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Young at Heart

A popular radio show is the latest phase in the Zucchini Brothers’ quest to prove that kids’ entertainment doesn’t have to be childish

By Peter Hanson
Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Bet you didn’t know the Northway goes to Zucchini Land.

Every weekday, a radio show called The Zucchini Brothers transports young listeners to a magical place where young Jack, Sam and Steve Zucchini never grow old, and never run out of ways to educate and entertain themselves. If you want to see what Zucchini Land really looks like, take the Northway to Clifton Park and drive into a quiet subdivision to find the house where the assorted Zucchinimobiles are parked. Drift through the living room, where a miniature drum kit emblazoned with the phrase “my first band” sits by the fireplace, then trek down to the basement. There, across from the washer and dryer and surrounded by shiny insulation, is Zucchini Land. But it’s not the candy-colored kingdom you might expect—it’s a utilitarian space crowded with microphones, keyboards and, of course, the Zucchini Brothers.

As longtime fans of the area’s most prominent children’s entertainers know, Jack, Sam and Steve actually are grown-ups who have been performing as the Zucchini Brothers for more than a decade. The musicians, all in their mid-30s, aren’t really siblings, and they prefer not to give out their real last names.

The group’s radio show, which debuted in December 2000, airs locally at 3:30 PM every weekday on public station WAMC (90.3 FM), and is broadcast on nearly 50 stations across the country. One reason the Zucchinis are jazzed about the show is that it enables them to spread the word about their expansive view of children’s entertainment. In addition to Zucchini Brothers songs, the show features the music of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, the Beatles and even Natalie Merchant—with the intent of breaking down boundaries between kid-oriented entertainment and adult entertainment.

“The cool thing is there’s nobody giving us a play list,” Jack says, “as long as it’s music that would be good for public radio.”

“We have a pretty good concept of what we want to do,” Sam adds.

The concept of the show—in which kid versions of the Zucchini Brothers play, learn, sing and listen to hits ranging from ’30s swing tunes to ’90s folk-rock numbers—is a natural outgrowth of the concept behind the band itself. The three men met while studying at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and they first began playing together as a rock & roll cover band. All were interested in education—Steve originally wanted to be an
elementary-school teacher—so they eventually combined their interests by forming a children’s-music group.

For the last five years or so, the musicians have been full-time Zucchinis, and they just released their third album, Safe & Sound, which offers musical advice ranging from “Don’t Talk to Strangers” to “Learn Your Address and Phone.” And while performances are still the band’s primary source of income, they hope the radio show will eventually attract a deep-pocketed sponsor. The Zucchini Brothers say their ultimate goal is to become a nationally recognized brand name in kids’ entertainment, but they acknowledge how ambitious a goal that is.

“It’s a hard business to make money in,” Sam says.

“It’s dominated at the top,” Steve adds, “and we’re in the middle.”

The Zucchinis become impassioned when delving into the harsh economic realities of their chosen genre. They note the huge gap between the prices charged for children’s concerts and those charged for grown-up shows, then say that many kids’ entertainers get out of the game because they can’t compete with corporate behemoths such as the Walt Disney Company.

“It’s tough, but we’re a family,” Jack says. “That’s why we’re still together: because we are like brothers. We’re constantly looking for new ways to get what we feel inside out there.”

Jack’s family analogy makes sense as the Zucchinis put together bits for the show, with the help of fellow performer Susan Meyer. Meyer, a mother of two, was a vocal fan of The Zucchini Brothers since its debut. She regularly e-mailed suggestions on how to improve the show, and told the Brothers that the program needed a female voice. The Brothers took her advice and added her character, a child named Susan, last September. Meyer also cowrites the shows with Jack, while Sam handles the technical end of the program and Steve researches songs for possible broadcast.

As the Zucchini Brothers and their honorary sister work together, they exhibit the comfortable interplay of a clan, laughing at each other’s foibles, complimenting each other’s best efforts and sometimes just hanging out—at one point, Jack and Susan flip through magazines while Steve preps a musical selection and Sam tinkers with his digital editing machine. The four seem to approach the task of creating The Zucchini Brothers with the ease, and occasional friction, of a family making dinner together.

The show is created virtually one line of dialogue at a time, with Sam constantly adding newly recorded bits to previously taped segments, then playing everything back to see how various takes sound when put together with music and sound effects. It’s painstaking work—more work, the musicians say, than they ever expected—but each daylong session produces several days’ worth of shows.

On this Monday, the performers zip through sequences like a “Word of the Day” segment introducing listeners to the meaning and usage of “familiar,” and a scene in which Steve makes slime for the gang to play with. The sound of crackling slime is provided by Jack, who snaps bubble wrap in his hands while peering over his glasses to read his script pages. Steve stands across the basement by his keyboard, speaking lines with high-pitched ebullience. The taping goes smoothly, despite flubbed lines, until Sam encounters a technical glitch, at which point he utters a four-letter gem unlikely to become the next “Word of the Day.” A moment later, Jack ends up in the peculiar situation of acting opposite himself: As pretaped bits of his normal speaking voice are played back, he rises in his chair to speak lines in the frantic, breathless pitch of Pete, the shoe-store guy. Sam oversees the whole enterprise like a director, offering Jack this advice on his characterization: “Let’s get it a little more like he’s freaking out, as usual.”

Interestingly, this kids’ show is created without the direct involvement of any kids: Recording sessions involve four adults acting like children and presuming children will dig what they’re doing. The Zucchinis say that they’ve been performing for youngsters for so long that conjuring kid-friendly merriment has become, in Sam’s words, “second nature.”

“A lot of this, as a writer, is based on my own experiences,” Meyer says. “Like the slime show. I made slime with my kids last month and had such a good time that I said, ‘We have to do a show about that.’ ”

“We’re still doing enough gigs that we still have enough interaction with kids,” Jack says.

The musicians feel strongly that children’s entertainers shouldn’t condescend to children, and they dislike the widely held perception that musicians who perform for kids are slumming. “There’s a misconception that people who couldn’t make it in the big world become kids’ musicians,” Sam says fervently, “and that’s bullshit.”

Meyer adds that she digs how the Zucchini Brothers’ music appeals to adults, herself included: “Like, the first time I heard ‘Mr. Ding-A-Ling,’ I swore the Dead recorded it.”

Still, the Zucchinis remember who their core audience is, and they say they’re always looking for new ways to reach their youthful listeners. “Being a parent helps me do this better,” Meyer says.

“I know how to think like a kid,” Jack says. “I can’t grow up.”

And while you might think that being part of a popular children’s program would make the Zucchinis heroes in their own households, Steve—the only Zucchini Brother who is also a parent—says that’s not necessarily the case. “My kids know that this is what their father does,” he notes. “People on the outside are like, ‘He’s a Zucchini Brother!’ But they’re like, ‘OK, dad, when’s dinner?’ ”

 

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