BOOTLEG FILES 444: “The Great Space Coaster” (1981-1986 television series).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces of several episodes can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A standalone special was released on VHS video.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It has never been released for home entertainment viewing.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not very likely for the foreseeable future.
If you were a kid in the early 1980s, there is a better-than-average chance that you will recognize the names Gary Gnu and Goriddle Gorilla. And if those names don’t ring that proverbial bell, then you missed out on “The Great Space Coaster,” one of the most popular programs ever created for the kiddie crowd.
Today, many members of the original audience for “The Great Space Coaster” now have their own kids. But, alas, this new generation is not able to enjoy the program. Even worse, it seems highly unlikely that the show will be available for a return visit.
“The Great Space Coaster” was the brainchild of puppeteers Kermit Love and Jim Martin, and it sought to follow the “Sesame Street” example of presenting educational entertainment via the mixing of actors with puppets and costumed characters. But whereas “Sesame Street” aimed for a gentle approach, “The Great Space Coaster” carried a somewhat more peculiar edge. The puppets were not lovable, but instead had abrasive personalities. And the costumed characters were, quite frankly, fairly creepy. However, that less-than-cuddly quality gave the show its distinctive personality – and thanks to its bizarre characters and their weird antics, kids paid even closer attention to the episodes.
The title of “The Great Space Coaster” refers to a flying vehicle that resembles a roller coaster car. Baxter, a large clown who escaped from virtual enslavement in the M.T. Promises circus, pilots this vehicle. Baxter’s passengers are three young people – a white guy with frizzy blonde hair (Chris Gifford), a black guy who wears white overalls (Ray Stephens) and a white chick who doesn’t seem particularly interested in either guy (Emily Bidinger). Baxter chauffeurs them to a distant asteroid populated by a variety of talking animals, and in each episode the human and non-human characters would get involved in some sort of shenanigans that inevitably ended in what contemporary busybodies refer to as “teachable moments.”
For example, one episode considered the problems of practical jokes that got out of hand. To illustrate that concern, the episode concentrated on the pranks pulled by one of the asteroid’s residents – an obnoxious, gravelly-voiced simian called Goriddle Gorilla (performed by puppeteer Kevin Clash, who would later bring the Muppet Elmo to life). Goriddle’s idea of fun involved boarding up the only door to the home of the ditzy bird named Knock Knock. Goriddle found the joke priceless, but Knock Knock suffered a claustrophobia attack and fainted. The three humans had to break down the boarded up entrance and revive the unconscious bird while Goriddle expressed an insincere apology for the prank.
But not everything on “The Great Space Coaster” was meant to be educational. The show’s most memorable character was the self-important newscaster Gary Gnu, who introduced his program with the catchphrase “No gnews is good gnews!” Goriddle took pleasure in interrupting Gary’s newscast. Typical of Goriddle’s intrusions was his plan to use balloons to illustrate the weather reports – if a balloon was dry, Goriddle insisted, that meant there was no rain outside. Needless to say, the humorless gnu was constantly sputtering in disbelief while the zany gorilla ran amok.
Also peppering the show was the appearance of Speed Reader, a jogger who could simultaneously run and read at supersonic speeds. He would zip through thick books in seconds and then offer his opinion of its contents. Then, there was the presence of “La Linea,” a cartoon series created by Italian animator Osvaldo Cavandoli. These cartoons followed the basic premise of the Warner Bros. classic “Duck Amuck,” with an animated character (in this case, a single outline of a male silhouette) interacting with the artist’s pen. The animated character spoke in a high-pitched gibberish voice, and he often yelled at the animator for putting him in dangerous and ridiculous positions.
The three human visitors to the asteroid would provide musical interludes as a rock trio. Some of their music was original, but many songs were covers of old pop hits. Later in the series’ run, a DJ-type character named Rory was added for MTV-style music video sequences.
On occasion, celebrity guests showed up. One of the most unusual episodes involved the appearance of Marvin Hamlisch, who was repeatedly insulted by Goriddle (he kept calling the guest composer by the wrong name) and the three young humans (they wanted Hamlisch to perform their songs, rather than have the Oscar-winner offer his classic tunes). Knock Knock later joined Hamlisch in a rambling dialogue about the perils of Broadway stardom before Hamlisch and the talking bird offered a version of “One” from Hamlisch’s hit show “A Chorus Line.”
“The Great Space Coaster” chalked up 250 episodes, which were broadcast in syndication via Sunbow Productions. The show won a Daytime Emmy in 1982 for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming – Graphic Design, and Columbia Records released a soundtrack album featuring songs from the series. During the 1980s, MGM/UA released a one-hour VHS video called “The Great Space Coaster Supershow” that included scenes from the show along with guest appearances by Mark Hamill and Valerie Harper.
So where is “The Great Space Coaster” today? A company called Tanslin Media currently owns the rights to the program, but getting show back into circulation is something of a problem.
“We do not know when, if ever, ‘The Great Space Coaster’ will be released on DVD,” says the company on its website. “The problem is that the show used a lot of great music that would need to be re-licensed if the show were ever released. This is extremely expensive, so a DVD release would probably cost more to make than it would ever earn. These same challenges with the rights prevent us from uploading episodes to the Internet for public viewing at this time. We are working on this, though!”
Tanslin Media is also working on preserving the episodes, which are currently on one-inch and two-inch open reel tape. However, the company lacks the funds for a full digital transfer.
“The fee is $350 to transfer just one hour of material,” the company says. “Tanslin Media is working hard to generate the funds necessary to preserve the shows. However, there are 250 episodes and we simply cannot afford to convert all of the tapes at this time. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. Remember, these tapes are from the early 1980s and they are starting to deteriorate.”
Tanslin Media is trying to raise money via IndieGoGo to finance the digital preservation. In the meanwhile, fans of “The Great Space Coaster” have been able to put bits and pieces of several episodes on YouTube. Many of these postings were taken directly from VCR dupes during the show’s initial run, and the visual quality is often less than pristine. Still, slightly blurry clips are better than nothing – and for the foreseeable future, that’s the only way we’ll be able to get our Goriddle Gorilla fix. So unless someone ponies up several thousand bucks, the fate of “The Great Space Coaster” is nothing but bad gnews!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!
Posted on September 7, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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