Spank the Monkey

Children's TV pioneer Alan Shalleck had a secret that killed him

But Shalleck wanted to work in children's television. He clinched an associate-producer role on Winky Dink and You, an innovative Saturday-morning show on CBS that encouraged kids to connect the dots of climactic scenes by drawing on a plastic sheet stuck to the TV screen via static electricity; the main character, Winky Dink, was a wide-eyed pixie who needed kids to, say, draw him a bridge so he could cross a river. The show, which ran from 1953 to 1957, is considered the first interactive TV program.

Then, in 1960, singer/actress Jane Norman approached a CBS station in Philadelphia with an idea for a children's show. She'd dress like Peter Pan, fly around, and hang out in a forest with an owl named Oggie and with Fliffy the butterfly. The show, Pixanne, ran for 16 years, and Shalleck got to direct some segments. He also worked as a stage manager for Captain Kangaroo. David Shalleck compares tagging along with his father at CBS production sets to "going into Toyland."

In 1977, Shalleck saw a chance to strike out on his own when Hans Augusto Rey, illustrator of the Curious George books, passed away. Shalleck approached Hans' widow, Margret, with an offer to direct George's animated television debut. Margret agreed.

Alan Shalleck
Taylor Jones/Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Press
Alan Shalleck
Rex Ditto
Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Press
Rex Ditto

Hans and Margret Rey published the meddlesome monkey's first adventure in 1939 while they were living in France, where the monkey went by the name Fifi. The husband-and-wife team concocted the tale together, with Hans painting the watercolor illustrations and Margret fussing over the words. Just before the Nazis stormed into Paris in 1940, the Reys, both German-born Jews, fled on bicycle. The manuscript for Curious George was one of the few belongings they took with them. The couple traveled to Spain, Portugal, and Brazil before settling in New York City that year. In 1941, Curious George hit American shelves.

The original story is a series of mishaps that commence when an inquisitive monkey ambles into the trap of a poacher (The Man in the Yellow Hat). The man acts as both captor and protector as George stirs up trouble by almost drowning on the ocean voyage from Africa, accidentally summoning the fire department, escaping from jail, and floating into the sky holding a cluster of red balloons. The story ends with the man paying off an angry balloon vendor before tucking George under his arm and carrying him to his new residence, a big-city zoo.

The Reys, who had no children of their own, penned seven Curious George tales together, the last of which, Curious George Goes to the Hospital, was issued in 1966. The creative process was so tedious that each time the couple completed a new story, they'd vow not to do another. By the late 1970s, when Shalleck approached Margret Rey, people who grew up with Curious George had become parents, and they were ready for a fresh spin on the character.

The Shalleck-Rey collaboration was a window into the bizarre. Shalleck would "spend entire weekends and weeks" at Rey's house in Boston, recalls longtime friend Bailis. "Margret Rey would jump around acting the stories out, and he would write them down. She was the monkey." Margret Rey was also a fierce protector of Curious George's image. A monkey ought not talk, she insisted, and George should keep puffing his beloved pipe, even if it inspired kids to smoke tobacco.

To bankroll the TV series, Shalleck turned to Canadian investor Richard Lafferty. The 104 Curious George TV shorts that Shalleck directed resemble an old-fashioned picture book. The images are frozen, like pages, and the action is moved along by a single narrator's voice. Each episode lasts five minutes. The shows first aired in Canada, between 1979 and 1982, and then in the United States on Nickelodeon's Pinwheel program in 1984 and Disney's Lunch Box and Circle Time shows in 1989.

Together, Shalleck and Rey also crafted 28 books based on the film plots for publisher Houghton Mifflin. Rey hated them. "The drawings are bad and the stories are bad. They're just third-rate," she told a Newsday reporter.

Shalleck wasn't terribly fond of working with Rey. "She was a spoiled little child, but people would put up with her because she was so talented," he once told the Palm Beach Post. Shalleck said he got a flat, one-time fee of $500 per story. In another interview with the Post, he recounts scolding Rey in public: "Once when we were having lunch... she was so rude to the waiter that I snatched her wig off and told her to behave. It was next to a spanking."

In 1991, Rey sued Canadian investor Lafferty for marketing videocassettes of the Shalleck TV shorts without her consent and without paying her royalties. Lafferty countersued. Rey's finicky ways, Lafferty asserted, obstructed his attempts to capitalize on various Curious George merchandising deals. Rey decided, for instance, that a plush doll designed by Eden Toys was "junky" and that the monkey depicted on a Sears prototype pajama appeared "plump." Both products suffered commercially because of her exacting standards, Lafferty alleged. In a 1993 decision, the First District U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that while Rey could be overly meticulous and irascible, as a creator of the Curious George brand and owner of the copyright, her concerns were legitimate.

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