Pup Culture

Next to him, Scooby Doo is a don’t, and Lassie can stay home: By bringing literary classics to life, Wishbone has won over parents and kids alike.

October 1997By Comments

BECAUSE OF MY LINE OF WORK and the company I keep, my six-year-old son, Henry, has met his share of famous Texans, from actor Lukas Haas to singer Don Walser. But I’ve never seen him as starstruck as he was on the spring day he met Wishbone—or rather, the Jack Russell terrier who plays Wishbone on the hit public television show of the same name. We had come to Big Feats! Entertainment in the Dallas suburb of Richardson to tour the ten-acre back lot and 50,000-square-foot studio where the show is filmed. First we walked among the standard clutch of trailers, each of which had a star on the door, just like the old movie cliché. Out into the bright sunlight stepped one, then two, then three teen actors, and Henry grew so quiet I thought he’d been stricken with a fever. Then we went inside the craft services hall, where the cast and crew eat. Henry looked up from our table and spotted the big guy—all fifteen pounds of him—padding across the floor. We’d seen Wishbone in episode after episode, but it was entirely different to actually see him, panting happily, just ten feet away. Henry swooned.

So did I. For the first time since I was in training pants, I’m excited by a TV show for kids. One reason is that Wishbone is the rare show that really is for the whole family. Like Sesame Street, Wishbone has enough adult references and inside jokes to hold the attention of those of us older than ten. Another reason is that dogs make for good TV. This has always been the case, from classics like Lassie to cartoon canines Astro (The Jetsons) and Scooby Doo to sitcom pooches Eddie (Frasier) and Murray (Mad About You), but it’s especially true of Wishbone, who is more alive and engaging in any given episode than most small-screen pups are in a whole season.

But the best thing about Wishbone is that it’s a creative, high-quality show with a laudable goal: to get kids to read. If you’ve never seen it, the basic premise is that Wishbone has a penchant for literature. Whenever his owners, a widowed mother and her twelve-year-old son, Joe, leave the house, he nudges one classic or another off the shelf. He then gives a brief synopsis of the story (yes, he can speak, but only we can hear him) and daydreams that he is the protagonist, much like Mr. Magoo did in the popular sixties cartoon series. The daydream segments are interspersed with plot lines in which Joe and his friends wrestle with a moral dilemma that parallels the plot of the classic. In “Fleabitten Bargain,” for example, Wishbone daydreams that he is Goethe’s Faust; meanwhile, Joe learns a modern-day lesson about the pitfalls of temptation when a devilish huckster tries to sell him a bogus virtual-reality helmet. In other episodes Wishbone has played characters from Cyrano de Bergerac to Silas Marner to Quasimodo; in the first show of the new season—“The Legend of Creepy Collars,” which airs in prime time on October 15—he adds Ichabod Crane to his repertoire.

Puns aside, Henry and I like Wishbone because the show’s creators play it straight. None of the humans in the daydream segments seems to notice that Wishbone is a dog: When he plays a romantic part, for instance, the human woman of his dreams looks into his doggie eyes and kisses his doggie nose without missing a beat. Also, the costumes are great. In fact, Wishbone won a Daytime Emmy for costume design in 1996. And, of course, the show’s educational bent is great too, which is why it won the Television Critics Association Award for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming in 1996 and 1997 and why media outlets from People magazine to The Tonight Show have given Wishbone the star treatment. Even George W. and Laura Bush are fans: As part of their campaign to fight illiteracy, the governor and the first lady have taped a public service announcement with Wishbone, whom they praise for “doing a terrific job of motivating kids to read by introducing them to classic literature.”

That was precisely Rick Duffield’s intent when he came up with the idea for Wishbone in 1994. The 42-year-old Dallasite, a veteran TV producer, wanted to create a show that would entertain his whole family and inspire children everywhere—including his own—to read. He had fond memories from his own childhood of “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoons and Classics Illustrated comics, which transformed fables and works of literature into something fun, but he hadn’t seen anything like them since. “I had wanted to do a show in which the dog was the hero,” Duffield says. “Working on that idea, I came upon a story line very similar to that of Oliver Twist. Then I realized we could have a character who could jump into books and introduce them to kids.”

Duffield decided to film a seven-minute trailer as a pitch to potential investors—but first he had to cast his leading man. At several days of tryouts held in California, more than one hundred dogs of all breeds read (so to speak) in person and on videotape for the part, but none came close to a six-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Soccer. During the audition Soccer impressed casting director Rody Kent not only with his wide array of skills and tricks, such as jumping and rolling over, but also with his incredibly expressive face. Duffield admits he was partial to the breed going in—he has a Jack Russell of his own, Dooley, whom he lovingly refers to as “Wishbone’s fat, slow cousin”—but by all accounts, Soccer won on skill. “I thought he was magic as soon as we saw him,” Duffield later told People.

Casting Soccer, however, was only the beginning. Duffield also had to find the dog’s voice—someone to provide a running commentary during the daydream and modern-day segments of the show. “My agent called one afternoon,” recalls Larry Brantley, a thirty-year-old stand-up comic. As he speaks, he mimics the diction of a blue-blooded woman: “Dahhh-ling. There’s this au-di-shun for you. It’s about a dah-ah-ah-g. And the dog tah-ah-ah-lks.” When Brantley was introduced to Soccer, he was told to sit on the floor and run lines. “He wasn’t doing anything that had anything to do with what I was reading,” Brantley says, “so I did improv. He was obsessing over this tennis ball, so I obsessed over the tennis ball. As I did, my voice raised a register and suddenly”—now he mimics Wishbone’s “voice”—“I was very excited about this ball, and I wasn’t interested in anything else, and yes, there’s a man sitting on the floor, and I’ll deal with him later, and no, I’m not hungry now, I have this ball . . .” After the audition Brantley thought to himself, “Not only will I not get this job, but if this gets out, I’ll never work again.” But, in fact, Duffield loved him, and he got the part.

The trailer was shot in Dallas, using Oliver Twist, as planned, as the basis for the plot. Duffield showed it to PBS executives in Alexandria, Virginia, and they liked it enough to help fund the forty original episodes that have run—and rerun—thus far. (Because Wishbone airs every week, Henry and I have gotten used to seeing “Cyranose” or “The Impawssible Dream” over and over; we know all the lines by heart.) Precisely how much PBS and Wishbone’s distributor, Lyrick Studios of Richardson, have kicked in isn’t a matter of public record, but the show’s creators peg their per-episode cost at $500,000.

Each of the forty shows has been an intense affair to put together, says Duffield. The set and costume crews work long hours to ensure that the props and clothes are authentic. For the daydream scenes, all the period sets are created from scratch, from the Russian Theater of “Rushin’ to the Bone” (Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General) to the historical English village, complete with pub and thatched-roof cottage, of “Golden Retrieved” (George Eliot’s Silas Marner). And Wishbone has enough hand-tailored ensembles to rival any member of the Royal Family. No outfit is used twice. “Rick wants to keep the characters as individuals,” says costume designer Steven Chudej.

Duffield is just as particular about which works of literature to use. “We try to mix a number of elements: author gender, author ethnicity, variety of setting,” he says. “And there has to be something archetypal about each book: the genre, the structure, the character.” On the day of my visit, for example, Duffield settled into his director’s chair (labeled, naturally, “Alpha Dog”) to oversee production of “Moonbone,” an episode based on Wilke Collins’ The Moonstone. “Some people might call it an obscure novel,” Duffield told me, “but in fact it is the first whodunit novel ever written. Every whodunit since is patterned on that book.”

Countless members of the more-than-one-hundred-person crew scurried around the set assuming their positions. Before shooting started, the set designers gave us a tour of the permanent sets, such as Pepper Pete’s Pizzeria and Wishbone’s house, as well as sets created specifically for this episode, such as a lush English garden. They encouraged Henry to try to lift what appeared to be a marble balustrade, and he was amazed (as was I) that the incredibly realistic-looking prop is made of packing foam.

Finally, Duffield gave the go-ahead, and the cast did several run-throughs of a scene that takes place in an elaborately decorated dining room. Each time, Soccer listened to his cue and got it right, and each time, his owner-trainer, Jackie Kaptan, extended a little tin cup with a long handle and offered him a reward. Kaptan says that Soccer, like other dogs, is motivated mostly by treats—he likes dried kibble and boneless grilled chicken—but other positive reinforcement is also effective. “Soccer wants to listen to me,” she explains. “He’s not any smarter than any dog in someone’s household. He has just had a lot of time put into him, and he has a strong desire to please. He gets very worried if I say, ‘No way!’ He’s not a dog that wants to be wrong, so I try not to use the word ‘no.’ ”

Between takes, Chudej’s costumers descended on the set to fit Soccer for a public appearance. They slipped on his red cowboy shirt and then—this was too much!—little leather chaps. Soccer’s tail wagged happily the entire time. “Costumes aren’t a problem for him,” says Kaptan. “The costumers are great, and the clothes are on and off very easily. The pants were a little different. When he jumps in pants, they hike up and he looks back like, ‘What’s following me?’” Pants also mean a full strip-down for tree breaks.

All of this begs the question of how hard Soccer works. Hollywood obeys child labor laws; what about dog labor? It’s true that Soccer plays Wishbone 98 percent of the time (three other Jack Russells are used for stunts and still photos), yet Kaptan insists that he leads an extremely happy life. “The little guy spends every day with me,” she says. “He gets to play on the set, he gets quality time, he has his own room, he has a limit on how much he can work, he has his own air conditioning, and he flies first class in his own seat.” He also gets paid pretty well. Wishbone’s producers won’t disclose how well, but it’s enough to pay for a two-acre ranch near Plano, where Soccer lives when the show is in production. “He bought it,” Kaptan says proudly.

Soccer’s salary is but one line in Wishbone’s budget, which raises another question: the cost of staying on the air. During the past two years Congress has slashed the budget for public broadcasting, crippling programs of all types; in fact, in late 1995 production on Wishbone shut down, while Duffield went around hat in hand, and it didn’t restart until eighteen months later, when PBS managed to find enough money to help pay for the nine new episodes that will air this season.

Over time the shortfall has forced shows from Barney to Austin City Limits to rely more heavily on corporate underwriters. For the folks at Wishbone, at least, finding such funding has been somewhat problematic. Last year Plano-based Frito-Lay toyed with providing funding for the show, but only if it could promote Cheetos snacks during what amounted to commercial breaks. That trade-off was too much for PBS—and Wishbone—to bear. “Whenever you seek funding, you’re not asking for a donation or an endowment; those don’t exist anymore,” Duffield says resignedly. “You’re talking to marketing people. Deciding whether to fund a public television show is much like a decision to buy advertising.” And, apparently, Wishbone isn’t enough of a sexy ad buy, for no other corporate suitors have shown any interest. Duffield’s only consolation is that he isn’t alone. “The Magic Schoolbus lost its underwriters,” he notes wistfully. “And Mister Rogers lost its underwriters.”

Another potential funding source is the licensing of merchandise—an area where Barney, to name but one example, has made great strides. But here, too, Wishbone has come up short. Part of the problem is that Wishbone is a high-road sort of show, which means the producers are leery of anything that smacks of crass commercialism. “Marketing is always a matter of balance,” Duffield says. “The whole point of marketing beyond the show is to give kids the opportunity to continue playing with literature through books and board games. Every time a company comes to me and wants to produce a Wishbone product, I have to weigh it: Is this an appropriate place for Wishbone to be? Sometimes I resist it, but sometimes I have to give in.” The larger problem, however, is that there simply isn’t enough money in licensing the Wishbone name to make a dent. “All the merchandising we could possibly do still wouldn’t cover the cost of the show,” Duffield says. “There are examples of kids’ entertainment projects that generate millions and millions, but those are the exceptions. We could not approach with merchandising the kind of money we need to keep us going.”

For now, until a solution to the funding problem can be found, Henry and I and other Wishbone fans will have to content ourselves with mostly reruns. Duffield, however, is optimistic about the future. “There’s always a sense of possibility in Texas,” he says. “Texas isn’t plugged in to a particular media culture like Los Angeles or New York. It’s a very small world there. Here, we’re out on the frontier, doing our own thing. I’ve got kids, I’ve got animals, I’ve got special effects. Being in Texas allows me to do this.”

Spike Gillespie, a columnist for the Prodigy computer network, is the author of All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy, which will be published next year by Simon and Schuster.

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