Camp Ana-wanna, we hold you in our hearts…
As August begins and the summer heat builds to its peak, I find myself reflecting on the summers of my youth. I never went to a REAL summer camp, but it’s something I always thought I might enjoy.
But, who am I kidding? I was a pretty lazy kid who enjoyed playing NHL Blades of Steel on Nintendo or surfing the pro wrestling “BBs” on Prodigy all night. I’ve also never liked to be away from home for too long. But the THOUGHT of summer camp seemed incredible to me as a kid. Sports, activities, the outdoors, pine trees and lakes, new friends, girls, you name it. I always thought it would have been legendary.
I played ice hockey from kindergarten through college, and the only summer camp I ever went to was an annual week-long training camp in Boston. It was full of good memories and fun times, but, after an early morning on-ice session, mid-day calisthenics, an afternoon two-mile run, and an evening on-ice session, I was too exhausted at the end of the week to enjoy myself.
What did I do during my summers when my neighbor, the only kid my age around, went to day camp? Watch Nickelodeon, of course! Side note: does anyone else remember the Weinerville or Stick Stickley programming from the 90s? Anyway, back on topic, one of the few shows that could make me come in from playing outside was “Salute Your Shorts.”
My family would spend two weeks in August with our extended family renting cabins around a lake in Maine every year. When I was about 12, my Dad began letting me take our boat out by myself. Across the lake was a sleepaway camp tucked into the woods, and I would sail around in the late afternoons, imagining that as I motored past Camp Hawthorne, I’d find Ug, Budnick, Donkey Lips, and the gang.
Set at fictional Camp Anawanna, “Salute Your Shorts” was a very short-lived sitcom on Nickelodeon that ran for only 2 seasons in 1991 and 92. Based on the 1986 book “Salute Your Shorts: Life at Summer Camp” by Steve Slavkin, “Salute Your Shorts” was focused on teen campers, their bumbling camp counselor, friendships, romances, and the hijinks of teenagers at summer camp.
Anawanna was a made-up word that was designed to sound like “I don’t want to,” assuming that it’s something kids say a lot when listening to the counselors at camp. The “Salute Your Shorts” title was derived from a prank that real-life campers would play on each other where they would steal a fellow camper’s boxer shorts and hang them on the flagpole. Other children would then salute them as part of the prank, embarrassing the camper whose shorts were stolen.
The show was filmed at famed Franklin Canyon Park, located between Beverly Hills and San Fernando Valley, and the Griffith Boys Park in Los Angeles. You may recognize Franklin Canyon Park as the “old fishing hole” in the opening credits of “The Andy Griffith Show” or the mysterious lagoon in “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Griffith Boys Park was also the location of the original “Bat Cave” in the 1960’s Adam West version of “Batman”; although the Batcave does not appear on Salute Your Shorts.
Most episodes occurred inside or around the camper’s cabins. Cabins were separated by gender, and inside the Boy’s Cabin was troublemaker Bobby Budnick (Danny Cooksey), brainiac Sponge (Tim Eyster,) friendly Michael Stein, smug Ronnie Pinsky, and the loveable Eddie “Donkeylips” Gelfand (Michael Bower.) Over in the girl’s bunkhouse was hippie Z.Z. Ziff (Megan Berwick,) athletic Telly Radford (Venus Demilo,) and the popular girl Dina Alexander (Heidi Lucas.)
At one point, the children had to be recast due to the length of time from the pilot episode to season one production. All but Donkeylips were recast due to the physical changes and growth of the child actors over the year between filming.
Camp Counselor Kevin “Ug” Lee (get it… Ug Lee) was played by Kirk Baily. He was strict, bossy, and demanding, but truly loved his campers. He was also a bumbling idiot that fell for the kid’s schemes every episode. Ug was bossed around by the disembodied voice of Dr. Kahn, the Camp Director. Dr. Kahn’s voice (Steve Slavkin, the author of the original book) was the voice heard on the camp loudspeaker throughout the episode.
Slavkin, also the Executive Producer, one day realized the show was about a minute too short. To make up this minute, they used stock film of a campground or field, and, drawing from his experience as a camper, made the off-the-cuff ramblings as the fictitious camp director and Dr. Kahn was born.
In a controversial move to many Salute Your Shorts fans, Michael was replaced at the end of the first season by the smooth-talking yuppie Ronnie Pinsky. Michael was the innocent, angel-faced kid who was new to camp just trying to fit in. Pinsky, on the other hand, was the smug, cool cucumber who interrupted the gang’s “mojo” and pecking order as he battled with Budnick for the attention of the girls at camp. The show wrote Michael out for the second season by saying he had the chickenpox and couldn’t attend that summer. In reality, Erik MacArthur had second thoughts about acting as a career and wanted to return home to Hawaii to start high school with his friends.
Unfortunately, the series was not renewed for a third season. In one interview, Slavkin suggests the network became a little TOO controlling with several notes, suggestions, and standards and practices. In one funny anecdote, he brings up a scene in which the children escape their cabins at night and hunt for candy. Nickelodeon wanted them to swap candy for fruit because childhood obesity was a sensitive topic. Producers initially scoffed at the idea of kids sneaking out late at night just for fruit but eventually caved and left it in the show because that’s what Nickelodeon wanted and that’s what they would get, no matter how silly it was.
The show was also shot at an extremely low budget (a reported $180,000 per episode!), and it became difficult to get all of the filming and post-production under budget. To save costs, Nickelodeon wanted to move the show from Los Angeles to Central Florida and its new sound stage at Nickelodeon Studios inside Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Being a cast of child actors, the majority were unwilling to relocate, thereby ending any discussions on further episodes.
So, where are they now? Like many child actors, some of the cast decided to leave Hollywood for good as they aged.
Megan Berwick (Z.Z.) left acting after the show was canceled and entered the field of philanthropy and nonprofit fundraising. At last report, she’s currently in Haiti helping mothers educate their children.
Trevor “Tim” Eyster (Sponge) left acting after the show ended, except for a one-off in Babylon 5 and playing the central character in a Public Service video about puberty that I was forced to watch in the health class in the 5th grade. He currently is a life coach and hiking/fitness enthusiast.
Heidi Lucas (Dina) left the business for good shortly after filming wrapped. She would guest star on Boy Meets World for a few years while being a Noxzema spokeswoman. She’s currently an attorney and wishes to remain out of the public eye.
Eric MacArthur (Michael) left acting altogether after the first season to return home to Hawaii. He returned to Hollywood to produce the 2006 Paris Hilton direct-to-DVD flop called Bottoms Up.
Michael Bower (Donkeylips) has continued acting, albeit in commercials and small roles on television, while making appearances from time to time on TMZ. He currently runs a fan site dedicated to the Oakland Raiders.
Blake Soper (Pinsky), currently Blake Sennett, found success after his days at Camp Anawanna by having regular roles on Boy Meets World and 3rd Rock from the Sun. After his acting days were over, he found success in music, playing in rock bands Rilo Kiley and Night Terrors of 1927.
Venus DeMilo (Telly) was a repeat guest star on “Family Matters” and “Sister, Sister,” following her run as Telly. After an 18-episode long story arc on “The Bold and the Beautiful,” she was mostly out of the public eye for a decade before returning to acting with a brief appearance in the 2016 American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson as a TV Commentator. She can be found in 2020 as Auntie Beverly on the Oprah Winfrey Network drama “Cherish the Day.” After getting her degree in filmmaking from Loyola Marymount University, she has also made several of her own short films.
Kirk Baily (Ug) has had a good career after Salute Your Shorts. Playing a bunch of one-off roles in hit shows like Melrose Place, Star Trek Voyager, NYPD Blue, Felicity, and Judging Amy, he’s become prolific as a voiceover artist in many big-name projects. He’s voiced characters in movies such as Hotel Transylvania, Big Hero 6, and Frozen.
Danny Cooksey (Budnick) had quite a career before Salute Your Shorts with roles in everything from Dukes of Hazard, Terminator 2, and Diff’rent Strokes, but once Salute Your Shorts was over he mostly moved to the other side of the camera. Finding steady work as a voice actor, you’d recognize his voice on several cartoons of the 90s, including Montana Max from “Tiny Toon Adventures,” or numerous voice spots on Nickelodeon shows like “Hey! Arnold,” “Wild Thornberry’s,” and “Phineas and Ferb.” He’s currently in a rock/country band called Shelter Dogs.
Many of the original cast reunited in 2012 at the Comikaze Expo in Los Angeles. Z.Z. was not in attendance as she had recently relocated to Haiti, and Dina did not wish to be back in the public eye. In 2015, another reunion took place at Portland’s “Everything Is” Festival. Budnick was the only character not in attendance as he could not attend since he was recording an album with the Shelter Dogs. A small cast reunion took place in 2019 at a pop up “Good Burger” restaurant with various other Nickelodeon stars of yesteryear. Z.Z., Telly, Budnick, Donkeylips, and Ug were in attendance.
In all, 26 episodes were made for the series. It was considered the highest-rated cable TV show for children aged 6 thru 11 during the second season. Despite not airing new episodes for several years, Salute Your Shorts claimed it’s spot in the Top 15 highest-watched Cable TV shows by children in 1996.
As far as I know, it was never released on DVD or BluRay. Select episodes can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon Prime.
If anyone knows of any DVDs that aren’t bootlegged VHS recordings, please leave a note in the comments below. Have a favorite episode you’d like to reminisce about? Leave that in the comments below as well!