ZOOM’ holds treasured memories

New season starts Jan. 25 on PBS
By Pamela H. Sacks



She’s now 41, but she can still do “the arm thing.”

Her name is Bernadette Yao, and she was a member of the cast of the WGBH-produced children’s show “ZOOM” in the early 1970s.

It’s likely that Ms. Yao is the only ZOOMer from nearly 30 years ago who is still vividly remembered today. And it’s all because of her “signature move,” which was a series of fascinating contortions with her arms set to chimes and music.

“It almost looked like my arm was going all the way around, like a helicopter,” Ms. Yao said.

So many young viewers wanted to know how she did it that she eventually demonstrated it for them in one of the episodes.
Ms. Yao, who is married and has two daughters, 4 and 9, confided where the arm trick came from in a recent telephone interview from her home outside of Boston. She was stuck for an idea after another cast member performed her planned move, a backward walkover. She consulted with her father who knew a maneuver with the arms performed with swords by the cast of the Manchurian Opera.
Ms. Yao, of course, used no swords.
“I didn’t think it was very dazzling at all,” she said with a laugh. “I just thought, OK, this is something my dad taught me.”
After showing children nationwide how it was done, she would see others performing it everywhere she turned.
“It’s always surprising to me,” said Ms. Yao, who was 12 when she was a ZOOM cast member. “If people find out who I am, they do the arm thing.”
All of this is, in a sense, a testament to “ZOOM,” which is enjoying a rather popular revival. Unlike the first incarnation, the show now invites children from outside of Route 128 to tryout for one of the seven spots.
So far, one child from Central Massachusetts, Kevin “Buzz” Barrette of Auburn, has been a ZOOMer.
Buzz, a boy whose eyes crinkle when he smiles — and he smiles often — was in 40 episodes that were taped in the summer of 2000 and ran throughout last year. The other day, he reflected on the experience.
Buzz, who is now 12, said he was an instant celebrity at Auburn Middle School, where he is a seventh-grade honors student. Nonetheless, he said, the experience hasn’t changed him, and he enjoys chatting with people who recognize him.
His mother, Lynn Barrette, said she was amused when she and her son were at a shopping mall not long ago, and a very small child pointed to Buzz and blurted out, “ZOOM.”
“In public, it’s younger children who recognize him,” Ms. Barrette remarked.
“ZOOM” cast members no longer do signature moves, as Ms. Yao did, but Buzz, who plays the drums, created one of his own. When the cast members were taping their introductions, Buzz spontaneously followed his name with “bada bada boom.” The production staff loved it.
“ZOOM” began its first run in 1972, and lasted six seasons. Ms. Yao was in the third and fourth casts. Repeats ran until 1981, when “ZOOM” became history.
Then in the mid-1990s, executive producer Kate Taylor and her staff were kicking around ideas for projects while on a retreat. Each one that appealed smacked of the old “ZOOM.” Ms. Taylor also realized that if the show were to be revived, the Internet could create a truly interactive element.
“Looking around the landscape of TV, there was nothing like it, hosted by real kids, as opposed to Hollywood-type talent, nothing that encouraged the kids to have fun,” said Ms. Taylor, who worked on the show in the 1970s. “The time seemed right to bring it back.”
In Ms. Taylor’s view, children are pretty much the same as 30 years ago, but the world is a very different place — less safe, more drugs.
“Now, we have terrorism to boot,” she noted.
Yet, she said, the “ZOOM” concept is still relevant.
What children want is “to play and stay young and not grow up too fast and be silly and frivolous and be creative,” she said.
The fourth season of the retooled show will begin airing Jan. 25 (check local listings). The Web site is pbskids.org/zoom.
The new episodes, taped last summer, feature high energy, bubbly, somewhat precocious youngsters against a backdrop of newfangled graphics, bright colors and fast-paced action. The children make snacks and crafts, play games, perform simple science experiments and discuss matters that are on the minds of young people.
A new feature is “ZOOM Local,” in which PBS stations across the country can replace national segments with their own locally produced content featuring children in their communities.
Children may be the same as 30 years ago, but auditioning for “ZOOM” and taping the show are quite different.
Ms. Yao got involved after the show’s producers called the Chinese language school she attended looking for children to try out. She and her friends turned up, and two were chosen.
“They had us do games and hand an imaginary ball around the room and make up a story,” Ms. Yao remembered. “It was actually a lot of fun, and it put me at ease. I relaxed and got into the game.”
Buzz and his mother, on the other hand, responded to an audition call on a lark and found more than 2,500 other youngsters waiting in long, long lines at the WGBH studios in Boston. Buzz was handed a number and told to return the next day.
For his one-minute audition, he read a short story he wrote and made a nacho dip. He was called back four more times as the production staff reduced the number of potential ZOOMers to 300, then 150, then 75, then 40. Each time they trekked to Boston, Ms. Barrette would tell her son, “Buzz, we’ll always have this great memory,” figuring the odds were pretty long.
In Ms. Yao’s day, the show was rehearsed on Wednesday afternoons and taped on Fridays after school from 3:30 to as late as midnight.
“We’d be excited and the set would look so different every week,” Ms. Yao said. “It was like walking into a fantasy world. I remember we would be dancing around on food crumbs because we would tape right after Julia Child’s program.”
Buzz spent five days a week for nine weeks working on the show at the WGBH studios during his summer vacation. As in the early days, the cast members are paid based on a wage scale set by actors’ equity. Buzz earned $20,000 for the summer’s work.
The different experiences aside, if Ms. Yao is any example, Buzz is likely to find he is remembered by members of his generation for a long time to come. Ms. Yao said that when she entered the University of Indiana, she got an idea how large and varied the “ZOOM” audience was. Students would approach her and say, “I know you.”
Although she was somewhat uncomfortable with the celebrity when she was a child, Ms. Yao’s “ZOOM” experience is now a treasured memory.
“I’m at an age where it’s wonderful to have the childhood memories,” she said. “It’s fun to share the experience with my kids and their friends.”