Saturday, May 14, 2022

This Rare Conversation With Gullah Gullah Island's Ron and Natalie Daise Is Guaranteed to Warm Hearts

If you're reading this, you're probably humming the Gullah Gullah Island theme song. So, you already know you can't miss what stars Ron and Natelie Daise had to say about their beloved show below.

Nickelodeon/Viacom

Remember when we used to play together in the bright sunny weather?

[Click here to watch a video with Ron and Natalie Daise!]

Starting in 1994, Nickelodeon transported kids to a magical, fictitious island through Gullah Gullah Island. Starring real life couple Ron and Natalie Daise, the series—based on the West African culture Gullah Geechee—taught preschoolers about family, sea critters and kindness through song and dance. (And, of course, they had a little help from a 5-foot polliwog, Binyah Binyah.)

But perhaps more importantly, the show allowed its young viewers to feel represented in a TV landscape that didn't always reflect how the world looked. Unbeknownst to those at home, the stories and songs featured in Gullah Gullah Island mirrored the actual lives of Ron and Natalie. Even their kids Simeon and Sara had roles!

And though they took their final bow in 1998, the family is still educating the world about their culture through their art.

Nickelodeon/Viacom

So, just put your foot in your hand—that means hurry up, you'll miss the good things that we'll find —because E! News sat down with the South Carolina-based couple and you don't want to miss the good things that they've shared.

E! News: Take us back to the beginning. How did Gullah Gullah Island come to life?

Ron Daise: Gullah Gullah Island came to life at a dinner conversation. A producer, Maria Perez-Brown, had come to scout for sights for another show. 

Natalie Daise: We were talking about children's TV, and how there's nothing for our older daughter Sara to watch where anyone looks like her. Maria then said, "Nickelodeon is trying to diversify maybe we could do a show about you." We had a meeting with executives with no agent, no manager, never shot anything, never planned anything. By the end of the day, they green-lit the show. That was June 1993, and we were on the air within a year.

E! News: While creating the show, how much input were you able to offer?

RD: We were cultural consultants. Each episode had characters going into the Gullah Gullah Island community. That was our real life.

ND: The parade in the show was the high school band. The makeup lady was my friend who sold Mary Kay. We sat in front of our tape recorder, sang songs and then mailed the tapes. They gave the tapes to their musicians and made music based on our real life. Our kids were in the show because I was nursing Simeon. Where I went, they went.

RD: Peter Lurye, head musician, had written a theme song. I suggested another line that would be more culturally appropriate with a Gullah Geechee expression: "Just take your foot in your hand, that means hurry up." I became a co-writer of the theme song!

Nickelodeon/Viacom

E! News: When did you realize the show was a hit?

RD: I had an expectation of it doing well. As well as it did? No. People in South America would send us mail saying how much it meant to them. There was someone in Australia who really loved the show. Even now, we get regular communications from people saying they are watching with their children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

ND: We did that first season, and, you know, we were just making it up. I remember that first year after it aired, we were at a mall and somebody started yelling, "Uncle Ron!" It was a surprise for me, it really was.

E! News: How did Binyah Binyah come to be?

RD: Initially, the producers had a different character, which we said no to. It was not a part of Gullah culture. We're glad that they followed through with that understanding. We made suggestions of Gullah words and expressions for the name and Binyah was selected. A "Binyah" is the Gullah Geechee expression for someone who is a native of who has been here or been-yah. If you relocate into a Gullah Geechee community, you would be a come-yah. Because it was a preschool show, the producers liked the alliteration of putting them together. 

ND: That's why they named the show Gullah Gullah Island. Part of Gullah language is to repeat a word to intensify it.

E! News: What's been your favorite fan interaction from over the years?

ND: I'm in a supermarket minding my own business and I see this older white man. And he's got this little boy with him that looks like he's Latinx. The man comes up and he says, "You mean a lot to my boy." And he gave me $5 and a carnation.

We have not had any negative interactions. But I did have someone try to get me to sign something underneath the bathroom stall doors. I'm like, "Can y'all wait till I come out?!"

RD: For me, it was halfway around the world at a historical event in Sierra Leone, West Africa, one of the rice coast countries which numerous Gullah Geechee people are descendants. We were on this ferry wearing Priscilla's Homecoming, A Gullah Homecoming t-shirts. A gentleman said, "Is that Gullah as in Gullah Gullah Island?" He came over smiling and wanted to take a selfie. He wanted me to know the impact that this show had on him. The colors, the language, the features of the people. They reminded him of growing up in Nigeria, so that was just a wonderful experience.

Nickelodeon/Viacom

E! News: Do you think we could ever see a Gullah Gullah Island reboot?

ND: It could work. There are people's children watching it now and they are as fascinated as their parents had been. It was a bit of a surprise after Gullah Gullah Island that more shows like that didn't happen. We had been in meetings with other networks and they were saying, "Kids can't follow along...They just need ditties. If it's longer than a few seconds, they don't get it." And I'm like, "You're joking, right?" Kids knew all the songs in Gullah Gullah Island and they know all the songs you don't even want them to know!

RD: Viewers liked that each show taught a lesson and that there was a family. People saw us as if we were their parents or their uncles or aunts. We were a positive influence in their lives.

E! News: Why do you think there's such an the enduring love for the show?

ND: Because we were genuine. We weren't acting. When I first started doing the show, we were storytellers in theater. And the first time they set up that camera, it was terrifying. I said to myself, "That camera is a window. I can talk to that kid on the other side. He lives on my street." Before Gullah Gullah Island, when we weren't on the road, Ron would be home and neighborhood kids would come down to see if Mr. Ron could come out and play.

RD: The kids would see me out with our older daughter. And that's what the producers saw when they followed us around. Natalie is always doing crafts and that's what they saw. That's how the characters were developed. 

ND: We just got to be ourselves. It was a real family and that comes through. I didn't just meet him on day one on set, you know?

Natalie Daise

E! News: You have been together for almost 40 years. What's your secret?

ND: The best thing I can say is that I really like him. He's my friend and he's my partner. And when we got married, there were people like, "You have to have the big wedding!" The wedding is not the thing. It's the marriage that's the thing. Also, it's not for everybody, but we've enjoyed working together! We've been singing together for 38 years.

RD: We find things to laugh about. Our children thought the families of their peers would sing in their homes all the time because that's what we do.

ND: Simeon, Sara, Ron and I are known to burst into song at any given time, sometimes inappropriate. Don't let there be good music in the supermarket! I'll be like, "Baby, please stop singing out loud."

Freda Funnye

E! News: Simeon is all grown up now and now an actor himself. Does he plan to keep the Gullah Geechee culture alive through his work?

ND: That's his whole focus, absolutely! He and his sister are co-producing a documentary called Saltwater Vibes and it's about the evolution of Gullah culture. It's like the family business.

E! News: And what are you two up to these days? Ron, we've seen those Gullahlicious pound cakes you've been making...

RD: I ship Mr. Ron's Gullahlicious pound cakes through Etsy. There are patrons who say they're eating a Mr. Ron pound cake with their child or their grandchild as they're watching an episode of Gullah Gullah island! It's not to promote Gullah culture, but that's what I'm doing.

ND: They are amazing cakes! I joke, but I'm also kind of serious, that's partly why I married him. He could sing and he could bake!

Freda Funnye

(This interview has been edited and condensed for lengthy and clarity.)


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Originally published: May 14, 2022.

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