W ith Thomas
the Tank Engine and Friends an established success in the United Kingdom since its 1984 debut, Britt Allcroft
looked westward towards introducing the show and the characters to North American audiences. The challenge was - how?
To make a sell to American broadcasters, Britt knew that she would have to develop a half-hour format for a show that
would embed the short Thomas stories.
The timing of events could not have been better.
Enter New York producer-writer Rick Siggelkow, who contacted Britt Allcroft after watching a few taped episodes of Thomas
the Tank Engine and Friends. Rick was impressed by what he saw - enough so to coincidentally propose the same idea
on how to introduce Thomas to America. In short order Britt and Rick established a new company: Quality Family Entertainment,
and the concept for SHINING TIME STATION was the direct result of their combined creativity. With North-American children's
television dominated at the time by the likes of G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rick and Britt found a gentler slower-paced home for their new show with the
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and partnered-up with New York PBS affiliate WNET-TV to co-produce the show's first
Shining Time Station Creators/Producers Britt Allcroft
and Rick Siggelkow in 1989 (photo credit: Bill Bernstein)
SHINING TIME STATION, a half-hour show, would
involve fun and whimsical live-action segments interspersed with Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends episodes; both
matched and themed to provide young viewers with a non-patronising lesson and moral. To deliver this, Britt and Rick created
a roster of colourful and memorable characters.
A mongst the regular
cast of characters introduced in the first season, we first have the kind and grounded Stationmaster,
Stacy Jones, said to be a direct descendant of the legendary Casey Jones, played by Benson and
Grease actress Didi Conn. Her foil is Schemer, a rascal who owns and operates the station's modest
arcade and who could aptly be described as a 'human irritant', played by TV/Film actor Brian O'Connor. A vintage
railroad station needs a resident engineer and handyman, so enter Harry Cupper, played by veteran TV/Film actor Leonard
Jackson, best known for his portrayal of the abusive 'Pa Harris' in the movie The Color Purple. The station
setting was complimented by the introduction of two young characters; Matt Jones as Stacy's nephew, played by then eight
year old Jason Woliner, and Tanya Cupper, Harry's grandaughter played by Nicolle Rochelle (credited as Nicole Leach).
The most memorable and central cast character
is "Mr. Conductor", played by former Beatle drummer and then Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends storyteller, Ringo
Starr. With Ringo's Liverpud'lian accent delighting young British audiences with tales from the Island of Sodor,
Britt convinced him to join the cast as the live-action
role of the magical and diminutive sentinel of Shining Time Station and ambassador between the real world and the land
of talking trains. Portraying the 18 inch tall Mr. Conductor required Ringo to tape all of his scenes in green
screen to be later inserted with the live-action scenes. As such, Ringo's interaction with the other cast members during
the taping of their scenes was minimal, and the producers used a miniature "stand-in" to aid the actors wherever
they needed to interact with Mr. Conductor.
Mr. Conductor's role was complimented with the introduction
of several other miniature beings who lived and worked inside of the arcade's jukebox and affectionately known as "The Jukebox
Puppet Band". Created by renowned puppeteers Craig and Olga Marin, these denizens provided musical entertainment and
comedic banter in every episode. The band performed mostly traditional song selections in their own unique style that
were suited to the theme and storyline of the featured episode.
In the weeks leading up to SHINING TIME STATION's
debut, Ringo and co-star Brian O'Connor toured the country and made morning talk show and news media appearances to promote
the new series (see selected archived clips below).
Twenty SHINING TIME STATION episodes were produced
for Season 1 for airing in 1989, with the series making its televised debut on Sunday January 29, 1989 with the episode
A Place Unlike Any Other. As we'll elaborate below, the show was an instant success from its inauguration onwards.
By the end of the second season, audience ratings rivaled or exceeded those for other public television titles such as "Sesame
Street" and "Reading Rainbow".
While Season 1 began with the reopening of the station and
focused on establishing our new character friends, the latter part introduced a story arc with the facility under threat of
being closed. The theme begins with Promises, Promises where Schemer's antics infuriates Indian Valley Raiload
Head and Owner J.B. King. Word's Out sees the threat become a reality with trains being diverted from Shining
Time Station until town gossip Midge Smoot (Bobo Lewis) intervenes thanks to a minor medical emergency. Things finally
come to a head in Is This the End?, with J.B. King's intention of permanently shuttering the station in favour of
a new big station in nearby Snarlyville.
Quality Family Entertainment celebrated their
series' success, by producing an hour-long Holiday Special 'Tis a Gift, guest-starring veteran
actor Lloyd Bridges which was was aired during the morning of Wednesday, December 5, 1990 with repeat broadcasts
on Dec. 24 and 25th. 'Tis a Gift marked the final episode featuring Ringo Starr as Mr. Conductor
and Thomas episode storyteller, as he wanted to focus his time and energies with his All Starr Band and their comeback
The special also marked a change of venue for
the show's production. Whereas all of the Season 1 episodes were taped in New York, 'Tis a Gift was recorded
in Toronto which explains the subtle set differences noticed by fans in the special.
is a lot of violence, sickness, sadness and doubt in the world. We hope - through Shining Time - we are able to counterbalance
the malaise with joyfulness and a sense of hope.”
~ Britt Allcroft (1993)
SHINING TIME STATION became an instant hit
with the television viewing audience. Broadcasted since its debut by most PBS stations in America, SHINING TIME
STATION received a 0.9 Nielson rating across the nation during the 1989-90 season, which equates to a viewing audience
of 1.2 million. While preschoolers were attracted to Mr. Conductor and the Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends
episodes, older children were drawn to the antics of the live-action characters. The show's popularity and momentum led
to the audience wanting to see more adventures of their Shining Time and Island of Sodor friends.
There was only one problem; the terms of the
contract between Quality Family Entertainment and PBS stated that the episodes were to be only shown up to a maximum of four
times during the life of the three year contract. A mere twenty episodes and a special would be hard to ration and spread
out over that timespan.
Recognizing that demand, WETA and many other
PBS stations began a letter writing campaign asking all SHINING TIME STATION fans to send in their letters
extolling the virtues of the show and to encourage the production of new episodes.
At the same time, Rick and Britt's company,
Quality Family Entertainment was actively seeking additional long-term partners to help secure the show's future, as studio
leasing and producing a television show in New York city proper is a costly venture - Season 1 was reported to have
cost $4 million to make.
One partner was found with Toronto-based Catalyst
Entertainment's Charles Falzon, whose business savvy with regards to brand distribution needed no further convincing. A
more economical alternate studio location was also secured by making arrangements with Canadian cable broadcaster
YTV to make use of their Scarborough, Ontario facilities to tape the show.
As fan letters from parents and children continued
to pour in, the producers with their new partners on board gave the all-clear signal to produce a second season of 20
new episodes. In the end we can conclude that the letter-writing campaign was a success!
M ajor cast
changes were introduced in Season 2 of Shining Time Station. On July 23, 1991, Rick Siggelkow as co-chaiman of Quality
Family Entertainment confirmed to the media that Ringo was leaving the series for good because of his band's scheduling
demands. By August 31st, its was announced that Ringo's chosen successor as Mr. Conductor was none other than American
comedian George Carlin. Renowned for his adult-oriented humor and biting social commentary, many found George to be a quite
surprising choice as Mr. Conductor, but not for producers Britt and Rick. As Rick explained to the Chicago Tribune:
knew the role had to be an older person, somebody who was different from Ringo, not radically different, but with a kind of
warmth and vulnerability. The more we talked, the more it added up to George Carlin. In a sense, George was a boost to the
ratings. A lot of people tuned in to see him, and when he went back on the road, we got a lot of spinoff publicity."
And tune-in they did! Nationwide
ratings of the show's viewers now measured more than 7 million for the 1991-92 period. As an aside, anecdotal sources mention
that George Carlin's style of humor was very popular amongst College and University students who were also now drawn
into catching the occasional episode of Shining Time Station just to see the meek and gentle side of George
From Carlin's perspective, he relished taking
on the role as it gave him the opportunity to do something radically opposite of what was expected of his well-known persona.
As George said himself in an interview with The Record in 1991:
"What attracted me is how well-done it is.
It's enchanting and charming. And there's a wholesome kind of sense of family in it. The little messages in there are done
subtly and softly. It's a different kind of acting assignment and a chance to release my old childlike self in a kind of focused
way. As a comedian, I get to act less than adult most of the time anyway."
Another major change was the departure of Leonard
Jackson's character, Harry Cupper, explained in the new season's first episode as having accepted a transfer to
Fort Farley on the Indian Valley Railroad line.
This led to the introduction of his successor, Billy
Twofeathers, a Native-American locomotive engineer on the Indian Valley Railroad who becomes the new resident handyman of
Shining Time Station. Billy was played by Winnipeg singer/actor and TV host Tom Jackson, who welcomed both the role and extended
exposure south of the Canadian border. In a 1991 interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Tom described his character Billy
Twofeathers as "the guy who seems to have all the solutions...He's the one who settles the kids down when they're upset."
Lastly, though Matt and Tanya appeared in the
second season's first episode, Scare Dares and a later episode, Field Day, their characters were written
out of the show as it was speculated that child actors Jason Woliner and Nicole Leach had both outgrown their roles.
The kids' maturing, especially Jason's, is very evident in T'is a Gift. As New York based child actors, the extended
travel to and from Canada where the show was now taped may have been factored into the decision.
With children playing a crucial part of the
Shining Time Station stories, replacements were sought out ahead of Season 2's production, only this time they would
be from Canada. One of the new young faces introduced to the series was Erica Luttrell, playing Kara Cupper, another
of Harry Cupper's grandaughters. Ari Magder also joined the cast as Dan Jones, Stacy Jones' 2nd nephew. A third child character
was added to the roster - that of Becky played by Danielle Marcot. Although appearing in almost every episode, Danielle's
name was not listed in the Season 2 opening credits alongside Erica's and Ari's. That later changed with
Season 3's opening credits where she was credited alongside her regular co-stars.
In addition to Midge Smoot (Bobo Lewis), new supporting characters were also introduced to the series, namely
a newspaper reporter, Jake Scoop played by Albert Schultz, Jonathan Shapiro as Schemer's nephew, Schemee, General Store
owner Barton Winslow, played by Gerard Parkes, Barbara Hamilton as farmer Ginny, and Aurelio Padron as bus driver Felix
Perez. Former daytime soap opera actor Mart Hulswit's appearances in episodes as the overly-serious Indian Valley Railroad
Owner J.B. King also became more frequent.
20 episodes were produced for the second season
of SHINING TIME STATION, which premiered on Halloween 1991 with the episode Scare Dares.
S eason 3 continued
the pace with the same cast and production location to produce 25 new episodes in 1992-93. Shining Time Station's
popularity by now attracted 7.5 million viewers each week in the U.S. and Canada. The show was also being broadcasted in South
Africa, and in the Eurasian countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Interestingly, Nielson reported that
in the U.S., 36 percent of parents watched Shining Time Station with their children, thus demonstrating the
show's family appeal.
Shining Time Station was nominated for a Canadian
Gemini award in 1993 for best children's programming, thanks to the continued delivery of quality storytelling and morals
embedded in every episode. The momentum continued with Season 3 episodes focusing on co-operation and teamwork, responsibility,
the negative effects of watching too much television (Mr. Conductor Gets Left Out), and even tackling the sensitive
subject of bigotry (Schemer's Special Club) and bullying (Bully for Mr. Conductor).
Balancing the third season's serious side was madcap hilarity in stories such
as the ones seen in Becky Makes a Wish, Dance Crazy and Mr. Conductor's Movie. This
season even surprised us by featuring a well-known politician doppelganger in The Mayor Runs for Re-election.
Riding on its success, it was hoped that the
show would enjoy many more years of producing new episodes. It was during this period that ideas about a theatrical
movie based on Shining Time Station first came into being. As we will discover, Fate had other plans. Season
3 would be the final complete season produced in the half-hour episode format.
Season 3 (25 episodes) of Shining Time Station
premiered on March 22, 1993 with the episode Becky Makes a Wish.
“The ultimate gratification in work is feeling that you're doing something good. We're
giving life lessons to children.”
~ Rick Siggelkow (1993)
The Shining Time Station franchise branched out during
this period with the production of several direct-to-video VHS specials in 1993 for release in October that year, and into
1994. Brian O'Connor was featured with other cast members in Schemer Presents: The World According to Me!
Volume 1 (1994). According to the May 18, 1993 issue of the Cedartown Standard, the Jukebox Puppet Band
were to have 4 solo video specials produced. Only 2 were released: A Day in the Life (1993)
and Lullaby (1994).
1994 began with the decision not to produce
a full seasons-worth of new Shining Time Station episodes. No single reason can be attributed for why Season 4 did not move
forward; however there were a number of related cumulative factors that should be considered.
With three seasons to its credit, Shining
Time Station had reached the magic number of 65 episodes required for syndication, a figure which is quite common with children's
George Carlin's working life also became much
busier. In January 1994,George Carlin returned to prime time television with Fox's "The George Carlin Show", playing a New
York Upper West Side cabbie who hangs about a shabby-looking pub sharing his advice and opinions. Despite his excitement for
his new series, Carlin maintained that he would like to continue playing Mr. Conductor, even in a reduced capacity.
With the prospect of a full season's worth of episodes unlikely, the producers
did not want to leave the dedicated followers of Shining Time Station out in the cold. Britt, Rick and partners instead
refocused their resources and energies to producing a series of 1-hour Family Specials.
F our one-hour
Shining Time Station Family Specials were produced for prime-time (8 pm) airing instead the usual early
morning timeslot. The regular cast was expanded to feature guest-stars in the specials such as Ed Begley Junior (Ned Kinkaid
- Once Upon a Time), Jack Klugman (Max Okowsky - Second Chances), Teri Garr (Sister Conductor - One of the
Family), and even a professional Queen Elisabeth II impersonator, Jeannette Charles (The Queen - Queen for a
Day). Leonard Jackson even returned to reprise his role as Harry Cupper in One of the Family.
With the hour-long format of the specials, the writers were
able to expand on stories that focused on interpersonal relationships, whether dealing with Schemer's insecurities about Stacy's
new beau in Once Upon a Time, Kit Twofeathers shutting out his uncle's attention in Second Chances, Mr.
Conductor's frustration with his sister, or Harry Cupper's expectations in One in the Family, or learning
about the importance of being yourself in Queen for a Day.
The specials also permitted the production
to venture outside of Shining Time Station's walls and into the great outdoors. While the interior scenes were shot in the
Showline Harbourside Studios, Toronto, many of the outdoor scenes were taped in the rural outskirts and scenic open countryside of Ontario's
Simcoe County, near the village of Tottemham. The hamlet is also home to the South Simcoe Railway, a tourist steam train operation,
where the locale of several scenes from Once Upon a Time, Second Chances, One of the Family
and Queen for a Day can be easily recognized on the ground to this day.
The first of the four specials, Once Upon
a Time made its televised debut on Wednesday, January 7th, 1995. Second Chances followed in April 12, One
of the Family on September 22, and lastly, Queen for a Day on December 18.
co-creator Rick Siggelkow pursued a career opportunity by accepting a position with BBC Worldwide Americas to run
its new children's and family entertainment production unit in New York. Rick's departure meant that he and Britt Allcroft would
no longer be able to co-produce future Shining Time Station specials. Britt carried on to extend Shining Time Station's
lifespan a little longer through its rebranding as Mr. Conductor's Thomas Tales. This scion of Shining
Time Station was produced as six half-hour specials rather than as a regular television season.
Mr. Conductor's Thomas Tales
was funded by Britt Allcroft Inc. and "self-supporting authorities", with Britt Allcroft taking the lead as the main Producer, and
Jerry Hamza, George Carlin's longtime friend, manager and business partner helping out as the Co-Executve Producer.
The choice of Hamza was a logical one, as the show centered solely around Carlin's Mr. Conductor, the only Shining Time Station
character and cast member to return. As the set requirements were now minimal, George's green screen scenes were filmed at
the smaller Showline Oxford Studios in Etobicoke, Ontario. The indoor station scenes made use of stills taken during
the production of the specials, onto which Carlin's green screen scenes were superimposed.
In the half-hour specials, George
Carlin performed short skits between Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends episodes that were
themed to the featured story's moral. Five Thomas stories were squeezed into each special, with a sixth showcasing a
Thomas music video. This format delivered more Thomas stories to North American audiences in fewer episodes, as opposed to
only those shown in previous seasons. Mr. Conductor's Thomas Tales made its debut on October 7,
1996 with "Paint the Town Red".
P BS broadcast rights for Shining Time Station and Mr. Conductor's
Thomas Tales began expiring on December 31st, 1997, with the decision made for some time beforehand not to renew the
show. Over the course of 3 full seasons, PBS is reported to have invested 3 million out of a total of 15 million dollars
needed to produce the series. PBS heads felt that popular interest was shifting to newer children's shows such
as Arthur and that Shining Time Station had run its course. The withdrawal happened in batches with
the first 20 episodes expiring on December 31, 1997; 25 episodes on March 21, 1998; with the remaining 26 episodes retired
on June 11, 1998.
On a positive note, PBS recognized the attachment
that over 7 million loyal fans had to the show. In an unusual move, the entire series was rebroadcasted every late-evening
(1:30 am)in two-hour blocks from Dec. 8, 1997 to January 4, 1998, giving parents the chance to tape the episodes for posterity
for their children.
Even though Shining Time's association with
PBS was now over, opportunities opened up elsewhere. Earlier in October 1997, Britt met up with media producer and friend
Haim Saban for lunch in Los Angeles. Haim's company merged a few years earlier
with that of Fox magnate Rupert Murdoch, and together had recently acquired the Family Channel which would be later known
officially as Fox Kids. As an aside, Saban's company was very instrumental for introducing the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers
(derived from the Japanese Toei Company's Super Sentai series) to U.S. audiences.
Britt was at the time looking for additional
channels to air The Magic Adventures of Mumfie, and her existing business relationship with Fox
through Fox Clubhouse since 1995 made the new Fox Family Channel a good match.
Saban was a father and also a longtime
fan of Thomas. At one point during their lunch conversation he asked Britt about her future plans for Shining Time Station,
given the show's impending end on PBS. Haim then asked Britt if Shining Time might just find a new home with Fox. By
the end of the lunch date, both Mumfie and Shining Time Station were destined for the Fox Family Channel to begin airing in the
fall of 1998. The one-year broadcasting deal was signed with an option to renegotiate the contract for an additional
two year term, but it appears that this offer was not pursued.
Broadcasting agreements were also established
with Canadian cable broadcasters. Shining Time Station aired on the Saskatchewan Communications Network (SCN) from October
1, 1999 to September 30, 2004. The agreement included only 44 episodes of Shining Time Station, with the episodes scheduled
to be aired once a day at noon from Monday to Friday. (With our thanks to SCN Traffic/Media Coordinator Krista Hoffman
for answering our inquiries)
45 episodes from Shining Time Station Seasons 2 and 3 were also
broadcasted on the Canadian Aboriginal Peoples Network (APTN) from January 1, 2000 to September 29, 2001. The show
aired twice weekly on Saturday and Sunday during the 10:00-10:30 timeslot. The airing was extended to include
Tuesdays in addition to the weekends as of September 30, 2000. During the winter of 2001, the Tuesday time slot was switched
to Wednesday until the broadcast licence expired. (with our many thanks to Linda O'Shaughnessy, Senior Program Officer,
Acquisitions with APTN for kindly providing us with this information).
There was one drawback associated with Shining Time Station's
departure from PBS. The half-hour episodes were originally broadcasted in entirety in a commercial-free environment. The switch
to other cable-TV channels resulted in the episodes being edited and shortened to accomodate for paid sponsor advertizements.
In some cases, the Jukebox Puppet Band's performances or mid-episode banter were omitted, with live-action scenes abridged
In the meantime, Britt was actively making
preparations for the filming of Thomas and the Magic Railroad. After the Fox Family Channel
broadcast agreement expired, Britt found another home for Shining Time Station with Nick Jr. for a short run series broadcast during
the year 2000 as a promotional build-up to the movie.
Episodes Shining Time Station have not been rebroadcasted
since 2001, with the series seemingly going into corporate obscurity with HiT Entertainment's takeover of the Thomas
franchise in 2002.
There has been no official word to date from HiT Entertainment regarding the prospect
of releasing the entire run of Shining Time Station on DVD. It would be safe to venture that the DVD release of complete
seasons and specials, either individually or in a boxed set would be popular with the now-adult fans of the show.
Until then, the spirit of Shining Time Station lives on for fans old and new, thanks to
YouTube uploads of old VHS taped episodes recorded by their parents during the series' run well over a decade
Below is a partial list of our information sources:
Kids Will Get To Ride the Rails With a Starr
(Mark Dawisziak, Special to the Toronto Star)
Ringo Starr is Weaver of Tales
(Marci Persky-Hooper, Chicago UPI, Schenectady Gazette)
'Shining Time Station' to Return
(Paul Lomartire, The Palm Beach Post)
Ringo Conducts New Starring Role
(Lynn Voedisch, Chicago Sun Times)
Television's 'Shining Time'
(Kevin McManus, Washington Post)
Ringo Starr Taken off Shining Time Station
(Daily Breeze, Torrance, CA)
Tom Jackson to Play Character Billy Twofeathers in
(Brad Oswald, Winnipeg Free Press)
The TV Column (Carlin chosen to replace Ringo)
(John Carmody, Washington Post)
Following a Starr
PBS Shining Time Returns
(Paul Lomartire, Palm Beach Post)
On PBS, the Little Engines that Could
(Carol Lawson, New York Times)
Shining Time Station - a Marketing Phenomenon
(Jennifer Mangan, Chicago Tribune)
(Janice Dineen, Toronto Star)
Another Season Set to Pull Out from 'Shining Time Station'
(Chris Carpenter, Roswell Daily Record)
Shining Time Station a Bright Spot Among Children's
(Sylvia Lawler, The morning Call)
Comic's New Venture is Classic Carlin
(Tom Hopkins, Dayton Daily News)
New Video May Be Up Kid's Alley
(Douglas F. Rowe, AP Video Review)
Head of PBS Answers Critics
(Ellen Edwards, Washington Post)
Shining Time Station Chugs into Prime Time on Wednesday
(Jerry Schwartz, AP, The Buffalo News)
Public TV Seeks Share of Spinoffs
(Mike Mills, Washington Post)
Public Broadcasting Wants Larger Share
(William Scott, Fund Raising Management)
BBC Targets U.S. Kids (Broadcasting & Cable)
TV Scoundrel Meets, Greets His Small Fans
(Leslie Kelly, The Spokesman-Review)
Thomas the Tank set for US (The Independent)
(Scott Moore, Washington Post)
Britt Allcroft Hangs Out (Mediaweek)
Nick Jr. Marquees 'Thomas'
(Rani Long, Cable World)