'Dusty': PBS Vet Takes Kids' TV Out Of The Box In 2005, PBS decided not to air an episode of a children's show because it featured a family with gay parents. Now a real-life kids'-TV writer has built a stage play around the story behind the episode that didn't air.
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'Dusty': PBS Vet Takes Kids' TV Out Of The Box

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'Dusty': PBS Vet Takes Kids' TV Out Of The Box

'Dusty': PBS Vet Takes Kids' TV Out Of The Box

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Every so often, public television finds itself at the center of drama. A few years ago, the PBS children's show "Postcards from Buster," featured an episode with gay parents. The secretary of the Department of Education, which funded the series, threatened to cut its grant. Well now, that incident is the storyline for a new play, one that premiers tonight at the Denver Center Theater Company. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the play is fictional but the playwright knows of what she speaks.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: When it comes to children's programming on public television, playwright Cusi Cram says the stakes are high. Cusi Cram has been writing for the PBS show, "Arthur" for almost 10 years. She says people might be surprised to find out what goes on behind the scenes. She says the concerns of the audience can be a mine field for writers.

Ms. CUSI CRAM (Writer): They're like, please do something about peanut allergies, you know, please do something about lactose intolerance. So all of the writers on the show, it's like, how can we make a story about this that would be in the least bit funny and intriguing to kids?

BLAIR: So in her play, Cusi Cram made the writers of the fictional kids show "Dusty" very high strung.

(Soundbite of play "Dusty and the Big Bad World")

Unidentified Woman: Well I guess we could make Spuds allergic to radishes.

Unidentified Man: Well, Spuds already has some kind of allergy, citrus or muffins.

Unidentified Woman: Plus he's lactose intolerant.

Unidentified Man: Everyone on this show is allergic to something.

Unidentified Woman: Because allergies are huge issue.

BLAIR: "Dusty and the Big, Bad World" tells the story of what happens when the show asks young viewers why the animated dust-ball hero should come visit them. One who writes in is an 11-year-old girl with a not-so-traditional family.

(Soundbite of play "Dusty and the Big Bad World")

Unidentified Woman: People say the dumbest stuff like it's really, really you have two dads, and the Bible says this and that about gay people. And mostly I don't care about the Bible or what other people because we're agnostic Buddhists anyway. But I thought if we were on TV, then maybe people would stop saying stupid stuff.

BLAIR: Cusi Cram got the idea for the play in 2005 when her colleagues at WGBH in Boston - including her husband, who also writes for children's TV - found themselves embroiled in controversy over an episode of the PBS show "Postcards from Buster." Buster visited two families in Vermont, both with parents who are lesbians.

(Soundbite of television show "Postcards from Buster")

Unidentified Woman #1: These are all pictures our family.

Unidentified Woman #2: Is that James?

Unidentified Woman #1: James, David and I and Gillian...

Unidentified Woman #2: So Gillian's your mom, too?

Unidentified Woman #1: She's my stepmom.

Unidentified Woman #2: Boy, that's a lot of moms.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yup.

BLAIR: The episode was not about the fact that these kids had gay parents. It was about making maple syrup in Vermont. But it ignited a national firestorm. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings sent a threatening letter to PBS President Pat Mitchell. Many parents, she wrote, would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode. "Postcards from Buster" came up in a Senate hearing. Pat Mitchell testified that PBS management decided not to distribute the episode.

Mr. PAT MICHELL (PBS President): But when this subject came in, we felt that it was of such controversial nature for some of our communities that it was best to go back to what you've heard us all say all morning.

Unidentified man: Do you share, do you share, do you share...

Mr. PAT MICHELL (PBS President): Public broadcasting is a local...

Ms. CRAM: It kind of went to the top.

BLAIR: Playwright Cusi Cram.

Ms. CRAM: I'm always intrigued by the absurd in storytelling until that you think, like Buster's this little animated bunny, and somehow something that he did goes to the Senate. It's very much the stuff of plays, you know?

BLAIR: Now you might think Cusi Cram's villain would be the U.S. education secretary, but that character, loosely inspired by Margaret Spellings, is a little more complicated. She's very thoughtful and very charming, but she does plan to use her personal opinions to shape public policy.

(Soundbite of play "Dusty and the Big Bad World")

Unidentified Woman: I've never cared for that show or the main character Dusty. Well, he seems a little too tolerant of just about everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: And I know he is an inanimate object, but honey, he seems like a homosexual dust ball me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: Cusi Cram says in writing this play, she tried not to insert her own views. Ultimately, she wants "Dusty and the Big Bad World" to make people laugh. But also to consider the issues.

Ms. CRAM: What's at stake here is like what we teach kids. And the little girl in the play is a character who, you know, whose episode is not being aired. What are we telling her about her life, and how do we talk about these things to kids?

BLAIR: In a scene towards the end of "Dusty and the Big Bad World," the 11-year-old girl meets the education secretary who has implied that her family's lifestyle is immoral.

(Soundbite of play "Dusty and the Big Bad World")

Unidentified Woman #1: You seem like a great kid.

Unidentified Woman #2: Sometimes, I do wish my family were more traditional.

Unidentified Woman #1: Of course, you do, honey.

Unidentified Woman #2: Nobody signs on to be an outsider. I mean, maybe if you're born goth or something, but sure. I think about a mom who tells me all about her bad perms and dumb dates. That sounds good to me. I'm not going to lie. But for some reason, I didn't get that. I got something more complicated. But it doesn't mean it's wrong.

Unidentified Woman #1: I never said it was wrong, Lizzie.

BLAIR: "Dusty and the Big Bad World" opens tonight at the Denver Center Theater Company. Cusi Cram says she worked as hard on this fictional TV show, the story within the story, as she did on the play itself. So someday she might turn Dusty into a real show for kids. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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