‘Boomerang’ TV show puppets come back to you

Sep 6, 2017, 6:13 AM | Updated: 9:51 am
LISTEN: 'Boomerang' TV show puppets come back to you

For the past 19 years, they’ve “lived” on the shelf in the basement of a private, Snohomish County home. But today, puppets from the 1970s local TV program for preschoolers called “Boomerang” are arriving at the Museum of History & Industry’s archival facility in Georgetown.

“Boomerang” was produced by KOMO from 1975 to 1980, and then seen in reruns for several years after that. The host of the program was Marni Nixon, a Broadway star known for dubbing singing voices for more famous actresses who couldn’t sing – including Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.” Nixon passed away last year in New York at age 86.

The co-stars of “Boomerang” were four Muppet-like puppets named Melinda, Libby, Rookie and Norbert, who were operated and voiced by a guy named Lee Olson and a woman named Kathy Schnuckel. Olson also designed and built the four principal puppets, and others that were used less frequently on the show.

Producer of “Boomerang” was Barbara Groce and the director was Ken Schwedop, with music composed and performed by Stan Keen. Nixon took the job as host because she was living in Seattle with her husband at the time; her departure from Seattle when that marriage ended may have been a factor in the show being cancelled.

Boomerang on TV

Norbert was the undisputed puppet star of “Boomerang.” He was a somewhat goofy and often impetuous little boy who was always getting in trouble, and then learning his lesson with motherly help from Marni.

“Boomerang” was all very gentle and thoughtful in its approach to helping preschoolers navigate the challenges of their daily lives, and the programs were thoughtfully executed by producer Groce with help from a series of writers, including Nancy Schwedop. And there was always plenty of games, stories and singing to go along with the life lessons.

KOMO produced around 200 of the 30-minutes episodes and won dozens of Emmys and other awards for the puppet program. After the show was cancelled, it continued to be seen in reruns until around 1990 on KOMO, and it was also seen during its entire run in British Columbia and Alaska via various cable TV systems.

The original 2-inch master tapes of the show were dubbed to Beta (a type of video cassette) and those remain boxed up in the KOMO archives – with musical rights and other legal aspects likely keeping them there for the foreseeable future. Episodes of the show were never commercially distributed on VHS or DVD, and very little from the show has ever made it to YouTube. Thus, “Boomerang” hasn’t been seen regularly for nearly 30 years – except maybe by those diehards who taped episodes off-the-air to VHS.

Childhood touchstone

Still, even without the ubiquity of other vintage TV shows, for some people who grew up around here in the 1970s and 1980s, the show remains a kind of childhood touchstone, and many can still sing the theme song  — B-boom-bang, it’s Boomerang! – from memory. And while “Boomerang” doesn’t have the mass baby boomer appeal of J.P. Patches, the show has really stuck with some people from the Gen-X demographic.

Just ask puppeteer Kathy Schnuckel. She was the voice (and movement) of the two female puppets Libby and Melinda, and she still sometimes bumps into fans of the show.

“If you’re under 45, you wouldn’t know the show,” Schnuckel said.

But when those over 45 find out she worked on “Boomerang,” Schnuckel says they often go crazy, and ask her to do the voices of the characters.

“Boomerang” was at the peak of its popularity in the late 1970s. Schnuckel says that’s when, in addition to the taped TV programs, the “Boomerang” cast and crew produced a number of live shows at the old Food Circus at Seattle Center.

Schnuckel says they had no idea how many people would show up for the first live performance of “Boomerang.”

“We thought there’d be maybe a hundred kids,” Schnuckel said. “We didn’t know, because we were in the studio [and] we’d not ever seen any of the people watching it.”

On the day of the show, Schnuckel and her co-stars were stunned.

“We walked in, and there were thousands,” Schnuckel said, recalling the moment with a mixture of disbelief and giddy happiness. “And Marni turned around, I remember, she looked at Lee Olson and I, [and] she said, ‘We gotta get serious about this!’”

Puppet priorities

Schnuckel graduated from Queen Anne High School and the UW Drama School, and the DNA of local kids’ TV shows is in her blood. She grew up watching classic Seattle programs during TV’s Golden Age, including “Wunda Wunda” and Stan Boreson on KING, and J.P. Patches on KIRO.

Schnuckel became the unofficial curator and archivist of Norbert and the other “Boomerang” puppets in 1998. There was no place for them at the TV station back then – they were being stored in what was essentially a big Hefty bag – and so Schnuckel said “yes” when KOMO asked her to become their official guardians.

Once she’d brought them home from KOMO, she created a display, with a special shelf for the puppets, and framed photos, posters and other “Boomerang” memorabilia adorning the wall. The four Emmys Schnuckel received for her work on the show are on a nearby bookshelf.

Now Schnuckel is downsizing, and had decided years ago that the “Boomerang” puppets would eventually go to MOHAI, where she’s happy they’ll be preserved for future generations to appreciate. The museum is already home to what Schnuckel calls an “art department Norbert” that never actually appeared on the show, but that mysteriously turned up at a yard sale in West Seattle back in 2002.

It’s clear that Kathy Schnuckel cares deeply about the “Boomerang” memorabilia and especially about Norbert and the other puppets. They occupy a prime spot in her home, and they all look to be in fabulous shape.

“Every so often, I use the ShopVac to blow the dust off them,” Schnuckel said, laughing.

And it’s also clear more than 30 years later that “Boomerang” was a special moment in time for Kathy Schnuckel and for the rest of the team who put on the show.

“I loved it,” Schnuckel said. “We were lucky to work on the show, we were lucky.”

“And I kept thinking, ‘When will I ever have this opportunity [again]?,’” Schnuckel said, saying she was aware at the time how special it was to work on a show like “Boomerang” with such a creative, talented and caring team.

“It just was one of those times when everything worked,” she said.

MOHAI hasn’t announced any immediate plans to display the “Boomerang” puppets.

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‘Boomerang’ TV show puppets come back to you