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AMPS videographer, former Zoom cast member, will give IAP talk, 'Zoom--Lost and Found'

Thomas White as a Zoomer, age 12.
Thomas White as a Zoomer, age 12.
Photo courtesy / WGBH Educational Foundation

In the early 1970s, few shows were hotter for children than PBS's "Zoom," whose rallying cry to "come on and Zoom" has been heard ever since in the minds of adults who grew up in that era.

MIT field videographer Thomas White of Academic Media Production Services (AMPS) was one of the first cast members of the popular show. He will give a talk on his experiences, "Zoom--Lost and Found," at MIT on Jan. 20.

WGBH in Boston began producing "Zoom" in the 1970s. "It was billed as sort of a children's 'Laugh-In,'" said White, who was one of hundreds of children to audition for the show.

The fast-paced, nonlinear show with seven real kids, not actors, won over audiences and made the show number one in its time slot for years. White, a native of Dorchester, was just 12 years old.

Prior to his audition for "Zoom," White had been a performer in a street puppet theater. He used his puppets to nail the role on the show. "The other kids seemed scared," White said with a laugh, recalling the auditions at the Newton YMCA. "I just got up there with my puppets."

White and the other children selected for the series had no idea what to expect. But the format was very kid-friendly. Audience members sent in suggestions for recipes, games and activities, and the seven Zoom kids performed them in a series of sketches. Over time, children learned the songs and the signature moves of the cast members, launching the show into a kind of cult status.

"It was the first show that had no adult figures," White said, speculating on why the show struck such a chord with the under-12 set. "We did not play characters. We were just ourselves," he said.

For White and the other cast members, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. "I loved being in the studio and working with the crew," White said. The cast members became very close, White said. With rehearsals all week long and taping on the weekend, they saw each other quite a bit and spent time at one another's homes.

Although White said he never felt ostracized at school because of his television fame, some of the other cast members were not so lucky. "Some of the kids took some razzing and beating," White said. "But mostly people were nice about it."

The experience bonded them for life, White said. As the cast members have grown, they have all stayed close, holding reunions and get-togethers with other casts from later seasons.

The "class" now includes dozens of younger children from the newer shows, which started again in 1999. But when the Zoomers get together, there is always a common bond. "We all have something very real in common," White said. "I have seen all the original cast members at least once in the last 10 years."

On Jan. 20, White will share his stories from "Zoom" with members of the MIT community as part of the January Independent Activities Period. His talk will be in Room 32-124 at 1 p.m.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 13, 2006 (download PDF).

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