Newsmaker: Barney the dinosaur

The purple dinosaur has been amusing children the world over for 30 years. But some of his fiercest critics feel Barney only offers children a one-dimensional view of the world.

Kagan Mcleod for The National
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“Barney is a dinosaur from our imagination,” the song goes. Except that he’s not. Barney is real and here, right now, in the UAE.

Barney Live! is this summer's hot ticket, if only in the sense that it is summer and hot and if you have small children, tickets to an air-conditioned theatre where they will be entertained for a couple of hours probably seems like a good idea.

The purple dinosaur is on a world tour, just like The Rolling Stones or Madonna, although very much unlike them in the sense that Barney’s audience remains eternally young. As does Barney himself, as plush and cheery and as irrepressibly purple today as he was on his debut nearly 30 years ago. Not even Prince can say that.

Those first children weaned on Barney & Friends (but more of those later) are now parents themselves, with the lyrics to the show’s signature songs lodged inoperably deep in their cerebrum. “I love you, you love me. We’re a happy family. With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you. Won’t you say you love me too.”

Barney arouses strong emotions, and not all of them positive. Almost from his debut in a series of American home videos in 1987, the knives were out. Critics were mostly divided on Barney only in the sense that they loathed him, or that they really, really loathed him.

In 1998, the University of Chicago’s professor WTJ Mitchell observed: “Barney is on the receiving end of more hostility than just about any other popular cultural icon I can think of. Parents admit to a cordial dislike of the saccharine saurian, and no self-respecting second-grader will admit to liking Barney.”

None of this cuts any ice with the purple one's legion of preschool fans. In 1991, Barney made the jump to television with a series on America's Public Broadcasting Service. The executive responsible thought Barney would make refreshing change from PBS rival Sesame Street's Big Bird, whom he found "depressing".

Then, 30 episodes later, in 1992, PBS announced it would not fund any further episodes of Barney & Friends. A massive "Save Barney" campaign followed. Donna Collins, an executive with Connecticut public television, where the show was made, recalled a fundraising event at Hartford Civic Centre featuring an appearance by the dinosaur.

“We were blown away. And the line kept coming. We had crowd-control issues — we just weren’t prepared. Barney said, ‘We’re not leaving until everyone gets a photo,’ because the idea was you get your picture taken with him. His costume at that point wasn’t ventilated very well; we kept having to take him to the men’s room to start fanning him.”

Worn down by the relentless pressure of fans (and TV executives concerned at losing one of their top-rated shows), PBS backed down. As Barney would say: “Super dee-duper”.

This was peak Barney. Created in 1987 by Sheryl Leach, a 35-year-old teacher from Texas, Barney was originally envisaged as a giant dancing teddy bear until Leach realised her two-year-old son was more interested in dinosaurs (these days, the 29-year-old Patrick Leach is serving a 15-year prison sentence for shooting a neighbour).

Within five years, Barney had become Telesaurus Rex, king of the small screen. When he appeared in public it was mayhem. A tour of America's shopping malls had to be cut short after police were called in to hold back crowds of up to 40,000 teeny fans.

With a weekly audience of five million, Barney went to Hollywood for talks about a big-screen deal. He was going international. The Christmas of 1992 saw the “talking” Barney become that year’s must-have gift – if you could find one.

Barney, it was said, was the biggest thing since Cabbage Patch dolls, worth perhaps annually half a billion dollars in revenue.

Inevitably there was the Barney backlash. Some blamed it on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, whose arrival in 1994 saw sales slump and the revenues of Hasbro, the biggest Barney licence holder, fall by US$30 million in 12 months.

Worse than the numbers, though, were the haters. Academics and educationalists could barely disguise their scorn. In an article for Parents magazine in 1994, one child psychiatrist complained that: "Using denial as a primary coping strategy means that, in stark contrast to PBS luminaries such as Sesame Street and Mr Rogers, Barney & Friends does not help children learn to tolerate sorrow, pain, frustration and failure."

What’s so dangerous about Barney, the article wondered … and answered: “In a word, denial: the refusal to recognise the existence of unpleasant realities. For along with his steady diet of giggles and unconditional love, Barney offers our children a one-dimensional world where everyone must be happy and everything must be resolved right away.”

Soon the snobbishness of a few lofty critics became a howling mob. One website featured “150 ways to kill the Purple Dinosaur”, including a “nitroglycerine suppository” and making Barney “watch his own show”. Another site claimed “B’harne” was the demon servant of an alien warlord, announcing: “the jihad to destroy Barney”.

In 1998, Barney sued the San Diego Chicken, a sporting mascot who created an act in which it knocked a very similar purple dinosaur to the ground. A court ruled that the sketch was a legitimate parody, awarding costs against the Lyons Group, the owners of Barney’s copyright who had been demanding $100,000 for every time the chicken flattened Barney.

Such was Barney's cultural significance that he was instantly recognisable as "Smoochy", a purple TV rhino played by Edward Norton in the 2002 Robin Williams comedy Death to Smoochy.

The film was a box-office failure, described by the critic of the Washington Post as “a particularly toxic little bonbon, palatable to only a chosen and very jaundiced few.”

In tune with the zeitgeist, it emerged in 2003 that the theme to Barney & Friends was being used to break Iraqi prisoners of war. The music shattered the morale even of the interrogators. "In training, they forced me to listen to the Barney I Love You song for 45 minutes. I never want to go through that again," one American operative told Newsweek magazine.

And yet none of this seemed to bother what the Los Angeles Times once dubbed "Elvis for toddlers". Purchased by the London-based Hit Entertainment for $275 million in 2001, a new series of 20 episodes was accompanied by a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign and a new line of toys, now featuring Barney's posse of "Friends", including BJ, a yellow protoceratops with a red baseball cap, and Baby Bop, a three-year-old green Triceratops with pink ballet slippers.

Episodes continued to be made until September 2009, when an Earth Day special brought down the final curtain. A number of one-off films, such as Barney Happy Mad Silly Sad (2003) and Barney Live in New York City (2014) have followed, all going straight to video. Barney lives on, though, in endless reruns, seen now across three continents. He is a dinosaur of discretion, with never a hint of scandal in his private life and with a strict policy of no interviews for the media.

A study for the Annals of Improbable Research in 1998, The Taxonomy of Barney, decided that he could not be considered a dinosaur, but showed distinct hominid characteristics, concluding that he was "a hitherto unknown member of the Family Hominidae, which we name Pretendosaurus barneyi".

The reality is that Barney, at least on television, is a fusion of the voices of three actors, the longest-serving being a Texan, Bob West, while the man in the purple suit for eight years was David Joyner, a former software analyst at Texas Instruments.

In a 2013 interview, Joyner explained the stresses of performing in a 30-kilogram suit where temperatures reached 48°C.

“So you’ve got this huge costume that’s six foot seven inches, you’re looking out of the mouth, you’ve only got these short arms to deal with, and you’ve got a long tail behind you and these big feet that you’re wearing.”

None of this will matter to the children flocking first to the Cultural Centre Theatre at Madinat Zayed this week and then for three nights at the Emirates Palace from next Thursday. For them, Barney has sold out only in the sense that it may be hard to get tickets. They are there not just for the dinosaur but also the message: “I love you, you love me, we’re best friends like friends should be. With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too.”