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LeVar Burton Carries on ‘Reading Rainbow’ – And The Legacy of Fred Rogers
June 2, 2014  | By David Bianculli  | 6 comments

PITTSBURGH, PA – LeVar Burton, with his current Kickstarter campaign to revive Reading Rainbow, is doing more than rebooting that brilliant children’s literacy series for a new generation, though that would be plenty. He’s also rebooting the spirit of Fred Rogers…

Burton, 57, whose first TV role was as Kunta Kinte in ABC’s landmark 1977 miniseries Roots, was the keynote speaker Sunday night at the 2014 Fred Forward Conference, a collection of educators, broadcasters, producers and others involved in carrying on the ideals of Fred Rogers, creator and host of long-time PBS children’s series Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

Burton, also a star of Star Trek: The Next Generation, was an inspired choice as keynote speaker for this year’s Fred Forward conference, which runs through Tuesday. Burton, with Reading Rainbow, had, like Rogers, reached out directly to young viewers for decades (the first Reading Rainbow episode was shown in June 1983). He knew Rogers well, was the recipient of his praise, advice and encouragement, and even keeps a picture of the two of them, which he looks at “every day,” on his desk at work.

Burton was born in Germany in 1957, and his young childhood was spent there, so his awareness of Fred Rogers as a TV icon came a bit later. Burton’s love of reading came from his mother, who was both a teacher and a social worker – but once Burton saw Fred Rogers on TV, he was drawn immediately to the man, who became “not just a friend, but a mentor.” The connection was instant (Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, while Burton, as a youngster, spent four years studying for the Catholic priesthood), but Burton was totally unprepared for the genuineness of the real, off-camera Mr. Rogers.

“I assumed that was an act,” Burton confessed to the conference attendees. “No one could possibly be that nice. But the first time I met him, I was gobstopped. He was that kind. He was that attentive…

“One of the things I learned from Fred,” Burton said later, “is that it is okay to make education on TV, as ministry, what it is you do – that reaching children in as authentic a manner as you are able to is a valid use of your time, your effort, and your energy.”

Burton’s belief in the power of TV came early, when he found himself in the eye of a pop-culture hurricane, as the previously unknown star of ABC’s Roots – still one of the most popular scripted dramas ever televised.

“When I was 19, and a sophomore at the University of Southern California,” Burton recounted, “I auditioned for what turned out to be my first professional job, which was in Alex Haley’s Roots. It was an experience for me that really showed me the power of the medium of television.

“In eight consecutive nights of television, I watched America become transformed, around an issue that I believe goes to the heart of almost everything that happens in this country and this culture: slavery and its attendant legacy. And America got schooled. Black America, white America – we all got an education about the cost of the institution of slavery…”

Burton said that, because of Roots, he was well aware of  “the potential power of the medium of television” when he was asked by PBS to host a TV show one summer.

Reading Rainbow was originally only a summer series,” Burton explained. “It was designed to combat what teachers called the summer loss phenomenon.’

“A child, when they’re cracking the code, when they’re learning how to read, they take that three-month summer vacation, and their reading and comprehension skills plummet. So the idea – and it was pretty radical, I have to say, at the time – was to use the prevailing technology of the time, and the opportunity of reaching kids where they were:  sitting in front of the television set. And then grabbing them there, at what I call the point of purchase, and then take them back to the world of literature and the written word.

“And for 26 years, it worked brilliantly – to the point where now, the first couple of generations of Reading Rainbow watchers are beginning to have children themselves.”

And those now-grown children, like Burton and his commitment to children’s television, are paying it forward. Last week, Burton and his collaborators launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive Reading Rainbow for a new generation, and for new technologies – delivering the backlog of hundreds of episodes to all manner of mobile and console media, with plans to produce two new book reading segments and one new Reading Rainbow field trip, led by Burton, each week.

The 35-day Kickstarter campaign set a goal of $1 million – a goal that was reached in 11 hours.

“It’s been an amazing week, y’all,” he said, beaming a smile as the crowd applauded the results.

“We launched a Kickstarter campaign,” Burton said, “mostly because the traditional venture capital world isn’t really interested in quality programming for kids. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t satisfy their ego, necessarily. But we had a vision – we have a decision – and a desire to really make a difference…

“If Fred had been alive, he would have been the first person I called to get his advice about doing the Kickstarter – about taking a 30-year-old platinum brand and putting it at risk by asking for money in a very public way.

“And what I discovered is that literacy still matters in America. People still care about teaching our kids – not simply to read, but to develop a passion for the written word. And those first couple of generations of Reading Rainbow watchers have turned out in droves. We will most certainly set a record for the most number of backers in a single campaign…

We are at day 5 of our campaign, and we have over 70,000 people who have contributed to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter. As I stand here, we are somewhere northward of $3.2 million.  And we still have,” he added, laughing, “over 30 days to go.”

The extra money being raised, he said, allows him to think, and dream, even bigger, and to service even more of the children who are in need of education, and a spark of imagination.

“The technology may change,” Burton said, “but we’re still doing the same thing that we’ve always done, using the technology of the day. Back in the Eighties, it was TV. Today, it’s tablet computers…

“We’re going to be able to give the product away to schools in need. That’s a big thing for me, and an important thing, because, after all, Reading Rainbow is a show that was incubated at PBS. The additional money that we have raised – reaching a million dollars in 11 hours never, never entered our minds… -- has us asking, what else can we do?

“Our stretch goal is five million dollars. That gives us the opportunity to…give the product away to 7,500 classrooms, and I’m really excited about that. The more we raise, the more we’ll be able to do.”

The Fred Forward Conference is all about finding new ways to serve new generations of children, and in that respect, LeVar Burton certainly has taken up the mission of the conference’s namesake.

“I think about Fred Rogers virtually every day of my life,” Burton concluded. “And I like to think that he is up there, smiling today, because America still cares about educating its kids, and I had begun to question whether that was true or not.

“We have spent an inordinate amount of money on the weapons of war this last decade or so, and we have sacrificed an entire generation of our kids. And the fact that the first couple of generations [of Reading Rainbow viewers] have turned around now and said, ‘I want to make sure that those that come behind me will have Reading Rainbow,' means the world to me.”

Me, too.


[Editor’s note: Full disclosure – I currently serve on the Fred Rogers Advisory Board. But my enthusiasm for this topic, and for both Rogers and Burton, far predates that honor. – DB]

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That was amazingly written thank you very much for reporting on this. Me and my family grew up on Fred Rogers and LeVar Burton, I’ve even met LeVar Burton what a truly nice man. I too wonder like “Tom” if the VHS can be reissued as DVD?
May 11, 2019   |  Reply
Tom Harman
I have been showing the original RR in my 2nd and 3rd classrooms for the past 25 years! In VHS format!! The kids love them! I wonder if the originals could be reissued as CDs? Just a thought.
Tom Harman
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Jun 13, 2014   |  Reply
Beautifully written! Thank you!
Jun 4, 2014   |  Reply
Thank you. It is so great to have people like Levar Burton help to carry forward the legacy of Fred.
Jun 4, 2014   |  Reply
Great story. Thank you!
Jun 3, 2014   |  Reply
Thanks for reporting on this. I loved Fred Rogers; probably as much or more than my two kids. He was a genuine inspiration to so many kids -- and so many parents. It's gratifying to see LeVar carry his legacy forward for new generations of children. If ever there was a worthy person to take up Fred Rogers' mantle, LeVar is that person. God bless him in these endeavors. Heartwarming to know there are still celebrities out there with their priorities straight.
Jun 2, 2014   |  Reply
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