Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2014

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Mike LeDuc '14, three-time national champion in track and field, with his teammates. Clockwise from top right: Mike LeDuc '14, botany major from Canton, Conn.; Ian Rathkey '14, East Asian studies major from Old Lyme, Conn.; Ben Bosworth '17, economics major from Dorchester, Mass.; Niall Williams '16, economics major from Niskayuna, N.Y.; Daniel Burns '16, government major from Alexandria, Va.; and Aaron Samuel-Davis '14, classics and dance major from New London, Conn. Photo by Bob MacDonnell

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Forever Young

Forever Young
Gifford's new show “Dora and Friends” is coming in late summer to Nickelodeon.

Chris Gifford '81, co-creator of the hit children's shows 'Dora the Explorer' and 'Go Diego, Go!' is about to launch another show on Nickelodeon later this summer, called 'Dora and Friends.'.”

By Chris Nashawaty '91, film critic at "Entertainment Weekly" magazine


Editor's note: A condensed version of this Q&A appears in the Summer 2014 print edition of CC: Magazine.


It's safe to say that Chris Gifford's four years at Connecticut College weren't like those of any other student. Born in New York City, the son of professional-actor parents, he appeared in television commercials from the time he could walk and talk. In college, he landed a role on a surreal kids' TV show called “The Great Space Coaster.” The series, about three rock-musician friends who fly to a magical intergalactic world inhabited by trippy-looking puppets, lasted for five seasons. Today, he is one of the most successful producers and pioneers of children's TV on the planet. In 2000, Gifford helped create the multicultural hit Nickelodeon show “Dora the Explorer.” The show has been translated into more than 20 languages, from Gaelic to Greek, Turkish to Tamil. Its success led to the spinoff “Go, Diego, Go!” and a new series “Dora and Friends,” which debuts August 2014. Gifford, 55, has the infectiously frisky energy of a grown-up kid himself. He lives with his wife, Susan, in New Jersey. Their children, Henry and Katie, are both in college. We sat down with Gifford in his Times Square office to discuss his Peabody- and Emmy-winning career, his time at Connecticut College, and the bilingual girl with the talking backpack who's been helping kids laugh and learn for more than a decade.

Before you got into producing kids' TV, you were a child actor yourself.
How did you get into that?


CG: My dad and mom were both actors and they tried to make it a family business. I booked a few commercials for amusement parks and things like that, but I never enjoyed it. I always wanted to be hanging out with my friends playing basketball or punch ball.

How did you decide to apply to Connecticut College?

CG: My high school girlfriend said that Connecticut College would be good for me. It had a really good theater department and dance program and the kids there seemed like the kinds of kids I'd get along with. It was always my first choice. I was going to major in history or English, but I just started doing more and more theater. There was a lot of freedom and my parents liked the idea of me becoming an actor, as crazy as that sounds. I got involved with a theater group called the Penny Ante Players my sophomore year. We'd perform for kids in the community at schools and libraries.

Between your junior and senior years, you landed the job on “The Great Space Coaster.” How did that happen?

CG: My mom, who had become an agent, got me an audition. They were looking for kids who could sing and play an instrument. I played bass in some bands when I was a teenager, so I brought that. And when I plugged it in at the audition, there was a lot of buzzing and I really couldn't play very well, anyway. They stopped me pretty quickly and we were all laughing at how bad the audition was going. They were thanking me for coming when I remembered a Slade song that my brother had taught me. They called me back. And the next time I came they had me improvising, which I wasn't especially good at, but I was really good on that day. I just felt like it was meant to be.

How did you juggle the show with going to school?

CG: I took a break from school after my junior year. But I did go back up to the campus a lot because all of my friends were still there. The following year I came back and graduated and the show continued for another four years.

Did you like doing the show?

CG: I loved it. It was really wild. It was one of those shows that not many people know about unless they were growing up at that time. But the puppeteers on the show, like Kevin Clash, who went on to do Elmo and Clifford, were fantastic. We were all jealous of the puppets. The human actors couldn't compete with them. Acting is a hard career. And I'm pretty anxious by nature. So at night I would have serious nightmares. I'm surprised I worked as long as I did.

What did you do after the show “The Great Space Coaster” ended?

CG: Well, the money from the show lasted for a while. But when it ran out, I wound up getting a job as a receptionist at The Children's Television Workshop on a show called “3-2-1 Contact.” I didn't have any more dreams of acting. I just wanted to work my way up the production ladder. And that place was like the gold standard of kids' TV at the time, with “Sesame Street.” I wanted to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. I wanted to learn as much as I could about producing kids' television with the hopes that one day I could create a show in some local market. The dream didn't get any bigger than that. As the receptionist you got to interact with everybody. And they were very kind and let me stick around after work and go on shoots and work with editors and soak up as much as I could.

“3-2-1 Contact” was a revolutionary and ambitious show for 1981-1986.

CG: It was. And I worked my way into some interesting jobs fairly quickly there, even though at the time it felt like a snail's pace. They did a piece on AIDS and Ryan White. They would try to make science interesting to kids. It was a good show. So I would work in production management, helping prepare them for the shoots, going out on the shoots, working with a sound guy, the lighting guy. It was great experience.

What happened after “3-2-1 Contact” ended?

CG: I interviewed at Nickelodeon. I got a job as the unit manager on a show called “Total Panic.” All of us were in our 20s. If you ever watched that show you would be amazed at the stuff we put on the air. Everywhere I went — Connecticut College, “Space Coaster,” Children's Television Workshop and Nickelodeon way back then — I always landed in places where there was a lot of freedom. You could experiment and try things, which is where you get the best stuff. And back then I was still doing my one-man show on the weekends too.

Tell me more about your one-man show …

CG: It was called “Travelling Tales” and I'd perform at malls, schools and libraries. It started out with some Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein stories. And I worked with a puppet that Kevin Clash had made for me. The puppet's name is “Arnie.” I still have [Arnie] in a drum case somewhere. He's probably falling to pieces. I wasn't that good with it, but the puppet was pretty funny. Funnier than I am. And I really learned a lot about the audience. What they liked and interactivity, which would later become a part of “Dora.” I did that for seven or eight years.

What did Arnie look like?

CG: He had red hair, bangs, a big round face. [Gifford slips into a goofy, oafish voice] And … talked … kinda … funny.

Was there something you could express on stage through the puppet that you couldn't as yourself?

CG: Yeah, I mean, I enjoyed being the straight man much more. I found it much easier to be funny as a puppeteer. I really enjoyed getting kids to laugh. I'd say the laughter you get from kids is better than the laughter you get from adults, but I haven't gotten that much laughter from adults. When kids laugh, though, it's wonderful. It's so heartfelt. It's not like they're the most difficult audience to get a laugh from, but they are very honest. They're not going to give you polite laughter. It's what hooks you into doing this kind of work.

What was your most memorable experience from “Total Panic”?

CG: I went on a shoot in Detroit to interview the [boy band] New Kids on the Block. They were huge at the time. And midway through the interview, I noticed that Donnie Wahlberg kept looking at me in a weird way. And he stops the interview and says, “I know you! Hey man, you were on 'The Great Space Coaster'!”

After that, you worked on the show “Clarissa Explains It All” with Melissa Joan Hart …

CG: I worked on the first season of the show in Orlando as the associate producer. I remember seeing the pilot and thinking, “This is never going to make it.” I thought it was a little mean-spirited and contrived. I didn't see it. But it broke the myth that boys would not watch a show about a girl and the show became hit. And I became the producer. We did 65 episodes over five seasons from 1991-1994. Melissa Joan Hart had a photographic memory when she was 12 years old. You could give her a fresh monologue in the morning and she'd [memorize] it instantly.

What brought you back to New York?

CG: I got married and my wife missed New York. And I'm glad we did because we've been married 23 years and have two kids, who are 21 and 18. When I got back to Nickelodeon in New York, they'd just got a huge infusion of money to create new programming. The thinking was, let's create a pipeline where kids start at Nickelodeon Jr. and continue on to Nickelodeon. So we did a show called “Allegra's Window,” which was about music appreciation, and [one called] “Gullah Gullah Island,” which was a fantastical show that took place in a South Carolina sea island locale with an African-American couple. It was a breakthrough show and somewhat successful. And then came “Dora.”

I've read differing accounts about the inception of “Dora.” That her name was originally Tess, that she wasn't originally a Latina, that the first incarnation was animals in a forest ...

CG: Right. But what you need to know is that the show, for me, was born out of desperation. My contract had been cut from two years to one year. I had worked on a show called “The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss,” which is one of the biggest ratings failures ever at Nickelodeon. It was Jim Henson's company and the Dr. Seuss estate coming together. Can't miss, right? It was one of the most expensive productions ever for us, and it crashed and burned. And my own neuroses were exploding. I was starting to take piano lessons to become a teacher, thinking that the television thing was a nice ride while it lasted, but I need to make a living. So “Dora” was my last desperate attempt — I had nothing to lose.

Well, that's usually when the best ideas come, right?

CG: Right. And what eventually became “Dora” was a combination of two ideas: A show about a bunny who goes on a journey with her mommy, which was mine; and another which was a fairytale about a treasure hunt that my partner Valerie Walsh came up with. It went all the way up to the president of Nickelodeon and he hated it. It was the worst meeting I've ever been in. I was like, 'Please let this end, let me go and be a teacher!' But I kept thinking about my son and daughter and how they loved playing games where they could choose their own adventure. The main character was called Tess for a while, which was the name of one of my daughter's best friends. And later we called it something else: “Nina's Pop-up Puzzle.” The character was 5 or so with red hair and bangs and lived in a pop-up world and would go on a journey every day.

Where did the idea of making the little-girl character a Latina come from?

CG: Nickelodeon just said one day, “Would you consider making her a Latina?” I think they just wanted to make some shows that were more reflective of the audience. None of us were from that culture. We knew it was a good idea for all of the reasons, but we didn't know what that would mean. We had to figure that out. So we brought in a number of cultural advisers. One of the most important things we learned was that she had to be Pan-Latina. We had to be as inclusive as possible — to build bridges between cultures.

So it was a noble intention on the network's part, but it created a whole bunch of new hurdles you now had to get over …

CG: Yes. But it was also an opportunity — setting her in a Latin American world with volcanoes and flowers. We went to Costa Rica and investigated that culture and got Latino writers. As for the name “Dora,” we just liked the way it rhymed with “explorer.” Also there was a connection with “computadora,” which is Spanish for “computer,” and “exploradora,” which [translates to] “girl scout.” And also Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz.”

“Dora the Explorer” finally went on the air in 2000 and was an immediate hit. Why do you think she's a good role model for young girls?

CG: Because the show is about problem-solving and helping others and using what you know and asking for help and being generous and speaking two languages. I always think an important part of the show's appeal is just what a difficult time preschoolers have in their own lives. They're unable to do so many things for themselves, which must get pretty frustrating. They can't make their own lunch or tie their shoes, can't reach for so many things that they want, and need help so often. Dora goes on these extraordinary adventures, where she overcomes overwhelming obstacles, rescues princes and princesses, defeats pirates and frustrates a sneaky fox, but she can't do it without the viewers' help. Often in research we try to find out about secondary characters who join Dora on the journey and when we ask the kids, “Who helped Dora during the story?” Usually they'll say, “I did!”

Do you ever have parents complain to you about having the Dora theme song stuck in their heads?

CG: All the time.

One of the interesting things about the show is that you test it with kids …

CG: You can sit in a meeting where everyone laughs at a script and then play it for kids and get no response. So we decided to test the shows early on in the process so we can change it in time. We bring the show to kids and give them a Mr. Potato Head toy and we can tell they're bored if they pick up the Mr. Potato Head and start playing with him instead of watching the show.

How did the spinoff show “Go, Diego, Go!” come about?

CG: We saw that girls had “Dora” and boys had nothing. So we wanted to add a cool boy character into the show. Diego was Dora's cousin and eventually, when he became a successful character, he got his own series. We took a break from Dora and wound up doing four seasons of “Diego.” And now we are about to air a new Dora series in August called “Dora and Friends.”


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