The greatest show to ever air on New Zealand TV screens, and arguably any screens ever, had a tenure of just three tragically short years.
It was on air from March 1997 to September 1999. It had an ensemble of impossibly jazzy New Zealand children and a live studio audience. It was McDonald’s Young Entertainers, and I loved it very much.
I was raised in a religious household, which can be a bit like being brought up inside a cultural black hole. The year McDonald’s Young Entertainers first aired also happened to be the year that gave birth to extremely heathen phenomena like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Sabrina the Teenage Witch had hit screens the year before, leaving just about nothing to talk about with your mates whose families didn’t believe that fictional teenage witches and wizards were actual representatives of Satan.
And this is where McDonald’s Young Entertainers was a saving grace, a show so wholesome that no parent could ever protest it. A televisual beacon of goodness where the worlds wrongs could be righted with a headset microphone or some top-shelf yodelling.
Inspired in part by The Mickey Mouse Club, the US variety show that launched the careers of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling, McDonald’s Young Entertainers was half an hour of unbridled cheese, hosted by the go-to guy for 90s television, Jason Gunn.
It was a talent show, with three genuinely talented contestants per episode (catch a baby Hayley Westenra in the series finale) and a revolving door of judges, although a very young Stacey Morrison with consistently excellent hair was a regular.
But let’s be real, the true heroes of this show were the Super Troopers, a gang of eight Kiwi kids who grape-vined and kick-ball-changed like there was nothing more important on this Earth.
The songs were largely ancient even by late 90s standards, a collection of easy-listening hits from the 60s or 70s, interspersed with the odd PG Top 40 chart topper for pertinence. Jason Gunn led the troupe like a giddy uncle, though could he ever actually sing? Nobody knows and the answer is irrelevant. Raw enthusiasm was the order of the day.
Many of the former Troopers went on to have pretty successful careers in entertainment after the show. Every millennial across the sexuality spectrum will have had a raging closeted crush on Drew Neemia, the Sticky TV and Select Live host prone to random outbursts of song. Then there’s Michelle Ang, the Emmy-nominated actress who now has a baby and a pretty sweet business which makes reusable shopping bags from recycled plastic.
But I wanted to talk to TVNZ’s Adrian Stevanon, not only because he’s had an incredibly successful journalism career post MYE, but also because he was responsible for most of the show’s soulful walking and wanton teenage seduction techniques.
In a rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’, a crooning teenage Adrian descends the steps of a Hamilton Gardens gazebo, makes his way over to a bench, sits on it for a bit, gets up, walks over to the lake’s edge, and when the song ends, turns and starts feeding the ducks with a chunk of bread he may or may not have had the entire time. It was a moment of artistry that did not go unnoticed many years later when he joined TVNZ’s Auckland newsroom.
“When I joined the newsroom, I only kept that secret for maybe three or four weeks. I walked into the newsroom, they are all bending over and Rawdon Christie’s face was bright red. I was like, ‘Oh, what’s going on?’, then I went ‘oh you bastards’. They had pulled up some footage from Wellington, and it was ‘Let it Be’.
The show played on a Sunday evening, which made Monday mornings at Adrian’s all-boys high school particularly challenging. I asked if there was teasing and he laughed, quite a lot.
“OK, you’ve got to put yourself back in 1997. Dudes dancing, period, is not cool, and we were dancing to songs that were already old in 1997, then you were doing it sometimes in a lobster suit. Often on a Monday I would get off the bus running because I would have got smart to someone who was getting smart to me, I’d drop my bag with my mates and I’d be off, then I’d pick up my bag at first period.”
But perhaps the lads of Te Awamutu were just jealous – who wouldn’t envy a teenage telly star who gets to sing-flirt with a young McDonald’s hottie wearing a burger-printed cravat. (Said hottie is actually TV weather presenter Renee Wright’s sister, if you’re thinking she looks familiar.)
“There was lots of fan mail. They were all girls, and you’d get family photos, photos of people’s pets, photos of them. My mum, she’s Samoan, and I don’t know if you know about Samoan mums but you do what they tell you to do, and my mum would make me write back to people. I understand where she’s coming from, these people have made the effort to write to you so you should write back. It was a nice thing to do but sometimes it was… a bit weird.”
Holly Odgers (formerly Holly Walmsley) got fan mail too, her brother Michael was also a Super Trooper, and the cherubic duo received so many house calls their family had to take their number out of the phone book.
I have to admit to myself that in 1998, I was probably one of those callers, desperate to form some kind of connection with the nine-year-old who performed ‘Stupid Cupid’ with the panache of a mid-career Liza Minelli.
“I guess that’s what I loved about performing, even as a young kid, was to be able to perform and sing and smile at someone and they smile back, and you’ve helped make their day better,” she says with a grin that’s somehow audible down the phone.
Holly is 32 now, and has five kids, none of whom had any inkling that their mother was once a child celebrity, idolised and envied by every attention-seeking kid in New Zealand.
“I hadn’t seen [the videos] in years, my sister sent me a link saying check this guy out, he’s posted Young Entertainers on YouTube. I was like, ‘Kids, do you wanna have a good laugh?’ So I brought them round the computer, they were like ‘Whaaat???’. They thought it was hilarious.”
Being cast as a Super Trooper meant hard work and long hours, but also a perk that seems far too good to be true – a McDonald’s Gold Card which meant free Maccas for three years. Cast members were entitled to three items from the breakfast menu or any combo for the three-year duration of the show. If she was allowed, Holly could’ve eaten 1,095 Happy Meals between 1997 and 1999. One of eight kids, she’d only had McDonald’s once before in her life.
“As a nine-year-old from a large family, that was amazing, that was such a highlight – that was probably the biggest highlight, being able to walk in and order free McDonald’s.”
Then there was the travel. In in the third and final season, the Super Troopers were carted all around the country, from Timaru to the hallowed grounds of Rainbow’s End. Joining MYE meant Adrian’s first opportunity to fly in a plane, and see first-hand what it was like to work in New Zealand television at a time when there was actually money in making it. The kids were paid to be on the show, sharing airtime with 90s pop icons Billie and Aqua, there were lingering helicopter aerial shots, you could win a four-person trip to Vanuatu just by voting for your favourite act. The gaudy luxury of the 90s.
Holly now runs a performance school in Hamilton and sings with her family band. Adrian, now a 36-year-old father of three, went on to work for 1 News, Tagata Pasifika, Native Affairs, The Hui and The Spinoff TV, and is now the supervising producer on Sunday. He also produced an award-winning doco for RNZ on the New Zealand Wars in between all that. It’s a career that never would have occurred to him were it not for his part in New Zealand’s peppiest child gang.
“It was an amazing opportunity for a young person. I would never have thought of television. I mean, I’m from Te Awamutu – who from Te Awamutu thinks that they’re gonna go and work in TV?”
“Even though sometimes I look back and I think, ‘Jeez, I wore that on national TV? I sang that on national TV?’ It was a fun part of my life and if I could do it all over again, even with the teasing and stuff that came with it, I’d do it again.”
Factoring in the current global trend of incessantly remaking movies and TV for no clear reason, could or would Young Entertainers ever make a homegrown comeback? Looking back, it seems like a show too pure for this broken world and to revive it, with the inevitable internet trolling that would come with it, would be to corrupt its precious memory. Holly agrees.
“For me it was a really positive experience, it was so much fun and New Zealand was a really nice culture and place to be part of a show like that. People left you alone, you weren’t treated too mean. I think it would be difficult today, I think if there was a show like that some of the kids would experience some nasty cyberbullying which I think is a real shame.”
“If my child was on it, I would not be keen on them having a social media presence, I don’t think it would be good for them.”
So at least, thanks to a true patriot with a VCR and a lot of time on their hands, McDonald’s Young Entertainers lives on, in pixelated form, on YouTube. A glimpse back to a simpler, spangly-er time.