What's the longest running animated show in TV history?
Nope, it's not that one.
Recently, I posted a snap from a View-Master packet produced in Belgium that featured the story of The Zandmannetje, or The Sandman. I had no context for this packet beyond finding the photos charming. While the packet is in Dutch, I soon found out that the story behind it is uniquely German.
Then yukariamane on Instragram commented:
This is actually the classic West German Sandman. There are two German Sandmen. In the late 1950s, the rivalry between West Germany and East Germany was huge, and each wanted to prove it was the better state with the better political system by one-upping the other in any aspect possible. So when the heads of East German TV heard that a West German TV channel was working on a puppet animation children’s bedtime show (inspired by an East German radio show), they commissioned their own version... It was a head-to-head race, but the East German show ended up being broadcast days before the West German one.…
When Germany was reunited in 1989, the two shows were merged, and the West Sandman was dropped in favor of the East one (which is still getting new episodes)… For anyone who grew up in West Germany in the 1960s to the 1980s, this is the only "real" Sandman :) and is sorely missed.
Obviously, this sent me down a little rabbit hole. And the details checked out, because Instagram is filled with lovely and smart people!
I started with the obvious: I needed to see clips of these rival shows!
Here’s the West German Sandmännchen in action:
And the East German Sandmännchen who has been the only one since 1991:
Along the way, I learned that the Sandmännchen series has aired more episodes than any other television show in the world, and it’s also the longest running animated TV series in history!
Both iterations of The Sandman are based on a Hans Christian Andersen story called Ole Lukøje, a fairy tale based on a folk tale about a creature called the Sandman, who, of course, exists to frighten children into good behavior:
Under each arm he carries an umbrella; one of them, with pictures on the inside, he spreads over the good children, and then they dream the most beautiful stories the whole night. But the other umbrella has no pictures, and this he holds over the naughty children so that they sleep heavily, and wake in the morning without having dreamed at all.
So, every night at 6:50 p.m. (to this very day!) the little Sandman comes on TV to help put Germany’s children to bed. The Sandman himself is always done in the stop-motion style of animation and his adventures act as end caps to a bedtime story told in the middle of the 10-minute program. Those stories are not always stop-motion.
Both shows’ cultural reach was deep and strong and, surprisingly, the popularity of the East German version eclipsed that of the West German version. Indeed, the West German version pictured in the View-Master packet was canceled in 1991, shortly after the reunification of German in 1990.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the East German Sandman is that while one might expect he was used as a tool to promote communism, he seemingly had a lot of leeway to see the world and to show East German children places well beyond their own borders. This was unusual because East Germans were not really free to travel broadly.
According to the items I’ve read, prior to reunification, the East German Sandman visited friends and extended family in the USSR, went to space (and visited the Cosmonauts) but also saw places as diverse as the pyramids of Egypt and the Lapland of Finland. He sometimes made trips that were a bit scandalous. Once he went to Africa and drove a Land Rover (a Western car!). He visited Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1979, arriving in Baghdad on a magic carpet! He also enjoyed relaxing with a cold beer because he’s German.
While the little West German Sandman seems to have been largely forgotten today, I was delighted to meet him and his friends in this View-Master packet! I hope he’s enjoying his adventures out of the spotlight.
Big thanks to my friend Ruud in the Netherlands for sending me this delightful gem of a packet, and big thanks to yukariamane on Instagram for sharing this incredibly interesting little slice of history with me!
Couple sources for further reading: