Friday, June 6, 2014

Location Matters: the unmarked tomb of Nickelodeon Studios

Posted By on Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 3:01 PM

click to enlarge Nickelodeon Studios during its '90s heyday, as seen from the base of the mighty slime geyser.
  • Nickelodeon Studios during its '90s heyday, as seen from the base of the mighty slime geyser.

Nickelodeon Studios during its '90s heyday, as seen from the base of the mighty slime geyser.

Location Matters is a series that reflects upon pieces of Orlando immortalized in popular film/television. 

Over the years the Universal Orlando Resort has grown to such monolithic proportions that it's hard to keep track of everything the park has to offer. Yes, you can "ride the movies" at Universal Studios proper  (sure, it seems like you're just standing around in that Twister attraction, but trust me, you're riding it), you can meet and greet Spider-Man and several other Marvel superheroes who are riding out their pre-Disney contracts at Islands of Adventure, and yes, you can even get some Bubba Gump shrimp or an official Burger King Whopper or a legendary Cinnabon. Nothin' says lovin' in 90 degree August heat like a piping hot Cinnabon!

Alas, in order to reap you must sow, and an entire book could be written about the classic attractions Universal has shuttered to make way for "progress" like extra Harry Potter environments and the Hot Dog Hall of Fame (which is opening this month). Universal's Sharp Aquos Theater, today home to world renown performance ensemble Blue Man Group, used to house more than one mere ride or attraction --- it was home to an entire production facility belonging to one of the most cherished cable networks of all time. You sound like a crazy person when you talk about it now, but Nickelodeon Studios occupied its own little empire at Universal when the park first opened in 1990, complete with an imposing slime geyser out front that shot their trademark gunk up into the sky for what seemed like a goddamn mile!

If Nickelodeon's first decade was its Golden Age, foisting upon '80s tots the likes of Pinwheel, Today's SpecialDouble Dare, and You Can't Do That On Television, then the transition to Silver Age began circa 1990 when the channel moved operations to the southwest corner of Orlando's brand new Universal Studios. Sure, you could experience some facsimile of Jaws or E.T. on the other side of the park, but Nickelodeon actually used Soundstages 18 and 19 to make real television shows. At any given moment in those structures Double Dare host Marc Summers could be guiding some rube through a messy physical challenge, or Melissa Joan Hart could be sassing the Clarissa Explains It All cameras in a denim vest. The best part is Nick Studios offered Universal guests a forty minute tour where you had the chance to see such rare delights live and in person.

The Nickelodeon tour took you through the soundstages and into the production offices that sat between them so you could see the stars' dressing rooms, the Gak Kitchen (where Nickelodeon produced its other beloved space age substance, Gak), and the Game Lab (where new game show ideas were being tested all the time --- on you!). Not that you had to venture inside to get a sense of the fun. Nick Studios' exterior was decorated in the brash, non-matching colors always identified with the network, its identifying logo a giant rendering of the orange Nickelodeon splat. And there was that slime geyser, a little pot boiler of a contraption that looked like a mad scientist's wet dream. The geyser was given a soft open on June 7, 1990, along with the rest of the Universal park but did not officially begin spewing Nickelodeon slime on the reg until October 27 of that year (a special ceremony was held featuring guest of honor Russell Johnson, a.k.a. the Professor from Gilligan's Island).

By the way, the original slime made famous on You Can't Do That On Television was a mixture of green gelatin powder, flour, and water. Conventional wisdom suggests Nickelodeon Studios shot a mixture that leaned most heavily on the water part of that equation through their geyser lest sticky chunks accumulate at the geyser's base or in children's hair. Nothin' says lovin' in 90 degree August heat like chunks of green slime caught in your children's hair!

What were some of the most notable programs produced at Nickelodeon Studios during its heyday and can you encapsulate them with brief, somewhat humorous descriptions? Why, I thought you'd never ask.

Super Sloppy Double Dare (1989): Whereas the original Double Dare tried to save gratuitous food splatter for the back half of the show, this spin-off was pretty much a wall-to-wall mess. Production was actually split between Nick Studios and Double Dare's native Philadelphia, perhaps because they weren't sure about this Universal crapshoot. Super Slop Double Dare sneak previewed during Super Bowl weekend and ended up winning a Cable Ace Award (which means as much these days as a perfect attendance record from a driving school).

Family Double Dare (1990-1992): The second run of a Double Dare variation that roped parents into the action, usually with the lure of an automotive grand prize.

Super Special Double Dare (1992): Super special because it featured celebrity contestants

who were often borrowed from other Nickelodeon programs. One episode pitted Clarissa stars Melissa Joan Hart and Jason Zimbler against each other. More tension than the Frost/Nixon interviews!

click to enlarge Hidden Temple
  • Hidden Temple

The Olmec head and Kirk Fogg during a Hidden Temple taping. Note the Nick Games & Sports logo.

Legends Of The Hidden Temple (1993-1995): The beloved Mesoamerica-themed game show where kids competed for a chance to run through an obstacle course teeming with foam bricks, trap doors, and "angry natives." Featured an enormous talking Olmec head voiced by American Dad star Dee Bradley Baker. Much scuttlebutt during the show's run concerned whether or not the ending temple was rigged to make kids lose; most people just assumed President Bush's fitness initiatives were failing.

Nickelodeon Guts (1992-1995): An American Gladiators copy hosted by future Yes, Dear star Mike O'Malley. The program's centerpiece was a fake mountain known as the Aggro Crag that vomitted foam chunks, blasts of glitter, and compressed steam. Contestants were all given nicknames like Bob "The Bad Boy" and "Head Crushin'" Caitlin. This is another program where former contestants claim certain production techniques robbed them of glory. Sounds like we need a senate subcommittee.

What Would You Do? (1991-1993): The thinking man's Double Dare, in that What Would You Do? revolved around contestants attempting to predict the behavior of fellow human beings in various pre-taped segments. And yet no doubt exists that this was a Nickelodeon outing; as Wikipedia so deftly puts it, "the cream pie was central to the show's premise."

Clarissa Explains It All (1991-1994): What if Ferris Bueller was an adolescent girl? Mopey-ass Alan Ruck wouldn't be following him around, for one thing. Clarissa was vital for scores of young women desperately seeking cultural representation and it's earned Melissa Joan Hart a free pass to make utter crap for the rest of her life if she so chooses.

Hi Honey, I'm Home! (1991-1992): The Brady Bunch Movie lifted its premise from this program wherein a 1950s sitcom family is unceremoniously "cancelled" and must move to "present day" New Jersey. Guest stars were usually sitcom relics reprising their most ballyhooed roles (Al Lewis as Grandpa Munster, the guy who played Dobie Gillis as Dobie Gillis). For a shining moment in history Hi Honey, I'm Home! was a part of ABC's "legendary" TGIF lineup.

Fifteen (1991-1993): The final two seasons of this very dramatic Ryan Reynolds vehicle filmed at Nick Studios. Sulking teens in leather jackets dealt with "issues," like drug abuse, divorce, and secretly being from Canada.

My Brother & Me (1994-1995): The sitcom about life in Charlotte, North Carolina you never knew you needed. Inspired the Dr. Cool Money haircut craze, in which mid-90s children demanded to have dollar signs shaved into their wee heads to emulate a fictional pop star.

All That (1994-2005): The first two seasons of Nickelodeon's answer to Saturday Night Live filmed in Orlando before moving to Hollywood. Ground zero for Amanda Bynes and the Amanda Bynes Revolution. Also Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell, the Lewis and Martin of hamburger-related comedy skits.

Gullah Gullah Island (1994-1998): Just your average American family who happen to own a human-sized yellow tadpole. One of my professors in college worked as a test marketer for this show; he said you could make any child's year by showing up on their doorstep and saying, "I'm from Nickelodeon and I have a show no one else has ever seen that I need you to watch immediately because that's my job!"

The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo (1996-1998): A single camera detective show (shot on film!) produced at Nick Studios for most of its run. Eight episodes into the third season the crew went on strike over to budget issues, which forced Shelby's relocation to Boston.

Slime Time Live (2000-2003): Two hours of variety and games, sort of like Total Request Live sans Carson Daly. Slime Time holds the Guinness World Records for most people pied in the face in under three minutes (1,000) and most people slimed in one place (762).

Nick Studio productions rarely if ever wandered out of their Soundstages or the Universal lot; as such, there are no entries where the Gullah Gullah tadpole runs afoul of Shaquille O'Neal at Lake Eola, or Shelby Woo investigating the case of the missing anything in Longwood or Sanford. Disclaimer: I am far from an expert when it comes to any of these shows and may certainly be ignorant of an outing where the cast of All That visits the Orlando Science Center before picking up some pho on Mills Avenue.

Things had changed by the time we crossed over into the 21st Century. Universal Studios wasn't just one theme park anymore, it was two --- the more thrill-oriented Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, as did wraparound nightlife promenade Universal CityWalk. Suddenly watching some anonymous lunatic mixing up a new batch of Gak had to compete with an Incredible Hulk roller coaster, Popeye-themed river rapids, and a goddamn Starbucks. The outside world had grown up too. Nickelodeon was no longer the premiere entertainment hub for kids (have you seen this new shit called the Internet?), and the children who had come of age watching Guts and all those iterations of Double Dare were getting older. Even more frightening: Marc Summers was starting to become better known for hosting Food Network's Unwrapped. The slime-soaked writing was on the wall.

Nickelodeon Studios had been moving programs out to Hollywood since the mid to late nineties, and as the crowds who lined up for the Orlando studio tour steadily dwindled during the age of George W they decided to close up shop for good. On April 30, 2005, Nick Studios said goodbye to the City Beautiful. The slime geyser was removed that May, and the enormous orange Nickelodeon sign came down the following January. Fox Sports and the Sunshine Network (now Sun Sports) moved in to make use of the facilities, though in tribute to the hallowed kiddie network they left many of the bizarre color schemes and animated character murals seen throughout the offices in tact.

One item that was not preserved in its original space was the Nickelodeon Studios time capsule, buried April 30, 1992 outside Soundstage 18 in an elaborate televised ceremony. Fearing the capsule would be lost forever, workers removed it in August of 2006 and it now resides at several miles down I-4 at the Nickelodeon Suites Resort. The Nick Studios time capsule is set to be opened in 2042; Melissa Joan Hart will be a spry 66 then, I'm sure.

[Items included in the Nickelodeon Studios time capsule as voted on by the "Kids World Council" (no longer a recognized governing body): a piece of bubble gum, a skateboard, a history book, a world atlas, news clippings about Desert Storm and the AIDS crisis, copies of Home Alone and Back To The Future on VHS, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a TV Guide from the week the capsule was buried, a Game Boy, a copy of Michael Jackson's Dangerous on CD, a copy of Hammer's Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em on CD, some Twinkies, a can of Gak, a pair of Reebok Pumps, and a black baseball cap bearing Joey Lawrence's Blossom catchphrase "Whoa!" which was placed in the capsule by Lawrence himself.]

click to enlarge Nickelodeon Studios as it appears today. At least they're still spilling something in there.
  • Nickelodeon Studios as it appears today. At least they're still spilling something in there.

Nickelodeon Studios as it appears today. At least they're still spilling something in there.

In June of 2007, Soundstage 18 was rechristened the Sharp Aquos Theatre and became the permanent Universal home of Blue Man Group. Virtually all signs of Nickelodeon are now gone, but let's be frank: once Kel Mitchell's been in a certain building his essence never truly leaves. Next time you see Blue Man at the Sharp watch for subtle Good Burger references. They're there, just as sure as Shelby Woo star Irene Ng earned a degree from Harvard in 1997.

Meanwhile, Nickelodeon's Bronze Age is already in our rear view mirror, iCarly becoming a distant memory for Millennials and Dan Schneider completists. With any luck the next stretch of Nick history will include a swing back through Orlando for one last super sloppy aggro craggin' hidden temple event featuring the yellow tadpole, Joey Lawrence, and Dr. Cool Money.

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