Monday, July 19, 2021

‘Gullah Gullah Island’ Stars Ron and Natalie Talk About the Show’s Creation and Overall Success

CHARLESTON, S.C. – It’s a tune those who grew up in the mid-90s know all too well; “come and let’s play together in the bright sunny weather…” Gullah Gullah Island was a popular preschool series that aired on Nickelodeon from 1994-98.

It follows an African American family as they learn about life with friends, neighbors, and their big yellow pet pollywog Binya Binya.

What makes it special – especially to those who grew up in South Carolina's Lowcountry – was its setting on South Carolina’s sea islands.

In this week’s episode of Let’s Talk, News 2 anchor and podcast host Carolyn Murray talks to Ron and Natalie Daise, co-creators and stars of the show based on Gullah-Geechee people and culture.

Ron was born and raised on St. Helena Island. He met his wife, Natalie, when she moved to the Lowcountry from New York and created the sing-along series together.

They turned everyday activities into teachable moments through storytelling, songs, and gameplay.

“The network did not know that it would become as popular as it did,” said Ron. “I think it was ‘okay, we’ve done this now we can move on,’ but then it went – at that time – four years in production, and until that time Nick Jr. shows had gone a total of three.”

“In terms of success, I remember one day the executive director of Nickelodeon said something like ‘do you know how many million people watch this every day,’” Natalie recalled.

But how did it all come together? Natalie said she was working for the Town of Hilton Head Island and left her job so they could both hit the road full-time as storytellers and performers.

Ron Daise, along with Binyan Binyan Pollywog, performs a ’60s dance along with youngsters of Gullah Gullah Island, May 1, 1996, on the beach at St. Helena Island, SC. Gullah Gullah Island is the first pre-school show centered around a black family. Child cast members are, left to right, Venessa Baden, Sona Daise and Shaina Freeman. (AP Photo/Lou Krasky)

“I had been doing community performances, doing readings and dramatizations, said Ron. “And Natalie said, around that time, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could be like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis?”

They would perform skits and presentations for schools and community organizations. “We grew and developed over time, but there was always a sense, to me at least, that this is what we’re doing that is going to lead to something. I’m not sure what it’s going to lead to, but it’s going to lead to something,” said Ron.

Natalie said Gullah, Gullah Island came about by grace. “We had been traveling, doing performances. At that time, we had a baby – she was a wonderful road baby – and then she was pregnant again and we began to talk, it’s one thing to have one baby on the road.”

While Natalie was pregnant, they began to look for something else. “We went to some folks we respected and said what do you think is next for us? They said ‘well, you’ve been playing around long enough it’s time for you to get a job with benefits and just try to be grownups now.’ We were like that doesn’t feel like what’s next…”

It was during a dinner with a friend, who was a novelist when they began discussing television for children and how there was no diversity. The friend stated, “well, you know Nickelodeon is going to diversify.” She and her partner had already pitched shows that were not picked up when they introduced Ron and Natalie to the network.

The then Nickelodeon CEO, said, “wow, I always wanted to do a show about an island, maybe I can do a show about you,” said Natalie. “The production company, the network, was very open to being respectful and to incorporating the culture into the show – not just letting it be the backdrop, but sort of saturating it. Things just came in naturally.”

Cast members work a scene for Gullah Gullah Island, during filming of the show for the Nickelodeon TV cable network May 1, 1996, on St. Helena Island, S.C. Gullah Gullah Island is the first pre-school show centered around a black family. (AP Photo/Lou Krasky)

You can listen to more about their journey in creating the special show and the Gullah-Geechee culture by listening to the podcast in the player below.

NOTE: This episode features music from Marlena Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers.

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