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HomeEntertainmentJanice Burgess, Nickelodeon Executive and ‘Backyardigans’ Creator, Dies at 72

Janice Burgess, Nickelodeon Executive and ‘Backyardigans’ Creator, Dies at 72

Janice Burgess, a longtime Nickelodeon television executive who sought to promote children’s curiosity and sense of play for decades, overseeing popular shows like “Blue’s Clues” and “Little Bill” and creating her own musical children’s show, “The Backyardigans,” died on Saturday in hospice care in Manhattan. She was 72.

Her death was confirmed by Brown Johnson, a longtime friend and the creator of Nick Jr., who said the cause was breast cancer.

In “The Backyardigans,” five cartoon animals — Tyrone, Tasha, Pablo, Austin and Uniqua — imagine their backyard as a place of adventure, traversing deserts, oceans, jungles, rivers and outer space while dancing and singing to music.

With the series, Ms. Burgess hoped to help children use their imaginations to have fun. In 2004, Ms. Burgess said in an interview with The New York Times that the idea for the show stemmed from memories of playing in her own childhood backyard in Pittsburgh.

“I really remember it as a wonderful, happy, safe place,” she said. “You could have these great adventures just romping around. From there, you could go anywhere or do anything.”

The series became a favorite of American preschoolers after it premiered on Nickelodeon in 2004. It was adapted into a live show, “The Backyardigans Live! Tale of the Mighty Knights,” in 2008.

In 2021, several “Backyardigans” songs, including “Into the Thick of It!” and “Castaways,” found a large and nostalgic audience on TikTok, years after their original release in 2005.

“Janice really taught me about representation in kids’ media and how important it was for kids to not only see themselves, but hear themselves,” Ms. Johnson said.

Ms. Burgess made sure to cast children of color, and the roles were recast every few years as their voices changed, Ms. Johnson said. Ms. Burgess wanted their voices to sound natural and “not Broadway,” she said. Ms. Burgess, a music lover, included 80 distinct musical genres in “The Backyardigans,” Ms. Johnson added.

“It was like writing a musical every week,” she said.

The music was composed by Evan Lurie, who said in an interview that Ms. Burgess’s “ability to cut to the meat of what needed to be done was just astonishing.”

Janice Burgess was born on March 1, 1952, to John Wesley Burgess and Alma Naomi (Thomas) Burgess. She grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and attended the Ellis School, a girls’ college preparatory school. She graduated from Brandeis University in 1974, according to the university’s website.

She worked at WQED, the public television station in Pittsburgh, and Sesame Workshop before joining Nick Jr. in 1995. Working at Nick Jr. taught her everything she needed to know about creating a television show for young children, she said at a National Press Club luncheon in 2006.

At Nick Jr., she oversaw the production of “Blue’s Clues” and “Little Bill,” which went on to win Peabody and Emmy Awards. She won a 2008 Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding special class animated program for her work on “The Backyardigans.” In a statement, Nickelodeon called Ms. Burgess “one of the great architects of Nick Jr.”

Ms. Burgess is survived by her mother and a brother, Jack Burgess.

Ms. Burgess told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2006 that she drew on action movies like “Die Hard” and the “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” series to create “The Backyardigans,” toning down the thrilling high-stakes narratives to a level that was appropriate for preschoolers.

“I’m really quite a refined person, but there’s nothing I like more than cops and robbers and gunfights and crazy driving and fast and furiousness,” she said. “When you think in terms of little kids, you don’t want to scare them, and I’m not in favor of showing any kind of violence or aggression, but you can certainly have a big adventure even if you’re 3.”

Ms. Burgess said in her interview with The Times that the music that she danced to as a child also informed the creation of her show, which took children on musical adventures in addition to imaginary geographical ones. The five animal friends sang and danced to jazz, funk, bossa nova, Irish jig, township jive, tarantella and psychedelic soul.

“I loved musicals, and my mother would put a record on and use that to get me and my brother to move the sweeper around,” she said. “You can leap about and pretend to be Fred Astaire or Michael Jackson or whoever your musical idol of the moment is.”

The dances on “The Backyardigans” were adapted from performances by five Alvin Ailey dancers, Ms. Johnson said. The dancers were videotaped and shown to the animators, who used their movements as references for the show’s creatures.

Ms. Burgess hoped those characters would inspire children’s sense of adventure.

“I hope they’ll feel they can create their own adventures by seeing what’s on the screen and playing with it the way they want to,” she told The Times. “If they want to put pirate hats on and go to outer space, that’s OK.”

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