zoobilee zoo

When adults find out that I played "Bill der Beaver" on Zoobilee Zoo, if they haven't seen the show, I can expect to be teased - you know - for playing a giant rodent on a children's program. But if they have seen the show, they usually either thank me as parents, or as grown up members of our original audience. So to those of you who have seen Zoobilee Zoo, it should come as no surprise to hear how very proud I am to be Bill der Beaver. 
Some of our cast were parents, many had worked with children extensively in the past, and all of us were committed to presenting something of real quality and substance. Back in 1986 when we shot the original 65 episodes, we would start each week sitting around a large table with the director and representatives from Hallmark. We would go over every scene we were scheduled to shoot that week, removing anything that was even remotely racist, sexist, or condescending. We replaced slapstick violence with real talk, insults with understanding. We staged each show as if playing to equals, never speaking down, or ridiculously slow. And we made sure the material was entertaining and funny to us, not even pretending we knew what might tickle a child. And I think our efforts paid off. Our youngest audiences enjoyed the colors and the music, older children understood the message and relationships while teens and parents have thanked us for the  humor aimed more towards them.
For a number of years following the show’s original release, three of us - usually Forest Gardner as "Van Go Lion" and Michael B. Moynahan as "Lookout Bear" and I - would travel to various cities throughout the country, and in each venue attendance records were met and/or broken. Before our first appearance, we’d had no idea of the impact we were having on our audiences, and meeting our audiences face to face proved to be some of the happiest and moving experiences of my life. Children too shy to talk to anyone would come up and speak to Bill. Twice, through the Starlight Foundation, terminally ill children requested as their special wish to spend a day with us. And no matter the city, we would always put time aside to visit the local children's hospital. The courage and optimism of these young people was always inspirational and often overwhelming.
Once, while we were visiting children in an intensive care ward, a mother walked outside of a private room, crying and obviously very much afraid. She waved me over to her and asked if I could talk to her daughter, who was dying. I went into the room. The little girl was attached to every sort of machine. The doctors shrugged at me, as if to say that it didn't really matter what I did at that point, that they had already done all they could. I leaned over, close to the little girl's ear. Her eyes were closed and I didn't even know if she could hear me, but as Bill I began to speak. I told her how very much her mother loved her, how proud everyone was at how brave and strong she was, that her body just wasn't helping her at all any more, and that if she wanted to, she could leave this sick body and go get herself a brand new one. She opened her eyes. I remember they were very foggy and, at first, unfocused. But then her body and face both seemed to relax and for a moment it looked like she was she trying to smile. And then she exhaled and - even though I can't explain it - at the time I knew I was watching her strong young soul leave her sick, weak body. I had never seen anyone die before and the sensation of a living spirit leaving - as opposed to just stopping - was overpowering. Her mother moaned. I told her how very sorry I was. She hugged me and cried on my shoulder. After a while we let each other go and I left. There was nothing more anyone could say. I caught up with the rest of our group who were all bubbly and full of stories but I had no words for what had just happened. In the van, driving back to the hotel, I broke down but it wasn't until later, much later, that I could talk about the little girl.

I would like to think that even if I was not Bill at the time, I would have done the same thing, but I really don't know. Bill comes from such a place of purity, of gentleness, of selflessness. Either he brings out the very best in me, or I willingly put my very best into him.  Either way, I'm better for it.


Thanks Bill.