I have to thank Lil’ Sis for the inspiration for this post. It’s the story of one of the earliest instances of interactive entertainment, a TV program that even Bill Gates once saluted as a revolutionary use of the medium — a 1950s show called Winky-Dink And You.
Co-producer Jack Barry also served as host of the show, which first appeared on TV in 1953. The program was designed to be interactive (though I doubt that word was used in those days) and required kids to order a special kit through the mail. It included a piece of clear flexible plastic, which was called a ‘magic window’, along with some special crayons. The idea was that kids would use static electricity to stick the plastic over their TV screen, then use their crayons to follow along with Barry and his cartoon sidekick Winky-Dink as they drew pictures, solved puzzles and played games. (Video below.)
From the first notes of the opening theme song the show proved intoxicating for kids, and parents figured that it was sort of educational so it was a win-win for everybody. Not surprisingly, the show became a huge hit and kids all over America ordered the kits, which added another revenue stream for the show’s backers. (It’s said that parents who didn’t get around to ordering the kits quick enough found that their kids would take a crayon directly to the TV screen — not a good thing.)
We had one of the kits at our house too and I remember it well. My sister would have been closer to the ideal age for the show’s audience, but even if I was theoretically a little too old, I’m sure I stuck my nose into the process pretty regularly.
Although the show did stick around for several years and remained popular, it might have been doomed by something that sounds funny to us now but was dead serious at the time. A lot of parents began to wonder if it was dangerous for kids to spend so much time so close to TV sets. It was still new technology for many people and they weren’t too sure about all those mysterious rays coursing through the air — and never mind what it might do to the kids’ eyesight!
It’s hard to say whether that helped hasten its end, but the show was eventually taken off the air — though it did make a brief comeback in 1969 as a fully-animated program. And current nostalgia buffs should note that they can still buy a kit — complete with DVD — and visit with Winky-Dink to their heart’s content.