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.
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.
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!
"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."
Dec 17 2007 interview with George Carlin where he discusses Shining Time Station with interviewers Henry Colman and Jenni Matz.
Another major change was the departure of Leonard Jackson's character, Harry Cupper, explained in the new season's first episode as having accepted a transfer to Fort Farley on the Indian Valley Railroad line.
This led to the introduction of his successor, Billy Twofeathers, a Native-American locomotive engineer on the Indian Valley Railroad who becomes the new resident handyman of Shining Time Station. Billy was played by Winnipeg singer/actor and TV host Tom Jackson, who welcomed both the role and extended exposure south of the Canadian border. In a 1991 interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Tom described his character Billy Twofeathers as "the guy who seems to have all the solutions...He's the one who settles the kids down when they're upset."
Lastly, though Matt and Tanya appeared in the second season's first episode, Scare Dares and a later episode, Field Day, their characters were written out of the show as it was speculated that child actors Jason Woliner and Nicole Leach had both outgrown their roles. The kids' maturing, especially Jason's, is very evident in T'is a Gift. As New York based child actors, the extended travel to and from Canada where the show was now taped may have been factored into the decision.
With children playing a crucial part of the Shining Time Station stories, replacement actors were sought out ahead of Season 2's production, only this time they would be from Canada. One of the new young faces introduced to the series was Erica Luttrell, playing Kara Cupper, another of Harry Cupper's granddaughters. Ari Magder also joined the cast as Dan Jones, Stacy Jones' 2nd nephew. A third child character was added to the roster - that of Becky played by Danielle Marcot. Although appearing in almost every episode, Danielle's name was not listed in the Season 2 opening credits alongside Erica's and Ari's. That later changed with Season 3's opening credits where she was credited alongside her regular co-stars.
In addition to Midge Smoot (Bobo Lewis), new supporting characters were also introduced to the series, namely a newspaper reporter, Jake Scoop played by Albert Schultz, Jonathan Shapiro as Schemer's nephew, Schemee, General Store owner Barton Winslow, played by Gerard Parkes, Barbara Hamilton as farmer Ginny, and Aurelio Padron as bus driver Felix Perez. Former daytime soap opera actor Mart Hulswit's appearances in episodes as the overly-serious Indian Valley Railroad Owner J.B. King also became more frequent.
20 episodes were produced for the second season of SHINING TIME STATION, which premiered on Halloween 1991 with the episode Scare Dares.
Shining Time Station was nominated for a Canadian Gemini award in 1993 for best children's programming, thanks to the continued delivery of quality storytelling and morals embedded in every episode. The momentum continued with Season 3 episodes focusing on co-operation and teamwork, responsibility, the negative effects of watching too much television (Mr. Conductor Gets Left Out), and even tackling the sensitive subject of bigotry (Schemer's Special Club) and bullying (Bully for Mr. Conductor).
Balancing the third season's serious side was madcap hilarity in stories such as the ones seen in Becky Makes a Wish, Dance Crazy and Mr. Conductor's Movie. This season even surprised us by featuring a well-known politician doppelganger in The Mayor Runs for Re-election.
Riding on its success, it was hoped that the show would enjoy many more years of producing new episodes. It was during this period that ideas about a theatrical movie based on Shining Time Station first came into being. As we will discover, Fate had other plans. Season 3 would be the final complete season produced in the half-hour episode format.
Season 3 (25 episodes) of Shining Time Station premiered on March 22, 1993 with the episode Becky Makes a Wish.
“The ultimate gratification in work is feeling that you're doing something good. We're giving life lessons to children.”
~ Rick Siggelkow (1993)
The Shining Time Station franchise branched out during this period with the production of several direct-to-video VHS specials in 1993 for release in October that year, and into 1994. Brian O'Connor was featured with other cast members in Schemer Presents: The World According to Me! Volume 1 (1994). According to the May 18, 1993 issue of the Cedartown Standard, the Jukebox Puppet Band were to have 4 solo video specials produced. Only 2 were released: A Day in the Life (1993) and Lullaby (1994).
1994 began with the decision not to produce a full seasons-worth of new Shining Time Station episodes. No single reason can be attributed for why Season 4 did not move forward; however there were a number of related cumulative factors that should be considered:
With three seasons to its credit, Shining Time Station had reached the magic number of 65 episodes required for syndication, a figure which is quite common with children's television shows.
George Carlin's working life also became much busier. In January 1994,George Carlin returned to prime time television with Fox's "The George Carlin Show", playing a New York Upper West Side cabbie who hangs about a shabby-looking pub sharing his advice and opinions. Despite his excitement for his new series, Carlin himself maintained that he would still like to continue playing Mr. Conductor, even in a reduced capacity.
With the prospect of a full season's worth of episodes unlikely, the producers did not want to leave the dedicated followers of Shining Time Station out in the cold. Britt, Rick and partners instead refocused their resources and energies to produce a series of 1-hour Family Specials.
With the hour-long format of the specials, the writers were able to expand on stories that focused on interpersonal relationships, whether dealing with Schemer's insecurities about Stacy's new beau in Once Upon a Time, Kit Twofeathers shutting out his uncle's attention in Second Chances, Mr. Conductor's frustration with his sister, or Harry Cupper's expectations in One in the Family, or learning about the importance of being yourself in Queen for a Day.
The specials also permitted the production to venture outside of Shining Time Station's walls and into the great outdoors. While the interior scenes were shot in the Showline Harbourside Studios, Toronto, many of the outdoor scenes were taped in the rural outskirts and scenic open countryside of Ontario's Simcoe County, near the village of Tottemham. The hamlet is also home to the South Simcoe Railway, a tourist steam train operation, where the locale of several scenes from Once Upon a Time, Second Chances, One of the Family and Queen for a Day can be easily recognized on the ground to this day.
The first of the four specials, Once Upon a Time made its televised debut on Wednesday, January 7th, 1995. Second Chances followed in April 12, One of the Family on September 22, and lastly, Queen for a Day on December 18.
Mr. Conductor's Thomas Tales was funded by Britt Allcroft Inc. and "self-supporting authorities", with Britt Allcroft taking the lead as the main Producer, and Jerry Hamza, George Carlin's long-time friend, manager and business partner helping out as the Co-Executive Producer. The choice of Hamza was a logical one, as the show centered solely around Carlin's Mr. Conductor, the only Shining Time Station character and cast member to return. As the set requirements were now minimal, George's green screen scenes were filmed at the smaller Showline Oxford Studios in Etobicoke, Ontario. The indoor station scenes made use of stills taken during the production of the specials, onto which Carlin's green screen scenes were superimposed.
In the half-hour specials, George Carlin performed short skits between Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends episodes that were themed to the featured story's moral. Five Thomas stories were squeezed into each special, with a sixth showcasing a Thomas music video. This format delivered more Thomas stories to North American audiences in fewer episodes, as opposed to only those shown in previous seasons. Mr. Conductor's Thomas Tales made its debut on October 7, 1996 with "Paint the Town Red".
End of an Era
On a positive note, PBS recognized the attachment that over 7 million loyal fans had to the show. In an unusual move, the entire series was rebroadcasted every late-evening (1:30 am) in two-hour blocks from Dec. 8, 1997 to January 4, 1998, giving parents the chance to tape the episodes for posterity for their children.
Even though Shining Time's association with PBS was now over, opportunities opened up elsewhere. Earlier in October 1997, Britt met up with media producer and friend Haim Saban for lunch in Los Angeles. Haim's company merged a few years earlier with that of Fox magnate Rupert Murdoch, and together had recently acquired the Family Channel which would be later known officially as Fox Kids. As an aside, Saban's company was very instrumental for introducing the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (derived from the Japanese Toei Company's Super Sentai series) to U.S. audiences.
Britt was at the time looking for additional channels to air The Magic Adventures of Mumfie, and her existing business relationship with Fox through Fox Clubhouse since 1995 made the new Fox Family Channel a good match.
Saban was a father and also a long-time fan of Thomas. At one point during their lunch conversation he asked Britt about her future plans for Shining Time Station, given the show's impending end on PBS. Haim then asked Britt if Shining Time might just find a new home with Fox. By the end of the lunch date, both Mumfie and Shining Time Station were destined for the Fox Family Channel to begin airing in the fall of 1998. The one-year broadcasting deal was signed with an option to renegotiate the contract for an additional two year term, but it appears that this offer was not pursued.
Broadcasting agreements were also established with Canadian cable broadcasters. Shining Time Station aired on the Saskatchewan Communications Network (SCN) from October 1, 1999 to September 30, 2004. The agreement included only 44 episodes of Shining Time Station, with the episodes scheduled to be aired once a day at noon from Monday to Friday. (With our thanks to SCN Traffic/Media Coordinator Krista Hoffman for answering our inquiries)
45 episodes from Shining Time Station Seasons 2 and 3 were also broadcasted on the Canadian Aboriginal Peoples Network (APTN) from January 1, 2000 to September 29, 2001. The show aired twice weekly on Saturday and Sunday during the 10:00-10:30 timeslot. The airing was extended to include Tuesdays in addition to the weekends as of September 30, 2000. During the winter of 2001, the Tuesday time slot was switched to Wednesday until the broadcast licence expired. (with our many thanks to Linda O'Shaughnessy, Senior Program Officer, Acquisitions with APTN for kindly providing us with this information).
There was one drawback associated with Shining Time Station's departure from PBS. The half-hour episodes were originally broadcasted in entirety in a commercial-free environment. The switch to other cable-TV channels resulted in the episodes being edited and shortened to accommodate for paid sponsor advertisements. In some cases, the Jukebox Puppet Band's performances or mid-episode banter were omitted, with live-action scenes abridged in others.
In the meantime, Britt was actively making preparations for the filming of Thomas and the Magic Railroad. After the Fox Family Channel broadcast agreement expired, Britt found another home for Shining Time Station with Nick Jr. for a short run series broadcast during the year 2000 as a promotional build-up to the movie.
Promotional advert for Shining Time Station on Nick Jr. airing in 2000.
(Digitized by ShiningTime95, shared with and uploaded by Youtube user johnnynl with our thanks)
Episodes of Shining Time Station have not been rebroadcasted since 2001, with the series seemingly going into obscurity with HiT Entertainment's takeover of the Thomas franchise in 2002.
There has been no official word to date from HiT Entertainment (or owners Mattel) regarding the prospect of releasing the entire run of Shining Time Station on DVD. It would be safe to venture that the DVD release of complete seasons and specials, either individually or in a boxed set would be popular with the now-adult fans of the show.
Until then, the spirit of Shining Time Station lives on for fans old and new, thanks to YouTube uploads of old VHS taped episodes recorded by their parents during the series' run well over a decade ago.
Below is a partial list of our information sources: