In Feb. 1942, I graduated from James Madison High School, Brooklyn, NY, at the age of sixteen and a half. Although I had been active in the drama club and a member of the debating team, I graduated with no particular distinction—just one if several hundred in the
off - year ceremony.
Seventy-three years later I made my first visit at their invitation. As I was guided through the halls, I made a couple of discoveries; it was a much better school than when I attended and they had a “Wall of Distinction” . This public school in Flatbush, had graduated Bernie Sanders, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senator Chuck Schumer and several Nobel prize winners. As I scanned the impressive roster, noting that I had not made the cut,
I asked, “Is there a wall of lesser distinction I might have made?”.
All of this led to conversations with the alumni organization of the school, many graduates who, in gratitude for the education they were given there, have continued to help support its programs and resources. I was so impressed that I offered to create an event to help them raise funds for their organization.
So, on April 29, at 1PM, on a lovely warm spring day, several hundred of my ‘kids’ came, with their memories, stories, and yearbooks, from those days, five decades ago.
I had met the person who was to introduce me earlier, Jodi Cohen, and to my surprise, she turned out to the principal of James Madison. when I attended school, the principals were either stout women or older men!
I immediately decided to put her under my spell....
...and sent her out to introduce me.
As I got my entry cue, the Wonderama theme filled the house and, as though on automatic, the arms started to wave.
I settled in and began to talk of how much Wonderama had meant to me and how I had learned so much from the kids.
My kids were older than I remember but they were still listening.
They were ready to share their memories....
...and their souvenirs.
Then it was time to revisit some of the clips from Wonderama. There was seven-and-a-half- year old ‘Brown Eyes’ telling me about the young man she had decided to marry, a seven and three quarters-old classmate. I treasure this clip since it captures the relationship I had with my kids, trusting and open,, and as we chat the cameras and lights and studio melt away and it is just ‘Brown Eyes’ and me.
I was delighted that Artie Forrest who, as Director, was my partner in the success of Wonderama, had driven up from Virginia to be part of this event. It was Artie’s quickness in following whatever quixotic thing I might do on the show that gave me the leeway to engage in wholly unplanned moments—and these moments added up to a lot of what made Wonderama fun to watch.
During the course of the presentation we had prepared two live Skype inserts. The first was with Lee Arohnson, an Executive Producer of comedy TV series and most importantly, the co-creator of Two and a Half Men. He had approached me at an Academy event with his story of getting on my show when he was 12 years old, determined to win a lot of prizes. His story was so delightful, I convinced him to write about it and it is a delightful addition to my autobiography.
A short time later we Skyped the Amazing Randi. His beard now fuller—and whiter—and known now for debunking any person or phenomenon with claims of the supernatural.
Randi was my most popular guest star on Wonderama.
Finally, the last stories told, it was time for the “schmoozathon”—a reception in the lobby.
It was there, ion the final hour, that I was able to sign the autographs, give the hugs, have the pictures taken and finally make personal contact after all those years,
Oh, and there was Principal Jodi Cohen to give me her final benediction.
Then it was time to say goodbye to James Madison H.S.
At least until next April 29th when, I have been informed, I will be one of a new class of inductees into the Wall of Distinction.