Friday, April 16, 2010
Carlisle chicken visits Martha Stewart, and “it’s a good thing”
About a year ago, a publicist from Scholastic Books sent a copy of Terry Golson’s children’s book, Tillie Lays an Egg, to crafts and cooking maven Martha Stewart’s production company. There it lay, no pun intended, until the Stewart people could figure out what to do with it, and with its author. Would they feature the book? Would they ask Golson, also the author of several cookbooks, to cook? Would she be displaying some of her chicken-themed collectibles? How would any or all of this fit in with a segment of The Martha Stewart Show?
As it happened, the Stewart company planned a “backyard chicken” show for early this year, and a lot of people wanted to be on it. What clinched the deal for Golson was that she was the only one among them with not only a book and a little television experience, but also the most important element: a trained chicken. After all, outside of Hollywood, where they train everything from cats to tarantulas, who trains chickens?
Golson, of Stearns Street, has trained Coco, a Bantam White Leghorn, to “pose” and to socialize with human beings, allowing them to pet and handle her. Most chickens like to be around their own flock, but Coco travels well in her crate and is happy being the only fowl in a group of other living things. “Bantams,” says Golson, “are tiny: they are the Chihuahuas of the chicken world, and that’s important because I take her to Story Times at schools and libraries so that children can meet ‘Tillie,’ [the title character of her book]. There are lots of really little kids, and she’s not big enough to scare them. She lets them pat her and talk to her.” Coco is, according to Golson, “the actress who plays Tillie.” She has an understudy in the Golson chicken coop who looks very like her, but “Coco is clearly the best actress of the two.”
To train Coco, Golson has used a time-honored method called “clicker” training. She manipulates the chicken with a “target stick” similar to a telescoping pointer. When the chicken has done what is asked of her, she hears a “click” from a clicker attached to the pointer, indicating to her that she has succeeded and will then receive a treat (Coco prefers Cheerios). After rewarding the correct behavior until it becomes consistent, the animal will “offer the behavior, thinking she has trained me,” says Golson. “‘Aren’t I a clever chicken?’ she thinks.”
The New York adventure begins
Golson had to warn The Martha Stewart Show that Coco has learned certain behaviors, but could be distracted by the unfamiliarity of the show’s environment. The adventure was an adjustment for Golson as well. Unlike the more local television programs with which she has had some experience, the Stewart show has several producers, and seemingly hundreds of people involved with every aspect of it. “They start working on the script one to two weeks ahead of taping,” Golson says. “I got questions about a week before, to prepare.”
The Golsons and Coco traveled to New York and checked in at a “chic boutique hotel where everyone on the staff was tall, skinny and glamorous,” arranged for them by Scholastic Books because it is pet-friendly. Even so, it took a little convincing to get Coco past the management, as chickens are not the sort of pets the hotel is used to accommodating. However, when Golson and her husband Steve revealed that Coco was to be featured on The Martha Stewart Show, her celebrity cleared the way. They were picked up by Golson’s Scholastic Books publicist in an SUV, to accommodate Coco, and driven to the studio.
There, Golson was ushered onto the set, which was decorated with a chicken theme and had a flock of live chickens and a small coop in a fenced paddock behind the conversation area. She rehearsed “with one of several producers for my two-and-a-half-minute segment. I had to be sure to get my answers out in 20 seconds, and to talk the way I write, not the way I talk. Everyone on the set was really nice. The staff and crew were really delightful, and the atmosphere was great, not tense at all.”
The Golsons had to stay in an office off set while the rest of the show was filming. Golson says she had brought a few of her chicken collectibles, including an antique egg rack, and one of the props people whisked it onto the set for the cooking segment. “It was there for the whole show,” she says, “so it got a lot more film time than I did!”
Hair and makeup were done at the studio by professionals. “I learned some new makeup tricks,” Golson says. “The makeup lady was nice and chatty, and knew how to use makeup in ways I’ve never used it.” When she and Coco were on set being filmed before the live audience, Steve Golson was allowed in the studio, but only off set.
“It was all live,” Golson says. “The segment really was just two-and-a-half minutes. I had been warned that Martha likes to interrupt and go off script. She’s supposed to be reading from a teleprompter, but she went off script immediately. The producers had used footage of the ‘HenCam’ [a feature of Golson’s website, www.terrygolson.com] as our background, and Martha seemed charmed with the photos there and from the book. She really did talk about both the book and the HenCam.”
“I don’t remember a word I said, and of course I really can’t tell you that I know Martha Stewart now. I think she is an extraordinary businesswoman, though, and is extensively knowledgeable. For example, she commented on the necklace I was wearing on the show. It had been crafted with tiny vintage chickens, and she knew, without being told, that the chickens had started life as Cracker Jack prizes.”
Golson declares that Coco was “really a star. She was so good. She really wanted to look at all those loose chickens behind us, but she posed and let Martha handle her, and she was just great.”
A new Carlisle connection
The taping finished at 4:30 p.m. and the hotel manager was kind enough to babysit the new star while Steve and Terry went out for a bite to eat. Then they collected Coco and drove home in the rain, but the adventure wasn’t over.
“Steve had to figure out a cost-effective and affordable way to expand my website’s bandwidth to accommodate the extra traffic I would get after appearing on The Martha Stewart Show. Sure enough, I got a few thousand more hits right after the show aired [on April 2]. A lot of the traffic comes from librarians and teachers. A teacher in a community center school in rural Alaska, for example, in an Inuit hunting community, showed her kids the HenCam so they could see what a chicken looks like. They had never seen one because no one raises chickens there. I told them about the Carlisle School’s Iditarod project. What a great connection – a great way for kids to learn about each other.” As Martha Stewart herself would say, “it’s a good thing.”
You can watch the episode at www.marthastewart.com ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito