Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Afterschool Specials 1972-1996

In the 1970's, as new ground was being broken in Young Adult fiction, the idea of tackling realistic issues trickled down to an even younger age group into the children's book market. Many of these books would become the basis for made-for-tv movies in the series entitled Afterschool Special that first aired on ABC in 1972. The series was popular and continued at an average of 4 to 6 episodes a year through 1996.

Season 1 of the show featured whimsical and imaginative programs focused primarily towards a pre-teen audience. In fact, Season 1 and 2 both featured two animated specials. Santiago's Ark in Season 1 was the first to evoke serious subjects that would become the trademark of this series. It featured both African American and Puerto Rican teens living in New York and was also one of the few specials to be followed by a sequel, 1975's Santiago's America.
Season 2 (1974) featured several movies based on new children's books.
My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel was based on the book by Peggy Mann written in 1973 with illustrations by Richard Cuffari. This is an honest and sensitive portrayal of divorce in an urban environment as seen through the eyes of a child. Told in the first person, a boy named Joey begins to explain his feelings the day after his mother tells him his father has moved out. Joey borrows money from his friend Pepe and goes downtown to meet up with his father in an attempt to convince him to come back home. What he discovers is that his father has no intention on returning, is planning on getting a divorce and has decided to live in a hotel downtown. Joey's first reaction is anger and resentment towards his dad. He even has a daydream in which his father gets run over by a car. But then he feels so bad for thinking this that he prays for this to never actually happen.

While Joey misses his father and realizes he'll never come back, his attitude towards him gradually begins to change. Once his father is happier, he finds that he has more time to spend with him. Also, through his friend Pepe, Joey acknowledges that while his situation is rotten, he is not the only one with this problem. Pepe shows him how tons of other kids have divorced parents, estranged fathers or some who never even met their dads before.

The movie would star Ike Eisenman who would star in another special The Amazing Cosmic Awareness of Duffy Moon based on the book by Jean Robinson. Today, Eisenman is most well-remembered for starring in the Disney adaptation of Alexander Key's most well known children's book Return to Witch Mountain.

The beautiful black and white drawings in the book were by Richard Cuffari, a seasoned illustrator who also illuminated several books by Betsy Byars. Byars had several of her books adapted into Afterschool Specials including The Pinballs and Summer of the Swans. Her book The 18th Emergency, a humorous story about surviving a school bully was part of season 2 and retitled Pssst! Hammerman's After You!

Another contemporary author of the time was M.E. Kerr. Her book, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack, was adapted into the 1979 special Dinky Hocker. The story concerns an overweight teenager obsessed with food whose parents ignore her in favor of helping drug addicts. By this time, the subject matter of the specials seemed to be getting more mature and most of the post 1979 episodes were aimed at a middle school and high school audience. The special Schoolboy Father, for instance, dealt directly with teenage pregnancy. One of the most fondly remembered specials was The Wave, which was later adapted into a novel by the prolific young adult author Todd Strasser. The Color of Friendship was another excellent special based on the book What Happened in Marston by Nancy Garden.

By 1984 CBS was also broadcasting a similar series of movies that ran through 1996 titled CBS Schoolbreak Special. Most of these post 1984 shows were designed for junior high and high school students in order to address issues pertinent to them. It was also not uncommon for these programs to be viewed and discussed in public schools in both health and english classrooms.

A list of all the programs can be found on the IMDB.

ABC Afterschool Specials
CBS Schoobreak Specials

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