THE HISTORY OF FREE TO BE YOU AND ME
As remembered by Marlo Thomas,
Carole Hart, Stephen Lawrence
and Letty Cottin Pogrebin
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 discover that all of 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. I couldn’t believe it. After all of the women’s books, the consciousness-raising, the marches, nothing had changed in children’s literature.
I thought back to how Terre and I always loved to listen to story records when we were small, so I began to think, how hard could it be to create an album like that for Dionne — one that included stories and songs that would inspire her and awaken her imagination instead of putting her mind to sleep.
Shel Silverstein, a friend of mine and a beloved children’s writer and illustrator, suggested I meet with his publisher, Ursula Nordstom. I did—but after working with a few of her authors, I realized that using conventional children’s story writers was not the way to go. I knew kids were more sophisticated. They had rock concerts blaring on their living room TVs! I knew that to reach them, the material of my record couldn’t be preachy. It would have to be entertaining and have some razzmatazz. And it would have to make them laugh. Who was it that said, “What is learned with laughter is learned well?”
I decided to approach first my old friends in show business about creating the songs and stories—people like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Sheldon Harnick, Herb Gardner, and, of course, Shel.
But first I needed a terrific co-producer, someone who understood humor and music—and children—instinctively. 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 called Delilah. Carole agreed that to reach kids we needed to be more daring.
So we began to develop the album, bringing in additional writer-friends, like Ed Kleban, Mary Rodgers, Carol Hall, Peter Stone, Bruce Hart and Stephen Lawrence. We’d sit around talking about our own childhoods and what we wish we had learned when we were kids. These talented creators would eventually become the Free to Be family, and those all-night sessions in my New York apartment were really the seeds of the project. I remember those conversations vividly.
“I’d like to have heard that it wasn’t a sissy thing for a boy to show his feelings,” Herb Gardner said. So the gifted Carol Hall wrote the terrific song, “It’s All Right To Cry.”
“I’d like to have read one story about a princess who wasn’t blonde and who didn’t get married to the prince at the end,” I said. So Betty Miles updated the ancient myth of Atalanta - only in her version, it’s up to the princess (now a brunette!) to decide for herself whether she will marry the prince in the end.
It didn’t take us long to realize that we were, in effect, rewriting our own childhoods.
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. Did she know of any such foundation, I asked her. Gloria told me that she and her colleagues Pat Carbine and Letty Cottin Pogrebin 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, who had been exploring these themes in Ms magazine.
I met with Letty and it was instantly obvious that we were soul mates. We both wanted to save the world, and we agreed that the place to start was with its children. We also agreed that this album needed to be truly humanist in feeling, and totally free of stereotypes about sex, class, and race. Letty couldn’t have been a more perfect addition to our team—and she led us to other experts and thinkers who were likewise invaluable in guiding us.
As we added each new member to our Free to Be family, it became clear that we were a dedicated team of idealists who wanted to change the world one five-year-old at a time.
Once we had our stories pretty much lined up, we needed a music producer. Our search led us to Carole’s husband, lyricist Bruce Hart (who co-wrote the Sesame Street song) and a composer he worked with, Stephen Lawrence. They eagerly jumped in and took over that piece of the project beautifully. Together, they wrote the Free To Be title song, perfectly capturing a child’s passionate desire for freedom—with its striking images of rolling rivers and galloping horses. In all, Bruce and Stephen wrote four of the eight songs on the album, and Stephen arranged and conducted all of them.
After the album was released, we went on to create a book version and finally a television special for ABC. All three projects were smash hits, reaping many awards and surpassing even our wildest expectations.
I’m happy for you to hear from a few of our team on this website. Sadly, Carole and Bruce Hart have passed away, but we are fortunate to have Carole’s reminiscences from her many interviews.
CAROLE: My husband and I had just received our first Emmy for our work together as writers on Sesame Street. We’d joined the project with the Children’s Television Workshop before the show even had a name. It was that experience and the recognition we received from it that brought Marlo Thomas to me.
Marlo was looking for a woman to create and produce a record album with her. She’d been reading bedtime stories to her 5-year-old niece, and had become deeply distressed by the way the stories limited options in life for both girls and boys. She envisioned a album that would change the game for children everywhere. I could see that she had a powerful vision for the project, all driven by her passion and intelligence.
I was very impressed, and I told Marlo that I thought it was an exciting and important project—and I wanted to be a part of it. Not knowing Marlo as I do now, I wasn’t prepared for the explosion of activity and creativity that followed. Very soon, we were both hard at work with the most talented writers and composers, from the worlds of theater, movies and books. Many of them had no prior experience writing for children.
We also conferred with a consulting team Marlo had assembled, including Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, and Letty’s contacts, Chris Corey from the Carnegie Foundation and Marion Wright Edelman from the Children’s Defense Fund. With them, we developed themes and examined the stereotypes around gender that limited both boys and girls. We identified other elements in our culture that prevented children from being and expressing their true selves.
One of our guiding principles was that children are far more intelligent than we think they are, and we didn’t want to talk down to them. We also wanted the material to be clever enough to appeal to their parents as well.
Guided by this philosophy and armed with the themes we’d developed, we worked with writers like Sheldon Harnick, renowned for Fiddler on the Roof. We brought him one of the pieces Marlo had originally found, a book called William Wants a Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow. It had a perfect message, but its tone was a bit too earnest for our purposes, so we asked Sheldon and Mary Rodgers to turn it into a song, which they did. Brilliantly.
Shel Silverstein, a prominent and beloved children’s writer and illustrator (The Giving Tree) and a good friend of Marlo’s insisted he didn’t want to “preach,” and instead came up with two perfectly wicked but perfectly on-point pieces—a story called Ladies First, and a short, sly and funny song called “Helping.” Mary Rodgers adapted the story for performance on the album.
Then Marlo—inspired by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 2000 Year Old Man comedy routine—came up with the idea for the signature piece on the album: two newborns in the hospital together trying to figure out which one was the boy and which was the girl. Peter Stone teamed up with Carl to bring this hilarious piece, “Boy Meets Girl,” to life. (Later, for the television special, we turned the babies into puppets, created by the genius puppeteer Wayland Flowers.)
I found a lovely story about a boy called Dudley Pippin, who was reprimanded by his teacher and began to cry. He was very ashamed, but his principal told him it was good to cry. That was the perfect lead-in to Carol Hall’s wonderful song, “It’s All Right To Cry,” which delivered an important message about giving little boys permission to express their emotions, which we hoped they would remember as they grew into men.
But we still didn’t have a title for the album. Fortunately, being a lyricist, my husband Bruce Hart had a special gift for titles. He loved triple rhymes, so the title came to him first as Free to Be You and Me Jamboree. I nixed the “Jamboree” part because I was so impressed with the power of the first six words. They captured the spirit of the album beautifully, but Marlo was worried that it was not child-friendly enough. I urged her to let Bruce write the lyric and Stephen Lawrence the music. When she heard the song, she was deeply moved and embraced it whole-heartedly. Those six simple words have now permeated our culture.
Confident of the quality of the material we were offering, it was now time to go out to performers. Our casting choices were inspired and ambitious. Fortunately, Marlo could connect to anyone.
Mel Brooks just had to be the baby playing opposite Marlo in the opening comedy piece. Bruce, a devout New York Giants fan, came up with the idea of Rosey Grier for “It’s All Right to Cry.” Tom Smothers had just the right ironic approach for Shel Silverstein’s “Helping.” Carol Channing was ideal for Sheldon Harnick's “Housework,” and we knew Marlo and Alan Alda would work wonderfully together in our adaptation of Betty Miles “Atalanta,” a piece created in response to Marlo’s pronounced aversion to having to get married.
It was a dream list, and the dream came true. All the performers we approached agreed to donate their services so that all earnings from the album could go to the non-profit Ms. Foundation founded by Marlo, Gloria, Letty and Pat Carbine to support projects for women and girls. At this point, I began to feel like something was going on that was bigger than all of us.
Now all we had to do was record it! Alan Alda, who was already performing several pieces on the record, agreed to direct the stories—which he did with his trademark grace and humor. Then it took us more than a month to edit and mix the album. As we were assembling it, we discovered that, although it was made of independent pieces, it all came together like a beautiful jigsaw puzzle, giving us a picture of a whole world of new possibilities.
The album was released by a small label called Bell Records, after having been turned down by many larger music companies. They just couldn’t get past its gender liberation premise. In fact, one well-known music executive rejected it with the words, “What would I want with a record produced by a bunch of dykes?” I tell this story only to remind us of the climate in the music business and much of the country at the time.
Free to Be’s release was greeted with a lot of fanfare and Marlo’s devoted promotion. She was everywhere, and the album became an instant critical and commercial hit—going gold within months.
Most important, it was a breakthrough of major cultural importance, affirmed by its subsequent incarnations as a #1 New York Times bestselling book and an Emmy- and Peabody-winning ABC television special.
Amazingly, in our throw-away society, Free to Be has endured. In 2007 we published a 35th Anniversary edition of the book, designed by Peter Reynolds and featuring new illustrations. I went to a book-signing event and, to my extreme gratification, I noticed that people were entering the book store in groups of three: Grandmothers who were our first audience, their daughters to whom they had passed it on, and their daughter’s children, toddlers, many of whom could already sing the songs.
I am so thankful for all the gifted people who came together and created a work with such a lasting impact. I am also grateful that it lives on as a tribute to the heart and soul and talent of my beloved Bruce Hart who passed away in 2006.
STEPHEN: It started one day when I sat in Marlo Thomas’ living room on the East Side of Manhattan, as a group of people brainstormed the ideas that would coalesce into Free To Be...You And Me. Bruce and Carole Hart had recently introduced me to Marlo and invited me to work on their new project. The energy in the room was palpable. I knew that whatever developed from this meeting, I wanted to be part of it. I don’t think we would have predicted that a timeless phenomenon was germinating in the room at that moment, but I did have a feeling that we were embarking on something bigger than deciding what to have for lunch.
All of the themes resonated within me: gender stereotypes; the importance of friendship and love; the need to express emotions; and, of course, the freedom to be who you want to be. My job as Musical Director would be to compose music to express these ideas. I would also arrange and conduct my own music as well as the songs written by others.
Bruce and I were given the job of writing a title song. Coming up with titles was among Bruce’s special gifts. Within a few days he showed me a lyric. “There’s a land that I see where the children are free” seemed just right: an invitation to a world filled with boundless possibility.
I composed the music in one day. I work best—and fastest—when fighting a deadline. Early on, I discovered that stalling leads to more stalling and composing leads to more composing. As a Sesame Street composer, I once composed the music for seven songs in ten days. I was pleased with all of them. I am motivated to work quickly so I have the luxury of being able to throw out early ideas if they don’t pass the overnight test: I record a piece into my computer—for Free to Be, of course, it was a tape recorder—and forget about it. The next morning I hear it fresh and if it’s not good enough, out it goes and I start again. Free to Be passed the test. I knew that people of all ages would be able to hear it easily and sing it easily.
Music and lyrics from other songwriters that we recruited began to appear, and we matched performers to each one. Marlo and Harry Belafonte were a perfect fit for Carol Hall’s wonderful song, “Parents Are People.” The instrumental tracks for the album and television special were recorded on 16-track tape in New York City. Marlo’s voice was recorded there and we recorded Harry singing in Las Vegas. They were also shot lip-syncing in various locations around New York City. The rolls of tape, two inches wide and ten-and-a-half inches in diameter, soon became too valuable to lose, so we never checked them with our luggage when flying. We always carried them with us. Of course we had made back-ups but in those pre-digital days, there was some loss in quality when tapes were duplicated. We didn’t want to take any chances.
The great football player Rosey Grier was an inspired choice to sing Carol Hall’s “It’s All Right To Cry.” Carol had written it as a simple poetic statement on the value of expressing emotions. When I played the original arrangement for Rosey he asked if I could add a stronger beat to it and illustrated by tapping his foot in tempo. I took his foot tapping—some might say stomping—and built the arrangement around that.
For the album, Diana Ross was set to sing my song “When We Grow Up,” with lyrics by Shelley Miller. The timing was tight and I wrote the arrangement on the plane to California. She did the recording in one or two takes, exactly the way I wanted it. For the television version of Free to Be, this song was sung by Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson. They were perfect, singing the duet exactly as I had envisioned it without a word from me.
Ed Kleban, who also wrote the lyrics for the Broadway show A Chorus Line, contributed the song “Let’s Hear It For Babies,” a new act we created for the television special—with Marlo and Mel Brooks as the singing newborns in a nursery full of babies. The song was developed into a Busby Berkeley-style puppet production, and it became one of the highlights of the show.
After completing post-production work on the album, I started to become aware of the cultural force Free to Be would soon become. In a country that was politically and socially divided (although not as dramatically as it is today), Free to Be had a definite impact. I believe one reason Free to Be is passed from generation to generation is that its message continues to be worth repeating.
When the record was first released in 1972, I phoned record stores to see if they had stocked their shelves with our album. I visited stores to see if it was placed prominently. I didn’t need to worry. I think if computers and the Internet were ubiquitous in the 1970’s, Free to Be would have gone viral. In a sense it has; it’s just taken a little longer.
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 child development.
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 nomination.
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.
Most importantly, 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 language arts.
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 belonging.”
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 &
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.
Looking back at the book today, obviously what’s missing are families with two moms and two dads. Back then, discriminatory laws did not permit gay couples to marry and adopt children. In any book that would be done today, of course, these families would be included.
One of the most important ideas I wanted to dispel with the book was the notion 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 did today.
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 step-parents, 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 ball.
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 kids today.
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 the writer 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 Family project.
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 adoption.
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 super fit.
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 important, 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, with Christopher Reeve playing Superboy. And to explore the important topic of adoption, we had Superboy and his parents appear on Donahue talk show as a real adoptive family. As you know, Phil Donahue is married to Marlo, so naturally he played himself on the album—which was so much fun. 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 bestsellers.
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.
Another wonderful 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 important, 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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