Forty years ago at Woodstock, John Ratzenberger was operating a tractor. He lived nearby in Bearsville, N.Y., working as a journeyman carpenter, and he’d heard the festival was going to need workers. When he showed up, someone asked if he could drive a tractor. “I said yes, and they gave me the keys,” he remembers.
What he recalls about Woodstock is the rain and how unprepared the crowd was when the food ran out and the porta-potties were full. “If it wasn’t for the National Guard, who arrived with food and toilets, Woodstock would have been remembered as another Donner Party,” says Ratzenberger, who stayed busy using the tractor to help free vehicles stuck in the mud.
Ratzenberger is remembered by many as the iconic barfly Cliff Clavin on the TV series Cheers, but a younger generation is more likely to recognize his voice. The actor has played toys, vehicles, and other characters animated in every Pixar movie, including Hamm the piggy bank in the Toy Story series, and Mack the truck in Cars. “I got the part because the folks at Pixar knew my father was a truck driver,” says Ratzenberger. “That’s how they think at Pixar.”
“I remember at a very young age being fascinated by the insides of radios,” says Ratzenberger, who grew up tinkering in Bridgeport, Conn., where his mother was a factory worker. “My mother would buy old radios at garage sales and I eventually had enough of them and had taken all the parts out of them so then I made a futuristic space city.”
Living near the ocean, he and some friends found a boat washed up on the shore. They hauled it home where they recaulked and replanked it. “We were 8 or 9 years old,” he recalls. “We didn’t think about what we were doing. We didn’t call it creative play. We just fixed the boat so we could use it. It was fun.”
He wonders if these experiences are still available to kids, and what it means to society if we have fewer people willing to work with their hands. “Every single industry started with one person inventing one thing,” he says, challenging anyone to prove him wrong. “Every one of those people started off as a child tinkering. No one wakes up at 32 years old and starts inventing.”
He’s been talking to members of Congress about a coming “industrial tsunami,” which is the title of a documentary he’s working on. “If you look at skilled workers in America, from welders to rebar setters and carpenters, the average age is 56 nationwide,” Ratzenberger says. “They’re going to retire soon and nobody is coming up after them.” He believes America needs more vocational training programs.
The manual arts, as Ratzenberger calls them, go unappreciated in our culture, and he’s dismayed that the media often portray skilled workers as “dumb.”
“I grew up in a factory town and I knew that if you can make, build, or repair something, well, you have to be pretty smart to do it,” he rebutts.
From 2004 to 2008, he made factories the focus of his Travel Channel series John Ratzenberger’s Made In America, taking TV viewers behind the scenes to see how everyday items are made.
He established the Nuts, Bolts and Thingamajigs Foundation (nutsandboltsfoundation.org) in 2006 to promote tinkering in America and introduce kids to technical trades. Today NBT offers scholarships and organizes summer camps for girls and boys ages 12–16. “Kids can get a first taste at making something themselves,” he explains. “Most of them become enamored by their newfound skill.”
Ratzenberger says teaching kids hands-on skills is beneficial, even if they don’t end up working in the trades. “I am determined to have every parent understand the value of getting their kids making things.”