Northlandia: The ballad of Bluether and Razzleberry, PBS North’s retired mascots
A third, shorter-lived local public television mascot named Cosmos was benched because his appearance reportedly upset children.
DULUTH — Their eyes: unblinking. Their smiles: frozen in felt. Their bodies: long-since forgotten.
They are Bluether and Razzleberry, the handmade mascots for PBS North. All that seemingly remains of the now-retired fixtures of Duluth-area children’s entertainment are their heads, which sit in an office at the regional public TV station’s headquarters at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Gone entirely is Cosmos, a third mascot whose career, so to speak, was cut short because Northland children reportedly found him off-putting.
Bluether and Razzleberry have been off the air since the late 2000s, benched in favor of more prerecorded segments, cheaper animation and the cultural cache of characters like Clifford the Big Red Dog.
In their primes, though, the two mascots were regulars on local PBS broadcasts and at a few annual Duluth-area get-togethers.
Most recognizable, perhaps, were their appearances on the station’s “Kids Club” programming. Donating to the club came with perks, and, each day, station staff would read on-air the names of donors’ kids who were celebrating a birthday that day while Bluether and Razzleberry waved to the camera.
The pair were also a frequent presence at PBS pledge drives, where members’ children were invited to the studio. The mascots were also regulars at an annual Kids Club Circus and at Christmas City of the North parades each winter.
Working inside the mascots were mostly interns, interested high school or college students, or station staffers. During meet-and-greets, especially during the Kids Club Circus, which is held in the early summer, staff would share mascot duties to avoid overheating.
“I spent a lot of … time in Bluether,” Brita Edgerton, a former promotion director at the station, told the News Tribune.
Bluether and Razzleberry were already 10-year veterans of the station when she was hired there in 2005, Edgerton said.
During some pledge drives, Edgerton said she would hop in the Bluether suit, film herself waving to the camera, then transpose that footage onto a green screen behind her while reading birthday greetings in her normal office clothes.
“I was me and Bluether simultaneously,” Edgerton said, “thanks to the magic of television.”
She also made miniature replicas of Bluether and gave them to her co-workers as Christmas gifts.
Bluether and Razzleberry got their start in the mid-1990s as the station shied away from more recognizable — and more expensive — characters like Bert and Ernie from “Sesame Street.” Some PBS stations made their own versions of "Sesame Street" characters, but Children’s Television Workshop, which owns the characters, clamped down on that practice, according to Greg Grell, PBS North’s live production lead.
The local versions weren’t necessarily the same quality as the "Sesame Street" ones, and workshop leaders didn’t want “substandard” versions of their characters appearing on air, he explained.
“So they ended up creating their own mascots that stations could rent,” Grell said. “But, of course, if you wanted to use them a lot, the rental cost was more than a lot of those stations could afford, especially back in those days.”
The two mascots were designed, in part, by Mark Montour-Larson, a former associate producer and editor at PBS North who’s now the creative services production manager at Rocky Mountain Public Media in Denver.
“I think several of us gathered around a table, and there may have been some beverages involved, and kind of sketched it out,” Montour-Larson said. “We wanted to kind of pattern it after what children expected from the Muppets, you know: large head, big eyes, big, puffy nose — that sort of thing.”
Bluether wasn’t meant to evoke an existing children’s TV character, Montour-Larson said, and is blue because it’s a primary color. The mascot’s shape was a function of what station staff could construct, he recalled, and what someone could wear.
“Something big and squishable,” Montour-Larson said.
Diane Podgornik, a Proctor school teacher and Grell’s then-wife, fashioned Bluether in her spare time out of foam and blue polar fleece. She later made Razzleberry using a technique called latch hooking to attach lengths of purple and pinkish yarn to a canvas grid to make a rug-like skin. It took about a month, in all, to make both mascots.
Bluether, broadly speaking, is meant to look like a male character and Razzleberry is meant to look like a female character. Grell said they were never presented as a couple and doesn’t think they were meant to be, say, siblings.
“You’re asking me questions that I’ve never considered before,” he told the News Tribune with a laugh. “I think it was more just wanting to have another character that would … appeal to girls. Not that Bluether didn’t, but kids at that age, they like stuffed animals, and I guess we had stuffed mascots.”
Cosmos, and fear
A third mascot named Cosmos was made after Bluether and Razzleberry by Betty Tolan, who used to work at several fabric stores in the Duluth area. Tolan’s daughter, Patti Alberg, is a master control supervisor at PBS North.
“I think how it went was: No one wanted to make a third costume and I said, ‘Well, my mom does sewing,’ and then I asked her and she said, ‘Well, it depends on what it is,” Alberg remembered as Tolan chuckled in the background. “So we had a couple meetings and we’re like, ‘Well, let’s do something that’s not been done.’”
Meant to look like a space alien, Cosmos was an orange, silver and blue creation with three eyes and a small satellite dish on its head.
Alberg and Tolan estimated that Tolan put Cosmos together over a summer in about 1996. A pair of salad bowls formed his skull and Tolan used an electric knife to shape foam around them.
The satellite dish was made from a pot lid or similar kitchen implement, Alberg and Tolan recalled. Jim Tolan, Alberg’s dad, installed a small motor to make the dish rotate.
Ultimately, Cosmos’ tenure at the station was much shorter-lived than Razzleberry’s and Bluether’s.
“Cosmo(s) was not popular with kids,” Grell said. “Younger, littler kids were kind of afraid of Cosmo(s).”
Grell said station staff didn’t really screen test their mascots before putting them in the public eye.
Cosmos lasted long enough at PBS North to have a few birthday cards made with his likeness. A copy of one of those cards and a few old Polaroids are the only photographs of him that remain at the station offices, according to Grell.
Alberg and Tolan weren’t as confident that Cosmos spooked children.
“It might just be the rumor that he scared kids,” Alberg said. “Maybe just wasn’t as popular, I guess. Not as lovable.”
Bluether, too, with his generous paunch and mute, unwavering smile, could also be upsetting.
“One of my earliest memories is being afraid of Bluether,” Lucy Tennis Anderson, now 23, said.
Tennis Anderson said they knew Bluether and other mascots were actually someone in a costume pretending to be something they weren’t. They vividly remember seeing, in a nightmare, the mascot floating outside their bedroom window. They worried about Bluether’s “stare eyes.”
Razzleberry, a tasseled pink and purple mass, also inspired fear, but not as much, Tennis Anderson said.
The "Kids Club" breaks featuring Bluether were something Tennis Anderson had to undergo to watch “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and other shows, according to Mary Tennis, Lucy’s mom.
“Bluether looms large in my family,” Tennis said.
‘Time has moved on’
By the late 2000s, Bluether and Razzleberry’s tenures at the station eventually ran their course.
The station stopped doing live breaks during "Kids Club" programming. Animated segments or prerecorded bits are more economical than having someone sweat it out in a costume for relatively little airtime, and staff there have once again started renting professionally made costumes from a broader variety of shows. It costs more, according to Edgerton, but the star power of more recognizable characters like Clifford the Big Red Dog diminished Bluether’s value as a mascot.
“Poor Bluether had his heyday. Sort of like a video store, kind of like a Blockbuster,” Edgerton said with a laugh. “He had his heyday and then Netflix came.”
Grell said he thinks children now are more sophisticated, media-wise, than they were during that heyday, and perhaps aren’t as attracted to characters that aren’t as polished or well-made as what they might see on, say, Nickelodeon.
“If you look at the animated stuff now, it’s very high quality. And these guys,” Grell said, gesturing to Bluether and Razzleberry’s disembodied heads in a PBS North conference room, “they served their purpose, but I think they just kind of ... time has moved on past something like this.”