|Premiere||June 2, 1996|
Big Bag was a puppet/animated series produced as a co-production between Children's Television Workshop and Cartoon Network from 1996 to 1998. Created and executive produced by former Sesame Street producer Nina Elias Bamberger, the program was an early morning weekend series aimed at preschoolers and intended to satisfy the network's educational quota. The series was unique for Cartoon Network not only in its extensive use of live actors and puppets, but also due to the fact that it aired in an hour block sans commercial interruptions (the series was later divided into two consecutive half-hours, but still without commercials).
In addition to Bamberger, the series was developed by fellow Sesame vet Lou Berger, along with writer Gary Cooper and animation veteran Allan Neuwirth. Kevin Clash served as creative consultant, and his own character Elmo made a guest appearance in the second season episode "Elmo's Visit," where it's revealed that Elmo and Chelli were pen pals. The series was originally taped in Orlando, Florida, at the Disney MGM Studios Theme Park, using several local child actors.
The series featured several new Muppet characters built by the Henson Company's Muppet Workshop, who interacted with human regulars. The star was Chelli, a cheerful patchwork dog who, with his human friend Molly, had just moved to a neighborhood, generically titled Main Street USA, and opened up a small general store. Chelli helped out on occasion, but most often explored the world with his Muppet friend Bag. Other puppet regulars included Lyle and Argyle McSock, the mismatched socks who served ostensibly as stockroom boys, and beginning in 1998, Sofie, a new humanoid neighbor.
The first season also featured frequent interaction with a large cast of human regulars, including an assortment of child friends (notably Kim), and colorful locals, including the shy Martha, Bernard the Crossing Guard (who would ask the kids at home if they had their telescope), exercise instructor Trudy, Josie the mail lady, kindly old veterinarian Doc Furrball, and egotistical inventor Waldo. All of the adult villagers were played by Cullen Douglas and Clare Sera, but along with the kids, they were all dropped as regulars for the second season (which began in spring of 1998). Human cast members continued to appear on an episodic basis, however, with actress Nell Carter guest starring as Molly's mother.
As part of the show's educational agenda, in addition to the lessons about friendship, how things work, and other such values learned by Chelli and Bag, the series was framed in such a way as to encourage kids to actively participate. Bag helped Chelli carry his equipment, which almost invariably included a pair of socks, two spoons, an explorer's hat, and his "magic telescope," a decorated cardboard tube. These items were part of the educational/interactive element, as children at home were encouraged to be creative at home, and to use their own hand made telescopes while watching the show (at different times, a cue would be given to use the telescope, or other item). In a 1996 interview with The Washington Post, Nina Elias Bamberger stated the following:
“"We wanted to create a series that every child could participate in. We wanted to make sure that every single thing they needed, they did not have to buy," said [Bamberger], noting the creative team's fondness for the 1950s weekend kids show Winky-Dink and You.”
In addition, occasional "dance break" moments, and the character of Trudy, encouraged kids to get up and jump around.
The scenes with Chelli and friends served as frames for a variety of individual animated segments, which were also rotated between seasons. As opposed to the shorter clips on Sesame Street, the animated segments ran approximately 5 minutes each, and were produced by various studios in New York, Australia, and Europe, often with consultation from CTW and Cartoon Network. (Big Bag aired back to back with Small World, another preschool series which showcased different international cartoons). The first season segments consisted of the following:
- Troubles the Cat: This segment, produced by Ink Tank Studios in New York, starred a mischievous cat, owned by a Latino girl and her friend. Hispanic actress Maria Conchita Alonso voiced Troubles (and was one of only two voice actors to receive credit on the series). This segment was based on a proposal sent in by six-year old Marina Mendez, and developed by Bamberger, series producer Nina Shelton, puppeteer Jim Martin, and others.
- Samuel & Nina: Produced by Yoram Gross of Australia, famed for his Dot and Blinky Bill cartoons (and redubbed in the states), the series focused on a Chaplin-esque dog named Samuel, who wore a magic hat, and his squirrel friend Nina (voiced by Ivy Austin).
- William's Wish Wellingtons: a BBC import about a young English boy and his magical oversized boots (or Wellingtons as they are sometimes called in the UK). Fawlty Towers star Andrew Sachs provided the narration.
- Slim Pig: another UK import about the adventures of a flat pig and his farmyard friends.
- Koki: a Spanish clay-animated series about a young chick and her family, which included her brother, who hasn't hatched yet. All the episodes were written by Allan Neuwirth and Gary Cooper.
- Tobias Totz and His Lion: a German co-production about a kind zookeeper and his pet lion.
When new episodes were produced in 1998, and the format reduced to two half-hours with the same three segments each, all save "Troubles the Cat" and "Koki" were dropped. A new segment was added:
- Ace and Avery: produced by John R. Dilworth of Stretch Films (which also produced "Noodles & Nedd" for Sesame Street). This segment focused on a bespectacled boy, Ace, and his raccoon sidekick, Avery (the latter voiced by Kevin Clash, who also received billing). This segment was the most likely to incorporate craft elements from the main storyline. Episodes were story edited by Allan Neuwirth and Gary Cooper.
When the original episodes were cut down to a half-hour length, reruns would alternate in showing either "Troubles the Cat", "Samuel & Nina" and a musical "Big Bag Beat" segment, or showing "William's Wish Wellingtons," "Slim Pig" and "Koki." "Tobias Totz and His Lion" was dropped from the reruns altogether.
- Joey Mazzarino as Chelli and Lyle (1996-1997)
- Rickey Boyd as Bag and Argyle McSock
- Alice Dinnean as Sofie (1997-1998)
- Additional Muppet Performers: Jeff Conover (Lyle, 1997-1998), Matt Vogel, James Andrew Stone
- Selena Nelson as Molly
- Tessa Ludwick as Kim
- Cullen Douglas as Male Villagers (including Bernard the Crossing Guard, Doc Furrball, and Waldo Muckle)
- Clare Sera as Female Villagers (including Josie, Martha, and Trudy)
- Ashley Jones as Neighborhood Kid
- John Mountford as Neighborhood Kid (Joey)
- Jamie Ryan as Neighborhood Kid
- Maria Conchita Alonso as Troubles the Cat
- Kevin Clash as Avery (1997-1998)
- Ashley Carin as Sarah (in "Troubles the Cat" segments)
- Allen Enlow as Samuel
- Ivy Epstein as Nina
- James Spector as Slim Pig
- Pam Lewis as Little Chick
- Andrew Sachs narrates "William's Wish Wellingtons"
- Executive Producer/Creator: Nina Elias Bamberger
- Directors: Lisa Simon, Ted May
- Writers: Donna Harman, Adam Rudman, Allan Neuwirth, Gary Cooper
- Story Consultant: Barry Harman
- Developed by: Lou Berger, Allan Neuwirth, Gary Cooper
- Producer: Nina Shelton
- Production designer: Victor DiNapoli
- Music: Kathy Sommers
- Jim Henson's Muppet Workshop: Ed Eyth with Rollie Krewson, Janet Kuhl, Jason Weber, Ed Christie
- Creative consultant: Kevin Clash
- Muppet wrangler: Valerie Hughes
- Animated effects: Joey Ahlbum
- Graphics: Mike Pantuso
- Theme song: Michael Abbott, Sarah Weeks