Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Toddler's Tunes and Tales

At my 50th birthday party (oh, so long ago!), I remember giving a talk and saying, “When I was in college, everyone predicted that we all would eventually sell out to the ‘Establishment.’ I’m proud to say that I have not.” And then added, “Of course, no one has ever made me an offer.” As I hoped for, the crowd laughed.


But it actually wasn’t quite true. Because in 1986, a woman approached me about making a music video for toddlers. My reply was that I didn’t think toddlers should be watching TV and it would be against my principles. She persisted and suggested that since some already were watching programs, they might as well watch something more interactive and playful. I would be the musical Mr. Rogers and get them singing, dancing and clapping in their homes. 


On we talked and I suggested that she simply film my classes at school with 3-year olds and the young viewers could vicariously participate on the other side of the screen. She agreed to the idea of me teaching 3-year olds, but leaning on her “professional expertise,” insisted that I select some eight kids and we would film on the weekend in another location. The video would alternate between me teaching the kids and then talking directly to the camera to the kids I couldn’t see watching in their homes. I believe I had one short session as to how to present to a camera. 


It was a minor disaster. First off, the place we filmed was a random room in a community center stuffed with furniture and not the least bit camera-worthy. And of course, much less familiar to the kids than the music room at the school. 


Secondly, I would do an activity with the kids and the director would have us do it again. And again. And again. Keep in mind that these kids were THREE YEARS OLD!! We worked for some 6 hours on Saturday and another 6 on Sunday and they were exhausted! They didn’t really get the concept of “Take Two.”


Then there was me. Dressed in a really dubious shirt with a mustache that needed trimming trying to act natural in front of a camera that was oh-so-different from an actual kid. With no training except for that short session and thrown into this completely unnatural habitat. 


The video was made, titled Toddler’s Tunes and Tales,, sold commercially and was even reviewed by People magazine! Not a scathing review nor an enthusiastic endorsement but a lukewarm “whatever.” Years later, when Facebook was new, someone put up an excerpt with a comment, “Look at this creepy music teacher!!!!” And the subsequent comments agreed and added their own lovely epithets. I remember having someone help me contact Facebook and insist it be taken down and it eventually was. I was outraged that some punk kids in Texas ( we traced it) felt they had the right to insult me without knowing who I was and what I had done, taking it completely out of context, as that medium can do. 


But I could see their point. It did feel a little creepy. Once at a family/friend gathering, I showed it to everyone, my grown children included and we laughed mightily. If that were to be the legacy of my life’s work, I would leave this earth as a wandering ghost wanting redemption. 


Having shared this much, I can picture you thinking, “I want to see it!” So I checked to see if it was still circulating anywhere on the Internet and the good news is “No!” There’s some videos of other people doing some music for kids called Toddler’s Tunes and Tales, but thankfully no sign of this ill-fated project. If you have a VCR and come to my house, I’ll show it to you after charging you a fee and swearing you to secrecy.


Meanwhile, The Secret Song film is the antidote that will allow me to rest in peace when my time comes. What I love about it is that except for one 20-second scene when I was asked to “walk pensively through the Arboretum,” I never once felt I was performing for a camera. I simply worked exactly the way I work with kids, talked exactly the way I talk with them, was exactly who I am, with the camera in the background as a witness. No fake smiles or rehearsed scripts or nervousness about how I looked. Like Popeye, me just doing my thing with absolute conviction that “I yam what I yam.”


And here’s a nice surprise. That communicates to the audience. I’ve been in three different movie theaters with people who didn’t know me watching the film and heard their genuine applause at the end. Not for a star performance, but for a person presenting the full measure of his authenticity and integrity and passion and love for what he does and how he does it. That feels good.


This whole post inspired by watching The Morning Show and thinking about how we have become an “on camera” culture, presenting one face to the public that is quite different from the one our Soul has sculpted. The fake TV studio, with its lights and cameras and make-up artists and the whole crew of publicity people marketing an image, with its vast difference between “we’re rolling” and “cut,”  is supplanting the authentic living of a life, the embracing of our Soul’s deeper image without concern for the number of  “likes.” And with the whole culture on camera now with their phones, it is eating away at the national soul and particularly hurting young children already hooked into an image of self as TV personality. When people suggest that time in Nature is healing to the Soul, it’s not just about seeing pretty things and breathing fresh air. It’s about being in company with living things—the birds and bees and plants and trees— that are wholly themselves and never once smile for the camera. 


Think about this as you walk through Golden Gate Park on the way to my house to see Toddler’s Tunes and Tales. Bring your own popcorn.


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