Thursday, May 3, 2012

A P*lace in Time

My local, tiny-town cable company held a contest in the 80s, wherein kids were to draw pictures of something Disney-related and send them in, with the selected winner's family receiving a free month of The Disney Channel.

My mom told me about this, and I went to work crafting an artistic endeavor so amazing, so influential to generations to come, that I cannot even recall what it was now.  Some Mickey Mouse thing, as my dad would say.  We sent it off and I eagerly awaited hearing the results.

Turns out mine was one of exactly two entrants; not feeling like being dicks, the cable company decided to just give both families a free month of The Disney Channel.

Turns out it was a real thrill for my sister and I, and Mom and Dad recognized it; once our freebie month expired, they did exactly what the cable company had intended by running the contest in the first place, and kept renewing our subscription to the channel for several years to come.

As a result, my sister and I would rush home after school for one key block of programming on The Disney Channel which we could not get enough of. The second half of that block was The New Mickey Mouse Club, which we somehow managed to watch every day for several years while still completely missing the incoming class that everyone talks about now, which spawned a bumper crop of stars including Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, and probably a couple of others I'm forgetting.  We never knew that cast.

Besides, that show was the Garfunkel of the pair, anyway.  No, the real draw for us was the first half-hour of that block, featuring the mindbending 80s awesomeness that was Kids Incorporated.

Yes, logos in the 80s were allowed to be totally unreadable. It was considered "bad."
Granted, we were children, and thus we hadn't developed taste yet. That didn't change the fact that Kids Inc. was appointment television for us in the late 80s.

Also, pastel.  All of the pastel.
Every weekday we were treated to the fantasy of these five spunky singing kids who evidently had no parents and existed solely to spend all their time learning valuable life lessons whilst performing covers of songs they couldn't possibly know, together at a concert hall/soda fountain run by a functionally retarded inventor who probably had to go door-to-door and tell all of his neighbors what he'd done when he first moved into the area.

And we loved it.

Let's start with that owner, a man known only as Riley.  Now, I was a child, so perhaps the nuance and subtlety of the plot-weaving in the singing kids' show was lost on me, but if my memory serves, Riley bought an old concert hall which was once known as The Palace. Unfortunately, one letter on the marquee had burned out or been broken or something, so instead of fixing it, Riley simply redubbed the place... The Place.  Or, more true to what we see of the marquee, The P*lace.  Riley may or may not have done this to the marquee, but I definitely remember this odd asterisk intrusion in the show at some point, and while you might say But wait, that's stupid to an impossible degree, why would he climb up there and put a goddamned neon asterisk on the marquee instead of just replacing the A?!?,  I wouldn't put it past a man who buys a business, hires no employees, and runs it all himself while using his freedom as owner to still choose this as his uniform...

Not pictured: Dignity.
My sister and I were fascinated with Riley, perhaps moreso than the showrunners intended. He rarely appeared to have customers to wait on, and instead spent much of his time putting together asinine inventions that would never work and would make him look foolish in front of the members of Kids Incorporated as they happened by on their way to perform for alarmingly sudden crowds of audience members who could appear and disappear as the "story" mandated. Assumedly these crowds brought in the funds necessary for Riley to keep The P*lace open and stocked with stupid hats, although I'm still not ruling out the possibility that Riley was receiving monthly envelopes stuffed with cash from the terrified parents of Kids Incorporated in exchange for poorly-spelled notes assuring their continued safety while in captivity.

"All right, now let's hear another rousing Elton John cover."

In a bizarre meta-angle, we were also bemused/horrified to discover that the opening credits asked us to believe that the character of Riley was played by a man who dared go out in public with the name Moosie Drier.



Google assures me that he's a real guy, albeit a real guy who was clearly unloved by his parents, or that they simply let him choose his own stage name at age five, via a Speak n' Spell toy with low batteries.

"It's my homemade stage-name generator! Give it a try, and see if 'Crimp Ballblaster' comes up for you, too!"
Also, while I can't find any pictures to verify this, I have a fairly distinct memory of the stage area where Kids Incorporated performed, and Riley may have bought the building for a song if there's any truth to the giant lettering reading "ASBESTOS" printed across a flat space on the rafters directly above the stage. I swear I'm not making that up, it's what I actually remember being up there; someone, please debunk this so I can sleep at night.

Okay, so we've got Riley, the obvious inspiration for Megan's Law, but what of the Kids Incorporated themselves?
Other than their being totally tubular, that is.
Well, let me break this down by admitting that there are Kids who were Incorporated later who are neither part of these cast photos nor Incorporated in my beloved memories of the show. Two little girls were introduced late in the show's run (one of whom, to be more well-known later, dropped the "Jennifer" from her full name in the Kids Inc. credits in order to be identified as "Love Hewitt", which we can assume was the topic of approximately 6591835 off-color jokes made on the set by Moosie Drier). Also, some boy was thrown in, too, but he was a punk.

No, we're focusing on the core five Kids with this exhaustive, some might say needless, retrospective.  And no look back written by me could begin with anyone other than Stacy.  I had a gigantic crush on Stacy. Someday Stacy was going to leave Kids Incorporated, move to my hometown, enroll at my school and be my girlfriend.
Here Stacy sings about leaving Kids Incorporated, moving to my hometown, enrolling at my school and being my girlfriend.  The audience at The P*lace that day was confused as fuck.
And yes, it was an age-appropriate crush, so shut up.

"That's what I tried to tell that judge in Wisconsin!"
I didn't fully grasp the idea of taped television yet, so on some level I believed, or let myself believe, that Kids Incorporated was being produced every day and essentially broadcast live into our homes. I remember saying to my sister at one point that the outfits we were seeing the Incorporated in were their "school clothes," implying that they'd gotten off of school and rushed to wherever Kids Incorporated episodes were made every day, never having to trifle with such formalities as hair, makeup or wardrobe departments, just going onscreen in whatever they had on. To that end, I assumed that the usually matching outfits they wore on-stage were the result of them all calling each other the night before and coordinating what they were going to wear to school the next day.

Anyway, it helped reinforce the notion that Stacy was just a normal kid like me, and there was at least a chance.  And it's not like I was thinking about sex, at that age; I just knew I got a ticklish fluttering feeling in my stomach when I thought about what I'd say when Stacy enrolled in my school and I first walked up to her in the halls to say something devastatingly charming and make her my girlfriend.

Alas, time passes, and the longer Stacy went on not being my girlfriend, the less I recalled that that was a thing I wanted.  Many years later I'd hear that she and another girl from Kids Incorporated had formed a legitimate music act together, called Wild Orchid, about whom I knew nothing else. Not long after that I randomly happened across a blip in a magazine, with the choice attention-catching phrase "got her start on the Disney Channel show Kids Incorporated."  And I looked at the full name of my child crush, Stacy...

Uh oh... I gotta feeling...
...and realized that she was still very much in the public eye, but she didn't go by her first name anymore.

At least I could take solace in the fact that she now ran with a group including a black guy, a dude with big hair, and a vampire who is almost certainly also a sexual predator, which I found comforting in a "the more things change, the more they stay the same" sort of way.

"You never told them I was a vampire."
Next up is Ryan. As much as I had a giant crush on Stacy, I had just as big of a man-crush on Ryan. I wanted to be Ryan in 1987.

Bedazzled denim had its day.
Here was a dude who played electric guitar, wore leather jackets and fingerless gloves, had spiky hair I spent most of my childhood failing to properly emulate, got to hang around with my future girlfriend before she moved to my town, and performed on stage while wearing a microphone headset, which I had never been exposed to before and thus thought was the raddest invention I'd ever seen.

I saw the execrable flick The Monster Squad solely because the Disney Channel commercials played up Ryan Lambert's relatively minor role as if he was the star of the film.

This may as well have been the Google image search result for "My Idea Of Awesome At Age 10."
Ryan was the cool kid I thought I might be if I had access to the right jacket.  I was convinced he was going to be a huge star, and was crestfallen when The Monster Squad led to exactly nothing.  Because, for my allowance money, Ryan and Stacy were the STARS of Kids Incorporated.  The others were just there to round out a band to ensure that everyone knew the matching outfits were deliberate and not just a coincidence.

One of those Kids was, confusingly enough, The Kid.

His "thing" was hats.
In the stage performance segments of the show, he was routinely stuck with a keytar he was easily five years too young to hold, let alone use.
No way is he getting through Billy Joel's greatest hits this day.
He also broke with the show's canny naming conventions. Where "Stacy," "Ryan," and "Renee" were played by kids named Stacy, Ryan and Renee, the producers evidently decreed that Rahsaan was just too ethnic to pronounce every week, and decided that this dude wanted to be known as The Kid.  I'm sure the other members of Kids Incorporated appreciated the fact that all it would take is a poorly placed apostrophe in their name to make their group look like the intellectual property of The Kid.

The writers even incorporated his real name into an episode, in which he's ashamed of his name and goes by The Kid as a cover.  Of course it allows the other Incorporated to assure him that he has nothing to be ashamed of, and that he should be proud of who he is and not have to hide behind fakery to try to impress people or make friends.

All of which was then promptly forgotten as if it had never been said, since he was unerringly referred to as The Kid from then on.

For some inscrutable reason I'm assuming was dartboard-related, the writing staff at Kids Incorporated never devoted an episode to dissecting the oddly-named, and just generally odd, Martika.

Why so serious?
Martika was the first cast member to depart, as if for bigger and better things, and it couldn't happen soon enough for me.  I never liked Martika, for a number of reasons I didn't fully comprehend at the time.

First, there was the name. At some point "Marta Marrero" changed to "Martika" in the opening credits, with no explanation. That unsettled me for some reason.  Plus, her character was randomly named "Gloria," perhaps because of all of the film wasted on ruined takes of child actors trying to call out for "Martika" with a straight face.

Second, it was plainly obvious to me, even as a child, that Martika was way too old to be in Kids Incorporated.  It seemed like Kids Incorporated And Someone's Twenty-Year Old Cousin would have made an apt title while Martika was hanging around pretending to be a kid.  If Stacy was going to someday move to my town and be my girlfriend, Martika would be our substitute teacher.

"Any room at your school for a creepy janitor?"
Plus, if I may veer into the category of Things I Had No Firm Grasp On At That Age, it seemed that Martika looked vaguely hermaphroditic in at least half of the photos and scenes from the show that I saw her in.  I swear to you, the first time I sat down and watched Kids Incorporated, it took me a minute to realize that the boy-to-girl ratio in the group was 2:3 and not 3:2.

Hmm. First Adam's Apple check inconclusive. Try again later in the show.

Finally, my first actual REAL life girlfriend was in the flag corps in our junior high school, and she had to practice her routine on their driveway for hours on end, going through the choreography that had been married to Martika's real-world pop song "Toy Soldiers."  So for weeks of courting this neighbor-girl and waiting for more kissing-time, I had to watch flag twirling and hear "STEP BY STEP, HEART TO HEART, LEFT RIGHT LEFT, WE ALLLLL FALLLLL DOWN... LIKE TOY SOLDIERS..." blaring from her boombox again, and again, and again.

So, not a huge fan of Martika's, any way you slice it.

Lastly there was Renee, of whom no flattering childhood picture exists on the whole of the Internet.

But blurry movement snapshots are in long supply.
Renee was presented as Stacy's older sister on the show, despite their not being related in the real world. I had the distinct feeling that Renee was going to be a snotty bitch when she got a little older, and now I have no idea what I based that on.  Perhaps I feared dealing with Renee once I made her sister my girlfriend.

Also for reasons I can't begin to explain nor fathom, I'd decided that Renee and The Kid were an item, either on the show or in real life (if I even bothered with such a distinction back then, which I kinda doubt). Even though it was completely imaginary, I believe it was my first exposure to the idea of an interracial couple, which I'm glad to say I didn't find the slightest bit odd even at ten years old.

I even remember the exact moment I realized I had outgrown Kids Incorporated.  It was a bittersweet moment I imagine was narrated by Daniel Stern.

There was a plot point involving a kid who was trying to hang out with the Incorporated, but he was a bit of a pathological liar (he was the punk I obliquely referred to above).  He claimed to have attended either a bullfight or The Running of The Bulls in Pamplona, and told a story about saving someone's life by ripping off his shirt and waving it before a bull to draw it toward him and away from someone it was soon to trample.

And with that, the Incorporated had caught him in his web of lies.  One of them interrogated him with, "But you said you were wearing a white shirt that day..."

And another of the group chimed in with, "Yeah, and bulls are only attracted to the color red..."

And then the liar collapsed under the pressure and admitted to everyone that he was an insecure liar, instead of, you know, improvising a quick "oh, yeah, I meant red" like a learned, pathological liar would easily do to roll with the punches.  And they all forgave him and promised that people will be his friend as long as he believes in himself, tells the truth, and doesn't mind a nickname if his given name is too ethnic.


I really wanted to write to The Disney Channel and howl at them for their egregious error.  And at once I realized that the show wasn't really for me, anymore.  Once you've hit the point where you're calling out bizarre bits like this or pondering why Riley hasn't been remanded to a halfway house at the very least, or why in fuck's sake the stage curtain has the word ASBESTOS printed across it, or whether Martika is a dude, or just how cost-prohibitive a replacement neon 'A' could possibly be... it's time to pack it in, and let the sun set on the time in your life when Kids Incorporated is appointment television.

Which I don't mind admitting was a source of real disappointment.

"Now you sound just like my old man! Anyone want a hat?"

"Whoa oh, looks like we maaaade it, we're Kids Incorporated!
(swooshing sound)

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