Remember 'Beakman's World'? The Wacky Scientist Is Still Big In Latin America
A children's television program that ran for only five seasons in the U.S. 20 years ago has gone on to enthrall kids around the world in reruns. The show was Beakman's World and its star was a wacky pseudo-scientist in a neon green lab coat and a Don King wig. The show is still beloved in Latin America, where the performance artist who played Beakman tours a stage version of the show to audiences of thousands.
People apologize and say, 'I know you must have heard this many times before,' but I always tell 'em, no matter how many times I hear it, I will never, ever, get sick of hearing, 'I'm a scientist today because of you.'
Beakman's World mixed elements of MTV and Pee Wee's Playhouse. But the premise was straightforward: The title character answered kids' science questions, such as why does a bump appear on your skin after a mosquito bite.
Beakman began as a comic strip, called Yes You Can with Beakman and Jax, created in 1991 by Jok Church while he was working at Lucasfilm answering letters from children who wrote to the director.
"I just offered it to my local paper, the Marin Independent Journal," Church says. "I gave it to them for free. And I'd mail them to a list of feature editors and if they said, 'Please stop sending me this, we don't want it in our newspaper,' they still got it next week anyway."
It caught the eye of folks at Columbia Pictures Television. The man hired to direct the show happened to know a performance artist named Paul Zaloom, who took a zany approach to current events in his shows.
"They saw me there in the lab coat and they said, 'Well, the guy looks like a scientist,' " Zaloom recalls. "They saw the shtick. ... I take this raw information and make it entertaining and funny in my own work and they said, 'Well, this must be the guy.' "
Beakman's World moved to CBS, where it was popular but short-lived in this country. It was syndicated to 90 countries including India, Italy, Saudi Arabia and China. But nowhere, it seems, did it catch on more than in Latin America — where reruns are currently broadcast in 43 countries and territories. Beakman's World has been particularly popular in Mexico, where Aleida Rueda started watching it after lunch with her mother and sister.
"It happened to a lot of people — that we had this very family moment when you eat and you talk about your day and everything and just after that we used to go to the living room and watch Beakman's show. It was like a ritual," she says.
Today, Rueda is a press officer at the physics institute of the national Autonomous University of Mexico. She invited Zaloom to do his Beakman stage show last year and demand for tickets was so high that they had to move the event to a parking lot that accommodates 6,000. [You can see video of that performance here.]
Zaloom even had a police escort to the show — one officer stopped his car to ask for an autograph. The mayor of Mexico City showed up to watch Beakman — working with a translator — demonstrate how dry ice goes from being a solid to a gas.
Zaloom's other work — he's known for his political satire, often conveyed through puppets — has earned him an Obie Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, but the response he gets for his Beakman shows in Latin America still floors him.
"It's interesting being fussed over so much when I'm down there and then coming home and leading a relatively quiet life here," he says. "You know, Beakman was popular back in the day when it was on the air in the States, but it didn't really reach the level of wild passion and fandom and craziness that it has in Brazil and Mexico."
In April, Zaloom performed for 3,000 students at Prepa Tec, a private high school outside Mexico City. Physics teacher Enrique Hoyos watched Beakman on TV when he was a teenager and credits the show with leading him into his career.
"When I was young I was undecided whether to go into the humanities or science. The passion that Beakman generated and the way he made things so simple and easy to understand helped me to decide to study physics, and I got my degree in physics," he says.
Zaloom says hundreds of people in Latin America have told him that they became scientists because of Beakman's World.
"I think it was pretty overwhelming and a wonderful surprise to hear that people were indeed in the sciences because of the show," says Zaloom. "People apologize and say, 'I know you must have heard this many times before,' but I always tell them, no matter how many times I hear it, I will never, ever, get sick of hearing, 'I'm a scientist today because of you.' "
Manhattan-based radio journalist Jon Kalish has reported for NPR since 1980.
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