrams told us the creation of a whole fictional character was part of the company's overall strategy at the time: Anthropomorphize the programs. This started with 1985's The Chessmaster 2000, which stood out from a large crop of early chess games and became a legendary franchise.
"We felt like if you could believe that you were playing another person, as opposed to a machine, that would make it much more engaging," Abrams said. He and his team hired character actor Will Hare to dress up as a wizard, and pose for the now iconic cover. Hare's chin-scratching old man character forever symbolized, as Abrams put it, "a person, a wizard, a chessmaster!" rather than a "black box," a term Abrams uses for the computerized rules and the opponent's artificial intelligence.
Mavis Beacon was the next logical step. Typing programs were huge at the time, Abrams told us, but there wasn't a solid system with brand recognition to work from. "As computer software became more mass-market, people were looking much more towards associating movies and other products with computer products, so there was a lot of licensing and promotion," Abrams said, adding, "It wasn't like Evelyn Wood's Speed Reading."
Evelyn Wood was a teacher in the mid-twentieth century who invented the term "speed reading," and made a name for herself by co-creating a program called Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics. In 1985, two years before Mavis Beacon debuted, an Evelyn Wood PC application had been released called The Evelyn Wood Dynamic Reader.
But there was more to the creation of Beacon than the company's policy of anthropomorphism in service of sales. According to Abrams, it's a story of serendipity.
The Software Toolworks had recently combined with a software company owned by a minor celebrity named Les Crane. Crane, who had an excess of personality, had been a talk show host in the 1960s, and a creator of weird, spoken-word music in the 1970s. According to Abrams, Crane was instrumental to the creation of Mavis Beacon.
One day at their office in Beverly Hills, during the creation of their typing program, Crane asked Abrams to join him on a trip to Saks Fifth Avenue. According to Abrams, there at the perfume counter, while shopping for a gift, Crane and Abrams met their typing teacher.
Abrams described Renee L'Esperance as a "stunning Haitian woman," with "three-inch fingernails." Crane instantly wanted to put her face on the box for his typing software. They got to talking, and despite the concerns Abrams voiced ("She's never been near a keyboard!"), they soon made a deal. Abrams told us they paid L'Esperance a flat fee, bought her a conservative outfit that befitted a typist, and rented a business square in Century City on a Sunday, in order to take the cover photo. As for her long fingernails, Crane said "Don't worry. We won't show her hands," according to Abrams.
Owners of one of the first 10,000 printings of the program can get a glimpse of her hands, however. There's a flap, featuring a full body photo of L'Esperance walking with someone who is ostensibly a pupil in her typing academy, played by Abrams' son.
Abrams said Crane came up with the first name, "Mavis," in honor of singer Mavis Staples. "Beacon," had something to do with a "beacon of light," Abrams said.
To this day "Mavis Beacon" somehow just sounds like a legendary mistress of the keys. I dare you to come up with something more plausible. Gladys Clackson Teaches Typing? Cheryl Tickering Teaches Typing? Margot Martindale Teaches Typing? Nothing even compares to Mavis Beacon.
If it's been a while since you actually "played" Mavis Beacon teaches typing, you should try nostalgia tripping on it for a while. It scratches the same itch as retrogaming with Oregon Trail, except it's even more educational.
In 1987, when the program debuted, there was no Snopes.com, so your imagination could run wild. From the moment you saw the box the floppy discs came in, with it's friendly and businesslike female figurehead, the narrative seemed to write itself: Mavis seemed to be a professional lady in Reagan's 1980s. She'd risen to such excellence as a speedy and accurate typist—at the UN maybe?—that now it was time for her to pass on her technique to her fellow Americans.
Was it a lie? Not really, according to Abrams. "We did not tell anybody that we had made it up, nor did we tell anybody that it was real," he said. But he does seem to have allowed the myth to perpetuate.
"One day I was walking through ComDex, which was a big computer show back in the 80s, and one of my frenemies—who worked for a competing company—said, 'How did you land Mavis Beacon to endorse your product and use your teaching method? We've been after her for years, and we never could find her and get her to endorse our product!'" Abrams told us the folks at The Software Toolworks didn't respond by falsely claiming to have scored the endorsement of a legendary typist, "nor did we come out and do anything to say, this is not a real person."
That frenemy was far from the only one. "I thought I read somewhere that she had won a big typing contest, or that she ran a school, or something," a guy named Brent Bynum told The Seattle Times in 1995. "Teachers call in and want to know more about Mavis and where she's teaching these days," Adrienne Hankin, who ran PR for the Mavis Beacon brand told The New York Times back in 1998.
When we pressed him to see if he ever had the same kind of possible backstory for Mavis Beacon that we did, Abrams claimed there really never was one. "We had three goals. To walk into a software display and have our package catch your eye, number one. Our second thing was, we wanted you to turn the package around and read the back copy. Third, we wanted you to take it to the cash register," he said.
According to Abrams, things got off to a rough start, and that might have been cause by old-fashioned racism. "There was feedback that said an educational product with a black woman on the cover will not sell in certain parts of the country." This led, he suspects, to early market performance that was only one third the rate of sales projections. Eventually, The New York Times endorsed it, Abrams said. "I think that the pull from that article caused distributors who were initially reluctant to take it because of the package to have to take it because the demand for the product was so great."
Regardless of the seemingly racial undertones of the early delay in success, Abrams said, over time, Mavis Beacon "just became part of the popular culture." Mavis Beacon taught millions of people to type. Today, her name means touch-typing. In February for instance, Techcrunch described a blank keyboard as "For Mavis Beacon Graduates Only." A good way to say you still "hunt-and-peck" as you type is "I'm no Mavis Beacon."
Today, Abrams no longer has any control over the Mavis Beacon brand, the rights to which are shared by two publishers. For a while, Beacon was digitally edited into new outfits. Today, she's played by a different model entirely. Abrams' feelings on that are mixed.
"It's a little strange, I have to say. I'm really glad it's still there, I'm glad that still, kids are learning how to type because of the product, but it doesn't look anywhere near the product was when we did it, so I don't have that strong association with it."
"She used to look much more conservative because teachers used to be viewed as much more conservative. Now she's more of a modern professorial type of teacher," Adrienne Hankin told The New York Times.
Where is Mavis—I mean Renee L'Esperance—today? Abrams can't quite say. "We had some occasional contact with her through 1990, and she was thrilled about the success, and started to be recognized," he said, but 1990 was the year The Software Toolworks left LA for San Francisco, and Abrams and L'Esperance lost touch.
According to a 20-year-old story in The Seattle Times, the last anyone had heard of L'esperance, she was living a quiet life back in the Caribbean. And she's probably not sleeping on stacks of money either; according to that story she does not collect residuals.
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