Maine’s own Captain Kangaroo: children’s entertainer Sheriff Stephen J

‘The Children’s Corner’ is filmed in Northport, with more than 4 million viewers
Mon, 08/18/2014 - 3:00pm

    NORTHPORT — Inside Stephen J. Hemenway’s converted garage in Northport, it feels like one has entered a time warp back to the 1800s. It’s an old western parlor room complete with antique couches, campfire utensils, a 1898 Edison and an old-fashioned piano. What gives it away that this is, in actuality, the studio set for his children’s program, The Children’s Corner, is the ceiling mounted professional lights, video cameras and a green screen.

    The Midcoast has had a children’s educational performer in our midst once before, Slim Goodbody, John Burstein’s character. Burstein was a pioneer on health and body education. Sheriff Stephen J., as he goes by, is a retired deputy sheriff from Los Angeles County who moved to Maine with his wife in 2011. Comparatively, he  has a similar educational programming mission, to create a family-friendly show using humor, music and odd characters.

    The difference is, he has an underground following, mostly on public access TV, in more than 4 million households across the United States and on 11 Maine channels. The other difference is that he is a one-man show, independently financed and produced, operating on a non-budget while he builds his platform. He’s a self-taught musician/producer, a children’s author and the producer/star of his own 26-minute TV series based on the settings and characters of three of his nine books.

    “When I was a kid, I either wanted to be a comedian or a deputy sheriff. The deputy sheriff career won out because it was more achievable than breaking into show business,” he said.

    Much of Hemenway’s back-story involves being in the right place at the right time with one creative project mushrooming into another. He had been writing and producing music since he was a teenager. In the 1990s, technology got cheap enough for him to buy a high-definition camera. At first, he just did his own music videos, set to his songs. While still in California in the early 1990s, he decided to run for office in Chino Hills. In an unusual way to build his political platform and drum up some notoriety, he decided to write a children’s Christmas song about Chino Hills, using many members of the community to collaborate on the song.

    Although he didn’t win the election, the song was a hit. One thing led to another and he soon found himself writing short stories for children, which a local magazine there printed. The more he wrote, the more they wanted, titling his story series, The Children’s Corner. The stories led to his first self-published children’s book titled Slouch In The Couch, a homage to Dr. Suess rhyming text centered around a fantasy-filled world that encourages kids to do their homework. Hemenway went on to publish three more of his books and created a studio in California with three friends to play his book’s gang of characters — Black Bart, One-eyed James, Gibbering Bob and Gutless George — with — playing One-eyed James.

    When he moved to Maine, he continued to produce shows, with his Sheriff Stephen J. character serving as The Children’s Corner’s host. The TV series picks up where the books left off. The imaginary world that Stephen J. created is located within a magical couch with all kinds of towns like The Children’s Corner, including Slouchville and Fantasy Forest. The Slouches are the mischievous characters who eat the schoolbooks of children and encourage laziness and bad behavior. His mission as Sheriff Stephen J. is to climb up out of the World of the Magical Couch (on a rope ladder) and capture the Slouches in the real world before they have a chance to influence the children.

    Meanwhile, while he’s up there, he might as well do some educational field trips around Maine and other places of interest. So, he takes his camera and goes on location to film segments of the show around local places that kids would find interesting, like the Hope Elephants, the beach to learn how to dig for clams, the forest to learn how to do tap a maple tree and the farm to learn how to do organic farming.

    Meanwhile, his old gang still plays cameos. “I left a camera in California and go back twice a year,” he said. “And when I do, we film some more episodes together.”

    Within the last two years, Hemenway has, without advertisers or any other sponsors, taken it upon himself to shoot 16 episodes per season. He’s already completed one season and is currently half way through the other.

    “The show is still in its infancy,” he said. “Like anything else when you first start doing anything, you’ve got to get into your niche and now I’m in it. I want this TV show to be as close to anything you’d find on national TV. I’m hoping a company like the Maine Public Broadcast Network will see the potential down the road.”

    Within the show, he performs in the tradition of Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers, introducing educational concepts, new vocabulary words, recipes, music, humor and models good behavior. With him, as always, is his sidekick, Mr. Dill, a 7-inch pickle in a cowboy hat.

    Saturday Night Live had Mr. Bill,” he said, “I’ve got Mr. Dill.” When he laughs at that, it’s infectious cackle; it’s easy to see how much a kid at heart Hemenway is himself.

    “People who have actually seen the show, their feedback is all positive,” he said.

    Despite how many channels his show is on in Maine, in the Midcoast, the only local channel that currently runs The Children’s Corner is Maine TV 85 (Rockland, Rockport, Camden and Augusta); however, this channel only runs on cable packages. Those with basic cable in the Midcoast won’t be able to find it. Hemenway said he is working on trying to get Channel 7 to still run it. That said, people can find previous episodes on his YouTube channel, under the moniker, Slouchman. The one episode he recommends is: Love’s Day, which features himself as four characters and highlights a trip to Wilbur’s of Maine candy shop in Freeport.

     Kay Stephens can be reached at