Inside Maggie and the Ferocious Beast
A conversation with
Betty and Michael Paraskevas,
Maggie and the Ferocious Beast
Based on the popular children's books created by mother-son creative team Betty and Michael Paraskevas, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast highlights the relationship between five-year-old heroine Maggie and her best friends, who happen to be figments of her imagination. The animated series is paced carefully for young viewers, exploring Maggie's colorful world, Nowhere Land. Maggie consults maps to plan each adventure with her favorite stuffed toys Beast and Hamilton. Together, they get into humorous predicaments and solve problems creatively as they meet new characters and explore Nowhere Land.
Betty wrote the original stories and many of the TV scripts, and Michael created the illustrations. The two have published more than 20 books, operate an art gallery in Westhampton Beach, NY, and continue to create unusual stories and fanciful creatures for an array of media. When Michael and his twin sister Judy were young, Betty worked for a Broadway producer. She and her husband Paul took the kids to "every Broadway show that came out." Perhaps that background led to the bright and theatrical quality of the Maggie episodes.
Where did you get the inspiration to create Maggie (e.g., did you create monsters or other imaginary creatures when you were a kid?)
Michael Paraskevas (MP): I've always drawn characters. In the case of the Ferocious Beast, well he first appeared after I did a series of paintings with people and masks on. That painting ultimately led me to ask Betty to write me a story about these oddball looking characters in suits and ties ... That book was called Shamlanders and in that book she coined the phrase, "The Ferocious Beast with a Polka Dot Hide" and asked me to design something the little boy in the book could ride. Later, this boy character became a girl — Maggie.
We liked this Beast so much that I even made a small sculpture for my mom's Christmas present in 1991. It took a while after that to finally get to the animated show. After Shamlanders Betty loved the Ferocious Beast so much that she quickly wrote a follow-up book about the Beast meeting up with a nameless pig. That's the book that eventually was turned into the Maggie series, the pig was eventually named Hamilton. Later, we introduced the character of Maggie for the television show.
I always liked maps when I was a kid. My favorite map was the one in the Winnie-the-Pooh books. That map fascinated me. I always saved the maps from National Geographic and would pore over them. I loved the moon map they sent out one year -- it hung on my wall for years. My toys consisted of Matchbox cars, the antique ones, particularly ones called the Models of Yesteryear. I couldn't get enough of them. And I loved Lincoln Logs. I have a vast collection of tin wind ups now, thanks to Ebay!
It was Toper Taylor and Michael Hirsh at Nelvana who saw the potential for our work as a series after Determined Productions (Connie Bouche owned Determined and worked on most of the Peanuts toys and licensing) had made a number of toy items that were associated with our books. When we were working on the show with Nelvana, Kathy Hornbuckle, head of development, said that the key to the show was the map. From there, the rest was a long road to working with Nick Jr. on the writing and the development of the show itself. Brown Johnson at Nick was certainly a big supporter of our work and we do have to thank her for the chance to make this happen. So it's good to have a great foundation of an idea, but it took a lot of people to finally get this to production.
From the start Betty wrote wonderful scripts for the television show, and that's not something most children's book authors ever get to do. By the time any project gets to the networks the author has been pushed aside. She penned 60 scripts for the series and I wrote 2. So, Betty really has that over me. I don't mind. I like to write but Betty really shines with dialogue and character development.
Tell us about Maggie and the other characters.
Betty Paraskevas (BP): Maggie is a powerfully charged character. Nowhere Land is the world she made up, a land filled with stuff from her imagination. I think it can encourage kids to exercise their own imaginative play.
MP: I think Maggie is Betty ... she is the one, the questioning mind ... she has to know about things and that's why she is a good writer. We really do make up all this stuff ... I don't think there was any character based on people we knew other than ourselves ... however I will say that while making the show, Jamie Whitney (our director) really was a lot like Hamilton the Pig in the way that he paid attention to sooooo many details and the small things to make the show better.
Why do you think Maggie appeals to children?
BP: All kids need some time to themselves to just relax and imagine ... personal play time I think you would call it. In an age where all a kids' time seems to be scheduled every single minute of the day with soccer and camp and tutors and playdates and birthday parties, I always think kids need time to be kids. The whole idea of Maggie is that a kid has time to calm down and use his/her imagination.
Maggie is certainly not a violent world. It's not very fast paced as are most animated shows today. It's a very relaxing show to view and we wanted it to be a calming world. The pace of the show was important. It's not boring as some shows are when they are in the preschool mode. It does move at a pace that gives the child time to actually think about what is happening in the story.
Much of the stories in this show were talked out over the course of the development of the show. I don't usually provide an outline of my scripts. I talk them over with Mickey and then I just see what happens. I think that's why the scripts seem so, well, somewhat odder than most animation today. The stories come at you from left field.
Hamilton's box was like that. It's subtle. It's not really a magic box, but it's his home, and he usually has what they need in there. Magic was an idea that we insisted was removed from the show itself. The characters have to think themselves out of problems. There really is no magic solution. They can't just zap themselves to another place.
We also made sure that we didn't use any cultural ... or pop culture items like cell phones or trendy items like skateboards. We used timeless themes and props so that the show would always seem fresh.
I think Maggie is a lot like me when I was a kid. I was an only child and I often made up stories and told them to myself growing up.
What's the origin of the Ferocious Beast's phrase, "Great Googly Moogly?"
MP: Betty always used to use it when she was kid. I've heard that it was used in Barney Google, but even Betty didn't remember that. So it's just always been a funny phrase. I think it's in a Frank Zappa song, but I have to look that up.
What was it like to adapt your books for the small screen? Are there some things you had to leave out or add in?
MP: Nelvana called one day and asked if we could cut down on the number of polka dots. We told then that was just crazy. It had something to do with moving the animation, something technical. We told them to just fix it. The polka dots are important!
How is Maggie different from other children's television?
BP: Well we certainly think it's better. We never started out to make an educational show. I don't think my mission in life was to educate children. I'm not a teacher and neither is my son ... However any good story well told will always teach a lesson. Maggie and her friends certainly are challenged and have to learn how to get along.
Can TV be good for kids? What are the elements of good TV?
MP: Yes. It can be bad too. Frantic shows can make kids overly active and promote bad play behavior. However, I grew up on Warner Brothers cartoons and I feel like I'm okay. I learned a lot watching those shows growing up. My vocabulary was vastly improved. Strangely, when I tried to buy stuff from Acme to get rid of mice, I learned there was no such company ... just kidding!Â It was from Warner Brothers cartoons that I learned phrases like "Suffering Succotash" and words like "perplexing." I can quote lines from Foghorn Leghorn: "That girl is about as sharp as a sack full of wet mice." I'm not sure that line would have ever made it onto TV today.
What are your future plans for Maggie?
BP: We want to make a movie. Maybe a big musical movie. We have the production rights in our control and are looking for ways to make this a big feature film as well as making more episodes, maybe even moving this to a CGI design.
We wanted to see more product out there. We have had tons of requests for toys and they just aren't around because the show wasn't extensively licensed. We are looking for ways to fix this.
What other children's projects are you working on now?
MP: Pepper's Pet Spectacular is a show that is moving along. It is also based on one of our books. And we are working on a show about the beach. But our favorite project of all time, other than Maggie, is our home-grown puppet show over at www.thecheapshow.com. It's just been a labor of love and loads of fun for us. It's sort of retro and also very family friendly. Aside from the online availability, it runs on cable on PlumTV in some very upscale markets like the Hamptons and Aspen. The one good thing about this show was that we really didn't have to answer to anyone and that left us free to write and experiment with characters and just plain silly storylines. It's also available from iTunes — just search for "The Cheap Show."
A mother of two boys, Beth is a Portland Oregon-based writer and children's media consultant.