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Big in Mexico

A forgotten children’s TV star discovers an adoring fan base he never knew he had.

If there’s one thing an experimental puppeteer knows, it’s that he will probably never be famous. So it was with no small amount of surprise that Paul Zaloom found himself, after a show in Mexico City early last year, being escorted by a security detail through a crowd of thousands of screaming fans. “Beakman! Beakman!” they chanted. As Zaloom made his way to a waiting car, he looked down and saw that a woman was lying on the ground and clinging to his leg.

At that point, Zaloom’s children’s television show, Beakman’s World, had been off the air in the U.S. for more than 15 years. The show featured Zaloom as Beakman, a mad scientist with a shock wig, a bright-green lab coat, and a Brooklyn accent, who answered kids’ science questions and guided viewers through experiments they could do at home. It had a wild, anarchic aesthetic — like Bill Nye on acid — and ran for five years, mostly on CBS.

Since Beakman was canceled in 1998, Zaloom has periodically revived the character for appearances at schools and science festivals. So when he was invited to perform as Beakman at a university in Mexico City last February, he didn’t think much of it.

Then the university moved the show from an 800-seat amphitheater to a larger outdoor venue that could hold 5,000, and added a second performance. Mexican newspapers reported that tickets to the free shows were being resold online for more than $100. When Zaloom bounded onstage and looked out at the crowd, he realized he’d never seen that many people — especially that many adults — looking back at him.

Mexico’s version of PBS began broadcasting El Mundo de Beakman in 1994, dubbing it into Spanish and giving it prime after-school billing. Beakman’s unruly energy and low-budget flourishes fit right in on Mexican television, which is packed with fast, physical sketch comedy. While American kids preferred the more restrained, professorial presence of Nye — who became an enduring cultural icon in a way Beakman never did — Mexican kids got Beakman.

Zaloom didn’t know any of this. He’d heard the show was being aired abroad, but he figured his foreign fans were, like his domestic ones, nerdy kids who would grow out of Beakman within a few years. Plus, he didn’t have much interest in the show’s business side. Originally trained as a member of Vermont’s radical Bread and Puppet Theater, Zaloom, now 63, had made a modest name for himself in the New York art scene. Then, in 1991, an old friend asked if he would consider auditioning for the role of the mad scientist on a new kids’ show he was directing. After spilling a pitcher of water during his audition and improvising his way out of it, Zaloom was cast as Beakman.

Ninety-one episodes later, CBS took Beakman’s World off the air, and Zaloom, who had moved to Los Angeles for the show, returned to creating often political and sometimes raunchy puppet shows for adults, staged in black-box theaters and tiny converted storefronts around the city.

After years of “playing to the same few hundred people,” Zaloom says, the audience in Mexico was a revelation, and last fall he returned to Mexico City to see if he could parlay his fame there into a new phase of his career. He booked eight shows over two weekends at a small theater in a mall on the outskirts of the city — the best he could do on his own, without Latin American representation.

On a Sunday afternoon, the place is full of jittery kids and adults. Zaloom takes the stage and launches into a series of live science demonstrations, a sort of greatest hits from his TV show. He calls audience members up to help him with experiments, rewarding them with pieces of broken concrete from a bucket. A cardboard cutout of Beakman, with a hole where his mouth should be, looms stage right; midway through the show, Zaloom explains sublimation by force-feeding the cutout a combination of dry ice and soapy water until it projectile-vomits bubbles.

Zaloom speaks limited Spanish, so a translator, who also plays his assistant, interprets the act as he goes. This doesn’t entirely work. At one point, he enlists her to help deliver a dirty joke about jalando la polla (jerking off) while he tugs on a rubber pollo (chicken); it apparently doesn’t elicit the reaction he’d hoped for, since he has her repeat the punch line.

After the show, audience members congregate outside the theater, rehearsing what they will say when it is their turn to meet Beakman. When Zaloom finally emerges, in gray jeans, plastic glasses, and a baseball cap, he looks older and more muted than he did onstage. He takes a deep breath, preparing himself: “How should we do this?”

The fans snap into action, forming a line and whipping out T-shirts for Zaloom to sign. Mothers get choked up thanking him for introducing their children to science; kids, trying out their classroom English, say they couldn’t sleep the night before because they were so excited to see him. “Gracias, muchas gracias,” Zaloom says again and again.

The next day, at his hotel, he compares his newfound celebrity to his days on television. “When we made the show, it was kind of like going to a factory and creating a product and then going home,” Zaloom says. “We had a wonderful time, but when you go home, you’re not really conscious of who’s watching it and what sort of effect it has.” In Mexico, he says, people tell him, “ ‘I’m a doctor today because of you. I’m a scientist, an astrophysicist, a biologist.’ ” Sometimes they say things like, “ ‘You saved my childhood.’ I don’t even know how to respond to that.”

A few days later, Zaloom leaves his costume at the hotel and visits a craft market, which is gearing up for the next weekend’s Day of the Dead festivities. He picks out a small papier-mâché skeleton dog as a souvenir. As the vendor begins to wrap it in newspaper, Zaloom is startled to see Beakman’s face staring up at him from one of the articles on the page. He has the vendor pause so he can snap a photo. Then he takes his purchase and heads back out into the city, relieved to go unrecognized.