Saturday, February 9, 2013

Just Let Go...Fly High: Make a Wish

 
Make a Wish (1971-1976) is the kind of show they don’t make anymore. Not only that, it’s the kind of show they wouldn’t even try to make anymore. With 500 channels you’d think any good idea would be revived, recycled or ripped off, but Make a Wish, with its canny blend of music, free expression, etymology, animation, live action and documentary filmmaking, was truly of a product of its freewheeling time.



It took me awhile to come around on the show back then. At first when Make a Wish popped up on Sunday mornings, all it meant was that cartoons were over, so right away there was intrinsic hostility. But it was easier to leave the TV on when there were only three networks and no cable, especially when you’re a kid for whom a quiet room was anathema. So one morning I let it play.



As host Tom Chapin (yes, brother of Harry Chapin) strummed his guitar and crooned the theme song, I thought this was going to be another of those overly earnest series that strived to teach me something by “speaking my language.” Those rarely ended well.

But then Chapin introduced a word and invited us to “think of all the possibilities,” and suddenly Make a Wish became a show for poets and dreamers.

All of the chosen word’s derivations and diverse meanings were explored through whimsical non-sequiturs and silly puns, illustrated by animation that was similar to what Terry Gilliam concocted for Monty Python. Ancient history mixed with modern slang. A literary reference would segue into a sports cliché. Chapin riffed on the word the way a jazz musician explored a melody, finding hidden beauties and unexpected tangents, before bringing it back to a familiar setting.



And then each inventive journey into the wonder of words (all written by the series’ creator, Lester Cooper), would abruptly give way to a short documentary related to one of the themes. This segment was as straightforward and serious as the educational films they’d make us watch in elementary school. I always imagined this bit was the trade-off demanded by the ever-ubiquitous network advisors and consultants, to balance out the stuff they probably saw as a bunch of hippie crap.

Following the film, Chapin would return to perform an original song inspired by the word. None of these were especially memorable, but since each episode features two word segments, over the course of five seasons that was a lot of songs to churn out on short notice.

Chapin once described Make a Wish as a show for six year-old speed freaks. And it’s true that, like H.R. Pufnstuf, this was a series one could easily imagine taking on added dimensions when under the influence of illegal substances. But there was genuine imagination on display here, and for a young writer already in training it was a building block toward a lifelong relationship with the joys and quirks of the English language.

There hasn’t been a DVD release, which is somewhat surprising given its popularity. Even bootleg clips are rare. I have one episode on VHS and would love to revisit the rest of the series. Tom Chapin is still performing, and has lost none of the easygoing charm that made him an ideal host for such an experimental series. His soothing voice was a comfortable guide for such flights of fancy, and kept us grounded even as Chapin himself ascended toward the sky at the beginning of each episode.


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