ROCKPORT, Maine — The huge afro disappeared years ago, but the heart, lungs, stomach and liver look the same.
The organs are painted on the tight, colorful body suit worn by the superhero of children’s health, Slim Goodbody, a regular on “Captain Kangaroo” and — at 54 — still going strong.
Inside the suit is John Burstein, who’s creating educational materials and writing books in addition to entertaining kids with stories, songs, dances and skits promoting sound nutrition, regular exercise and healthy living.
“I’m definitely into my second generation,” he said, adding that teachers and parents often recall him by asking, “‘Are you really the same guy I was raised with?”’
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Burstein appeared on CBS’ “Captain Kangaroo” from 1976 to 1980. Today, when he steps on stage as Slim Goodbody, his goal is the same: to prod children to make wise decisions.
“I use the example of the carrot and the candy bar. Everybody knows the carrot is healthier. It’s not that we lack knowledge. The question in health education is, ’How do you motivate people to make better choices?”’ he said.
Burstein’s approach is to detail the workings of the body, using props like a 20-foot small intestine made from painted cloth, to explain how the various systems function.
“When they see how incredible this is, they start to feel good about themselves and they want to take care of their health,” he said.
The 5-foot-11 Burstein, who keeps fit and limber through swimming, other aerobic exercise and weight training, is still the same 155 pounds he was 30 years ago.
At Rockport Elementary School, Burstein slipped behind a closed door and emerged in his Slim Goodbody outfit before leading a fourth-grade class through a series of exercises, including push-ups, sit-ups and leg lifts, and offering pupils a boost to their self-esteem.
“Give yourself a hug. Say, ’I love my body. I’m the best me in the world,”’ he told the class.
On the national stage, Burstein has been taking this year’s “Bodyology” show to 40 cities, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Bakersfield, Calif., presenting hourlong musical tours of how the body works and how to stay healthy.
On “Captain Kangaroo,” Burstein appeared in twice-weekly episodes called “The Adventures of Slim Goodbody in Nutri-City.” With help from Inspector Thiamin, Agent B-12 and Chief Hale and Hearty, he would confront such villains as the power mad Sarah Bellum and her evil assistant Lobe, to prevent them from controlling children’s minds.
He also appeared on Nickelodeon and had a 15-year stint as the star of PBS’ “The Inside Story,” a 12-part instructional series about the workings of the body that was shown in classrooms around the country.
“He’s kept a very consistent message on healthy living and lifestyle and providing a good role model as well. And he’s making it fun — and I think that’s the important thing,” said Becky Smith, executive director of the American Association for Health Education in Reston, Va.
The association is collaborating with Burstein on a series of “Deskercise” videos for elementary school teachers to show in classrooms where pupils can do brief physical exercises without special equipment.
Burstein grew up on New York’s Long Island, studied drama in college and aspired to a career in acting. He took on his persona as a health educator by pure happenstance.
In the summer of 1973 he took a job playing music for disadvantaged children aboard a boat in New York called The Floating Hospital, never imagining it might become the springboard for a career.
“I thought of it as a stepping stone, something I would do for a year or two,” said Burstein, who had been performing in restaurants on Long Island, singing original material and songs by the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Children aboard the boat were so delighted by the songs Burstein wrote about health that he decided to create a character to lend impact to the message. Slim Goodbody was born.
Slim Goodbody has tweaked his appearance and his routine to keep in tune with the times. He swapped his afro for a mullet, which he in turn abandoned in favor of a more conventional hair style. And he has added rap to his repertoire.
He has worked his way through about a dozen of his custom-designed body suits, which cost about $4,000 each. There have been a few changes along the way, both in background color and with added detail, such as a diaphragm and bronchial tubes.
One of Burstein’s biggest lifestyle changes came seven years ago when he and his wife Chrissy moved from their Greenwich Village apartment to a lakeside home in Lincolnville, in Maine’s midcoast region where they regularly vacationed. The development of the Internet made it possible for him to leave New York without sacrificing his career.
The couple have two sons: Devin, 27, a lawyer in New York, and Luke, 6, who is thinking about going on tour with his dad during breaks from school.
Burstein can envision a duo of “Slim Goodbody and Kid Fit,” saying “It would drive kids wild. They’d absolutely love it.”
His success with his alter ego forced Burstein to set aside his dream of becoming a Shakespearean actor, but he has no regrets. And he has no plans to retire.
“I’m in good shape. I love the work I do,” Burstein said. “As long as I keep evolving, keep changing and growing, I won’t stop.”
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