Bernadette Yao on Zoom
Some original cast members of “Zoom,” including Bernadette Yao, emerged as national celebrities during their abbreviated tenure on TV.Photograph Courtesy WGBH

The transition from in-office meetings to at-home video conferencing has occasioned lots of memes and social-media posts about “my idea of a Zoom meeting,” usually accompanied by a grainy video or photo of haphazardly barbered nineteen-seventies children romping around in striped rugby shirts. Among older members of Generation X, it’s hard to hear the word “zoom” without associating it with “Zoom,” one of the most memorable and radically experimental television programs of its era. Like the teleconferencing service, the original “Zoom” was screen-based and interactive, and it quickly evolved into a national obsession. But, unlike Zoom the online platform, “Zoom” was mostly the province of kids, primarily those in the tween cohort.

The program was created by a young producer at WGBH, Boston’s public-television station, named Christopher Sarson. He and his wife, Evelyn, were English immigrants to the U.S. and something of a glamour couple: he had been a rising star at Granada Television, and she had been a reporter for the Guardian and Reuters. (They were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, the actress Eleanor Bron, to whom the Beatles sang “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” on “Help!”) By 1971, the Sarsons, living in the Boston area, were the parents of an eight-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy, and Christopher, who was then working for WGBH, was increasingly concerned about his children’s social awkwardness around other kids as they approached their preteen years. “They were cautious,” he said. “It was, ‘We would like to be your friend, but we don’t want you to laugh at us.’ ”

Keen to foster more easygoing relationships between kids, Sarson came up with a general outline for a program in which a cast of children of preteen age would perform songs, sketches, and craft projects based on scripts and premises sent in by home viewers in the same age group. Onscreen and off, kids would learn from each other rather than from an adult authority figure. “If the emphasis is on learning rather than teaching, you achieve a lot,” Sarson said. “If the kids are learning rather than being taught, they’ll be more sure of themselves and enjoy life more. So, it was this feeling of getting kids in a position where they could be thinking for themselves.”

Sarson had already set a precedent for making waves at WGBH. A year earlier, recognizing that his native Britain excelled in a television format in which the U.S. was lacking—the limited-edition serialized drama—he suggested to the station’s top brass that they should secure the American broadcasting rights to such series. The result, premièring in January, 1971, was “Masterpiece Theater,” which is now, under its abbreviated title, “Masterpiece,” the longest-running prime-time drama series on TV. The more Sarson thought about his new idea, the more its specifics came into focus: there would be a diverse cast of seven children, local Boston-area kids, none of them trained performers. There would be no adults. Sarson decided to call the program “Zoom In, Zoom Out,” he said, “because it was, ‘We’re gonna zoom in on the kids’ lives, and we’re going to zoom out on how that affects you in the world.’ ”

The program, renamed “Zoom,” was made on the cheap, starting with a thirty-thousand-dollar surplus left over from another WGBH program’s budget. Sarson’s cast of seven kids, ranging in age from nine to thirteen, needed a unisex uniform: bluejeans and some sort of top. The thriftiest option was found at Sears, where children’s rugby-striped jerseys were selling in multiple sizes for five dollars apiece. The stripes would become the visual motif of “Zoom,” adorning not only the children but also the big “Z-O-O-M” letters that stood, Stonehenge-like, at the rear of the set. “The idea of the stripes came from the shirts—the only way we could afford to make a set was to cut out big pieces of cardboard in the shape of the letters and stick the stripes on them,” Sarson said.

For music, Sarson reached out to a classically trained musician named Newton Wayland, who at the time was a pianist and harpsichordist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A burly, thickly bearded man who was evangelical about getting kids interested in music, Wayland served as the show’s music director and composer. His theme song, “Come On and Zoom,” began with an unrefusable invitation: “We’re gonna zoom, zoom, zoom-a, zoom / Come on and zoom-a, zoom-a, zoom-a zoom,” and ended with a sweetly encouraging plea:

Come on, give it a try
We’re gonna show you just why
We’re gonna teach you to fly high!
Come on and zoo-oom! Come on and zoom-zoom!

The children performed this song to boisterous choreography by Billy Wilson, a director and choreographer who also taught dance at Brandeis University. Their execution was raggedy, and all the more exciting for it: hanging off of the giant letters, arraying themselves into a shimmying group, and then splitting off from each other, running barefoot (with the blessing of an on-set physician) into the far reaches of WGBH’s cavernous Studio A, where, in a corner out of view of the camera, Julia Child’s “French Chef” kitchen set stood dormant.

The beguiling optics of this opening sequence alone—preteens leaping and gallivanting freely, alike but different, white boys with great, thick mops of unregulated hair, black boys with tight Afros, girls with all manner of center partings—presented a picture of children’s liberation that, while bursting with youthful energy, was orderly and coöperative rather than a “Lord of the Flies”-like, Hobbesian state of nature.

The program was also, way before the term became fashionable, a showcase for user-generated content. Its stars encouraged kids at home to send in their ideas, with Wayland ingeniously turning the show’s mailing address into a patter song, part rapped and part sung—“Box Three-Five-Oh, Boston, Mass., Oh-Two-One-Three-Four! Send it to ‘Zoom’!”—which seventies children committed to memory as if it were the Pledge of Allegiance.

The resulting content was resolutely low-tech. The Zoomers, as the child performers were known, demonstrated viewers’ recommendations for how to tie-dye a T-shirt, and how to play a homemade game called “cotton race,” in which two players, using flexible plastic straws, blew a cotton ball back and forth. On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, the Zoomers obliged a girl’s request to perform “some of the old-time oldies,” via a medley of the Tin Pan Alley songs “Mairzy Doats,” “Flat Foot Floogie,” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” with musical and choreographic assistance from Wayland and Wilson, respectively.

Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-creator of “Sesame Street,” was enchanted by “Zoom” ’s pilot episode and quickly got behind the program, playing a significant role in insuring that it was, from the off, widely distributed via the PBS network. The half-hour show launched in 1972, airing once a week in most markets, usually in the early evening. The early nineteen-seventies were still an era of limited viewing options for children, particularly in the tween demographic, and “Zoom” zoomed to national prominence: a euphoric watch for preteens and an aspirational one for their little siblings. Life magazine, during the show’s first year on the air, described the program as “graduate school after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”