LeVar Burton remembers the golden days of ‘Reading Rainbow’
The children’s TV show “Reading Rainbow” aired on PBS from 1983 to 2006, and “Butterfly in the Sky” is the story of how that show came to be, what it was like to work on it, and his life after death. The people interviewed here are all so kind, warm and friendly that watching this movie is like stepping into a hot bath.
The main creators of the show were Twila Liggett, who started out as a teacher of eight- and nine-year-olds, and Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit, a married couple who had a production company in New York. Liggett quit teaching because she disliked the excessive and superficial testing of young children, and she wanted to take what she had learned and bring it to television, which was seen as an enemy of reading. for children in the early 1980s.
LeVar Burton had become a television star in the miniseries “Roots” in the late 1970s, and when he was approached to host “Reading Rainbow”, he immediately saw its potential and committed to it. . Burton had studied for the priesthood as a young man, and he was a serious student of acting before landing his breakthrough television role, so he always had a sense of calling. Burton says here that when “Roots” aired and caused major discussions about the reality of slavery in America versus the myth, he realized that “all television is education.”
Burton shot the pilot for “Reading Rainbow” in 1981, and it aired in 1983. The producers wanted it to look the same every season to provide some continuity for the kids, but Burton was convinced that the children would understand that he was always the same host even when he wore a mustache or an earring.
Much of the success of “Reading Rainbow” was based on Burton’s relationship with the camera and his audience of young children, and the reason for that is as intangible, ultimately, as the reason Fred Rogers was so naturally soothing and kind. authority figure on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. Burton himself analyzes what he brought to the show: “It’s LeVar, but it’s a version of LeVar that appeals to an eight-year-old kid.” Perhaps the easiest way to put it is that the camera loves Burton’s open face, and he knew how to direct his positive energy towards that camera when talking to the kids watching him.
In an episode of “Reading Rainbow,” where Burton introduces rap music to his audience, he sounds very wholesome while explaining, “It’s kind of street poetry,” with his upbeat, energetically serious sense of wonder. . But we see another side to Burton in the footage of when he addressed Congress in the mid-1990s to save public television funding. Republican politicians were actually saying that “Reading Rainbow” was “anti-family propaganda,” a reminder that members of that party have long been unbelievers. Burton expresses his anger at this madness very directly; it seems clear that he’s just as genuinely nice off-screen as Fred Rogers, but Burton is no pushover.
“Butterfly in the Sky” features stories about filming episodes of the series in dangerous locations like bat caves, and Burton even filmed an episode against the backdrop of an erupting volcano in Hawaii. Some of the young kids who reported on the show’s books are interviewed today, and we find out that what the kids said about the books they were promoting came directly from them.
‘Reading Rainbow’ stayed on the air even when Burton landed a time-consuming role in the ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ series, and he took time when he could for ‘Reading Rainbow’ because the producers knew that they could’ve never found another host who had just the right quality for their show. Everyone gets very emotional talking about the show ending in 2006 because it was a key part of their lives for so long.
Liggett recalls George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasized the excessive testing she hated so much when she was a teacher, spelled the end of what they were trying to do. . But the legacy of “Reading Rainbow” is indestructible, and hearing firsthand from the people who made it happen is as inspiring as some of the best episodes of the show itself.
“Butterfly in the Sky” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.