The Paley Center’s Pat Mitchell: Free to be…You and Me

It was forty years ago tonight that Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be … You and Me premiered on television and, unlike many specials from that era that entertained only to eventually fade from memory, it has remained a touchstone for generations, one that has found a very special place in the hearts of millions for the important messages it has taught us. First a platinum LP, then a best-selling book, and finally the recipient of an Emmy and Peabody Award, Free to Be is a milestone in the field of encouraging gender neutrality.

If others at the time were content to portray the sexes in a limited and limiting manner, Marlo and her incredible team of writers, composers, performers, and animators challenged those stereotypes in a refreshingly creative way. This was a show that opened minds and educated us, but did so in a wonderfully entertaining manner.

One of the core missions of the Paley Center for Media is to lead the discussion about the cultural, creative, and social significance of television, radio, and emerging platforms, so we were thrilled to partner with Marlo Thomas (a Paley Center Trustee Emeritus)  to curate a look back at this seminal TV special.

Inviting fans to share their memories about the show on our Facebook page, we have been unexpectedly touched by some of the heartfelt reactions. “Free to Be was such an important part of my growing up,” David Jarner wrote. “The messages of self-acceptance and acceptance of others have always stayed with me, as have the beautiful songs and stories. I now watch it with my own children. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving the world such an amazing, lifelong gift.”

And the impact can be felt today. The proof of this was witnessed by us here at The Paley Center only a few weeks ago when our education department invited a group of children (ages 4 to 6) to watch the special. We were curious to find out if some of the lessons resonated with kids growing up in 2014. And I am happy to report that 40 years later, young children are still fascinated by Free to Be. Their eyes lit up while watching Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack sing “When I Grow Up” and they easily related to the messages of a little boy’s desire to have a doll of his own and of a defiantly progressive storybook princess named “Atalanta.”

Working with Marlo and Gloria Steinem, another woman instrumental in bringing the issues of equality and gender neutrality to the fore, the Paley Center has not only secured a newly mastered copy of the program for our archives (including the original 1974 commercials – themselves a fascinating glimpse into the era) but put together an exciting roster of Free to Be alumni to celebrate the show.

Last night, Tuesday, March 11th, those coming back to share their stories about being part of something so groundbreaking include songwriters Carol Hall, Stephen Lawrence, and Sheldon Harnick; actors Alan Alda and Rosey Grier; designer Tony Walton; producer-writer Carole Hart; and author, activist and Ms. cofounder Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Readers are invited  to watch the conversation at our website paleycenter.org.

There is no doubt that Free to Be is and will continue to be, as another fan wrote, “a jewel to pass on from generation to generation.”

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Pat Mitchell’s background in media includes work as a journalist, producer and executive. She has worked in front of the camera and behind it, anchoring the news and reporting for broadcast networks.  Mitchell was the first woman to launch, produce and host her own nationally syndicated Emmy winning talk program “Woman to Woman.” As President of CNN Productions she produced a series of outstanding documentaries which have been recognized with 44 Emmy awards, five Peabody’s, and two Academy Award nominations.  Mitchell was  the first woman President and CEO of PBS, and is currently the President and CEO of the Paley Center for Media.

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