ANTIC Interview 417 - Computers: Expressway to Tomorrow

Randy Kindig, Kay Savetz, Brad Arnold

podcast: ANTIC The Atari 8-bit Podcast

ANTIC Interview 417 - Computers: Expressway to Tomorrow

Interviews and research by Kay Savetz

Imagine this. It's 1983 or 1984. You're drudging through yet another day of middle school or high school. But today, there's a surprise, a break from the monotony. The teacher tells your class to put away their stuff and go to the gym, or the cafeteria, or the auditorium. Today, there will be an assembly.

As you and your class -- and all the other classes -- get settled in the uncomfortable folding chairs, or the bleachers, or even the floor, you take in the scene: two large projection screens. Some speakers and audio equipment you haven't seen before. One of your peers is getting ready to run a spotlight. Then, this enthusiastic person -- older than you but really not by much -- explains why you're here. Today, at this assembly, you're going to learn about computers.

The lights go down, the spotlight comes up on that energetic host, and you realize this is a different sort of school assembly than you've seen before. Two projectors come on, lighting those two big screens -- it's a synchronized wide-screen movie. The presenter -- that not-much-older-than-you person -- talks to the screens, interacting with the movie and talking to the audience too. It's kind of corny, but your peers seem interested so you keep watching.

The show discusses the basics of computer operation, and how computers work differently than the human brain. There's a scene where the computers talk in voices like people. There's a section about robots, and a part where Suzanne Ciani shows how she makes music using computers. It touches on computer art, and the social implications of computers in the world.

40 minutes later, the show is over, and it's back to class. You learned a few things about computers, and talk about the assembly with your friends at lunch. Maybe you'll ask your parents for a computer for your birthday.

This scenario played out more or less exactly that way for more than a million middle school and high school students in 1983 and 1984. The assembly was called "Computers: Expressway to Tomorrow" and it was financed by Atari.

According to a 1983 article in InfoWorld: "Atari has a fleet of ... people traveling around the country giving the Atari multimedia presentation 'Expressway to Tomorrow' to a minimum of 500 people per performance at high-school assemblies."

(Full disclosure, the article claimed "Atari has a fleet of 700 people" putting on the show, but I can't believe that number is accurate. More likely the number was closer to 7.)

The traveling show would visit 2,000 schools in 1983, and was booked a year in advance. With the required minimum attendance of 500 students per show, that's a million kids. More than a million kids saw this assembly. that year.

The September 1983 issue of Personal Computing magazine said: "Since January 1983, nine separate touring units have crisscrossed the United States, presenting the show to nearly 1,400 public and private schools — a total of 1.2 million students to date. Touring begins again this September after the summer break, and will run through December 1984." In reality, I believe the show ended by mid-1984.

According to that article: "The show is a lively one, with the host on stage for the entire presentation. Several film projectors are going at once, filling two huge screens with fast-moving shots. Music is constant throughout. The host is busy either talking to the audience or interacting with characters on screen.  ...The program aims to give people [a] feeling of comfort about computing. The show focuses on the many applications of computers today, from storing recipes to teaching a language, to tutoring."

What survives of this show today? Not much that I know about so far. We don't have the film or the script. Audio tapes were available to help the presenters learn their lines. Informational packets were produced for teachers to hand out after the assembly. So far, I haven't been able to find anyone who has any of those things. (If you do, contact me!) What I do have is two interviews: memories of that project by one of the performers who went from school to school running the assembly, and the filmmaker.

Before we get to the interviews, I want to give some background about the business of producing school assemblies. It turns out that school assemblies are a big business. Computers: Expressway to Tomorrow was one of many shows put on by Rick Trow Productions of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. These shows were often sponsored by corporations, designed to educate kids, but also to get them excited about whatever it was they wanted to promote: taking pictures with Kodak cameras. Going skiing. Buying new music.

According to an article in the Boston Globe from 1972 -- this is 11 years before the Atari show, but some of the few hard stats I could find -- Rick Trow Productions staged 7,000 assemblies in 1971, maintained 23 touring companies offering 16 different shows to schools. They put on educational assemblies that promoted products and services from companies that wanted to reach the "youth market" -- CBS Radio, Air France, Eastman Kodak, and others. Its multimedia productions also included titles such as "The Black Experience", "Environment: Challenge to Action", and "The History of Rock and Roll". At the time, according to the article, the company charged a school just $80 per assembly. But by the time of the Atari show in 1983, the company seemed to have changed its business model to offer the shows to schools for free; earning their money entirely from the companies whose products its shows promoted. The companies got access to an audience of young people who might become eager to buy their product (or to ask their parents to get it.) The schools got free access to (hopefully) an educationally worthwhile presentation that would broaden their students' horizons.

A classified advertisement by Rick Trow Productions seeking presenters stated that in the early 1980s, presenters could expect to receive a salary of $100 per week during rehearsal period, and $500 per week for salary and expenses while on tour.

My first interview is with Veronica Wiseman, who was one of the presenters who traveled from school to school putting on the Atari show. Her name at the time was Ronnie Anastasio. Veronica did three "tours" of Expressway to Tomorrow, from January 1983 through April 1984.

(interview)

Next, my interview with Dr. Chuck Sterin, the filmmaker.

(interview)

The interview with Veronica Wiseman took place on October 23, 2020. The interview with Chuck Sterin took place on June 5, 2020.

Thanks to Chuck Sterin and Veronica Wiseman, and to Tom Bregatta, Bob Barto, and Frank Darby, who were also presenters who provided background information for this episode.

If you remember seeing Computers: Expressway to Tomorrow at a school assembly, I'd love to hear your recollections. If you happen to have any of the materials, such as the script, practice tapes, or the film, please contact me.

Check the show notes for links to magazine articles about the show, as well as scans of material that Veronica Wiseman saved, including Rick Trow Productions employee newsletters, a large collection of thank-you and feedback letters from many schools where she presented, and her photographs from that time.

Veronica Wiseman's collection of letters from schools

Rick Trow Productions Employee Newsletters 1983

Veronica's photo album

New Educational Film Show Charts Future Computer Careers for Students in Atari Connection v3n1

Atari Brings Multimedia Computer Show To Schools in AtariAge v2n1

Spring CUE Conference article in Infoworld v5n4

"Taking the Show on the Road" in Personal Computing September 1983

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