Usually, Lincolnville-based songwriter and performer John Burstein is dressed in his regular clothes. Jeans, a button-up shirt, perhaps a fleece vest in colder weather.
Most mornings, he’s working on music and other daily responsibilities from his home, perched at the bottom of a hill on the north end of Lake Megunticook, which he shares with his wife, Christine, and their small menagerie of dogs and cats.
Upstairs, however, tucked away in a closet is the uniform of his alter ego, Slim Goodbody.
Children of the late 1970s and the 1980s will likely remember Slim — he was a fixture of public television for most of the decade, with his funky hair, energetic attitude and instantly recognizable costume. The character’s full-body jumpsuit was a heavyweight unitard, painstakingly painted to show the internal structure of the human body. The newest iterations of it are custom-designed by costumers from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and cost about $4,000 to create.
And that costume turns Burstein, an otherwise laid-back, thoughtful guy, into a bit of a superhero.
“I certainly walk taller and straighter when I put it on,” said Burstein, a New York native who has lived in Maine since 1998. “You kind of have to. It’s a full-body unitard. It does make you feel a little different.”
He doesn’t transform into the “superhero of health” very often anymore — after 40 years of playing the character, he’s happy to cede the role of Slim to a handful of other performers, who take Slim on the road to schools across the country.
Burstein, 67, now only does a few weeks of Slim Goodbody performances each year. He’s much more content to focus on current projects, including his new musical, “The Night Kitchen,” a charming, full-length show about a restaurant, its staff and its food, which will have its premiere this weekend at the Camden Opera House.
A character is born
Performing has been a part of Burstein’s life since he was a child. Born on Christmas Day 1949, he grew up on Long Island, where his first paying job as a teenager was working in an Italian restaurant, singing songs for the customers.
“I was a pretty gregarious kid,” he said.
After finishing college at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, where he studied theater and dance, he moved to Manhattan in the early 1970s to try to make it as an actor — a Shakespearean actor, in particular. Like many aspiring performers, he ended up auditioning for lots of shows, appearing in many off-off-Broadway plays, and performing in lots of children’s theater productions.
“Children’s theater was always a kind of gateway for a lot of performers in New York,” said Burstein. “That was my entryway into a lot of things, certainly.”
The Floating Hospital, a nearly 150-year-old organization providing free outpatient medical care to underserved families around New York via a barge traveling around the city’s waterways, was in need of an entertainer to provide some levity for the children aboard the boat. Burstein got the gig, and found himself spending afternoons making up songs about health, the human body and taking care of one’s self both physically and emotionally.
“I had all these songs I’d written, like ‘Lubba Dubba’ about the heart, or ‘Down, Down, Down for Digestion,’” said Burstein. “I brought them to an acting class, and a friend of mine told me, ‘These are really good! You should sell them to “Sesame Street.” And then I said, ‘Gee, maybe I could sell myself to “Sesame Street.”’”
Buoyed by the possibility, Burstein approached a costume designer friend — not the “Star Trek” designer, but a friend who worked in New York theater — and together they drew up the very first costume that would become Slim Goodbody.
“I went to this funky loft on 14th Street, and I said, ‘I want to do this thing that looks like the body, but I don’t want it to be [the book] ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ I want it to be more superhero,’” he said. “She built this costume for me … she would paint it on me as I waited there for several hours for it to dry, and then she steamed it, and they turned it into [the first] body suit.”
Goodbody, good times
The character and his songs didn’t end up making their way onto “Sesame Street,” but they did eventually find a home on “Captain Kangaroo.” Slim was a regular feature on the long-running CBS children’s morning show from 1976 until 1980 — at which point PBS offered Burstein his own children’s show, “Inside Story.”
The rest is pop cultural history. By the late 1980s, Burstein had not only appeared on both PBS and Nickelodeon, but had also toured all over the country, doing hundreds of shows for young audiences each year. A whole generation of kids grew up with Slim, either on TV, or in person, during a performance. That nostalgia is a very real thing; so much so that in 2014 Burstein appeared as Slim Goodbody in a RadioShack ad aired during the Super Bowl, along with other ’80s icons like Mary Lou Retton, Dee Snider and Hulk Hogan.
“Some kids are a little scared of the suit, to be honest,” he said. “But other kids respond … especially if you engage them and get them up out of their seats.”
For a long time, Burstein was constantly busy, managing the Slim Goodbody character and all its associated properties, which have won both a Parent’s Choice Gold Award and the National Parenting Center Seal of Approval.
“For a lot of years I didn’t stop,” said Burstein. “Touring constantly. Books … it’s amazing to think that the thing you wanted to do for all those years so you could avoid having a real job became your real job. I didn’t plan any of it. It just became my life.”
By the late 1990s, Burstein and his wife, Christine, were tired of life in New York, and knew that Maine — specifically the midcoast, where they had vacationed for years — was the place they wanted to move to. They bought their property in Lincolnville, where since 1998 they’ve made their home.
As Burstein has ceded most of the touring obligations of the Slim Goodbody character to other performers, he’s also worked on a number of other projects, including his young person’s classical music program called “A Celebration of Yourself,” performed with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. He has authored more than 50 children’s books, on topics ranging from nutrition and anatomy to bullying and coping with stress. Though Burstein is not a trained nutritionist or educator, he does extensive research for his publications and other educational material.
Locally, he’s been involved in a number of projects, from directing a production of “Dracula” in 2015 with the Camden-based Everyman Repertory Theatre, benefiting Penobscot Bay YMCA’s teen programs, to twice playing Ebenezer Scrooge in local theater artist John Bielenberg’s version of “A Christmas Carol.”
David Troup, a local actor who played the title character in “Dracula” and is also in the upcoming “The Night Kitchen,” has worked with Burstein on a number of shows. Though it’s the fun of the rehearsal process that brings people to work with Burstein, it’s the commitment to both excellence and community service that keeps people coming back.
“He is a perfectionist who demands the best out of all of us, working every element of a show until it meets his expectations — all the while creating a wonderfully fun environment where everyone feels safe to try new things,” said Troup. “When you work with John on one of his productions, you know that A. It’ll be good, B. You will laugh throughout the process, and C. It’ll be for a tremendously good cause.”
A circulatory route
“The Night Kitchen,” Burstein’s new, original musical, premieres Dec. 9 at the Camden Opera House. It has occupied much of his creative energy for the past year. The show has its roots in a revue called the “After Hours Kitchen Cabaret,” a program of songs sung by various food items in a restaurant that was performed in November 2015 at the Samoset Resort in Rockland as a benefit for Meals on Wheels.
That show was such a success that Burstein was inspired to expand the revue into a full musical. The story starts with the harried staff and the patrons of a restaurant, singing about their many joys and sorrows, and then continues from the perspective of the food served in the restaurant, which magically comes alive after the eatery closes. As with the initial cabaret revue, all proceeds from the performances will benefit Meals on Wheels.
The songs — with the exception of the Tin Pan Alley classic “By The Light of the Silvery Moon” — were all written by Burstein, an old hat at composing songs around a theme.
“It’s been a lot of fun to work on,” he said. “In a strange way, it’s all come full circle, since my first job was singing in restaurants. It’s all come back around.”
Not that Slim Goodbody isn’t still a major part of his life. It’s just that Burstein manages the educational entertainment empire he’s built around the character from the comfort of his Lincolnville home now. His two sons, Devin and Luke, are grown — Luke is a college student, and Devin and his wife, who live in California, just had a baby.
Burstein still gets out on the road a few times per year — in the U.S., as well as abroad, including a visit to Haiti in early 2017, to entertain children at rural health clinics.
“Slim lives on because he’s iconic, and people remember it from their childhood,” said Burstein. “But for me, to know that you’ve had a positive effect on people, for whatever small little bit, that feels very satisfying to me … maybe that sounds a little corny, but that’s very satisfying.”
“The Night Kitchen” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 9 and 10, at the Camden Opera House. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit www.slimgoodbody.com.