Vol. 10, No. 40

October 3-9, 2002

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Theodore Tugboat’s Gone.
I Miss Him.
by Annette Najjar

At Calvert Marine Museum’s Family Days this past May, Theodore Tugboat, the 60-foot character recreation from the PBS children’s series, was to have paid a visit. But just before the event, the Museum announced that Theodore unexpectedly canceled his appearance. Theodore’s website apologized that he’d been ordered back to his home port in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The company that created him, Cochrane Entertainment, was bankrupt.

My sorrow over Cochrane’s failure was unreasonably deep. But why? I don’t know anyone who works there. Theodore Tugboat is just another kiddie show that my toddler inevitably will outgrow. Yes, I’m sad that he’ll also outgrow his Theodore T-shirt and I most likely won’t be able to replace it, but so would any mother who gets teary-eyed watching her child grow up.

But I discovered Theodore on my own. He hadn’t accosted me in every department store, was not printed on diapers or featured on ‘fruit snacks’ as are Elmo, Blue, Mickey, Tweety, Clifford and Barbie. I was browsing the kid’s section at the bookstore, amazed by books on Tonka trucks and Cheerios and M&Ms, when I pulled out one of Theodore’s $3.25 paperbacks, a story from one of his shows. I had no idea who he was; in fact, I mistook him for Little Toot, the tug of 1940’s classic children’s literature.

I’ve always thought my Theodore is a cut above most toddlers’ shows. No one crashes into anyone else on purpose. Lessons are taught gently. Images don’t change by the second. A goofy but caring Harbormaster introduces and narrates each story — with a distinctive voice for each character — then assures us he’ll see us again soon in the Big Harbor.

Well, for the time being, he won’t. Apparently the only way little Theodore can stay afloat is for his license to be purchased by a media behemoth. I shudder to think what will happen then.

Cochrane may simply have been a badly run company. But a line in the press release that announced its predicament rang true to me: “The company soon found itself competing for merchandising market share with the biggest brands in the business, trying to hold its own against marketing budgets in the millions of U.S. dollars.”

I’m well aware that those same marketing budgets take aim at manipulating my tastes, but as an adult I can sometimes shield myself from them. I enjoy picking and choosing rather than capitulating to any logo I wear, carry or drive. But as a parent, I must double my vigilance, for a three-year-old simply doesn’t know when he’s being coerced.

Am I the only mother who scoffs at Home Depot’s building books for kids that are prefaced with a plug for the chain’s tools and materials? Who notices that bookstores are indistinguishable from toy stores? Who doesn’t need a Skittles math book to teach addition and subtraction? Who is frustrated that most children’s music comes from movies and television?

Perhaps I can lessen my frustration — and have a bit of fun — by practicing my own brand of marketing disobedience. I’ll tell Barnes & Noble that its job is to sell books, not Cheerios. Likewise I’ll praise my local library for not carrying cereal on its shelves. I’ll wait for my favorite fruits and vegetables to come into season and buy from the local farm stand, and I’ll treat my family to lemonade made from scratch rather than mix Kraft’s sugar crystals with water. I’ll reward with my dollars those grocery chains that don’t offer shoppers’ cards, instead of the other way around. If I do find myself at Starbucks, I’ll order a drink that’s small (not tall), medium (not grande) or large (not venti).

I’ll support the local alternative press and radio, because I believe that bigger is usually not better and I expect from them the unexpected. And maybe I’ll just stumble onto another Theodore.

Najjar is host of the children’s program “What Will We Hear Today?” heard on WRYR 97.5.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly