Free To Be You And Me MP3
It's All Right To Cry MP3
Parents Are People MP3
Sisters And Brothers MP3
When We Grow Up MP3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE HISTORY OF FREE TO BE YOU AND ME
As remembered by Marlo Thomas & 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 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 Shel Silverstein.

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 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 Foundation
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 Book
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."

The Play
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

For any further information, please feel free to contact us at Info@FreeToBeFoundation.org or 212-280-8623.