Adventures in Odyssey: Moments Like These (written in 2008)

I wrote this in 2008 as a heartfelt response to the 20th-anniversary live show of children’s radio drama Adventures in Odyssey. As this piece of writing predates this blog, and as I have done so much blog writing about the show since then, particularly this more-complicated-but-no-less-heartfelt reflection on the show’s 30th anniversary, it made sense to make this more widely available as well. I have not changed anything from my original writing, except to add a few photos from that weekend.

 

AIO live show
At the 20th anniversary live show itself.

 

I would only have a few seconds with them, and those seconds had to matter, to mean something – if not to them, to me. After a lifetime of devoted fandom that has only increased as I’ve moved out of the target age range, and after months of anticipation, I looked forward to walking through the autograph line, but with a sort of trepidatious anxiety. How could I convey depth of feeling and gratitude in one handshake and a few words? Soon it would all be over, they would be greeting the next person, and I would have lost my chance to tell them how much they had impacted my life.

It was the 20th anniversary of Adventures in Odyssey that was fast approaching. This now-popular kids’ radio program had announced a “birthday bash” to commemorate this momentous occasion, the highlight of which would be a live show in Colorado Springs featuring a dozen of the actors.

Almost as soon as the word reached me, I knew I would be going. Never mind that Colorado was a 16-hour drive away. I would get there one way or another, even if it meant carpooling with near strangers.

The live show was scheduled for August 16, and as the details slowly came into focus, I had no doubt that that would be the best weekend of my summer. What I didn’t realize – or, at least, not fully – was that it would be one of the best weekends of my life. Those “few seconds” with the heroes and giants of my youth, seconds that I both longed for and dreaded, turned out to be only a small part of the “Colorado experience.”

The trip started out as a cross between a family vacation and a pilgrimage. As my dad and I drove through Colorado, it seemed like every bend in the road revealed a new, breathtaking panorama. But even as I marveled at the sheer beauty of the lofty mountains and cascading forests – the likes of which were already near and dear to my rugged, Californian eyes – I was thinking about the greater wonders yet to come in that mecca of my heart. When we reached our destination, I was determined to make the most of our extended time in Colorado Springs. It was Tuesday. The festivities didn’t start until Friday night. I had plenty of time to play the dual roles of trigger-happy, camera-toting tourist and know-it-all, passionately-dedicated fan.

For two days, all was well. My family (the rest of whom rendezvoused with us at the airport) and I gazed admiringly at the Air Force Academy’s sleekly impressive chapel and celebrated my sister’s 18th birthday at an upscale restaurant and not-so-upscale ice cream place. Accompanied by the occasional familial disagreement and our customary bad habit of oversleeping, it looked like a typical vacation.

Until Thursday. That’s when the fabric of all my plans unraveled, and all my eager anticipation for the Pikes Peak cog railway and the Cave of the Winds suddenly became tepid. It all started when I entered Whit’s End. Whit’s End, the fictional ice cream shop, Discovery Emporium, and cornerstone of Adventures in Odyssey, is “a place of adventure and discovery…where kids, of all ages, can just be kids.” So says the owner, John Avery Whittaker (but you can call him Whit), who is not only the heart and soul of Odyssey, but also an inventor, writer, businessman, former teacher, and even government agent! Most important of all, however, this white-haired jack-of-all-trades has a deep love for God that permeates his every act, and endears him to both his on and off-air observers.

As I stepped into this should-be paradise, I tried to take it all in: the cartoon depictions of the characters that didn’t exactly jibe with my mental pictures, the three-story slide which I was just short enough to ride, and, of course, the ice cream shop itself with its black-and-white checkered floor and World Famous Chocolate Sodas – an Odyssian favorite more affectionately referred to as a WodFamChocSod. However, though it put up a good fight, this representation of Whit’s End didn’t come close to matching the one in my imagination, at least partly because most of it had been designed for the show’s pre-adolescent fan base. But I wasn’t deterred. After all, I hadn’t come to Colorado Springs for the buildings, but for the people.

That evening, I was sitting in the hotel lobby, playing card games with a few fellow Odyssey fans, when a bus pulled up outside. Before I quite knew what was happening, the semi-quietness had been replaced with bustling activity, laughter, and animated voices. But these people weren’t your average hotel clientele. I recognized their voices. Hidden from view, we breathlessly watched all the goings-on up front through a double-sided fireplace. Eventually, we left the safety of our hiding place to more conspicuously gawk at our favorite actors and their families. Too scared to even think of approaching them and too excited to sit down like rational hotel guests, we stood silently, rooted to the spot.

Meeting Odyssey friends
Meeting fellow Odyssey fans and cast members at the hotel.

 

I was positively dumbstruck, especially when, shortly after, I found myself being introduced to and shaking hands with Will Ryan, Katie Leigh, and Dave Griffin. Will Ryan, who plays the lovable genius Eugene Meltsner, did his best to make small talk with us, but, despite his friendly, casual demeanor, we weren’t the best conversationalists. Even when faced with such speechless fans, however, Will carried the conversation with his questions and witty remarks, often laughing at his own jokes and puns. He had vibrant blue eyes, a natural, easy smile, and a youthful energy that belied his 60-something years. His clothing was just as relaxed as he was, and a cowboy hat completed the image of this acclaimed, highly-versatile voice actor mingling with college-age fans in a hotel lobby.

“Where do you go to school?” he asked, turning to me.

“Indiana,” I replied timidly.

“Oh, do you go to Ball State?” he asked, admitting that that was the only Indiana school he knew of, thanks to David Letterman.

“No. Taylor University.”

“Oh, are you going to be a seamstress?” he asked, already chuckling before I responded with my own nervous laughter and the remark that I “hadn’t heard that one before.”

Our conversation couldn’t have lasted more than five or six minutes, and at the time my mind was such a jumble of excited fragments and adrenaline-laced instincts that the reality of these extraordinary moments had only begun to sink in. As if these one-on-one interactions weren’t enough to overwhelm my already-overloaded senses and emotions, later that night, after their first rehearsal for the live show had ended, Dave and Katie joined a larger group of us fans back in the lobby. Members of an online community called the Town of Odyssey (the ToO), we had all known each other for at least two years via the internet, and most of us were meeting each other for the first time.

We all sat in a misshapen circle, and there we stayed into the wee hours of the night. At some point, I became acutely aware of how exhausted I was, but it didn’t matter. There was no danger of my nodding off, and no chance in the world that I would be any other than the last to leave this unprecedented gathering.

Dave Griffin, who had voiced Jimmy Barclay – arguably the most popular and endearing kid character on the show – is now all grown up with a family of his own. However, because of the writers’ surprising decision to keep Jimmy on the show even after his voice changed, Dave still has the “Jimmy voice,” even though he, like most of the other actors, is older than the character he portrays. What stood out to me the most about Dave wasn’t his long hair or his impressive juggling skills, but his earnest desire to meet and talk with us, and his joy at re-entering the world of Adventures in Odyssey – a world he had reluctantly left more than ten years ago, but which still held claim to his heart.

And then there’s Katie Leigh, who has played perpetual teenager Connie Kendall from time immemorial. If there is any actor whose real-life persona mirrors that of his or her character, it’s Katie. Like Will, she is friendly and quick to laugh, and her bubbly gregariousness is infectious. As she and Dave reminisced about the show and exchanged anecdotes, I greedily hung on to every word. These are the kind of priceless moments one never forgets.

~*~

Saturday was the day for paranoid fears and an almost panicked urgency for everything to be just right. At least, that’s how it started out. I wasn’t in line early enough, I wouldn’t get a good seat, I would be mute during the autograph line, in the very moments when speech meant everything, and, heaven forbid, the two buttons would somehow be pressed on my camera that would erase my prized picture with Will Ryan!

This was the event of all events, the one that puts so many others to shame and that I have been unconsciously moving towards all my life. IT MUST NOT GO WRONG!

It didn’t.

Much to my great delight, I happened to be visiting others at the front of the line when the curtains parted, the doors opened, and I happily spilled into the auditorium (dubbed the chapelteria) with the horde of humanity. My downfall was waiting for my family before deciding on seats, and by then the closest and the best had been snatched up by the more decisive. After an agonizing evaluation of my priorities, I deserted my family (with their blessing) and found my excellent seat.

First was the recognition of all the different age groups who had all converged in Colorado Springs. That was when the silly grin settled on my face. I was proud to stand with the 18-30-year-old crowd as a veteran listener, a lifelong fan, a lover of all things Odyssey. And then, they were here: Katie and Will, Dave Madden (Bernard Walton), Aria Curzon (Mandy Straussberg), Chris Anthony, Jess Harnell (Wooton Bassett), and Chuck Bolte (George Barclay).

I had listened to the episode “New Years Eve Live!” a few weeks before, and for the first time had tried to put myself in the place of that live audience, to imagine what they would’ve seen and reacted to. As invigorating as that experiment was, my imagination didn’t hold a candle to real life.

In no particular order, here is a cryptic list of some of my favorite moments: the “quack, quack,” any reference by the actors to the “Foley guys,” Mandy and the slide, George Barclay’s vacuuming-off, “rashonmyfoot,” Whit’s surprise appearance, Eugene and his ukulele, and the not-so-surprise guest stars: Dave Griffin, Genni and Donald Long (Lucy Cunningham-Schultz and Jack Davis), and Sage Bolte (Robyn Jacobs). I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed applauding this much. From this chronic critic of the slapstick style of BTV episodes, I must say that I will forever cherish and laugh along with myself every time I hear this show.

My parents enjoy Odyssey, and they have patiently listened to my long monologues and passionate praise of Odyssey over the years. They rarely offer their own insights on the show, however, so it was refreshing and inspiring to hear them talk and laugh about how much they loved the live show, how hilarious and better-than-expected it was, and especially the more specific parts they pointed out. My dad was particularly excited when he found out that Bernard had in fact been Reuben Kincaid on the Partridge Family: “Bernard is my hero” and “what would Bernard do, and what would Eugene say?” were two of his (and my) favorite phrases. He also told me how glad he was that he’d chosen the live show over the Pikes Peak Ascent. How there could be any competition between the two is beyond me, but then again, I’m not the runner of the family. My sister also gave the show a rave review.

I laughed so hard during some of the interview questions that my camera jerked in all directions, distorting the already-poor quality of the video. Still, I have Dave Madden’s classic answer to the question of how he is similar to Bernard, some of the father-son banter between Dave Griffin and Chuck, and Will and Katie’s reminisces of Hal Smith, the original voice of Whit. What I don’t have on camera will burn brightly in my memory, or replace the less-distinct remembrances with a general warm and fuzzy feeling. I’m content.

We found ourselves near the end of the autograph line, but I didn’t mind. When we saw the sign that said “only two items per family,” my mom was worried about the ethical dilemma of getting our planned three items (knocked down from five or six) through the line. The solution? Two separate households, of course! I managed to make it through the line without acknowledging the others… even though I realized later on how unnecessary that was.

True to form, my interactions with these giants of my childhood and teenage years consisted of a few squeaked-out remarks like, “I really like Bernard,” “Can I get a picture?”, and “How’s your hand doing [after all the autographing]?” (to Dave Griffin). Will Ryan got one of the “Can I get a picture?” lines, and he, of course, obliged me… only to ask afterward if I would like a picture with him! “Really?” I sputtered, thrilled and speechless as he asked my dad (who was still pretending not to be my dad) if he would take the picture. When I looked at the picture later, I was excited to discover an Easter egg: Paul McCusker, writer extraordinaire, who had been standing behind Will, had poked his head into the frame! This was truly the picture of pictures (just as this was the event of events), and when I was thanking my dad profusely later on, he joked about how angry I would be if the picture hadn’t turned out. Perish the thought!

Me and Will Ryan
The aforementioned picture with me, Will Ryan, and Paul McCusker in the autograph line.

I watched the rest of the autograph line sift through, and it was such a beautiful, peaceful scene. The smiles and the warm interactions that these tired stars had with their fans was amazing to watch. I could’ve stood there all day and waited for the second show to end, and for its patrons to walk those same steps. At one point, Paul McCusker sat down on the couch I was standing next to, but I lacked the courage to approach him. I waited for the last of the stragglers to make it through the line, then watched as the cast filed out. They were still smiling.

Five hours had passed since my frenetic worrying, and I couldn’t get rid of my dazed, dream-like, overwhelmingly happy state of mind, nor the way it spilled over onto my face and out of my mouth. Nothing could knock me over. No, I didn’t wax eloquent in the autograph line, and I didn’t capture everything perfectly on camera, but it was special. It was mine.

~*~

Saturday morning and afternoon was the crescendo, the insurmountable, the most epic point on this most epic trip.

At least, until that night.

Tipped off by Dave Griffin that there would be a final pow-wow in the hotel lobby that evening, I moseyed on down just in time to join the equally-minded party of ToOers. The news that the actors would soon be returning to the hotel quickly reached my ears.

“They’re exhausted. Don’t approach them,” Sarah cautioned. “If they want to talk to you, they’ll approach you.”

Her words made what happened next so much more special. They did approach us, and talked with us as if we were old friends. Never mind that they had spent hours that day performing and signing autographs for us. Never mind that they had early flights the next morning. Never mind that we were just a bunch of fans. Jess’s impersonations, Chris’s fascination with the ToO, Aria, Don, Genni, Dave…

After the hubbub died down and some of the actors had returned to their rooms, Katie and Will came back down with popcorn. A simple gesture; unspoken selflessness. They owed us nothing. If there were any debts to be paid, they were on our side.

Summoning my courage, I went up to Will and told him that Eugene was my favorite character. We ended up talking for more than an hour. Well, he did most of the talking. And then, as the night wore on and became morning, those of us who could afford to lose the sleep held out as long as we could, unwilling to end this experience of a lifetime.

Of the thousands of fans who journeyed to Colorado Springs to celebrate twenty years of Adventures in Odyssey, more than 99% of them only got the handshake, the smile, and those precious few seconds that I had been bracing myself for. I was in the other group – a fact that still overwhelms and humbles me two months later. To say that my expectations were exceeded, or to try to breathe new life into those overrated words “best” and “favorite,” or even to grab hold of words, phrases, adjectives, metaphors, analogies… it’s not enough. It can’t possibly be enough. You had to be there.