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Free to Be...You and Me Turns 40

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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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The 5 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
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Nicolas Cage stars in Knowing (2009).
Vince Valitutti/Summit Entertainment

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

If any film stands as a proper influence on The Twilight Zone and its use of science-fiction and fantasy to mask political and civil issues, it’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, a Cold War-era parable about an alien named Klaatu who arrives on Earth carrying a warning about warfare. Naturally, all humans want to do is shoot him.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. KNOWING (2009)

The histrionics of Nicolas Cage: You either like them or you don’t. Knowing is Cage at half-caf: While he enjoys a few meltdown scenes, he’s largely reserved here as an astrophysics professor who stumbles onto information that could herald the end of the world.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

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11 Delicious Facts About Good Burger
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Paramount Pictures

It takes just 14 words—“Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?”—to make a ‘90s kid swoon with nostalgia. Good Burger, the beloved Nickelodeon comedy about a couple of daft teens who try to save their fast food joint from corporate greed, was born out of a Kenan Thompson/Kel Mitchell sketch on All That in the mid-'90s. A year later, due to its popularity, it found itself being turned into its own live-action movie, with Brian Robbins at the helm. Today—20 years after its original release—it’s a silly cult hit that’s indelibly a part of Generation Y. Revisit the classic with these facts about Good Burger.

1. KEL MITCHELL AUDITIONED FOR ALL THAT WITH HIS CHARACTER FROM GOOD BURGER.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Kel Mitchell explained how he came up with Ed. “I did a ‘dude’ voice, and that’s where Ed [from Good Burger] was kind of born,” he said. “I did that there at the audition. They were just cracking up.”

2. ED’S FIRST APPEARANCE WAS IN THE JOSH SERVER SKETCH, “DREAM REMOTE.”

Essentially, Good Burger was born out of a random character decision made during one little sketch. “It was where [Josh] could have a remote control that could control his entire life,” Mitchell told The A.V. Club. “So, he could fast-forward through his sister nagging, he could make pizza come really quickly. I was the pizza guy. I came to the door, and the pizza guy didn’t really have a voice, so I was like, ‘Mleh, here’s your pizza! That was the first time we saw Ed, and so they created Good Burger.”

3. ED’S LOOK WAS INSPIRED BY MILLI VANILLI.

When prepping for Ed’s debut on All That, Kel Mitchell spotted what would become the character’s signature look. “I remember I went to the hair room, and I saw these braids. It was like these early Brandy ’90s Milli Vanilli braids. I put those on, and it came to life,” he told The A.V. Club.

4. THOUSANDS OF POUNDS OF MEAT STUNK UP THE SET.

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For a movie all about burgers, you better believe the production had a ton of them sitting around on set. "At one point, there was over 1750 pounds of meat on the set," Kenan Thompson told The Morning Call. "Some of it was old meat. It was so nasty. Some of the burgers would stay out there for a long time. I felt sorry for the extras who had to eat them with cold, clammy fries. But on screen, those burgers look good."

5. ELMER’S GLUE WAS USED TO KEEP THE FOOD LOOKING FRESH.

In order to keep the food looking good on screen, the production resorted to old, albeit inedible, tricks. "It was so gross, because when I scoop out ice cream in the movie, it was really vegetable shortening with food coloring,” Mitchell told The Morning Call. “When I poured milk on cereal, we used Elmer's Glue so the flakes wouldn't get soggy."

6. KENAN AND KEL CONTRIBUTED TO THE GOOD BURGER SOUNDTRACK.

Good Burger was their baby, so of course Kenan and Kel took the reins on more than just the creation of the characters, according to a 1997 interview with The Morning Call. Specifically, Kel partnered up with Less Than Jake on the hit song, “We’re All Dudes.” Because of this, the soundtrack actually charted at 101 on the Billboard 200.

7. GOOD BURGER WAS LINDA CARDELLINI’S FEATURE FILM DEBUT.

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In an interview with The A.V. Club, the Freaks and Geeks star reminisced about her breakout role in the Nickelodeon movie. “That’s my sister’s favorite role that I’ve ever played! It was so much fun. It was my first film, and it was a fantastic part,” Cardellini said. “I got to play crazy! Nobody knew who I was, and I got the part from the table read.”

8. WRITER DAN SCHNEIDER INTENDED TO GIVE UP ACTING WHEN HE WROTE GOOD BURGER, BUT HE PLAYED MR. BAILY IN THE FILM.

On creating Good Burger, writer/producer/actor Dan Schneider explained to The A.V. Club: “I’ve always wanted to write, and after I was doing All That and Kenan & Kel, I got the opportunity to do another TV show—I was still going on auditions. I realized that if I took that show, I was going to have to give up All That and Kenan & Kel. I really didn’t want to do [that] ... I passed on the acting role, and that was really the turning point, I guess, in 1996, when I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to put my acting career on the back burner, and I’m going to be a writer-producer.’ Then I wrote the movie Good Burger.” However, if you watch the movie, you’ll notice Schneider starring as Mr. Baily.

9. THE ORIGINAL TRAILER FEATURED A SCENE THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE MOVIE.

For reasons that remain a mystery, a scene where a Good Burger customer orders “a good shake” from Ed (Mitchell), only to receive an actual bodily shaking from the Good Burger employee, didn’t make the final cut. It did, however, feature for a few seconds in the theatrical trailer.

10. KENAN AND KEL REUNITED FOR A GOOD BURGER SKETCH ON THE TONIGHT SHOW.

In 2015, Kenan and Kel reunited for a Good Burger sketch with Jimmy Fallon. This time, however, Fallon played Ed’s co-worker, while Kenan came in as a construction worker as a surprise. "We've been wanting to get back together," Mitchell told E! News. "It was just about the right project ... it felt like home."

11. THE FIRST LINE IN THE FILM IS THE SAME AS THE LAST LINE.

Appropriately, the line is, “Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?”—just watch the movie.

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