Reading Rainbow was an American 30-minute children’s series that was broadcast on PBS. The show began in 1983. Producing 155 episodes, the series aired new episodes until 2006 and then showed reruns until 2009.
The show was developed to encourage children to read. Twila Liggett created the show with Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit of Lancit Media Productions. Lynne Ganek, Tony Buttino, and host LeVar Burton were also part of the creative team. The group met with Fred Rogers, Joan Ganz Cooney, and The Electric Company crew to explore ways to make television more engaging to fans. During an interview in 2003, Burton said “I think reading is part of the birthright of the human being. It’s just such an integral part of the human experience—that connection with the written word.”
Many educators found that during the summer, children lost a lot of their reading abilities because they were watching “uneducational” television and not reading. The producers of the show wanted to air a new program during the summer months that would keep kids excited about reading even when they weren’t in school. It was a great goal, but the show was often threatened with cancellation due to a lack of funding.
The show received more than 200 awards including a Peabody Award. Ten of its twenty-six Emmys were for Outstanding Children’s Series. It was the third-longest children’s show on the air right after, you guessed it, Mister Rogers and Sesame St.
A topic was introduced in each episode and then a featured children’s book was read, often narrated by a celebrity. After the story, Burton visited places relating to the theme of the day. The show ended with book suggestions for kids to read. In an Esquire interview in 2019, Burton discussed why listening to books is so important: “It gives you the opportunity to, without the mechanism of reading, engage immediately in your imagination. When you’re reading, you’re multitasking. You’re reading and making the movie in your head. When you’re listening to storytelling, there’s no activity, there’s no multitasking—you’re indeed in your imagination as you’re engaged with the content of the story. It’s a shortcut for visualization.”
Steve Horelick was the composer of the theme song with Dennis Neil Kleinman and Janet Weir writing lyrics. The show had three versions of the song with the third version sung by Chaka Khan.
There are a lot of great stars who showed up to read to kids, including Ruth Buzzy, Julia Child, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Kermit the Frog, Peter Falk, Jane Goodall, and Run D-M-C.
Margret Aldrich in wrote an article in 2014, and she chose the top ten books from the series. It’s a great place to start if you want to find a couple of books to read to your child.
- All the Colors of the Race by Arnold Adoff, read by Maya Angelou.
- Sunken Treasure by Gail Gibbons, read by Robert Morse
- On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier, read by Patrick Stewart.
- Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, read by Tyne Daly.
- Animal Café by John Stadler, read by Martin Short.
- The Magic Schoolbus Inside the Earth by Joanna Cole, read by Keshia Knight Pulliam.
- Paul Bunyan by Steven Kellogg, read by Buddy Ebsen
- Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown, read by Bill Cosby.
- Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema, read by James Earl Jones.
- Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger and Michael Hays, read by Pete Seeger.
So, why was the show canceled? According to John Grant, who is in charge of content at WNED Buffalo, the show’s home station, “The show’s run is ending because no one—not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights.” And, just like that, the last chapter was closed for good.
Reading Rainbow was an essential motivation for kids to read. However, adults have to realize that they also have to make time for reading. Let’s allow Levar to have the last word. In that Esquire interview, he also talked about why all of us need to read:
“You need to make the time. You have time to eat; you have time to sleep; you have time to love. I think reading for pleasure is an act of self-care, genuinely. I really do, especially in today’s world. You’ve gotta turn off the news; you’ve got to create some escape time in your imagination. You have to feed yourself, people! Otherwise, we have a tendency to get locked into the circumstances of life, and less engaged in the solution aspect of ourselves. It’s really critical for us to read for pleasure. One of the miracles of the modern era is that on my iPad, and consequently, because of the Cloud, on my phone, I carry a library of reading material. I mean, literally a library. It’s so available. We just have to shift our awareness a degree in that direction.”
In 1966 Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie VP Lloyd Morrisett had a goal to create a new television show for kids. Apparently, they were at a dinner party when Morrisett was telling Cooney that one morning he found his three-year-old sitting in front of the television watching the test pattern. He wondered if the “boob tube” could ever actually teach kids anything. After a couple of years of research, they created the Children’s Television Workshop. An $8 million grant from funding from several corporations (Carnegie Foundation, Ford Foundation, for Corporation Public Broadcasting and the US federal government) was given to the Workshop to develop the show.
The show debuted in November of 1969. I don’t remember much about the show, but I can tell you as a third grader I was incensed that we were forced to watch a show for toddlers. However, the show received high ratings and was lauded a success. (By 2019 there were more than 150 versions of the show produced in 70 different languages.)
Carol Burnett appeared on the first episode. She said, “I didn’t know anything about it when they asked me to be on. All I knew was that Jim Henson was involved and I thought he was a genius—I’d have gone skydiving with him if he’d asked. But it was a marvelous show. I kept going back for more. I think one time I was an asparagus.”
The show adopted a fast-moving style that incorporated action, humor, color, and music. They tried to match preschoolers’ attention spans. Humans often interacted with puppets in the style of Fred Rogers.
Sesame Street dealt with a lot of controversial issues and life situations that affected kids. In 1982, Will Lee who played Mr. Hooper passed away, and the show had to deal with his absence. The episode discussed death and avoided saying Mr. Hooper died in a hospital, so kids did not equate hospitals with death. Fans consistently rate this episode as one of the most moving and memorable ones that they watched.
The show was always sensitive to ensuring they had a variety of ethnicities and genders represented in the series. In 1970 the show was banned in Mississippi by the State Commission for Educational Television. An anonymous committee member said that it was because of the diverse and integrated cast. After a statewide protest, they finally reversed their decision three weeks later.
In 1981 the federal government withdrew its funding from the show. Sesame St. developed new revenue resources from books, product licensing, and magazine production.
The show began to struggle a bit in the 1990s, competing with a variety of shows for ratings. In 1999, Elmo was given his own segment, “Elmo’s World.”
In 2009, the show received an Outstanding Achievement Emmy for its four decades on the air. As of 2018 the show had won 189 Emmys overall (and 11 Grammy awards), more than any other children’s show.
In 2019, the series celebrated fifty years on television, having produced more than 4500 episodes, 2 movies (Follow that Bird and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland), 200 videos, and 180 albums.
Cooney credited the show’s high quality to Harvard professors Gerald Lesser and Edward L. Palmer. Lesser designed the educational objectives for the show while Palmer did the formative research and bridged the gap between producers and researchers.
Of course, the show would not be what it was without Jim Henson. Cooney met Henson in Boston; he was reluctant to join the show but agreed to bypass his performance fees for full ownership of the Muppets, splitting revenue from them 50/50 with CTW.
It seems like some fun facts would be in order:
In 2004 the Cookie Monster said his name had previously been Sid.
Kermit retired in 2001.
Big Bird is 8’2” tall.
Oscar the Grouch was inspired by a combination of a two men Henson interacted with. One was a mean waiter and the other was a restaurant director at Oscar’s Tavern in Manhattan.
Carol Spinney who played Bird took his voice from a cab driver who used to transport him to the set.
The stripes on Bert and Ernie’s shirts are deliberate: Ernie’s horizontal ones appear more relaxed while Bert’s vertical ones make him appear uptight.
Big Bird’s teddy bear is named Radar, for Radar on M*A*S*H who slept with a teddy bear.
The 847th episode, which was broadcast in 1976, featured Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Kids were so scared that the episode never aired again.
And of course, the answer to the question everyone wants to know. How do you get to Sesame Street? Take the R or V train to Steinway St. Stay on the back of the train and then walk west on 34th Ave. three blocks to 36th St. Turn left. The entrance to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens is half way between 34th and 35th Aves.
It’s hard to measure the impact the show has had on decades of children. A 1996 survey found that 95% of American preschoolers had watched the show by the time that they were 3 years old. In 2018, 86 million Americans reported watching the show as a child. As of 2001, more than 1000 research studies had been conducted regarding the effect of the show on American culture.
While I was not thrilled to watch the show as a third grader, I did spend many hours watching the show with my children and appreciated the quality that went into every script. And, in answer to Lloyd Morrisett, can television ever teach kids anything worthwhile? Absolutely!
We are taking a look at some of the classic kids’ shows on PBS (or Purposefully Brilliant Programming as I am referring to it) in March. It seemed fitting to start with one of the shows that many of us grew up with: Mister Rogers.
Fred Rogers was born in Pennsylvania in 1928. Fred’s youth was far from ideal. He was shy and overweight, which he was bullied about. He also spent much of his time alone because he had asthma which kept him out of school a lot of the time. He turned to his stuffed animals to create a more friendly world for himself.
In high school, he blossomed. He was president of the student council, editor of the yearbook, in the National Honor Society, and made a variety of friends including several football players.
He enrolled in Rollins College and graduated in 1951 with a music degree. He started his television career in New York but returned to Pittsburgh in 1953 to be the program developer for NET, now PBS, at WQED. While pursuing his television career, he also attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, graduating with a degree in divinity in 1962. He became a Presbyterian minister the following year and also attended the University of Pittsburgh graduate school for child development.
He met his wife Joanne in college, and they were married in 1952 and made a great team for life, raising two boys.
One of the shows he worked on at WQED was Children’s Corner. Many of the puppets who showed up later on his show were created for this series. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto offered Rogers his own show, a 15-minute black and white children’s program. He moved to Canada and appeared on the show from 1963-1967. When the show was cancelled, he acquired the rights to the show.
In 1968 he returned to Pittsburgh, and the show became part of WQED’s schedule. The program focused on children’s emotional and physical concerns and covered a lot of important topics including dealing with death, sibling rivalry, the effects of divorce, prejudice, and other life issues.
In 1970, NET became PBS, and the show was retitled Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and broadcast nationally. Fred began each episode by changing into one of his iconic cardigans while singing the ever-popular theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” He then did a small monologue about the day’s topic. His website, misterrogers.org explains this daily ritual: “That seemingly simple routine is part of a larger message and an invitation. The message: I care about you, no matter who you are and no matter what you can or cannot do. The invitation: Let’s spend this time together. We’ll build a relationship and talk and imagine and sing about things that matter to you.”
Fred produced the show, wrote the scripts, hosted the show, and composed the music. Between 1968 and 2001, more than 1000 episodes were created.
On the website misterrogers.org, we are introduced to the characters who live in the neighborhood of Make Believe.
Daniel the Striped Tiger: This shy, gentle tiger is equal parts timid and brave.
King Friday XIII: The rule of the Neighborhood of Make Believe can be demanding, but he cares deeply for his subjects.
Lady Elaine Fairchilde: She’s mischievous and a bit of a troublemaker, but she’s also brave, sassy, and ready to speak up.
Henrietta the Pussycat: A lovable pussycat all dressed up in fancy dresses and hats.
X the Owl: A fun-loving, easygoing relaxed sort of owl who loves to learn.
Fred described his puppets by saying, “The authority of the king, the shyness of Daniel Tiger, the adolescence of X the Owl, the mischievousness of Lady Elaine Fairchilde, we all have lots of facets to who we are, and it’s fun to be able to express them.”
I found a fitting story about why this show was so exceptional. Robert Bianco stopped by the set to do an article for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. He wrote: “Years ago, I spent a day on the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The scene they were shooting was simple. Fred Rogers was supposed to sit at a table, drink a glass of juice and then move on to another part of the set. When he finished shooting the scene, however, Rogers realized he couldn’t finish the juice in the time allotted. So, he asked for another, non-see-through glass, so children wouldn’t see him leaving a half-filled glass on the table.
The director objected, saying kids would never notice, and it wouldn’t make any difference if they did. But Rogers said wasting juice sent the wrong message to his audience, and then simply repeated his request, patiently but firmly, and in a tone that made it clear he would not change his mind. He got his glass.
There’s a lot of Fred Rogers boiled down in that story: his attention to detail, his dedication to the work, his sense of responsibility for its effects, his moral authority, his willingness to exercise power, and his skill at doing so graciously.”
Mister Rogers gave children the possibilities of who they could become. He opened up new worlds they might not have encountered. He wanted to inspire kids to think big.
Two years after ending the show, Fred died from stomach cancer in 2003.
Rogers became known for his optimistic and caring attitude. He was one of the most-requested commencement speakers in the country, visiting more than 150 schools. Most of his lectures were about television programming, education, his view of the world, how to make the world a better place, and how children were affected by issues, as well as his continual quest for more knowledge.
Fred received more than 40 major awards, including a Peabody in 1992, a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997, induction into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, and was featured on the Forever stamp in 2018.
Many museums have featured a Fred Rogers temporary or permanent exhibit. The Smithsonian Institution contains a collection of Rogers items from the show, including one of his red sweaters.
A 7000-pound, 11-foot high, Mister Rogers oversees the North Shore Neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
In 2019, Fred’s life moved to the big screen with the debut of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, with Tom Hanks portraying Rogers.
Tom captured the essence of Fred perfectly, but he knew he was under a lot of pressure to do so. There were thousands of kids who knew Fred intimately because they spent time with him every afternoon. Tom told the following story:
“I was on an elevator and a man got on and said, ‘Mr. Hanks, how is filming going? Are you enjoying your time here in Pittsburgh?’ I said ‘Very much, and I must say, Pittsburgh is a great city.’ He said ‘Thank you, I have to agree.’ And then before I got off at my floor, he said ‘You know, we take Mister Rogers very seriously in Pittsburgh.’ I said, ‘I am aware of that.’ The entire town knew we were filming a movie about Mister Rogers . I think we got a proper amount of props from the people of the city—as well as some expectations.”
Fred’s wife was brought into the movie production for her blessing which she gave. She had two important things she wanted to come through in the movie. One was how funny Fred was. If you read his speeches, you can hear his wit and humor. She also wanted to make sure that he was not treated as a saint. Her theory was that he had been put on a pedestal above everyone else. She said people might tell her, “I can’t do that but I admire him. I would love to do it.” Her response to them and to us is “Well you can do it. I’m convinced that there are lots of Fred Rogerses out there.” And of course, that was Fred’s goal; he wanted us to all believe we could make a difference.
One of my favorite Fred Rogers stories was about his car. The “story” says Fred’s Chevy Impala was parked near the TV station in Pittsburgh when a thief took it and drove off. Fred filed a police report and it got out on the news. Within two days the vehicle was returned to the exact spot with a note left on the dashboard that said, “If I’d known it was yours, I never would have taken it.” There are some questions about whether this is a true story or not. In 1980, the New York Times did in fact report the story. In reality, Fred was babysitting for his grandson when it was stolen. The thief realized whose car it was because he found some papers in the car and he did return the car and left it parked in front of Fred’s home. As writers, details get embellished, so I like the inaccurate version better, but either way, the point is the same. We should all try to be the type of people that would make thieves feel bad about stealing our cars.
During one of his interviews, Fred was asked about productive people he had been exposed to and he said “The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing . . . and it seems to have very little to do with worldy success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.” We need a few more successful people in this world, and more Fred Rogers to inspire the next generation. So put on your sweater, go talk to some kids, and show others you care.