THE HISTORY OF FREE TO BE YOU AND ME
As remembered by Marlo Thomas & Letty Cottin
MARLO: The idea for
Free to Be…You and Me came about when my sister, Terre, had her
first child, a daughter, Dionne. I went out looking for a book
of wonderful bedtime stories to read to her. But I was shocked
to find that all the children's books I found reinforced old
gender stereotypes of what girls and boys were supposed to be or
ought to be. None of them talked about all the possibilities of
what girls and boys could be.
My sister and I always loved to listen to story records when we
were small, so I began to think about how terrific it would be
to create a record for Dionne that included stories and songs
that would inspire her and enrich her sense of self.
I called my friend
Gloria Steinem and told her what I was about to do, and that I
wanted the proceeds from this project to benefit women and
children. She told me that she and her colleagues were about to
form The Ms Foundation For Women, and asked if I would like to
start it with them. That sounded perfect. Gloria also suggested
that I meet with Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who had been writing on
this theme. Good ideas both.
I met with Letty and
it was instantly obvious that we were soul mates. We both wanted
to save the world and agreed the place to start was with it's
children. Soon after, we began to look for a record producer.
After many interviews I met the perfect one in Carole Hart, one
of the original writers of Sesame Street and author of a popular
children's book, Delilah.
When we started
mapping out the album, I thought we'd collect some already
published stories that were truly humanist in feeling as well as
well-written, amusing, or touching, and totally free of
stereotypes of sex, class, and race. After a lot of research, it
became clear that if I wanted such stories, I'd have to write or
commission them myself.
We met with a
well-known children's book publisher, who gave us an A-list of
kids' writers. We contacted a lot of them, talked with them
about the themes we were looking for and asked them to submit
material. To my surprise, though their stories were wonderfully
written, they were way too babyish for today's kids, who
routinely had rock concerts and sophisticated comedy coming into
their living rooms on TV. We realized then that we weren't
looking for the traditional children's author. What we needed
was a whole different kind of writer.
So we contacted
people we knew from the entertainment world -- humorists,
playwrights, TV and Broadway writers. This led us to the
talented creators who would become the Free to Be family, people
like Herb Gardner, Ed Kleban, Mary Rodgers, Mel Brooks, Carl
Reiner, Carol Hall, Bruce Hart, Stephen Lawrence, Sheldon Harnick, Peter Stone and
It soon became clear
to Carole, Letty, and me that we were creating exactly what we
had been searching for: a collection of new songs, stories,
skits, and poetry that would be entertaining and fun for the
whole family, and would lead girls and boys out of the musty
library of old into a new Free To Be world.
LETTY: I first met
Marlo Thomas on March 1, 1972. We had arranged to have lunch
together at the suggestion of Gloria Steinem, who felt I might
be helpful to Marlo on a project she was working on. I'd written
an article in Ms. Magazine entitled "Down With Sexist
Upbringing," that Marlo had read, and that touched on many of
the things she wanted to express in her project.
Over lunch, Marlo and
I talked at length about the kind of material she wanted on Free
to Be. In order to create an album that was educationally sound,
we knew we had to focus first on the basic building blocks of
It was obvious that
Marlo and I were on the same page, and soon after our lunch,
Marlo, Carole Hart and I rolled up our sleeves and began to
outline the themes that would embody the project -- such as
independence and self-fulfillment; the human need for love,
sharing and mutual assistance; the joys of creative, cooperative
relationships with one's parents, siblings, and friends.
We all agreed that
we wanted to help children to be unencumbered by stereotypes –
to capitalize on their unique strengths and understand that
whatever their gender, race, or ethnic identity, or their
economic origins, they were free to pursue their talents and
their dreams. Free to Be had to say all of this -- and it had to
be fun and entertaining, too!
It's one thing to
create an outline; but quite another to bring such lofty ideals
to life. But it was precisely those lofty ideals that excited
some of the most talented writers in show business.
For example, Carl
Reiner and Peter Stone were asked to address conventional myths
about the differences between boys and girls. Carl and Peter
came up with a hilarious dialogue between two newborn infants in
a hospital nursery, who are trying to determine what sex they
are, based on the gender typecasting that they've already picked
up in just two days on the planet! (When the album was
ultimately released, what made this piece especially funny and
memorable were the performances by Mel Brooks, as the baby boy
who was convinced he was a girl; and Marlo, whose baby girl was
already a budding feminist.)
We asked Shel
Silverstein (author of the children’s classics, “The Giving
Tree,” and “Where The Sidewalk Ends”) and Sheldon Harnick
(lyricist of Fiddler On The Roof) to write, each in his own way,
about cooperation. Shel created a song about the benefits of
children's interdependence in play and task activities called
"Ladies First." Sheldon chose to frame his witty,
tongue-twisting poem in a familiar adult setting, ending with a
plea for shared "Housework" which was ultimately performed by
the hilarious gravel-voiced Carol Channing.
Throughout the summer
of 1972, the Free to Be team revised and refocused the material
that had been submitted to us. In mid-summer, we reached an
agreement with Bell Records. At an early meeting, the label's
president, Larry Utall, enthusiastically called the album "one
of a kind."
Marlo and Carole took
on the work of contracting major performers for the recording of
the work. Artists such as Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Carol
Channing, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and The New Seekers all
believed in the project and agreed to contribute their talents.
Free To Be was
officially launched less than nine months from the day that
Marlo and I first met for lunch. In 1973, the album won a Grammy
The Free To Be Foundation, a
subsidiary of the Ms. Foundation for Women, was started so that
the money raised by the free to be book, record, and TV special,
and other philanthropic money raised by MFW, could be channeled
to projects benefiting children and families. The four founders
of Free To Be—Pat Carbine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria
Steinem, and Marlo Thomas—wanted to focus special attention on
the needs and aspirations of kids. Accordingly, the FTB mandate
is to support grass roots educational projects that enhance
children’s safety in the world and advance their freedom to
develop fully as individuals without being hobbled by gender and
racial stereotypes. Our goal is to empower them to imagine
their own future and encourage them to pursue their dreams.
The popularity of the Free to Be
record led to the published book version (which many people
believe actually came first!). The book, edited by Francine
Klagsbrun, included new contributions from people such as Anne
Roiphe, Judy Blume, Lucille Clifton, and Judith Viorst, who
expanded the theme of the record to include such critical
subjects as divorce, sibling relationships, personal autonomy
vs. parental approval, cross-generational empathy, war, loyalty,
and reverence for life. The book also included a full
representation of real-world life styles and ethnic and racial
types, and cheerful support for the non-conforming child.
Complete with new art
that had been hand-selected to complement the various stories,
the book was published in both hardcover and paperback on March
11th, 1974. It promptly won an American Library Association
Award, was a New York Times bestseller for several weeks, and to
date has sold over a million copies and has become a beloved
classic for two generations.
Free to Be…You and Me has been widely adopted for school and
library use, included in bibliographies, women's studies
programs and curriculum booklists, and implemented (often with
the record) by classroom teachers all over the world in units on
identity, family living, occupations, social studies, and
The Film/Television Special
Almost coincidental with the planning
and preparation of the book, Marlo and Carole began
pre-production activities for a one-hour television special
based on the record and book. Again, new material was obtained
for this third incarnation of the project., and new performers
were recruited. We also created a unifying device -- wise and
funny baby puppets -- based on the infants that Carl and Peter
had dreamed up for the album. The puppets would serve as
continuity characters as the animation and live action moved
from theme to theme.
The special first
aired on ABC-TV on March 11th, 1974 (the same date the book was
published). It won an Emmy award for children's prime time
special, and then The Peabody Award in 1975.
In the ensuing years,
Free to Be…You and Me would continue to regenerate in many
beautiful ways. With the help of Sesame Street writer-producer
Christopher Cerf as Marlo's co-producer, a sequel, Free To Be a
Family, was released in November of 1987 as both a book and an
album. Family addressed many of the same issues of personal
identity as were addressed in the original, but did so by
exploring the various types of families in which today’s
children are reared. In Marlo's words, "It is about all types of
In June of 1991, the Free To Be
Foundation commissioned Regina Saffran and Douglas Love to
create a play adaptation of Free To Be for the theatre. This,
too, was a big success, and was soon picked up by the Rodgers
and Hammerstein catalogue for mass distribution. It continues to
be performed by scores of theatre groups and schools all over
the country every year.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of the power of Free To Be is
its longevity. The book, album, video, and play all continue to
sell nearly thirty-three years after the original release. While
it was certainly revolutionary in its themes, the fact remains
that the issues of self-identity first explored in Free To Be
are just as relevant to today's children as they were in 1972.
THE HISTORY OF “FREE TO BE A FAMILY”
As remembered by Marlo Thomas & Christopher Cerf
MARLO: The Free to
Be a Family project came about in very much the same way as
Free to Be…You and Me did -- from what was going on in my
family at the time, as well as in the culture.
My sister Terre,
my brother Tony and I grew up in a very traditional family. My
father went off to work every day, while my mother stayed home
and took care of the kids and the family's needs.
When I married in the
1980s, I began a new life as a step-mom, living with my husband
and his four sons from his previous marriage. Meanwhile, my
sister was divorced and living as a single mom, raising her son
and daughter on her own, while my brother was living in a
traditional marriage. Like my dad, Tony went off to work every
day as a TV producer while his wife stayed home, cared for their
three daughters and took charge of the family life.
Although all of our
families looked completely different, they were all
loving and real and entirely whole. So with Free to Be a
Family, I wanted to help redefine what our vision of a
"real" family was, for kids’ sake.
So many children live
in family arrangements that don’t fit the “traditional” mold.
Maybe only one parent lives in the home, or just grandparents.
Or maybe the parents have created blended families, or they’ve
adopted children from other lands. No matter what the
configuration, the children of these families all need to be
reassured that, despite their differences in appearance, they
are all real families.
I also wanted to
dispel the idea that there is such a thing as a "broken" family.
A family is a place that you come home to where people love you
and support you and miss you and can’t wait to find out what you
Free to Be a
Family was designed to address this important idea. As a new
and loving step-mom, I wanted to rewrite the myth of the evil
stepmother that abounds in children's literature. With so many
kids living with stepparents, something had to be done about
that! So in one story, we took one of the worst
step-moms in kids’ lit -- the wicked stepmother from
Cinderella -- and turned her into a loving, supporting mom
who helped the fairy godmother get Cinderella ready for the
It was fun for us to
turn these preconceived notions of family on their ear while
shedding new light on the joys and triumphs of all kinds of
families -- families that were so different from the Dick and
Jane stories of our childhood. Children were relieved and
reassured to discover that their own families were just as
“normal” as the rest. This was what made Free to Be a Family
such a success and, I think, why it remains so important for
CHRIS: Just like
Free to Be…You and Me, the Free to Be a Family
project came about as an answer to a specific social problem.
Early in the project,
Marlo got together with Letty Pogrebin, and they contacted the
Carnegie Corporation, which at the time was exploring how media
could be a powerful tool in dispelling social stereotypes.
Carnegie had been lending a hand with the Free to Be Foundation,
and was also a seminal force in the founding of Sesame Street,
where I’d been working as a writer, composer and producer since
the program’s first broadcast season in 1969-70.
At the same time that
Marlo and Letty were talking to Carnegie, I happened to meet a
woman named Darcy Gilpin, the Director of the Free to Be
Foundation. Darcy was aware of my work at Sesame Street, and
asked if I’d be interested in helping with the Free to Be a
I immediately said
yes. I’d met Marlo Thomas only once before, at an event where I
presented her with an award for Free to Be…You and Me. I
remember at the time being honored to be invited to the event --
and jealous of Free to Be!
”Gee, I wish they’d
asked me to work on that!” I’d thought, never dreaming that,
some 15 years later, I’d get just such an opportunity.
Within weeks of
meeting Darcy, I’d become part of the Free to Be a Family
team, and before long we were actively putting the project
together. We decided that we’d go after the same people who
contributed to the first book and record, as well as some other
writers and musicians and children’s entertainment people I
knew. Just like the original team did the first time around,
we’d create a book, a record and TV show.
With the help of the
Carnegie people, we defined the project’s goals and central
themes, all of which came down to one basic idea -- that no
matter what kind of family you came from, yours is just as good.
All families are okay.
From this main idea,
we decided we could also explore related topics, such as sibling
rivalry, the death of a parent, divorce and remarriage, and
In fact, one of the
highlights of Free to Be a Family is a mini-comic book --
a series of cartoon panels -- about Superboy, and how he
was adopted. We pitched the idea to the people at DC Comics, who
not only thought it was great, but even asked Joe Orlando,
Superboy’s illustrator, to draw it for us. In the story, which
was written by my Sesame Street colleague, Mark Saltzman,
Superboy’s parents tell him he was adopted, and he throws a
When it was
completed, our Superboy tale became a particular favorite of
mine, in that it so imaginatively juxtaposed comic-book
invincibility with real life emotional vulnerability. More
importantly, it cleverly illustrated how love is love, no matter
what your bloodline.
When it came time to
make the record album, Marlo’s friends Mike Nichols and Elaine
May-- who hadn’t worked together as a comedy team in years --
reunited to play Superboy’s parents, Ma and Pa Kent. And
Christopher Reeve played Superboy. The piece sounds as fresh,
funny, and relevant today as it did when we first recorded it
back in 1987.
In each of its
various incarnations, Free to Be a Family provided me
with some particularly satisfying personal moments. When we were
putting the book together, for example, Jeff Moss, the head
writer of Sesame Street and a dear friend, told me he’d always
wanted to write children’s poems -- so we gave him a shot. He
ended up writing a piece for the book called “The Entertainer,”
a poem about a kid who was always forced to perform at social
gatherings. Our publisher, Bantam Books, loved it so much that
after Free to Be a Family was published, they began
regularly publishing poetry books by Jeff. Several of them were
Meanwhile, when we
recorded the album (which was released on the A&M label), I
found myself working among personal heroes of mine -- from
Bonnie Raitt and Mel Brooks, to producer David Anderle (for me,
that was like working with a god!) and Soul Asylum. At one point
we even went to Jamaica to record Ziggy Marley and the Melody
Makers, who sang and played the record’s theme song for us. That
was a special thrill.
moment during the making of the record was Robin Williams’
recording session for a story called, “The Day Dad Made Toast,”
written by Sarah Durkee. The story was about a father who
volunteers to do all the work around the house, but winds up
doing nothing. (At one point, the mom is dragging a freezer up
the stairs from the basement, while dad’s in the kitchen still
figuring out how to work the toaster).
Robin was just
supposed to play the father, but during his first read-through
he asked, “Can I play the mother, too?” We said sure.
Then Robin said, “Can
I play the kids?” Yes again.
“How about the sound
effects?” asked Robin a few seconds later. “Why not?” we said.
In the end, Robin did
everything -- from all the character voices to the sounds of a
vacuum cleaner. It remains a tour-de-force and was incredibly
fun to watch. And, by the way, he did it all in one take!
As for the Free to
Be a Family television special, it was out of this world --
literally. Unlike the TV version of Free to Be…You and
Me, we didn’t focus solely on translating stories from the
book and record onto the TV screen. Instead, we created a
satellite bridge between kids from the United States and
children from the Soviet Union. It was the first time an
American network – ABC-TV -- had produced a prime time show in
partnership with Soviet Television.
As official “space
pen-pals,” the kids embarked on a six-month project in which
they communicated with each other via satellite linkup. Five
thousand miles apart, Marlo and a Russian television star guided
the children through a variety of activities, such as
dual-language lessons, letter-writing, photographing themselves
to send to each other, and sharing their favorite things -- from
music tapes, to gum and candy, to books and toys. The kids even
practiced singing the same song in Russian and English, which
culminated in a glorious chorale finale to the program -- all
done via the satellite link-up.
The idea was to let
the kids reveal to one another all the things that made up their
lives, and, ultimately, to discover how people who appeared so
different are actually so much the same.
The endeavor was a
smashing success, and we captured each phase of it on
documentary footage, which we included in the TV special.
Looking back, we
couldn’t have asked for a better reception to the entire Free
to Be a Family project. The book was on everyone’s
bestseller list (including number one on the New York Times
list); the album was a giant hit; and the TV show went on to win
an Emmy Award for Best Special of the Year.
But most importantly,
Free to Be a Family worked. It was among the first
of its kind to recognize the beautiful diversity of families
around the world, and, to my mind, helped propel what would
eventually become a significant shift in our cultural landscape.
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