In 1983, Brøderbund Software, Inc. co-founder Gary Carlston proposed to programmer Dan Bigham the idea of a computer game that would get kids interested in geography; a hobby of Carlston and his brother and fellow co-founder, Doug. Gene Portwood, Lauren Elliott and David Siefkin developed the script, graphics and humor (puns, rhymes, alliteration) featured in the series, while Bigham used another game interface he was developing as the basis for the game. Early drafts included basing the series in England and chasing around King Henry VII and collecting treasures, while another idea had the game based on the Time Life series of books about world cities. Gary ultimately decided to use The World Almanac as inspiration.
Siefkin developed an early script based on his experiences with the game Colossal Cave Adventure. While players there would search an underground cavern for treasures, he expanded the concept to include real treasures in real countries around the world. Through trial and error, players would learn about those countries as clues would be based around languages, cultures and geography. Several villains were included in his script, including Carmen Sandiego, who was named for Brazilian singer and actress Carmen Miranda, and the American city of San Diego, California. Carmen was eventually elevated to being the main villain of the game.
In 1985 Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was released, the first in a series. The game casts players as members of the ACME Detective Agency in pursuit of the eponymous rogue agent (originally a spy of multiple allegiances) who had turned to crime after finding no challenge in stopping it. The player would traverse the world, following clues in pursuit of Carmen and her henchmen from the organization V.I.L.E. (Villain’s International League of Evil) after they had committed a spectacular theft in order to arrest them within the allotted time. And, along the way, the player learned a little something about the locations and objects they encountered. As players progressed after Carmen’s henchmen and successfully captured them with the correct warrant, they earned promotions and advanced in the ranks of ACME.
Carmen, a woman of Latin descent, was depicted always wearing a red trench coat and fedora with a yellow stripe, and leather gloves. Both or one of her eyes would always be covered by her hat, hair or in shadows. For most of her appearances, she wore a dress matching the stripe on her hat and red high-heeled shoes, although in later games she was given a catsuit and practical footwear. Her henchmen often featured pun-laden names, such as Justin Case, Sarah Nade, Patty Larceny, Dee Pockets, Dinah Myte, Don N. Hout, Anita Bath, Rob M. Blind and others.
|In space, no one can hear you steal.|
The game became Brøderbund’s third successful release on the Commodore 64 system, and they were quick to provide the world with more Carmen. In 1986, they released Where in the U.S.A., followed by Where in Europe in 1988 and Where in Time in 1989. In 1989/1990, Brøderbund produced a prototype for a state-specific Carmen game called Where in North Dakota, in time for the state’s 100th anniversary. Intended to be the first in a line of state-based Carmen games, it never went beyond North Dakota’s 5,000 copies and instead Brøderbund returned to the broader scope of the series with Where in America’s Past in 1991.
|Lynne Thigpen and Greg Lee on the live game show.|
As the games continued to be profitable, PBS was looking for a way to combat the growing concern over American’s lack of knowledge about geography. Partnering with Brøderbund, PBS created a game show entitled Where in the World, which would feature three contestants between ages 10-14 answering questions to determine the location of Carmen’s henchmen and ultimately track down and arrest Carmen herself. The show starred Greg Lee as the host, Lynne Thigpen as the Chief, and featured musical accompaniment by acapella group Rockapella for the first four seasons. It ran for a total of five between 1991 and 1995. It returned in 1996, retooled as Where in Time and ran two additional seasons. Thigpen reprised her role for a 1996 update of the game Where in the U.S.A.
Back in 1990, Brøderbund attempted to bring Carmen to animation with DiC Entertainment, developed by Phil Harnage. It took until 1993 to sell the series to the fledgling FOX network and its FOX Kids Saturday morning programming block, as FOX needed a show to meet the requirements of the Children’s Television Act. Because of FOX’s other offerings usually leaning towards the violent, Brøderbund insisted on reading and approving every script in order to ensure the focus was on edutainment and not mindless action.
|Carmen's final taunt.|
Like the games, the show focused on the ACME Detective Agency’s endless search to capture the notorious thief and former agent Carmen Sandiego (Rita Moreno). Each episode would begin with a live-action segment of the player (Jeffrey Tucker, Justin Shenkarow, Asi Lang and Joanie Pleasant) logging on to the game on a computer and occasionally even interacting with Carmen, typically at the end of an episode for Carmen’s final words after she made her escape. The player remained unseen for the rest of the episode, but was responsible for helping the detectives by sending them where they needed to go and opening files for them for researching clues.
|Zack and Ivy.|
In the first episode, the player’s detectives were selected: the brother/sister pair of 14-year-old Zack (Scott Menville) and 18-year-old Ivy (Jennifer Hale). Both were experts in different things, which balanced each other nicely on cases. However, as they were brother and sister, they often got on each other’s nerves with their contrasting personalities. Ivy was more of a no-nonsense type who focused on the cases, while Zack would goof around and call Ivy “sis,” which she hated. Ivy was also the more physical of the two, while Zack was the tech whiz. Interestingly enough, although Zack’s name was spelled traditionally in his introductory scene and in the credits, his army jacket always had his name spelled “Zak.”
The head of ACME was a giant hologram, well, head called CHIEF (Computerized Holographic Imaging Educational Facilitator, voiced by Rodger Bumpass) who provided exposition, information and alerts to his detectives. He was also the show’s primary source of comic relief; often speaking in a hyper-active manner, pulling random images out of his databanks in relation to what he was saying, and popping up in unexpected places to converse with the detectives. The main character designer on the series was Bill Sienkiewicz, along with Glen Hill, Donn Greer, Kurt Conner, Todd White and Ed Lee.
|Carmen in the middle of a theft.|
Unlike the games, the show would show how the spectacular thefts were committed. Carmen, in the spirit of fun which she approached her crimes, would leave clues behind for Zack and Ivy to find and deduce her next location. Zack and Ivy would travel through an instantaneous transportation method known as the C-5 Corridor; a computer-generated hallway rendered by Rez.N8 that allowed the player to access information about their destination with accompanying images or graphics. A map would appear showing where their destination was in relation to their current location before they entered the Corridor. A running gag on the show was that the Corridor was glitchy, often depositing the detectives in an uncomfortable landing zone a bit away from their intended stop. Zack and Ivy would always recover what Carmen stole, but her master plan continually allowed her to escape.
|Animatic about William Shakespeare.|
Carmen’s minions consisted of gray-suited faceless men, covered from head to toe with only their noses and mouths exposed. They were little more than cannon fodder for Zack and Ivy to plow through on their way to solving the mystery. However, Carmen’s henchmen made frequent appearances to provide even more of a challenge and give Carmen extra support. Like the games, many of them had pun-laden names, such as athletic Olympic-themed thief Abe L. Body; Clay Tandoori, who stole anything related to India; con-man and master art thief Touriest Classe; Paige Turner, a literature expert who played out her crimes as inspired by books; ultra-greedy Lars Vegas; Hawaiian expert Hannah Lulu; and Carmen’s lawyer, Lee Galese.
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? debuted on February 5th, 1994 on FOX Kids after a production delay. Producers always wanted Moreno for the role of Carmen, but her schedule made auditioning an impossibility and they used a different actress. When she became available, they loved her audition so much that they had her re-dub all of Carmen’s lines for the first season, pushing its debut back. The series’ theme was a re-recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Singt dem grossen Bassa Lieder” from his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail using pop instrumentation and a backbeat, coupled with lyrics by series composer Tom Worrall. The series’ animation was handled by the Rainbow Animation Group. Leading into a commercial break, one of the characters would read a trivia question pertaining to something discussed in the episode and gave the answer upon the show’s return. The series was written by Sean Roche, Melanie Williams, Perry Adleman, Doug Molitor, David Ehrman, Cydne Clark, Steve Granat, Cecilia Fannon, Sam Graham, Mark Hoffmeier, and Chris Hubbell, amongst others.
|Those dolls aren't the only things hard to find.|
The second season would introduce the recurring element of time travel, much like in the games, after Carmen developed her own time machine. Gradually, the show began to abandon its own format as writers focused more on the character of Carmen. Carmen was shown as having her own ethical code; stealing for the fun of it but never intending to harm anyone. Her better nature began to shine through and her weaknesses explored. During the fourth and final season, Carmen began teaming up with Zack and Ivy in order to keep genuinely evil criminals from ousting her from her control of V.I.L.E. Amongst them was Dr. Gunnar Maelstrom (Tim Curry), who wanted revenge on Carmen for his capture at her hands when she was an ACME agent; Mason Dixon, Carmen’s former criminal partner who made use of her time machine to steal her title as the world’s greatest thief; Lee Jordan (David Coburn), another ACME agent who grew bored and turned to crime but was too conceited for Carmen to become a part of her V.I.L.E. organization; and Dr. Sarah Bellum, a mad scientist and Carmen’s gadget-maker who posed as Carmen in order to take over V.I.L.E.
|Ivy in the Roman games.|
The show ran on Fox Kids through the first two episodes of the fourth season before being put on hiatus while Fox Kids underwent a management change. It wouldn’t be until 1998 that the remaining episodes of season four, except “Cupid Sandiego,” would play on the FOX Family Channel. The show’s second run began with a special 3-day marathon of all three parts of “Retribution.” Where on Earth was nominated for the Daytime Emmy Award for “Outstanding Children’s Animated Program” in 1994, 1996 and 1997 and won it in 1995.
|Zack, Ivy, the CHIEF and Carmen in Junior Detective.|
Brøderbund utilized the characters from the series, as well as some new ones, in their next installment in the Carmen Sandiego franchise with Carmen Sandiego: Junior Detective, although Carmen’s design was reminiscent of the other games in the series rather than the show. The voice actors all reprised their roles for their respective characters, but the game had little else to do with the actual cartoon. Intended for a younger audience, it featured a simplified version of the typical Carmen gameplay. Carmen games would continue to be made, expanding into other educational fields beyond geography; although ownership of the franchise changed hands when The Learning Company bought out Brøderbund in 1998. Moreno would go on to voice Carmen two more times in the planetarium films Where in the Universe and its sequel, joined by Thigpen once again as the Chief.
|The first season DVD.|
20th Century Fox released several VHS tapes with two episodes each beginning in 1995. In 2003, Sterling Entertainment Group released the three-part episode “Retribution” and “When it Rains” on a DVD called Into the Maelstrom and “The Remnants,” “Can You Ever Go Home Again?” and “Follow My Footprints” in No Place Like Home as part of their Animation Station line, which were re-released in 2007 by NCircle Entertainment. In 2006, Shout! Factory and Sony BMG Music Entertainment released the first season on DVD. The release sold poorly and future releases were cancelled. Beginning in 2008, LionsGate Entertainment released the two three-part episodes “Retribution” and “Labyrinth” as Carmen’s Revenge and Time Traveler. The episode “Timing is Everything” was included with some versions of the 2001 game Treasures of Knowledge. In 2011, Mill Creek Entertainment acquired the rights to the series and released it in its entirety on a four-DVD set in 2012, as well as a 10-episode best-of collection on the same day. Later that year, Mill Creek released the second season as part of their TV Toons to Go! collection. In 2015, Mill Creek released another best-of collection as part of their Retro TV Toons line.
In 2019, Netflix launched a reboot of the franchise called simply Carmen Sandiego. This version of Carmen (Gina Rodriguez) was portrayed as more of a Robin Hood-type. Orphaned and raised by V.I.L.E., Carmen was determined to become a world class thief until she learned the lengths V.I.L.E. would go to for their crimes. She defected and stole a hard drive full of their financial information, deciding to steal back and return their ill-gotten gains. The Player (Finn Wolfhard) was reimagined as a White Hat hacker who aided Carmen with information, and Zack (Michael Hawley) and Ivy (Abby Trott) became twins from Boston who befriended and helped Carmen in the field. A.C.M.E.’s Chief (Dawnn Lewis) was modeled after both Thigpen and Earth’s version, being an actual woman who appeared primarily in a full-bodied hologram projection. Moreno made a cameo vocal appearance as Cookie Booker, V.I.L.E.’s bookkeeper, in the debut two-parter and reprised the role in a future episode. The final two episodes would feature this show’s theme (or the Mozart counterpart—you decide).
Originally posted in 2015. Updated in 2019.