The Real Culture That Inspired Nickelodeon’s Hit Series

The Real Culture That Inspired Nickelodeon’s Hit Series

After several years on the road, the Daise family yearned for a change. Husband-and-wife Ron and Natalie Daise had adapted their multimedia show Sea Island Montage into a traveling production in 1987, and by 1993, the couple had welcomed one child and were expecting their second. The Daises enjoyed sharing stories from Gullah culture with a wide audience, but the demanding lifestyle was starting to take its toll.

“I said, ‘Wow, man, I don’t know if I want to live out of the car doing this,” Natalie recalls to Mental Floss. “There’s something else. I don’t know what the else is, but there’s something else.”

The couple had been approached by people in the entertainment industry in the past, but these collaborations never gained traction. So when an executive producer from Nickelodeon invited them to dinner, they didn’t get their hopes up. “We had no expectation anything would come from that,” Natalie admits.

Even when a television crew flew to South Carolina to shoot test footage of the family in their home in the Sea Islands, nothing was guaranteed. It wasn’t until Gullah Gullah Island premiered on Nick Jr. in 1994 that the Daises’ new lives as television stars became undeniable.

Gullah Gullah Island was educational like other preschool shows airing at the time, but its lessons went beyond counting and learning the alphabet. Similar to Sea Island Montage, the series primarily sought to teach audiences about the real culture of the Gullah people, a group of Black Americans descended from enslaved Africans brought to the Sea Islands of South Carolina centuries ago. It was unlike any series Nickelodeon—or any other American network—had ever produced.

The concept was a hit with kids and adults: The series ran for 70 episodes and received numerous awards and nominations. For many children watching Nick Jr. in the 1990s, the show was their introduction to a vibrant culture. For Ron and Natalie Daise, it was their life.

Saint Helena Island, South Carolina

Saint Helena Island, South Carolina / Paul Conklin, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Throughout his career as a writer and performer, Ron Daise has been drawn to stories of his heritage. “I had an interest in my culture, and in my childhood it was not spoken of as Gullah, but more of as Sea Island culture,” Ron tells Mental Floss.

Gullah is a term used to describe an African American people, culture, and language that has existed in the U.S. for centuries. Starting in the 1500s, white enslavers brought West and Central Africans to the coasts of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. There they were forced to work on rice, cotton, and indigo plantations on the coastal plains or nearby islands.

The Sea Islands are a chain of more than 100 tidal and barrier islands running from South Carolina to northern Florida. Because it was difficult for enslavers to travel between the mainland and their island plantations, most of the Africans enslaved there worked and lived in relative isolation from whites. This wasn’t the case in other regions, where enslaved Africans were often forbidden from practicing their individual religions and speaking their native languages. On the island plantations, however, cultures carried across the Atlantic were able to survive—and even evolve.

Over decades, the Sea Island people developed a unique culture that combined elements from different parts of Africa. Today, this group is generally called Gullah when referring to African Americans native to the South Carolina Sea Islands, and Geechee in reference to those hailing from Georgia. Because the groups share many cultural similarities—including a distinct Creole language, rice-based cuisine, and strong traditions of music, crafts, and storytelling—the words are often used together (i.e. Gullah Geechee).

After graduating from college, Ron became a reporter at the Beaufort Gazette near Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, where he was raised. Some of the first features he wrote profiled the community members he knew, or knew of, growing up. When he eventually left the newspaper, the songs, oral histories, and traditions of his home island became the basis for his first book, Reminisces of Sea Island Heritage.

Natalie Daise wasn’t born into the Gullah Geechee community, but she fell in love with it after meeting her future husband. Originally from Upstate New York, she began dating Ron while he was writing his book about the Sea Islands. “I was fascinated by it,” she says. “I was fascinated with how he, being a member of the Gullah Geechee community, lived in a place where he could say ‘my ancestors were here for many, many years.’ Most of the Black folk I knew in Upstate New York were sort of southern expatriates—they moved North with roots in the South. So I couldn’t walk over land that I could say my grandmother or my grandfather or my great-grandmother or great-grandparents had walked.”

Natalie was quick to embrace Ron’s heritage. Following their marriage and the publication of Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage: Legacy of Freedmen on St. Helena Island, they developed a two-person stage act based on oral histories from the book. In the 1980s, they brought their multimedia show on the road, spreading the unique culture across the county through songs and stories. Occasionally, people would approach them with ideas for expanding their reach, like turning it into an off-Broadway production. “Then we would never hear from these individuals again,” Ron says. Prior to meeting a Nickelodeon producer through a friend, television hadn’t even crossed their minds.

Maria Perez-Brown saw that Ron and Natalie Daise were perfect for children’s media—even if they didn’t yet see it themselves. The executive producer for Nickelodeon was in the Sea Islands working on a film adaptation of a book by local author Gloria Naylor, who happened to be close friends with the Daises, and introduced them. “[Perez-Brown] was scouting sites for this movie, and Natalie and I were invited to dinner on the last evening of her weekend visit,” Ron says. “She said she and her business partner had been developing a program idea about an island. She said in that meeting, ‘Perhaps it can be about some enchanted Gullah community.’”

The prospect of bringing their work to a television audience was exciting, but the couple remained skeptical. “It was nothing we had thought about doing,” Ron says. “She said when she got back to New York she’d speak to her business partner, Kathleen Minton, and that they would get in touch with us. And we said, ‘Sure.’ We thought, ‘Right!’”

What the Daises didn’t know was that Nickelodeon was preparing to make a big bet on its preschool programming. The channel had been the top name in general children’s television for years, outperforming competitors like Cartoon Network and PBS. But while its programming for older kids thrived, its content for younger viewers went largely neglected. Nick Jr. ran every day between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., the time when most of Nick’s core audience was in school.

After debuting its first original show for Nick Jr., Eureka’s Castle, in 1989, the network relied on imported shows to fill the programming block. It wasn’t until March 1994 that the network announced a $30 million investment in original shows for Nick Jr. That amount of money emboldened the company to take risks on new talent and innovative ideas. A few months after their dinner, Perez-Brown got in touch with the Daises about moving forward with a Nick Jr. series based on their stage show.

Natalie was nearly nine months pregnant at that point, so instead of flying the Daises to New York, Nickelodeon’s creative team came to them. Perez-Brown, Minton, producer Kit Laybourne, and writer Fracaswell Hyman followed them around for several days, seeing how the family’s everyday life might translate into a half-hour children’s show.

“Because I was home during the week, I would want to play with our daughter Sarah and push her on the swing. But there were not many fathers home in the community during the day, so other children would come by as well and want me to me play with them,” Ron says. “Natalie’s always been interested in crafting and sewing, and when they came inside, that’s what she would be doing. If she could involve the children as she involved Sarah in different projects, she would. Those are the things the creative team saw and they included them in the story.”

The Nick executives back in New York loved the videos shot in the Sea Islands. They green-lit Gullah Gullah Island, with Ron and Natalie serving as the show’s leads and cultural advisors. “By the time my son was 5 months old, we shot a pilot, and by November of [1994] we were on air,” Natalie says.

The makers of Gullah Gullah Island wanted to preserve the feeling captured in that early footage. Many of the story elements were borrowed from the Daises’ real lives. Ron’s character, for example, was a newspaper reporter—a nod to his background as a journalist for the Beaufort Gazette. And while their older children on the show were played by actors Vanessa Baden and James Edward Coleman II, their baby son Simeon appeared as himself. Other details were based on the broader Gullah culture. “You’ll see that we had titles: Mr. Ron and Ms. Natalie. And they were saying, ‘Oh, we can just call you by your names.’ Not in our community you don’t. Out of respect you put a handle on it,” Natalie says. “And the concept of extended family, where there was a niece living with the family, and the grandparents would show up, that’s very true to culture.”

Parts of Gullah Gullah Island were filmed on location in Beaufort, South Carolina, and the crew found inspiration all around them. “We introduced the production crew to members of the Saint Helena Island community, Gullah Geechee people, our way of speech, and the different kinds of crafts and different kinds of businesses,” Ron says. “On each episode of Gullah Gullah Island, we would go out into the Gullah Gullah Island community, which was more or less in or around Saint Helena Island, South Carolina. So it was an exposure to a real culture and a real people, and this was new. It was quite novel.”

“The production team were so willing and open to work with us in our own community,” Natalie says. Some community members introduced to the crew even became characters on the show, “Like Mr. Bradley, who lived next door to my husband and really was a shrimper—and Ranger Mike, who really was the park ranger.”

Even some of the more fantastical parts of the show reflected real life. “Now the reality is that I don’t burst into song several times a day—actually that’s not true, I do,” Natalie says. But being a program for preschoolers, Gullah Gullah Island took some liberties for the sake of entertainment and clarity. In the world of the show, their songs were always well-rehearsed, and any problems they encountered were resolved in 20 minutes or less. That wasn’t how life worked off-camera. The family’s giant talking frog was also invented for the series. (Though his name, Binyah Binyah, does come from the real Gullah world for local, as in “he’s been here a long time.”)

Representing the Gullah people respectfully and creating engaging content for young viewers was a careful balancing act. “It was always designed to be a preschool show, and it was to impact young viewers in a way that made learning enjoyable to them,” Ron says. “But we tried to make sure that what we showed them was authentic, and a presentation of the culture, because it was a real culture.” By adding musical numbers, a simple story structure, and a colorful puppet, the team was able to present the real stories at the heart of Gullah Gullah Island in a way that connected to children.

Ron and Natalie Daise laughing outdoors

Ron and Natalie Daise / Freda Funnye courtesy of Natalie Daise

Ron and Natalie saw the impact of Gullah Gullah Island shortly after it premiered. Kids from all backgrounds came up to them in public, excited to meet Mr. Ron and Ms. Natalie. Natalie recalls one encounter that illustrated what her performance meant to young audiences: “I remember talking to a little white girl and her mother, and the mother says, ‘I keep trying to explain, your hair is pretty, but she can’t have hair like yours. Her hair is pretty as it is.’ And for me, as a Black girl who grew up kind of believing that my hair wasn’t pretty, and you wanted hair like little white girls had, and to have this girl say, ‘Your hair is so pretty, I wish I could have it like yours,’ and to think that meant that lots of little girls who grew up with hair like me were seeing it as beautiful—that was really cool.”

Whether they were from the Gullah community or not, many Black children watching Nick Jr. in the 1990s saw themselves in Gullah Gullah Island. Ron says he still receives messages from fans telling him what that representation meant to them. “They want to inform us that it was so important to them to see images of people who looked like them, or people in their family, or those who got around in their community.”

The show aired its final episode in 1998, but the Daises’ creative pursuits didn’t stop there. Ron continues to write books and make music, and Natalie makes visual art and gives talks on community and creativity. Their Gullah background is still a major theme of their work today, but the way the culture is perceived—both within the community and outside of it—has changed a lot since they met decades ago. That’s partly due to the impact of Gullah Gullah Island.

“I don’t know how much of an impact we had on the embrace of Gullah culture, but I know when we first started, a lot of people were still embarrassed to say that they were [Gullah], or wouldn’t claim that they were,” Natalie says. “And I see so many people who are so proud and moving forward in terms of the preservation, the evolution of Gullah Geechee culture. And I do think we had something to do with that. We took something that a lot of people didn’t know about, and put it on this huge, huge stage.”

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