First of all, let me apologize up front for the fact that not all the information in this is, strictly speaking, accurate. It's not that I am afraid of something or desperately wish to keep my identity hidden like you may suspect. It's just that I want to make it clear that I am not looking for fame or attention, and I also want to keep from dragging people I worked with into this, so I have changed some superficial details like names. The truth is, I don't expect many people to read this, and I don't care if they don't. What I'm about to share isn't especially dramatic or horrible, and I don't have any guilt or great need to "let the world know." It's just something that's been weighing on my mind lately so I decided to write about it on the Internet.
So with that out of the way, let me begin. I used to work on a show called Berry and the Gang. I won't specify what my role was, but suffice it to say I knew everyone else who worked on it and saw everything behind the scenes. My involvement with the program was from the early 1990s until the early 2000s, though the show lasted for a few years after I left the job.
A little background on the show for those who haven't heard of it: Berry was created in the late 1980s. The show was originally a low-budget VHS series before a major company picked it up and gave it a TV run. I wasn't involved for the VHS-only era, but I was there from the beginning once it went to television.
I never actually watched the original home video series until a few years after I left the show. I watched the tapes out of curiosity and was charmed. It was a fun little trip down memory lane even though I hadn't actually been there for those particular memories. I guess you could say it was kind of like looking at old family wedding videos from before you were born, since the people who worked on the show regarded each other as our own kind of family. The costume for Berry, like those for other costumed characters, was noticeably cheaper-looking and, frankly, creepy. He looked more realistically like a hippopotamus, but that was at the expense of child-friendliness. The costume got a makeover shortly before the television launch, and it was definitely for the better.
I'm getting ahead of myself. I haven't even told you what the show is about yet, so let me do that. Berry and the Gang centers around Berry the Hippo, an anthro-hippo played by a man dressed in a Bigbird-sized blue hippo costume. Berry is the sort-of-imaginary, sort-of-real-but-only-appears-when-parents-aren't-around friend of a group of kids who hang out at a park and call themselves the Park Brigade. Well, that's what they were originally called, but the name was dropped and allowed to be forgotten once the original generation of child actors grew out of the role and were cycled out. The show was supposed to be educational and episodes involved Berry playing games, singing songs, learning about different objects, etc. with the kids.
I say "supposed to be" because in retrospect, classifying the show as educational programming may be a bit generous. We had more than our fair share of critics who decried our program as insipid, obnoxious, grating, pandering, and above all lacking in educational merit. I put my heart and soul into that show, even if my overall contributions weren't that big, so I do still take such criticisms a little personally, but looking back and reading old reviews on the Internet, it's hard to objectively disagree with the critics. Some went too far, such as the ones that suggested that the show was helping to raise a whole generation of TV-addicted children who would never do anything good in life, but on the whole I do think the show fell short of its goal to be like Sesame Street.
Berry the Hippo was of course also widely mocked by children too old to be in its target demographic. My nephew was in elementary school during the early TV run, and he informed me that kids liked to pass around cruel rumors about the show and in particular the actors playing Berry (there were several during the show's run.) Berry's actor showed up drunk on set and got fired and replaced. Berry's actor hit one of the kids and was fired and replaced. Berry's actor got a DUI or was caught with drugs and replaced. Berry's actor or one of the other people working on the show turned out to be a pedophile and was replaced. The rumors weren't limited to children either. There was a widely-circulated wives' tale that Berry and the Gang had an episode encouraging children to be friendly to strangers that was pulled from rotation because several child predators took cues from it to try to lure children. I still hear about that one to this day, and no, it isn't true, and neither are any of the other rumors I mentioned.
That said, I bring those stories up because what I'm about to share is somewhat evocative of them. Again, the stories I mentioned above are completely, 100 percent false, but if you happen to have heard the one that follows, well, this is the one story in a sea of rumors that actually happened. I really doubt you have, I'm pretty sure it never "got out" as they say, but that's just my little disclaimer, take it for what it's worth.
Before I go any further, let me be crystal clear that I do not hold the makers of the show responsible in any way for what happened. They (I say they because I wasn't there myself for the incident) had no part in it.
Since I wasn't there, I can't give a lot of specific firsthand details, but I heard enough about it from those who were there to be able to recount the basics here. There was a casting call to replace two of the aging children from the Park Brigade for the next season. I won't say what season it was but they needed one boy and one girl. The casting call was held at an elementary school gymnasium, in secret, and there were maybe a couple dozen applicants and their parents.
The auditions consisted of singing, playing games with Berry, basically anything they would be expected to do in an episode. A smaller group of five or six would be selected to advance to the next round of auditions, which would be held at the Berry and the Gang set itself.
The kids who were not currently auditioning did not have much to do, and since we wanted them to be themselves during the auditions they weren't expected to watch each other audition, so there was a lot of bored milling about in the gym and the outer hallway. The crew had set up refreshments in the cafeteria for the kids and their parents and siblings, and they all hung out there with the crew for a couple ours after the auditions ended. Berry was not there for that.
One of the boys had gone to the bathroom, and when he came out he was met in the hallway by Berry. Berry told the boy he liked his audition and invited him to come back for some one-on-one conversation.
I'm sure the kid had been properly briefed by his parents on the dangers of trusting strangers, but Berry wasn't a stranger, and even if the boy knew intellectually that Berry was just a man in a costume, there was no reason for him not to trust that man.
Berry took the kid to a classroom, which was being used as a makeshift dressing room. He began talking to the kid, but his tone grew sinister, and he began sounding less and less like the character. "You know, dealing with kids all day makes a hippo like me hungry" he suddenly said. "It gets hard, having to control myself with so many plump kids running around. But we're not on the show right now, are we?" The kid began backing away toward the classroom door. "And you look like just the perfect meal!" Berry suddenly ran at the boy and started slapping him. The boy ran away. Maybe he screamed, I don't know, but if he did no one noticed it. He didn't tell anyone, not even his parents, until a day later, by which point the crew had returned to our home city.
The parents didn't talk about it to anyone but us and the police. I heard there may have been a small undisclosed settlement involved, but I'm not sure. In any case, the issue never got public attention. The casting call was cancelled and none of the kids who were there got selected.
The actor playing Berry at the time was in the clear. His whereabouts at the time were known and confirmed, and he was with other people in a completely different place. That left us with the uncomfortable reality that it wasn't him, but that it was highly unlikely that some random weirdo just walked into the school, put on the costume, and decided to play mental games with a kid. But there were enough adults there, cast and crew and producers plus the parents, for there to not have been a clear person to point fingers at.
The thing that's weighing on my mind right now, the thing that's weighed on my mind on and off ever since the event happened, and the reason I feel the sudden need to vent online about the whole thing now, is that to this day I have a pretty strong suspicion of who it was. There was this guy working on the show who wasn't quite right in every way. He never argued with the others or got into fights or made threats, but he'd make passive-aggressive comments about his work to convey he wasn't in a good place in life, and there were other small red flags to indicate that he could lash out in some indirect way. Plus he had about the right height and build for the Berry costume. I know for a fact that he was there at the casting call, but since I was not there myself I could never have offered any evidence other than my hunch. I never told anyone about my suspicions, but he left the show a few months after the incident, and years later I found out he was implicated in some shit I won't go into detail about that didn't make me think any higher of his character.
Anyway, that's my little story/rant. It's two in the morning, and I'm too tired to write anymore. Hopefully this will help me feel like I got something off my chest. Thanks to whoever bothered to read this, if you've even heard of this show.