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Paley Center

Free to Be...You and Me Turns 40

Paley Center
Paley Center

Forty years ago this week, the TV special Free to Be...You and Me aired on ABC. Based on the 1972 best-selling record and book, the special starred Free to Be creator Marlo Thomas and featured the likes of Rosey Grier, Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, a teenage Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, and Kris Kristofferson, many of whom had also participated in the album.

The special would go on to earn an Emmy and, after 16mm prints were cut, a regular slot in the school curriculum of 35 states for many years to come (not to mention some pretty valuable real estate in the hearts and minds of children born in the seventies). According to Thomas, she is still regularly asked to participate in Free to Be events across the country.

To celebrate the anniversary, the stars of the special, including Thomas, Grier, Alda, Gloria Steinem, and Carole Hart, participated in a panel discussion at the Paley Center on Wednesday.

Here are a few things we learned from the evening.

1. Aunts Are People

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The idea for Free to Be came to Marlo Thomas—then most famous for her starring role on That Girl, in which she played Ann Marie, a career girl who didn’t want to get married—as she was reading a bedtime story to her 5-year-old niece Dionne. Thomas was shocked to discover all the books available to her niece were the same books she had been read when she was a little girl, and “it had taken me 30 years to get over them.” When Thomas went to the bookstore the next day in search of better fare, she found the state of children’s fiction was “worse than I thought.” On the shelves she discovered the especially abyssmal I’m Glad I’m A Boy, I’m Glad I’m A Girl. Sample text: “Boys invent things, girls use what boys invent.” Says Thomas: “I almost had a heart attack right there.” 

She quickly decided to make a “little record” for Dionne and on the recommendation of Shel Silverstein went to legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who put her in touch with some well known children’s writers. Disappointed with the results, and worried children of the seventies were too “hip” and wouldn’t be satisfied with simply sing-songy lyrics, Thomas instead turned to Broadway in the hopes of doing something “really jazzy for kids.” The result was an album written and composed by some of the leading lyricists and musicians of the day.

2. ABC Wanted to Cut Three Songs

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According to Thomas, there were three pieces the TV powers-that-be wanted to cut from the special. The first two were "William Wants A Doll" and "It’s Alright to Cry," because the network was worried showing them “would make every boy in America a sissy…that wasn’t the word they used.”

They also had a problem with "Parents are People," not because of the lyrics, says Thomas, but because there was concern that the scene featuring her and Harry Belafonte wheeling their own baby buggies down a sidewalk made it seem as though the two were married. The network told Thomas they “couldn’t put that out and certainly couldn’t play it in the South.”

3. All three pieces made it to air.

The day the special aired, one Boston critic cautioned parents to "keep your children away from the set."

4. Michael Jackson Never Felt Free to Take His Own Advice

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One of the special's songs, "When We Grow Up"—about learning to accept ourselves for who we are—was performed by Roberta Flack and a teenage Michael Jackson. The two sing to each other through a mirror:

And I don't care if you never get tall.
I like what you look like...
... and you're nice small.
We don't have to change at all.

Sadly, Jackson was unable to absorb the advice he so sweetly sang about. Tony Walton, the production designer for both Free to Be and The Wiz, says that on the set of the latter Jackson was particularly grateful for his Scarecrow costume. “I had given him a little cupcake cup to put on his nose,” recounted Walton, “and he started crying, and I said ‘oh, is this upsetting?’” Responded Jackson: “I cannot tell you how happy I am, my father has always called me ‘big nose’ and so my brothers always called me ‘big nose,’ too, so I am really conscious of how ugly I am to them.”

5. What does this have to do with M.S.?

The money raised from Free to Be initially went to the Ms. Foundation for Women, a non-profit organization founded in 1973 by Gloria Steinem, Patricia Carbine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Marlo Thomas as a way to funnel back (anticipated) profits from Ms. magazine into the feminist movement (later, FTBYM would establish its own foundation). Not everyone in those days was familiar with Ms., however, and when Mel Brooks arrived on set to do his part he exclaimed, “I’m happy to do this for Marlo but what does this have to do with Multiple Sclerosis?”

6. Free to be…Free (Or always read the fine print!)

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Because of her various showbiz connections, Thomas was able to get people to participate for free. That said, it turned out there was a lot of money to be made by taking children seriously, and the good will of those who signed on to participate gratis paid off in the end. Literally. According to writer Dan Greenburg, the contract stated “very clearly I was to get no money. And lo and behold, I never read the boilerplate, which apparently said that beyond a certain amount, people started getting paid. And the money started coming in!”

Come along, take my hand, sing a song

No really. They really mean it. This is how the evening ended.

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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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