WATCH MR. WIZARD

U.S. Children's Science Program

Watch Mr. Wizard, one of commercial television's early educational efforts was highly successful in making science exciting and understandable for children. Presenting scientific laboratory demonstrations and information in an interesting, uncomplicated and entertaining format, this long running series was a prime example of the Chicago School of Television and of quality education in a visual format. Created and hosted by Don Herbert, the show's low key approach, casual ad lib style and resourceful often magic-like demonstrations led to rapid success and brought Herbert instant recognition and critical acclaim as an innovative educational broadcaster and as a teacher of science.

Donald Jeffry Herbert, a general science and English major at LaCrosse State Teachers College in Wisconsin, had originally planned to teach dramatics. Following his graduation in 1940, he acted in summer and winter stock and then traveled to New York with an eye toward Broadway. World War II interrupted his career and the young actor entered the Army Air Forces as a private. As a B-24 bomber pilot, he flew 56 missions with the Fifteenth Air Force and subsequently participated in the invasion of Italy. Discharged as s Captain in 1945, Herbert had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.

After the war, Herbert accepted offers of radio work in Chicago. He acted in such children's programs as Captain Midnight, Jack Armstrong and Tom Mix and sold scripts to Dr. Christian, Curtain Time and First Nighter. In October 1949, as co-producer of the documentary health series It's Your Life, he was able to combine his interests in science and drama. Most importantly, his idea for Mr. Wizard began to take form. He became fascinated with general science experiments and studied television as a medium of presentation.

Herbert sold his idea for Mr. Wizard to WNBQ-TV, the Chicago outlet for NBC and the series premiered on 3 March 1951, with Herbert as the Wizard and Bruce Lindgren as the first of his young assistants. Produced in cooperation with the Cereal Institute, Incorporated, the 30-minute show was targeted at pre-teenagers and initially broadcast on Saturdays from 4:00-4:30 P.M.

Within four months the series had climbed to third place among children's programs in ARB ratings and its audience was growing. Chicago's Federated Advertising Club created an award especially for the show and the Voice of America entered a standing order for recorded transcripts of each program. Within two years, approximately 290 schools were using the series as required homework. In its quiet way, wrote Variety on 10 September 1952, "this cleverly contrived TV tour into the world of science probably adds as much to NBC's prestige as some of the network's more highly touted educational ventures."

By 1954. Watch Mr. Wizard was seen live on 14 stations and via kinescope on an additional 77. The National Science Foundation (NSF) cited Herbert and his show for promoting interest in the sciences and the American Chemical Society presented him their first citation ever awarded for "important contributions to science education." Three years into his network run, there were more than 5,000 Mr. Wizard Science Clubs across North America with a membership totaling in excess of 100,000.

Sensing the decline of Chicago as a production center. Herbert moved his show to New York in 1955. During this time, he would win a number Of national awards including the prestigious Peabody Award and three Thomas Alva Edison National Mass Media Awards. The total number of Mr. Wizard fan clubs would increase nearly tenfold to 50,000, Notwithstanding these accomplishments, NBC canceled the series on 5 September 1965.

Herbert's abilities as a teacher-producer of quality televised science education led him to the National Educational Television network where he produced a series of shows under the title Experiment (1966). He also produced films for junior and senior high schools, wrote a number of books on science and developed the Mr. Wizard Science Center outside of Boston. On 11 September 1971 NBC revived Watch Mr. Wizard but Herbert's old leisurely pace of the 1950s seemed outdated and the show left the air on 2 September 1972.

Undaunted by his second cancellation, and challenged by the NSF to create an awareness of science in children, in the early 1970s Herbert and his wife Norma developed Mr. Wizard Close-Ups for broadcast on NBC's daily morning schedule. At the end of the decade, the husband and wife team also developed traveling elementary school assembly programs featuring young performers and live science demonstrations. By 1991, these tours were annually presenting programs to approximately 3,000 schools and 1.2 million students.

With NSF and General Motors financial backing, in 1980 Herbert began production of How About--a long running series of 80-second reports on developments in science and technology to be used as inserts in local news programs across the country. In time, the series would earn special praise from the American Association for the Advancement of Science-Westinghouse Science Journalism awards committee. Not content to rest on his laurels, in 1984 Herbert developed an updated and faster-paced Mr. Wizard's World that was seen three times a week on Nickelodeon, the children's cable network.

In 1991, Herbert received the Robert A, Millikan award from the American Association or Physics Teachers for his "notable and creative contributions to the teaching of physics." Three years later, in his late 70s, he developed another new series, Teacher to Teacher with Mr. Wizard--a series of NSF sponsored 15 minute programs airing on Nickelodeon and highlighting exemplary elementary science teachers and projects. In addition, the seemingly indefatigable Herbert created. among others--Mr. Wizard Science Secrets kits with clips from Watch Mr. Wizard and a Mr. Wizard Science Video Library with 20 videos from the Mr. Wizard's World series.

In March, 1984, Herbert told Discovery magazine his purpose in life was not to teach but to have fun. "I just restrict myself to fun that has scientific content." Fortunately, for generations of children and adults attracted to his Mr. Wizard persona, this soft-spoken, Minnesota-born personality had the ability to communicate and inspire in others his passion for the "fun" to be had with science.

-Joel Sternberg


Watch Mr. Wizard
Photo courtesy of Don Herbert

HOST (as Mr. Wizard)
Don Herbert

PRODUCERS James Pewolar, 1955-65; Del Jack, 1971-72

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
May 1951-February 1952                    Saturday 6:30-7:00
March 1952-February 1955                 Saturday 7:00-7:30
1955-1965                                                Various Times
September 1971-September 1972              Various Times

FURTHER READING

"AAPT Recognizes Herbert, Creators of Mr. Wizard TV Series." Physics Today (New York), November 1991.

Bolstad, Helen. "Mr. and Mrs. Wizard." Radio-Tv Mirror (New York), July 1954.

Cole, K.C. "Poof! Mr. Wizard Makes a Comeback." Discover (Los Angeles), March 1984.

Dismuke, Diane. "Meet: Don 'Mr. Wizard' Hebert." NEA Today (Washington, D.C.), April 1994.

Fischer, Stuart. Kid's TV: The First 25 Years. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1983.

Kramer, Carol. "His Wizardry Makes Aerodynamics Snappy." Chicago Tribune, 31 October 1971.

Margulies, Lee. "Mr. Wizard's Science Reports for Adults." Chicago Sun Times, 26 March 1980.

"Mr. Wizard." Variety (Los Angeles), 7 March 1951. "Mr. Wizard." Variety (Los Angeles), 10 September 1952.

"NBC-TV 'Wizard's' Wizardry Clinches 54-Station Ride." Variety (Los Angeles), 18 March 1953.

"The Robert A. Millikan Medal." The Physics Teacher (Stony Brook, New York), November 1991.

"'Wizard' Hot on Kinnies." Variety (Los Angeles), 13 January 1954.

 

See also Children and Television