Your guide to the history of the televised seasons and spin-offs for

SHINING TIME STATION

The timing of events could not have been better. Enter New York producer-writer Rick Siggelkow, who contacted Britt Allcroft after watching a few taped episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. Rick was impressed by its potential and coincidentally pitched the same idea to Britt.

In short order Britt and Rick established a new company: Quality Family Entertainment,  and the concept for SHINING TIME STATION was the direct result of their combined creativity. With North-American children's television dominated at the time by the likes of  G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rick and Britt found a gentler slower-paced home for their new show with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and partnered-up with New York PBS affiliate WNET-TV to co-produce the show's first season.

photo of Britt Allcroft and Rick Siggelkow

Shining Time Station Creators/Producers Britt Allcroft and Rick Siggelkow in 1989 (photo credit: Bill Bernstein)

SHINING TIME STATION, a half-hour show, would involve fun and whimsical live-action segments interspersed with Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends episodes; both matched and themed to provide young viewers with a non-patronising lesson and moral. To deliver this, Britt and Rick created a roster of colourful and memorable characters.

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The most memorable and central cast character is "Mr. Conductor", played by former Beatle drummer and then Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends storyteller, Ringo Starr. With Ringo's Liverpud'lian accent delighting young British audiences with tales from the Island of Sodor, Britt convinced him to join the cast as the live-action role of the magical and diminutive sentinel of Shining Time Station and ambassador between the real world and the land of talking trains. Portraying the 18-inch tall Mr. Conductor required Ringo to tape all of his scenes in green screen to be later inserted with the live-action scenes. As such, Ringo's interaction with the other cast members during the taping of their scenes was  minimal, and the producers used a miniature "stand-in" doll to aid the actors wherever they needed to interact with Mr. Conductor.

Mr. Conductor's role was complimented with the introduction of several other miniature beings who lived and worked inside of the arcade's jukebox and affectionately known as "The Jukebox Puppet Band". Created by renowned  puppeteers Craig and Olga Marin, these denizens provided musical entertainment and comedic banter in every episode. The band performed mostly traditional Americana song selections in their own unique style that were suited to the theme and storyline of the featured episode.

 

In the weeks leading up to SHINING TIME STATION's debut, Ringo and co-star Brian O'Connor toured the country and made morning talk show and news media appearances to promote the new series (see selected archived clips below).

Archival clips of Ringo Starr and Brian O'Connor promoting Shining Time Station

Twenty SHINING TIME STATION episodes were produced for Season 1 for airing in 1989, with the series making its televised debut on Sunday January 29, 1989 with the episode  A Place Unlike Any Other. As we'll elaborate below, the show was an instant success from its inauguration onwards. By the end of the second season, audience ratings rivaled or exceeded those for other public television titles such as Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow.  

 

While Season 1 began with the station's re-opening and focused on establishing our new character friends, the latter part introduced a story arc with the facility under threat of being closed. The theme begins with Promises, Promises where Schemer's antics infuriates Indian Valley Railroad Head and Owner J.B. King. Word's Out sees the threat becoming reality with trains being diverted from stopping at Shining Time Station until town gossip Midge Smoot (Bobo Lewis) intervenes thanks to a minor medical emergency. Things finally come to a head in Is This the End?, with J.B. King's intention of permanently shuttering the station in favour of a recently-opened new big station in nearby Snarlyville.

Quality Family Entertainment celebrated their series' success, by producing an hour-long Holiday Special 'Tis a Gift, guest-starring veteran actor Lloyd Bridges. The special aired during the morning of Wednesday, December 5, 1990 with repeat broadcasts on Dec. 24 and 25th.  'Tis a Gift marked the final episode featuring Ringo Starr as Mr. Conductor and Thomas episode storyteller. Ringo gave up is role as he wanted to focus all his time and energies with his All Starr Band and their comeback tour. 

The special also marked a change of venue for the show's production. Whereas all of the Season 1 episodes were taped in New York,  'Tis a Gift was recorded in Toronto, Canada which explains the subtle set differences noticed by fans in the special. 

“There is a lot of violence, sickness, sadness and doubt in the world. We hope - through Shining Time - we are able to counterbalance the malaise with joyfulness and a sense of hope.”

~ Britt Allcroft (1993)

SHINING TIME STATION became an instant hit with television viewing audiences. Broadcasted since its debut by most PBS stations in America, SHINING TIME STATION received a 0.9 Nielson rating across the nation during the 1989-90 season, which equates to a viewing audience of 1.2 million.  While pre-schoolers were attracted to Mr. Conductor and the Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends episodes, older children were drawn to the antics of the live-action characters. The show's popularity and momentum led to the audience wanting to see more adventures of their Shining Time and Island of Sodor friends.

There was only one complication; the terms of the contract between Quality Family Entertainment and PBS stated that the episodes were to be only shown up to a maximum of four times during the life of the three-year contract. A mere twenty episodes and a special would be hard to ration and spread out over that timespan.

Recognizing that demand, WETA and many other PBS stations began a letter-writing campaign asking all SHINING TIME STATION fans to send in their letters extolling the virtues of the show and to encourage the production of new episodes. 

At the same time, Rick and Britt's company, Quality Family Entertainment was actively seeking additional long-term partners to help secure the show's future, as studio leasing and producing a television show in New York city proper is a very costly venture - Season 1 was reported to have cost $4 million to make.

 

One partner was found with Toronto-based Catalyst Entertainment's Charles Falzon, whose business savvy with regards to brand distribution needed no further convincing. A more economical alternate studio location was also secured by making arrangements with Canadian cable broadcaster YTV to make use of their Scarborough, Ontario facilities to tape the show.

As fan letters from parents and children continued to pour in, the producers with their new partners on board gave the all-clear signal to produce a second season of 20 new episodes. In the end we can conclude that the letter-writing campaign was a success!

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"We knew the role had to be an older person, somebody who was different from Ringo, not radically different, but with a kind of warmth and vulnerability. The more we talked, the more it added up to George Carlin. In a sense, George was a boost to the ratings. A lot of people tuned in to see him, and when he went back on the road, we got a lot of spinoff publicity."

And tune-in they did! Nationwide ratings of the show's viewers now measured more than 7 million for the 1991-92 period. As an aside, anecdotal sources mention that George Carlin's style of humor was very popular amongst College and University students who were also now drawn into catching the occasional episode of Shining Time Station - just to see the meek and gentle side of George in action.

 

From Carlin's perspective, he relished taking on the role as it gave him the opportunity to do something radically opposite of what was expected of his well-known persona. As George said himself in an interview with The Record in 1991:

"What attracted me is how well-done it is. It's enchanting and charming. And there's a wholesome kind of sense of family in it. The little messages in there are done subtly and softly. It's a different kind of acting assignment and a chance to release my old childlike self in a kind of focused way. As a comedian, I get to act less than adult most of the time anyway."