May 22, 2024

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Joshua Redman looks back at 1999 guest spot on ‘Arthur’ that is still talked about today: Photos, Video

When “Arthur” returns with its final four episodes on Monday, Feb. 21, the long-running children’s animated series will conclude a historic 25-season run that extended well beyond educational television into greater popular culture.

One person intimately familiar with the power of “Arthur” is jazz saxophonist and Berkeley native Joshua Redman, who guest-starred as Uncle Josh early in the program’s run. In the episode “My Music Rules/That’s a Baby Show!,” which first aired on PBS in 1999, Redman was paired with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a segment that teaches about musical open-mindedness — including toward Arthur’s sister, Dora Winifred (D.W.), who cherishes the popular “Crazy Bus” theme song earworm.

“I hadn’t watched children’s TV for some time. I’m, like, the ‘Zoom’ generation — ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Electric Company’ and ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ ” said Redman, 53. “So when I got the call, I had no idea what it was.”
Berkeley native Joshua Redman appeared in a 1999 episode of “Arthur” as Uncle Josh, a talented jazz musician who played the saxophone.Photo: GBH

Arthur Read, an anthropomorphic aardvark, made his literary debut in 1976 in author/artist Marc Brown’s illustrated children’s book series. Arthur was first seen on television in 1996 as the title character of a series produced by PBS station WGBH in Boston. “Arthur” finishes its run as both the second-longest running children’s program (behind 52-year-old “Sesame Street”) and the second-longest running animated series (after “The Simpsons,” currently in its 33rd season).

“I just showed up” at the WGBH recording studios “and Yo-Yo Ma was there. It was, like, ‘What’s going on? What am I doing here? You called the wrong cat!’” Redman recalled with a laugh during a recent phone interview. Commuting back home from Stanford University, where he is currently a music department lecturer, Redman looked back at the immediate feedback he received on his guest spot.

“I would get stopped sometimes in airports by parents who had watched the episode with their kids. I have to say that it’s probably the single greatest exposure I’ve ever gotten,” he marveled. “I didn’t go into it for that and certainly didn’t expect it.”

Acclaimed saxophonist Joshua Redman was featured in a 1999 episode of “Arthur.”Photo: Heidi Zeiger Photography

Carol Greenwald remembers the planning and the recording of Redman’s episode. WGBH’s director of children’s media until last year, she is the executive producer on “Arthur” and has been with the program since its conception. As a music fan, she was particularly excited about “My Music Rules.”

It was the first episode to feature musical guests and the second with celebrity voice casting; Fred Rogers guested in the “Arthur Meets Mister Rogers/Draw!” episode that launched season two in 1997. “Arthur” has since hosted an impressive range of guest voices, ranging from John Lewis, Alex Trebek and Idina Menzel to Jane Lynch, Larry King and architect Frank Gehry.

“What I loved about Joshua and Yo-Yo’s episode is that it started us in this direction of showcasing a wide range of music,” she said by phone from her home in New Hampshire. Blues greats Koko Taylor and Taj Mahal, contemporary classical group Bang on a Can All Stars and the Backstreet Boys were among subsequent musical guests. The show’s infectious theme song, “Believe in Yourself,” was recorded in Jamaica by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers and has since been covered by Chance the Rapper and Jon Batiste.

“Arthur” executive producer Carol GreenwaldPhoto: Scott Indermaur

“We deliberately chose Ziggy Marley and reggae as a style for the theme song because we thought it was upbeat and accessible,” Greenwald said. “And we really wanted to showcase diverse talents in music, from the start. We also wanted to have a song that felt like a real song and not a ‘kids theme song.’”

“Arthur’s” willingness to address everyday issues — from parents fighting and embarrassment around one’s peers to sibling annoyance and media addiction — have made it a continued favorite with viewers of all ages.

“We know that kids are confronted with a lot of things in their lives, but we want to have them experience that on the show from their point of view,” Greenwald added. “So when (beloved teacher) Mr. Ratburn gets married to a man” at the start of season 22, “it’s not about him getting married to a man. It’s about, ‘My teacher’s getting married. I hope he’s going to be happy.’”

The series has even made the transition to meme culture, with “Arthur’s fist” and “D.W. Holding Fence” finding life beyond the television screen.

An image of Arthur’s fist from the animated series has become one of the most popular memes on the internet.Photo: GBH

“Sometimes they’re not quite appropriate for our audience,” Greenwald admitted with a chuckle. “But a lot of the memes get into the underlying things we’re trying to communicate. The ‘Arthur fist’ is trying to figure out how to deal with anger. And there was this great meme during the heart of COVID of D.W. outside of the fence with her sunglasses that was perfect for that moment of isolation.”

Though “Arthur” is concluding as a traditional series, the characters will live on in 21st century ways. An Arthur TikTok channel was launched Feb. 16, and there are plans for a podcast plus new, topical video shorts and digital games. “We’re basically recognizing that kids are consuming media in very different ways than they used to,” Greenwald said. “So we want to be where kids are.”

The “Arthur” version of Yo-Yo Ma, in the 1999 episode “My Music Rules/That’s a Baby Show!”Photo: GBH

Redman knows firsthand about “Arthur’s” lasting cultural footprint. In 1997, he was a special guest of the Rolling Stones in a concert film that aired on PBS a year later. But far more people recognize him from his turn as Uncle Josh than from that film.

“The Stones are the biggest rock band in the world, right?” Redman said. “But there’s something about ‘Arthur.’ You hit the kids and parents at the same time, when they’re watching together. And now some of those kids have become parents.

“So, yeah, it has a long, long tail.”

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