I’d only discovered Fred Rogers at 15, more than a decade later than most kids. When people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up my standard answer was: “I’d like to make television programs for children and sing songs and read stories.” The all too often response was: “You’re going to be the next Mister Rogers!”
Because I didn’t know who he was, I started watching his program and right away he became an inspiration. I knew if I created a children’s program, I’d want it to celebrate the principals pioneered by Fred Rogers. A program that relished opportunities for stillness and reflection and presented a unique offering of comfort and care to whomever might be watching.
Having a benefit concert would be a way to not only show my appreciation, but the world’s too, for all he’d done. We’d play his music and have people who knew him say a few words or sing some of his songs. I thought we could create an entire PBS extravaganza, right in San Diego where I live, with everyone from Big Bird to the biggest stars in Hollywood, all to pay tribute to this amazing man. Then, we could charge admission and raise enough money to produce a show that could carry on his principals. What could go wrong?
My entire 17th year of life was dedicated to making this happen. I needed to find a venue, caterers, event planners, musicians, celebrities, talent coordinators as well as people experienced in marketing, advertising and publicity.
It was an incredible amount of work. I woke up at 5 am every day to reach people on the East Coast, who were already three hours ahead. Sometimes, I wouldn’t go to sleep till early the next day, all to wake up and do it again.
All this led to my ending up in the hospital with a rather severe case of ulcerative colitis. My blood count was low and it was a frightening time. A week in the hospital gave me the rest I needed, but as soon as I was released, I went right back to work. There was so much left to do!
And that’s when things started to go wrong. About two months out from our event date (which had already been changed several times), our talent coordinators began asking some very reasonable questions. Questions like: “How old are you exactly? And do you actually have an agreement with PBS to air this special?” To which I replied something like: “What do you mean do I have an agreement with PBS? Of course they’ll air our special, it’s for Mister Rogers why wouldn’t they?”
After hearing my naïve answers, they contacted all the performers and told them the event had been canceled due to a scheduling conflict. As you may imagine, my stomach did not react well to this news.
I contacted each performer myself and pleaded with them to come anyway, but it didn’t work. Then, in a moment of pure desperation, I tragically engaged in some very heavy hope-filled self-deception. I thought if I invited as many celebrities as I could possibly think of and then really believe that they’d come, then they really would. Out of everyone I invited I thought for sure at least a few would come. I was so hopeful! I just kept telling myself that things would work out, that people would come, that Fred Rogers deserved to be honored.
Some months earlier I’d been told that real celebrities don’t give personal radio interviews. That they’re far too busy for that and that people who sound like them call in on their behalf and then, no one knows the difference. It was a trade Hollywood secret. And, I’m ashamed to admit, I believed it.
I asked someone who sounded like one of the performers that I was so hopeful was actually coming, to call into a local radio station and speak on the performers behalf. My juvenile reasoning figured if they heard they were on the radio, then they would be sure to come.
To say I was heartbroken and absolutely frozen with embarrassment would be an understatement. I’d just turned 18, an age that is already riddled with awkwardness and embarrassment for most, and this opened me up to harsh ridicule. It’s something I’ll never forget.
There was never any legal action, but a month later when I finally went to close our post office box, there was a cease and desist notice from both Mister Rogers’ company and PBS. I was mortified! But it was probably the nicest, genuinely concerned cease and desist notice that had ever been written. I just wish I’d found it earlier. If I had, I never would have proceeded.
It upsets me to this day. I loved Fred Rogers so much and cry when I think how I may have offended and embarrassed his company.
I am overwhelmed with regret, but no matter how much I’d like to go back and change the past, I can’t. What I can do is move forward and use what happened as an opportunity to do something that can help make the future bright.
And that’s what Michael’s Storytime is about. My hope for our storytime work is that it can offer comfort, as well as address some of the deeper psychological, social and emotional needs of young children. It is also my hope that this program can show people that I’m sorry, by doing what I said I was going to do all along.
Official Website: www.michaelkinsell.com