At 9 a.m., Wilmington native Carly Ciarrocchi greets millions of kids with a warm smile and her mop of curly black hair, side-by-side with a felt chicken named Chica, whose only vocalizations are the squeaky bleats of a kazoo.
As co-host of Sprout’s “The Sunny Side Up Show”—think “Good Morning America” for preschoolers—Ciarrocchi sings songs, teaches crafts and celebrates birthdays alongside the now-iconic Chica the puppet during the show’s live broadcast—all between episodes of kiddie faves like “Caillou,” “Sesame Street,” and “Noodle and Doodle.” The Archmere Academy alum debuted on “Sunny Side Up” in June of 2012, and today the show reaches more than 55 million homes nationwide.
DT talked to Ciarrocchi (whose aunt is the legendary TV news anchor Pat Ciarrocchi) about life in the Sunshine Barn, crushin’ on Johnny Gallagher, and much more.
DT: So where exactly did you grow up?
CC: Around Rockford Park. Lived there for until I was about eight, then we moved to Westover Hills after that.
DT: Were you a theater kid back then?
CC: My mom loves to tell the story that I saw an audition notice in The News Journal for Peter Pan with the Wilmington Drama League. Apparently I thought this sounded like a cool thing, so I brought her the notice, and said “Mom, there’s this audition for Peter Pan. Um, I’m gonna go. And I think I can be Peter Pan.” I was eight. Like, of course they’re going to cast an adult to play Peter Pan. But I went, and I sang Happy Birthday, and I got cast as a lost boy. It was the first time my hair was allowed to live free in a theatrical sense.
So that was the start of it. My first show at Wilmington Drama League when I was eight. And I did shows there, multiple shows a year for the next 10 years.
DT: So it was something you immediately loved?
CC: Yeah, especially that particular show. It was a summer show, and there must’ve been 35 people in that cast. But the thing I loved about theater then—and what I love about any part of the business now—is the community that’s created when you’re working on a project. I think the Wilmington Drama League is great at cultivating that community where kids and adults are equal. And that was really fun. There was the crew of kids my age, and then the crew of slightly older kids to look up to, and then the adults—and everybody’s there for the same purpose: to make a great show.
DT: At what point did you begin to take things more seriously, acting-wise?
CC: I did all these shows at the Wilmington Drama League, and one show at Delaware Children’s Theatre with John Gallagher Jr. (he was Tom Sawyer, I was in the chorus—I had a big crush on him. So did everyone.) and I did the shows in high school at Archmere. But it never really occurred to me that it could be a career path. I thought I would be a doctor, a forensic pathologist to be extremely specific. Isn’t that nerdy? (laughs) In my high school entrance interview, I talked about wanting to be an epidemiologist for the CDC. I had seen the movie “Outbreak” and I was super psyched.
So anyway I spent one summer doing a pre-med program, and another summer doing a theatre program. I really loved the summer doing theatre. Around the same time I was involved in a musical at Archmere, and it was a very ensemble-based show. And we had this crazy thing happen the week of the show, where it was like this past winter with tons of snow. And in the days leading up to the show, a bunch of rehearsals were cancelled. But because we were such a team, we met up at somebody’s house, and we just worked through the music ourselves. Had this last-minute rehearsals during our snow days because we cared so much about the show.
And so it went on, and it was one of those shows that everybody came to see. Like the sports kids, everybody from the community came to see it. So for the first time, I saw theatre as something that could unite all people. It was “Godspell”—this very improve-based show, the script is kind of loose. So there’s a lot of space to bring yourself into the show, which is something I think I do with any play or job I have today. So that was a big turning point. I remember thinking, “I could do this forever now.”
DT: Your parents must’ve been excited to hear you were turning away from becoming a doctor to study theater.
CC: (Laughs) You know what? My parents are so incredible. They were the ones driving me and my six younger brothers and sisters to rehearsals together, forever. We all did shows, my mom would build costumes. My dad would sit front row every opening night. The director would always say, “Okay, Mr. Ciarrocchi is in the front row. No matter what you do, don’t look down at him—he will be smiling the entire time no matter what’s happening on stage.” They had to make this announcement because he has this big, goofy smile, and he was just so proud.
But the way that it unfolded logistically was that I applied to a bunch of colleges, which was an Archemere thing. So I applied to Northwestern as a theater major, and because it is an excellent liberal arts school, my parents thought that was cool. That was my dream school.
DT: Is your family still in Delaware?
CC: Yup—still in Westover Hills. And my youngest sister just went off to college two years ago, so they are fresh empty nesters.
DT: So you’re the oldest sibling?
CC: I am.
DT: That must’ve played a role in your ability to connect with younger kids.
CC: For sure. I grew up with a little posse of little ones, and I would force them to be in the plays I directed, all the time. We’re a big Italian family with performative personalities. I’m sort of the more quiet and reserved one in the group—the one that’s telling people to be quiet in public when they’re singing and chanting too much. I’m the lame one.
I also taught at an early childhood education center in Chicago before I got this job.
DT: You were involved with a ton of theater troupes once you got out to Chicago. Did you just dive right in?
CC: It’s a sensibility that carried over from my Archmere years—that place definitely favors those who are involved with a million extracurriculars. I did improv, I was in a group called Meow, I did a children’s theatre group, I did plays, I was in charge of the student theatre community on a larger level at Northwestern by the time I was a senior. I was sending out the listserv to about 400 theatre students a week about what was going on with the student theatre scene.
That was the amazing thing about Northwestern—the student theatre scene is really strong, and that mirrors the way Chicago is an incredible place to be a young artist. Because if there isn’t an opportunity, you can make it for yourself. You could make up a new student group, and the resources are there, so if you’re motivated, you can do whatever you want.
I guess that’s been a theme in my life—this idea of community. That’s something that’s so integral to the Northwestern experience, and Chicago.
DT: Is this a point when you begin to more clearly define what type of acting you want to do?
CC: I have learned that rolling with things—being open to what could possibly happen while being present with where I am—is the best way. I happened to be working at an early childhood center, I happened to be doing a lot of post work. And then this audition came up, and it was the perfect combination of all the things I was doing. I never set out to work in kids TV, but it was the next level of everything I had been doing.
I’m loving every minute of what I’m doing right now. It’s fulfilling, it’s fun, the people are great. And I like the children’s television industry.
DT: So your bio also mentions some pretty serious…clown studies?
CC: [Laughs] It’s such a funny thing. So when I say clown, I don’t mean like Bozo—it’s not like, “wakka wakka!” gags and stuff. There is a style of performance that would fall under the umbrella of clowns. There is a path of training that is derived from the old-school clowns, the notion of clown that begins in Commedia dell’arte in Italy, and is represented in Shakespeare as “the fool.” So that’s Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the character that reflects the human experience in the most accessible way. It’s a popular training style in Chicago, because it’s such a bare-bones approach to performance. The red nose is a mask—the smallest kind of mask, but also the most vulnerable. So when you see a clown on stage, you can relate to it, because it’s representing the purest and most essential part of human experience. You might see shows or comedies where’s there is a prerequisite to understanding certain references, or pop culture. But there is no prerequisite to understanding the clown—he’s the most universal type of comedy. And that’s why I love it.
So when I graduated from college I wanted to do improv comedy—like maybe “SNL” would be an end goal. And that is a total thriving scene in Chicago. Second City is there—it’s a total hive. And improv is all about thinking 10 steps ahead of the audience, but with clown, you’re with the audience the whole time. Sasha Baron Cohen has clown training.
DT: How did you connect with Sprout?
CC: My agent saw it and thought I would be a good fit. When I saw the breakdown of what the job was, I was like, “This is everything I’m already doing!” I was teaching preschool, I was hosting, I was playing music for kids, writing music for kids. It was one of the easier auditions to prepare for.
A key point in the breakdown was that Sprout values talking to kids in a real, grounded way that’s not condescending. And the fact that they had that in their breakdown as important really made a lot of sense. Sprout is really grounded in this idea of real life learning, and I appreciate that. Because there is a lot of overstimulation in the preschool and kids’ television world in general. Sprout keeps it real.
DT: How did you end up teaching preschoolers?
CC: An Archmere alum was living in Chicago around the time I graduated, and she was the program director for a place called Bubbles Academy, which is an early childhood enrichment center. It has a similar vibe to Sprout—it’s hip, it’s fresh and it’s real. I needed a job when I graduated, and she needed an events assistant…just started out assisting with their birthday parties on the weekends. Eventually that led to teaching every class they offered. Afterschool yoga, movement classes, music classes, preschool prep—and it was a really wisely crafted curriculum. I learned a lot just from observing it, then teaching it, and then finally bringing my own ideas and thoughts to it. That’s what cultivated this sense of taking fun ideas and making them educational.
DT: I’ve seen you with your ukulele on Sprout—what else do you play?
CC: I play the guitar, which was my primary instruments. And I DJ, which isn’t an instrument per se…
DT: The show isn’t just mindless entertainment—there always seems to be some learning thrown in. Do you get involved in the writing of the show?
CC: As hosts, we write the content we perform. A lot stays the same every day—the Birthday Song will happen three times a day, the Good Egg Award and Sproutlet News Report—but then there are three segments a morning that are original, and based on the themes of themes of the show that came right before that segment. So if on “Barney & Friends” it was a really windy day, Chica and I might be telling preschoolers how they can make a kite out of things they can find around the house. We’re giving them the tools to use what’s in their world to connect with what they’re seeing on TV.
DT: When did you make your Sprout debut?
CC: June 18, 2012.
DT: What was it like walking out there for the first time?
CC: I was super-nervous. But the team is so amazing—the Chicateers, the Chica puppeteers—are amazing. From the beginning, I was having fun, so I knew that even if I mess up—and we mess up all the time—I’m not afraid. It’s live TV, but if something goes wrong, we survive it.
DT: What’s the coolest part of your job?
CC: The fact that it’s live makes it the most unique children’s program in the company. We are able to interact with our viewers in real time. Kids can send us messages to SproutOnline.com that we can read during the show. Each week on air is themed. So if we’re talking about dinosaurs, we might ask the kids at home throughout the day, “Hey, send us a message about your favorite dinosaur.” Or a photo dressed up as your favorite dinosaur. And they can send us those messages, and we can show them on air. Like, 20 minutes later.
Best message I ever got: it was music week, and we were talking about rap. How rap is poetry set to a beat. Chica and I had been doing some rapping earlier in the day. We got a message from this kid in Chicago, and he said, “I love to write raps.” So we said, Cool, Derek—send us a rap. We went on with our day, and then like 20 minutes later, he sent us one! It went: “My name is Derek/I’m in pre-K 4/I can’t tie my shoes/but I can open the door.” Which is the most amazing thing ever. So like, that unfolded in real time during our morning. We had a conversation with this kid that ended with him sharing music with us.
We’ve had kids send us lyrics, and we’d put it to music with the ukulele and made it into a song. So that kind of stuff happens all the time, and those are the best moments to me.
DT: Do you get recognized by kids a lot now?
CC: Not much, actually. When I’m walking around I’m so out of context. I don’t have my glasses on, my hair might be up. I am often in primary colors, but without Chica, I’m just a regular human. Sometimes adults will recognize me, and if they’re with a kid, they’ll ask, “Do you know who that is?” And the kid will just look at me and say, “Where’s Chica?”
DT: Are there many live public appearances?
CC: We do a live program that involves music or some of the stuff we do on the show. We do events at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. In malls. At CityWalk at Universal Studios, we’ve done Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade two years in a row. Which was a total highlight because the Ciarrocchi family is obsessed with the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
DT: Are you guys cognizant at all of parents that might be watching?
CC: We don’t try to make content that works on two levels, like, say “Shrek” does, or even “Sesame Street.” We might make jokes or references that may play to grownups in the audience, but that’s never our first priority. Our first priority is making excellent content for preschoolers that is fun, thoughtful and promotes our ultimate mission statement. But I like to think the fact that we hosts are our real selves, not comic book characters—that is enough to entertain any viewer.
Plus the idea is that parents and kids are watching together. So we’re giving them tools to play together and follow the way of a grownup. Chica is a mirror for a four-year-old Sproutlet, so that’s how we see the grownups.
DT: Do you just have a gift for entertaining kids? Or is that something you had to develop?
CC: I was greatly served by my time at Bubble Academy. I think I understand how to talk to our audience. I had no learning curve off the bat, but I learned it there and when I was performing songs at Whole Foods, so little things like that. But this show is so specific and unique, definitely its own beast, and I learned a lot that first, transformative year. Now I feel really confident with my point of view as a host of the show, and as a writer. There definitely was a process of figuring that out, but Sprout does a great job of training me, and taking the skills I already had and applying them to this particular job.
DT: Where do you film?
CC: At Center City, at the Comcast Center. The show is on seven days a week, so it’s always happening. There are four hosts, and we rotate our duties. It’s a well-oiled machine.
The original content is just me and the puppeteer writing that content, and then we pitch it to our producers and education consultants and props people. So there’s a lot of heads in the room before it gets on air.
DT: Were there shows like “Sunny Side Up” that you liked to watch as a kid?
CC: Totally. “Sesame Street” was a huge favorite. I was obsessed with “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” I have a lifelong interest in detectives. I brought that to the “Sunny Side Up Show” and now Chica and I do a segment called “Carly and Chica’s Detective Agency.” Um…”Square One” on PBS. Mister Rogers, of course.
DT: Do you have to be careful to keep your public life off the set G-rated?
CC: For me, growing up with six younger siblings, there’s always a way I’m going to carry myself because of that. So today, yes, I am conscious that I am in the preschool public eye. So of course I’m going to conduct myself in an orderly fashion. On an acting level, there are certain projects that I can’t take because of this job. But there is a consciousness that my audience that sees me a certain way, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that, and I’m totally fine with it.
DT: How do you manage to summon the peppiness and energy on a regular basis?
CC: One answer is clown training teaches you to connecting with the world in a way of constant discovery, which is essential to a show of this nature. Chica and I are always in a place of play, and because it’s unscripted and live, we have to be ready for anything that comes to us. But I also am a positive person, I think. I take care of myself so I have energy for the show every day.
And what’s not to be happy about when you play in the Sunshine Barn every morning. It makes it easy to see the good in the world when this is your day job.
DT: What else is on your career bucket list?
CC: This job was such a surprising entrance into television that I could see myself working in television. Being the best friend sidekick on a sitcom would be a lot of fun doing. It’s going to be whatever falls in my path. I can’t wait to find out.