Imagine your local children's theatre troupe was given a television show with which to further promulgate their particular brand of Amusing, Mildly Wacky, With Important Messages For Children™ entertainment. Real TV, too, with an actual budget, not public access
, even if it was
destined to run at some godawful hour of the morning so that stations could meet their educational programming requirements. Now, imagine the troupe (actors being the same
everywhere) had a party to celebrate, and woke up the next day with half the budget missing, and in its place a series of wicked hangovers and a collection of Day-Glo fursuits
. That's as fair an approximation as any of Zoobilee Zoo.
Zoobilee Zoo followed the adventures of seven anthropomorphic animals of various species called "Zoobles", each Zooble having a distinct personality and an interest in creative or physical pursuits that would nominally resonate with and inspire young children. In each episode, they banded together to overcome some problem, accomplish something, carry out a good idea one of them had had, or the like, complete with minor obstacles to be worked around and disputes to be resolved. Standard kids' TV fare, and not particularly brilliantly or poorly done, the show had (and has) its adherents and detractors among those old enough to actually care about such things, but does not seem to inspire significant passion in either direction. In contrast to similar shows like New Zoo Revue, the Zoobles were portrayed not by actors in full-body suits, but rather with the use of some fairly elaborate makeup and prosthetics which won the show a Daytime Emmy for best costume design. The Zoobles lived in a place called Zoobilee Zoo, which despite the name did not seem like much of a zoo, but rather a very small (population: 7) town, with sets tending towards the brightly colored and fantastic, if not completely realistic.
The original run of 65 episodes was shot and released to syndication in 1986 under the aegis of Hallmark, joining a somewhat curious pantheon of '80s children's shows produced by greeting card companies. Following this, the Zoobles went on tour, performing live shows (which records indicate as fairly successful) and making appearances in children's hospitals and the like. Towards the late 1990s, Hallmark commissioned several new episodes for release to video and/or broadcast alongside the original episodes. Throughout this process, the original cast has remained mostly intact, testament to a combination of dedication to the series' mission of uplifting children's entertainment and limited employment opportunities for C-list actors.
Mayor Ben - Ben Vereen
Though some of the other Zoobles were apparently adults, Mayor Ben, a leopard with brownish spotted fur and a purple robe, was the definite father figure, also doing double duty as narrator. Wise, fair, and capable of acting as a deus ex machina when the situation demanded, he usually stayed out of the way of the others. Nominally, this was reflective of his desire to allow them to learn and discover things on their own, but I can't help wondering if it also had to do with the fact that Vereen, with a Tony Award under his belt, was most likely to have other demands on his time.
Bill der Beaver - Michael Sheehan/Sandey Grinn
The craftsman and tinkerer of the group, Bill was also relatively cautious and unaggressive. Altogether, the impression was one of your kindhearted, handyman grandfather, an impression that the gray hair, red shirt and checkered vest certainly did nothing to dispel.
Lookout Bear - Michael Moynahan
With orange fur and a green-and-yellow outfit, Lookout loved the outdoors, physical activity, and adventure, overall having the personality of an active young boy who had not yet (and in the Zoobilee universe, would never have to) come to terms with the fact that "explorer" is no longer a viable career option.
Whazzat Kangaroo - Stephanie Louise Vallance/Stacey Scotte
One of the show's two female cast members, Whazzat appeared to be a pink... something... wearing a teal musical note-print bib, in no way resembling a kangaroo. Specializing in song and dance, Whazzat was also the youngest character, frequently asking questions in an attempt to understand the world around her, thus accounting for the name. Yes, half of us seven-year-olds had crushes on her, but we prefer not to talk about it.
Bravo Fox - Gary Schwartz
Bravo Fox, with archetypal vulpine red fur and white belly, was the theatrical Zooble, staging and acting in various performances, and when not in costume tended to wear a comparatively formal jacket and tie, albeit a teal and salmon jacket and a magenta tie. Bravo was warm and outgoing but occasionally given over to flights of fancy and delusions of grandeur, and while the show was of course gentle and pretty evenhanded in addressing its characters' foibles and shortcomings (and how they were overcome), Bravo seemed to take more than his fair share of turns being the butt of the joke, as it were. Though in late night dorm room reminiscences, with the benefit of hindsight and marijuana, you will realize that all the characters were vaguely gay, Bravo takes the trophy.
Van Go Lion - Forrest Gardner
The group's representative of the visual arts, Van Go Lion was big on painting, with occasional forays into sculpture. Golden-furred with a red shirt and paint-splattered smock, his combination of enthusiasm and awareness somehow reminds me of nothing so much as Sealab 2021's Quinn.
Talkatoo Cockatoo - Karen Hartman
The other female Zooble, Talkatoo was the closest thing to an intellectual among the cast, although given the target audience, it came off closer to bookwormishness. Unnervingly reminiscent of Cyndi Lauper covered in green feathers, she was the role model for all the embryonic english majors in the audience, fond of reading, writing, and telling stories. She also published the local newspaper and served as the go-to figure for advice on matters not quite important enough for Mayor Ben to step in.