Mr. Wizard: In Memoriam
Don Herbert, TV legend “Mr. Wizard,” died June 12, just weeks before his 90th birthday. Our senior editor recalls her childhood hero.
By Mary Beth Crain
If you’re somewhere between 45 and 60, chances are you remember Mr. Wizard. Right, that friendly guy on TV who, from 1951 to 1965, revealed the mysteries of science to enthralled children, in the simplest, most down-to-earth terms.
Mr. Wizard was affectionately known to millions as “America’s Science Teacher,” but he could also have been dubbed “America’s Babysitter.” Every Saturday morning, parents could sleep in late, secure in the knowledge that their kids were safe in the fatherly, if busy, hands of the world’s most engaging experimenter.
The reason I’m going on about Mr. Wizard is that he died last week, at age 89, and that two years ago, I got to meet him. His real name was Don Herbert and it’s estimated that he single handedly influenced at least two generations of boys and girls in their decision to pursue careers in the sciences. According to his New York Times obituary, “During the 1960s and 70s, about half the applicants to Rockefeller University in New York, where students work toward doctorates in science and medicine, cited Mr. Wizard when asked how they first became interested in science.”
My twin brother David and I grew up with Mr. Wizard. Literally. We were born on January 26, 1951, five weeks before “Watch Mr. Wizard” debuted on NBC on March 3, 1951. Although we were obviously too young to appreciate that episode, by the late 50s we were die hard fans. How well I remember the two of us sitting on the floor in our living room, glued to the TV as the chirpy theme song began and handsome young Herbert appeared on our old Motorola screen.
You never knew what fun experiment he had planned for that morning, but you did know that whatever it was, you’d be invited to participate in it. Mr. Wizard taught scientific principles through the use of stuff that was right at your fingertips. In the 1958 episode, “Solutions,” he showed his little assistant, Betty Sue, how to conduct electricity—with plain old table salt. In a 1957 episode, “Light,” he gave young Tommy a memorable lesson in Photon Theory by using a lamp and a solar battery to spin a fan. We learned “How the Telephone Works,” and how to make a battery from…sauerkraut?
The episode I remember best was the one where Mr. Wizard demonstrated how to make a kazoo. “Now you’ll need one of these,” he said, holding up a paper soda straw.
“OK, Mr. Wizard!” I yelled, running to the kitchen and coming back with a couple of straws.
“And you’ll need a pair of scissors,” he went on. I ran and got the scissors. “Now, you just snip the end, like this…” He took the scissors and cut the end of the straw into an inverted “V” shape. “Then you moisten the tip and blow…”
Mr. Wizard blew, making a beautiful honking noise. Suddenly he was playing some song, just by humming, and it sounded exactly like a kazoo.
We tried it. It worked! All day long, and probably for weeks, if not months, afterwards, we were cutting up straws and kazooing throughout the neighborhood. That might not have been our parents’ favorite episode, but it sure was ours.
Well, the years passed. Now and then David and I would recall an episode of “Watch Mr. Wizard” with nostalgic fondness. And then, one day back in 2005, I got a call from my friend, Los Angeles publicist Mickey Cottrell, wondering if I’d like to do a story on his newest client, Don Herbert.
“Don Herbert?” I shrieked. “Mr. Wizard?”
“Yes. They’re going to be broadcasting a ‘Watch Mr. Wizard’ marathon on the Science Channel in a few weeks and we’re trying to get some L.A. publicity.”
“He must be around 100 years old!”
“Not exactly. He’s 87. But still sharp as a tack.”
So, a few days later, I was off to see the wizard.
It was the moment of my life when I pulled into the driveway of a beautiful home in Bell Canyon, California and Don Herbert came out to greet me.
When I was a child, he’d seemed gigantic, even on small screen TV. But he was actually a little man. He was battling cancer and on dialysis for kidney failure, and was completely bald, thin and frail with illness. But his handshake was firm, and his voice…Yes, it was Mr. Wizard, all right. That voice was as sharp and clear and resonant as the one I remembered from 50 years before.
“Delighted to meet you,” he smiled, leading me into his studio, an electronic palace featuring the latest in hi-tech gadgetry.
“I’m a computer obsessive,” he explained. “I’m addicted to it and the fantastic things it can make possible.”
That was Mr. Wizard. Forward thinking to the end. He refused to let age or sickness slow him down. He was full of plans, for a new TV show, re-issues of all the old ones on DVD, and, of course, a book. He handed me a copy of his manuscript, “My Life as Mr. Wizard.”
“Mickey says you write books,” he said. “Perhaps you could help me with mine?”
We had a wonderful interview. I began by asking him if he had a copy of the straw kazoo episode.
“Oh yes, that was ‘The Science of Soda Straws,’” he smiled. “You know, when people meet me in person, they usually recall their favorite ‘Watch Mr. Wizard’ episode.”
What did he think of TV today?
“A great disappointment,” he shook his head. “It’s all about commercialism. I’ve never seen so many ads. A terrible waste of its potential.”
What was the most satisfying thing about being Mr. Wizard?
“Well, it’s been so gratifying to realize how many men and women today feel that ‘Watch Mr. Wizard’ actually made a difference in their lives,” he replied. “I still get letters from old viewers. One young man, a student at Duke University, sent me a fan letter some seven years ago, in which he said that I was his childhood hero, and that the experiments I did on TV so long ago, which were so simple and ‘elegant’—that’s the word he used—are still so relevant today for university level courses.”
He smiled his disarming Mr. Wizard smile. “You know, the thing that distinguished ‘Watch Mr. Wizard’ was that I had a child on the show, whom I engaged in an experiment with puzzles and challenges. His or her curiosity was aroused, and at the same time, kids who were watching were equally challenged. That’s why, so many years later, so many people still remember the demonstrations.”
How did he keep going, with the cancer and all?
“Well, life always holds a surprise,” he mused. “I learn something new every day. It’s all about learning, you know. Once you stop learning, it’s over.”
2200 miles away, in Shelby, Michigan, my brother got the surprise of his life when I called him at work that afternoon.
“Guess where I spent the morning?” I said.
“With MR. WIZARD!”
“What?” Dave was dumbfounded. I told him the whole story.
“You lead the most incredible life,” he laughed.
Before I left Mr. Wizard, he’d autographed a DVD of six episodes of “Watch Mr. Wizard” for me. It’s become one of my treasures, along with the manuscript of his autobiography, which is still in my possession. At the end of the book, Herbert says something that I think is the true measure of the man, and sums up what we’re missing in today’s crass, amoral, brain-dead society.
“A large reason for my longevity was being selective and essentially non-commercial. I never was involved in a project for the money, but only because it was something I could believe in and was worth the effort. Adequate money always followed…The Mr. Wizard programs had no commercial sponsors and the later "How About…" series had underwriters. Thus the programs were to be judged on the quality of the content rather than the effectiveness of a sales message.
“I’ve turned down many lucrative offers to pitch everything from toothpaste to complex computer component manufacturing machines. It was obvious the advertising agency involved was trying to use my reputation for scientific accuracy to sell their client’s product even though its scientific application was minimal.”
This was the essence of Don Herbert and Mr. Wizard: integrity. A dedication to science, to education, to truth. What a role model he was for us kids. How much we could use him today, to inspire, excite and challenge our jaded younger generation, in which the joy of discovery and the essential function of critical thinking are all but dead.
Mr. Wizard never could get his autobiography published—he was too old, and the world had moved far beyond the creaky days of kinescopes and straw kazoos. It’s a pity, because it’s a fascinating window on a bygone age, and a brilliant man who left his mark on so many of us. Farewell, Mr. Wizard. We’ll always love you.
Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was So Long, Tony Phony Baloney.
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