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ANTIC The Atari 8-bit Podcast


hosts: Randy Kindig, Kevin Savetz, Brad Arnold
email: antic@ataripodcast.com
twitter: @AtariPodcast
Facebook: facebook.com/groups/ataripodcast

 

Apr 7, 2018

This is ANTIC, the Atari 8-bit podcast. I’m Kevin Savetz.
 
I love old computers. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you knew that already. I also love musical theater. So when I found out about Bits & Bytes, a 1983 musical about computers — well, that’s right in my wheelhouse. 
 
Bits & Bytes was an educational touring production, created by South Coast Repertory Theater, a professional theatre company located in Costa Mesa, California. It was a 45-minute musical show, aimed at school kids, that was performed at elementary schools across Southern California from January through June of 1983. More than 60,000 children saw the show.
 
The story is about Happy, a naive girl who goes into a computer store for the first time, wondering if a computer can “solve all her problems and make her truly happy.” Morton B. Norton, a pushy, overzealous computer salesman, tries to sell her a computer, with the help of wacky sidekicks, Bits and Bytes. Through speech and song, the team teaches Happy about computers — what they can and can’t do. A computer could help her be more organized, get her homework done, and play games. But Happy learns that a computer cannot really think, and is not a substitute for real, human friends. 
 
***
 
The goal of the play was to “show the realistic capabilities of computers as distinguished from commercial hypes and science fiction fantasy.” Another goal was to emphasize the “talents unique to human beings — what makes us different from computers.” 
 
South Coast Repertory Theater’s educational touring productions took short original plays into area primary schools. The topic of computers was chosen for the 1983 production because surveyed teachers, parents, and principals overwhelmingly chose “computer literacy” as a topic they wanted to see covered. (Previous educational touring shows included Tomato Surprise, about nutrition; The Fitness Game, about physical fitness; and The Energy Show, about conserving energy.)
 
The play was written by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Jerry Patch, with music by Diane King. It was directed by John-David Keller, with set design by Dwight Richard Odle. The assistant director/choreographer was Diane dePriest.
 
An ensemble of five played all the roles, with one doubling as stage manager.  The cast was Robert Crow, Sam Hamann, James Le Gros, Laura Leyva, and Deborah Nisimura. 
 
Bits & Bytes won the 1983 Pioneer Drama Service award for best new play. It ran for 246 performances, breaking the booking record for South Coast Repertory.
 
The January 29, 1983 issue of the Los Angeles Times said:
“...in some respects the current show is the most impressive so far. Now that computer technology has entered the home and workplace—as well as the shopping mall—it’s noteworthy that a play can tell us how much more computers can do than launch missiles and
gobble up space villains. … Diane King composed such a fine score—which includes evocations of different eras in pop music—that it almost has commercial possibilities of its own.
 
“Laura Leyva plays Happy, the girl who, for a very long time, is led to believe—along with the rest of us—that the computer will solve all our problems. That’s a dangerous and depressingly facile notion whose emphasis, early on, far outweighs the authors’ concluding moral that ‘computers can only deal with facts, not feelings.’
 
“But Bits & Bytes humorously shows its audience of kids how advanced and widespread the computer revolution has become and that they stand well ahead of their parents at its ramparts.”
 
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Texas Instruments donated a computer to the production: a TI 99/4A with monitor, peripheral expansion box, speech synthesizer, disk drives, and software. The computer was used as part of the set.
 
I interviewed three people who helped create Bits & Bytes: first, Michael Bigelow Dixon, who is co-author of the play. Next we’ll hear from Diane King, the composer. Finally we’ll hear from Laura Leyva, the actress who played the roll of Happy.
 
The interview with Michael Bigelow Dixon took place on March 9, 2018, with Diane King on March 6, and with Laura Leyva on March 16.
 
Look at the show notes, where you’ll find several photographs of the Bits & Bytes cast, reviews of the play, and articles about it. If you’d like to read the play or the score, that’s trickier. They are not online due to copyright. I borrowed copies via interlibrary loan.
 
If you saw this play, I would love to hear your memories of it. You can always email me at antic@ataripodcast.com.
 
Special thanks to Tania Thompson at South Coast Repertory for providing background information about this production, to Laura Leyva for providing photographs, to Michael Bigelow Dixon for providing articles from his archive, and to Diane King for digitizing her recordings from tape and allowing me to use them for this episode.
 
Photos from Bits & Bytes
 
Bits & Bytes article in Today Magazine, July 1983
 
Bits & Bytes in Family Computing Magazine, June 1984
 
Bits & Bytes in InfoWorld, Feb 28 1983
 
The Annotated Bits & Bytes - Orange County Magazine 1983-06
 
Education Through Entertainment - The Computing Teacher, 1983-10
 
Bits & Bytes study guide
 
South Coast Repertory Theater