Posted June, 2012
Once upon a time in America, most TV sets in family living rooms (where the only TV in the house was located), had access to three – maybe four – channels. Until the mid-sixties, the shows were in black and white and it would be several years before color TV’s were standard fare in most family living rooms.
Programming was positive and family-friendly. The moral of most stories presented on TV – and, yes, there was morals back then – were usually positive, wholesome messages intended for the betterment of the individual, the family and society as a whole. It never entered into the minds of parents that they would – or should – monitor what their children saw on the TV screen.
Classic programs like The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show were warmly and genuinely welcomed into homes all across America as wholesome guests. Parents wanted their kids to grow up like Opie Taylor, the Beaver, a James Anderson, Jr. or a Jeff Stone.
Gradually, boundaries were pushed. Themes normally discussed in the privacy of one’s bedroom were slowly but surely being piped through the TV screens and into family living rooms. New channels began to appear, cable TV began to grow and expand and, with it, the perceived “need” to provide ever more provocative and edgy programming, bringing us to the state of television as we have it today.
I recently had the distinct privilege of speaking by phone with Paul “Jeff Stone” Petersen, who was an original Mouseketeer and the brother on The Donna Reed Show. In addition to being a co-star of that iconic TV show, Paul also enjoyed a successful singing career before moving on to an adult career as an acclaimed novelist. Over the last twenty-two years, however, Petersen’s passionate mission has been his child advocacy group, A Minor Consideration.
My conversation with Paul covered the entire span of his career and activist work. Naturally, we started by talking about the impact of his early work on pop culture and the hearts and minds of the baby boomer generation. I asked Petersen about what fans say to him about that impact on their lives and memories.
“Randy, it’s wonderful because I grew up with them and they grew up with me. For many families – which were not the perfect ‘Donna Reed’ kind of family where Dad’s a doctor and works in the house and there’s a loving sister and, then, you have another loving sister - for people who didn’t have the perfect family life, The Donna Reed Show provided an anchor for them – an image of what could be and how you might want to live your life. You know, with love and courtesy and to be well-groomed and well mannered. I believe that’s what most people carried away from especially the eight years on The Donna Reed Show. It was positive. There was not a single episode out of 276 that I can’t stand behind and be proud of.”
Apologizing for tossing an admittedly softball question, I asked Paul what he thought has given those old shows and their peers the staying power that they have compared to the shows from, say, more recent series.
“But it’s not a softball question. It’s revelatory. It tells us what has happened to our culture. The shows have lasted a long time because they were better! They were better written. They had more substantial acting talent. The directors who helped manage the whole team – even the delivery system - were much more positive and competent.
“Some of the shows today – particularly family sitcoms – are too prone to slip into gutter humor – to flush the toilet, if you will; to look for the cheap joke and to look to focus on issues and situations that most families don’t encounter for the duration of their existence.
“Then, too, the shows were in black and white – at least until the early sixties. There was an awareness that you were watching a play. It was a morality play. And for those people who were absent good images in their lives, a show like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best – even Ozzie and Harriet – represented something you could aspire to.”
Petersen’s comment begged the question – perhaps a dumb one but I specialize in those – of whether he thought Hollywood negatively impacting society or was it the other way around.
“No, I think they are. It’s always a chicken and egg kind of thing. Is art representing life or does life trigger the art? And, I must tell you, when you have lived with the power – the unbelievable power – of the medium, you begin to understand that it is shaping our lives in ways big and small. And, when you know the players in Hollywood, you come to see them as propagandist. It seems that everybody has an agenda these days. It’s a very poisonous atmosphere. Projects that are heavy on morality and doing the right thing have very tough sledding in the Hollywood of 2012. People don’t want to see positive and upbeat things.”
When I mentioned that movies like Fireproof and Courageous have been money-makers for their producers, Paul passionately said, “Randy, that’s because the hunger is there! You know, it used to be that you could go to the movies on any given Saturday matinee and you walked out of the movie theater feeling good. The good guys won. The cartoons were funny – violent in their own way, of course, and filled with stereotypes. But it was a cartoon, for goodness sake! But, by and large, the message was very heartening. You felt good when you walked out of movies.
“Of course, Walt Disney had the formula when it came to these G rated movies. When he made a movie, he sold four tickets at a time and when these other guys made movies, one or two people would go to the movies (at a time). The family is a larger unit than the individual.”
When I wondered aloud if Hollywood will re-learn that secret, Petersen said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon because, mostly, they make movies for themselves. I know too many people – very successful people – who are engaged in projects that they won’t let their young children see. And I say to them over and over, ‘If you won’t let your kids see this movie you’re making, why are you making it?’
Paul then solemnly added, “A certain coarseness has crept into our culture that I don’t approve of. I don’t understand the world of tattoos and deliberately mean acts. I don’t understand that.”
Shifting gears just a bit, and since Petersen enjoyed success in both the TV and music industries, I asked what he thought has been the most positive changes in those media since the 60’s as well as the negative changes.
“Look, I am for openness and I am for resolution. In this forest of entertainment product, there are still some wonderful examples of movie making and of music making. But the overall effect, I think, has been negative and I think it’s been that way, frankly, since the mid-sixties. It has been a steady decline.
“But, you’ll get a show like The Bill Cosby Show and you go, ‘Oh, man! It’s a wonderful show!’ It will stand on its own for a long time. Then, you get Rosanne Barr and you say, ‘What is Hollywood thinking?’
“The music is particularly troubling to me because kids – just as we did – live with their music. It’s hard to find something positive in the world of music, especially now that the corporations have fractured it and its individual entrepreneurs. The whole rap music scene and the gangsta rap and the rest – it causes harm. There’s no doubt it causes harm.
“The problem is that the music is no longer left to the musicians and songwriting is no longer to the poets in our society and that’s a darn shame. However, the saving grace is there is so much entertainment product that, if you’re a discriminating person – especially a discriminating parent or grandparent – you can pick and choose what you are exposed to.
Petersen then draws his scope back on today’s TV programming.
“I look at the TV schedule sometimes and I just shake my head. I have over 400 different choices on any given hour. And it’s up to me to seek out those things which I think deserve my support.”
That comment was a perfect lead into my next question I had prepared to ask Paul: What kind of impact does he feel the growth in the pool of channels on public and cable TV has had on TV programming – family programming in particular?
“What I see as a professional is the degradation in the level of expertise – the true professionalism. I once had a flight to New York and my seat mate was a young girl – about nineteen or twenty – who watched two movies – two big budget movies – on her cell phone.
“When the flight was over, I said to her – just conversationally – “Do you know how many hundreds of people who put their professional credentials on the line to make those movies you just watched on a two inch screen?’ And, of course, she had no idea - nor an appreciation - of the skill level of the true professionals who still remain in this business. I mean, just think about it for a second: When you see a movie like Avatar, look at the wizardry! It’s astonishing!”
Given his less than positive view of the state of TVLand, I asked Paul what he would do if he were made TV Czar by the president and given near total power with regards to programming.
“Well, first of all, I would demand a certain level of competence and experience before anyone was handed the reins to this very powerful beast. I mentioned earlier the true impact and power of the medium – movies, television and music. It’s so much larger than most people appreciate. I would not be permitting people to just walk into it without some life experience and an understanding of the basic psychology of the medium itself. That would cure a lot of ailments.
“Of course, referring again to something I said earlier, if you’re going to be making stuff that’s going to be broadcast over the air and you can’t show it to your children, well, then, maybe it ought not to be made.”
Paul then shifted the focus slightly to that of the messages delivered in television by sharing a very interesting story.
“One of the most telling stories is of a very successful man, Norman Lear, of his experience with All in the Family. Remember, Archie Bunker was supposed to be a buffoon. He was supposed to be the object of ridicule. The big shots and Norman Lear and many others involved with that show, instead, created a hero and it mystified them! ‘Oh my god! People do think this way and talk this way!’ And they gave face to, frankly, an unattractive porcupine and, yet, it was called ‘success’.
“It was a wonderful show, don’t get me wrong. I’m a grown up. I can take it. But, I thought as an example, that’s not family viewing. I think they were surprised that the impact of this show – which was meant to poke fun at families and the role of fathers and mothers, etc. – ended up creating a new template which, frankly, was not very uplifting.”
As for current TV roles, Paul shares that, “Here’s what I do. I think there are things that all of us of a certain age need to focus on at this point of our cultural life.
One of them is the condition of our seniors. This is a rapidly aging population. I work with the Department of Aging here in Los Angeles and I have been hosting a show for the last eight years called Again Well in L.A. It really focuses on the many issues that impact the world of seniors - everything from financial abuse to non-medical in-home care, retirement communities, and how to guard against unnecessary health accidents.
“The show has been on now for – well, we’re now just short of 200 episodes. I get a kick out of doing that because it bridges rather neatly my continuing concern for young people who are working – and not just in the entertainment business but throughout the business world.”
Petersen then brings the subject of aging that is quite a bit more close to home.
“We have to recognize that one person turns 60 years old every seven seconds! We are soon to have a population that will be twenty-five percent older than the generation I came from. I was born in 1945. In fact, I just escaped the boomer label by three months!
“But the fact is that our cohort is a significant demographic and we’re going to be very expensive to maintain because our expectations are so high. At seventy – back when I was a boy, my grandfather and grandmother lived with us – you were old! And seventy today, heck! You’re going on cruises, you’re playing golf, and you may still be playing tennis. Now, you may be doing it with an artificial hip or knee replacement and you may have a pacemaker but you’re still out there. That’s what I mean by these rising expectations. We expect to be in good health.”
I was spellbound by Paul’s comments and tremendous insight into our generation and our continuing impact on society and culture. While digesting what he was saying, a comment and question came to mind that I hadn’t planned on asking. I mentioned that I felt that our generation raised a calloused generation of narcissists (excluding our own kids, of course). I asked him what he thought that will mean to our generation as we age.
“What that means is that they will not be able to afford us. This is not like the beginning of Social Security where there were 36 jobs for every retiree. We are at a place where, very soon, it’s going to take two workers to pay the freight for every one retiree.
“Speaking as an adult man with children and grandchildren, I believe it’s my personal responsibility to take care of my needs. I do not want to put that burden on my children. And, on a personal level, my wife and I – about eight years ago – suddenly confronted this reality that we had five senior women all over the age of 80 who had been independent their entire lives, who became dependent at various stages - everything from Alzheimer’s to mobility issues. That became the focus of our lives – those five elderly women. Now, they have all passed in the past eight years. It was an extraordinary, emotional roller coaster.”
What does Petersen’s crystal ball tell him what we will wind up with in that area?
“Well, my crystal ball tells me that we’re going to have to make some hard choices. Second and third homes may be out the window and having that 40 fort long RV in the driveway may be things of the past. We may not be able to indulge ourselves with these kinds of toys and entrapments. We may, in fact, have to be going back to the day where a family has to pool all of its resources so that each generation within that family – and within the culture – gets those things that are critical to development and to good health. People – especially boomers – are going to have to stop being so selfish. Can you imagine the dread - if you’re a fifteen year old girl who’s smart and doing well in school – the dread when you confront the true cost of a college education. It is frightening! It really is frightening!
“It used to be – in large families – there was sort of a natural selection process where families over their dinner tables or in the fields or when they came home from work – actually made decisions as to which child was going to be the beneficiary of a college education. But, now, everybody expects it and not everyone is suited for it.
“Years ago – well, maybe not so many years ago – about five years ago – an 1870’s eight grade graduation test was posted on the internet. This was eighth grade level back then – the 1870’s. I very much doubt that 50 percent of our population could pass it.
“With internet degrees and the ability to fudge your resume, what is a college degree these days? I meet youngsters – particularly here in Southern California – who are functionally illiterate, graduating high school and that’s frightening to me. Literacy is still a very key component of the health and well-being of a society.”
Paul then added, “NFL players testified in front of Congress – these are guys with major university degrees. The joke, of course, but a joke based on truth, is that O.J. Simpson has a degree in Chemical Engineering. That’s what we’ve become. We have so cheapened true knowledge and intelligence. We’ve cheapened it and that’s too bad. They have an ad going right now that says, ‘Intelligent people solve problems and geniuses prevent them.’ I think that’s the key. There are too many voices out there which, if you looked behind the curtain, you would see a very hollow person issuing these proclamations.”
We shifted our conversational gears to Petersen’s passion and current life’s work: an organization he created called A Minor Consideration. I asked him to tell me about it.
“A Minor Consideration was started in tragedy. Three friends of mine, former kid stars, came to the end of their lives much too quickly. Rusty Hamer was the most famous. He died by suicide at age 42. He was overweight and prone to violence and living in a trailer behind his brother’s home in DeRidder, Louisiana. I knew Rusty very well. I had never taken the time to go see my friend. I was too busy writing books. I was too busy raising a family. Then, he was dead. This was January, 1990.
“It triggered in me a response that I’m really grateful for because it was the proverbial tap on the shoulder from a higher power that said to me, ‘You have to do something about this.’ Particularly as it relates to young performers who achieve the level of notoriety early in their life and then found a career was absent as they got into their twenties.
“It struck me particularly hard. I started A Minor Consideration with my wife with the purpose of intervening when I heard about trouble. If some former kid star was in trouble, I was going to show up. In three years time, suddenly, I had a whole group of other former kid stars – over sixty – who shared with me the desire to help our friends – our classmates, if you will.
“And, then, my wife – who is a show business nurse – posed a very interesting question to all of us. ‘Why are we doing all these interventions’, she asked, ‘when should be preventing these troubles?’ We sort of branched off from our core mission of providing friendship and financial support and emotional support into actually tackling the structure within which young people work. First, in entertainment then it got a little larger. Then it was sports. Then it was, ‘Well, wait a minute, there are a lot of working kids.’
“Five million children go to work every day in America. In America! Five million. And, many of them – like the children in the entertainment world – are exempt from federal child labor laws.
“Who’s watching the number of hours they put in? Who’s guarding their health in the work place? Who’s protecting their certain need for an education? When you see the hodgepodge of laws – limited though they may be – it really is alarming. We have let this area of the workplace go unattended. We all kind of say, ‘Well, we’re not a third world country.’
“Well, tell that to the 800,000 children who pick our food out of the fields of America who don’t go to school and who are busy trying to put food on the table. And there’s 800,000 of them! It’s just not the 300,000 children in show business and the sports world who lack attention. There are millions – literally millions of children working who don’t have the protections we assume are in place. That has truly become the focus of A Minor Consideration these days. We need to change the rules.”
Those comments and statistics dumbfounded me as he easily rolled them off of his tongue. They also destroyed my assumption that surely, with all the laws and regulations in place today that weren’t in place when Petersen was a child actor, there isn’t a problem anymore. I was especially puzzled by the exposure of the 300,000 child actors in this country’s entertainment industry. I mean, isn’t this the same “Hollywood” whose members always champion a wide variety of humanitarian causes? I asked Paul exactly that question.
“Well, that’s the lie, you see. It is my experience that a lot of liberals I know don’t seem to have any math skills. That’s why they constantly overspend their income. They talk a good game but they don’t live it! When you see an adult person – a performer – working on a family sitcom in which all three children involved in the enterprise are in serious emotional trouble and don’t actually go to school even for the three hour minimum required by law and they don’t speak up, you gotta ask yourself, ‘What are they thinking?’
“The children don’t do this on their own – I mean, all of us have our troubles. ‘God, do I have to take this history test? Do I have to read the book on the history of the Middle Ages?’ And, yet, if you take that away from them, they pop out on the other side and become adults who are ignorant of history. That is the problem. We still have nineteen states that have no child labor laws for the entertainment business. “
Petersen then shifts the focus from Hollywood to the sports fields and the beauty pageant stages of America.
“You see it in sports all the time. In Little League, we say that a kid can’t pitch more than seven innings in a week and think that we have done well. But what about the misbehavior of the parents in the stands who are actually abusive to other children and coaches and the umpires in the process of a child’s game.
“Those are just some of the things. We have Olympic athletes – young ones. I’m talking 13, 14, 15 years old who are actually working - remember, they’re all paid now – 80 hours a week! An 80 hour work week when you’re a grown up and accept the responsibility of work and can say no, that’s one thing. But what if you can’t say no?
“It’s not just me. I tell people over and over, ‘Go get Andre Agassi’s book. Read that. That’s the life of a professional athlete.’ When it starts at age nine or ten years old, you’re asking for trouble. This is the world we have created.
“Look at the world of beauty pageants. It is, globally, a $5 BILLION business. And what these childhood beauty pageants really are is employment opportunities for about 100,000 adults who make a living out of turning out ornamental women and, sadly, unbalanced young boys. It’s an ugly world. And who establishes the criteria for beauty, for goodness sake? Who is watching these pageants? Who is participating? This is across the board.
“The world of children is a dangerous place these days. When you have in this country a million teenagers go missing every year and are never accounted for thereafter. A million! “Those are sad statistics. And, for children who view the world differently as you did and as I did when I was younger, there’s a great deal of entertainment product out there that is sending exactly the wrong message.
“For example, my nieces who are mid-teens, they watch an offering called Dance Moms and are rooting for the children and they see the children’s plight through the misbehavior of the parents. For them, it reinforces their idea that all adults are hypocrites and abusive. They find themselves in league with the children. For example, Paris Hilton. You talk to a young person and, to them, Paris Hilton is simply doing what she must to survive. I’m going, ‘Wait a minute! Wait a minute! We’ve got wonderfully talented children who’ve got something to say, who are securely anchored in their faith and character development who getting graduate degrees in music. They’re playing harps and they’re playing in orchestras and working hard to stay on the straight and narrow and you give them Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian? Please!
“Randy, do you understand that the assaults on children are not something that is done in some smoke filled back room? We have major, national politicians who actually, in the past year, have been advocating for loosening the rules on child labor.
“For a good chunk of my life, I lived on a farm and everybody worked hard – really hard. But there was still that time when the work stopped for the kids and off you went to school. These days, we have whole families where school is the very last thing that they are thinking about. ‘We’ve got a crop to get in. We have farm equipment that needs repair. We’ve got some fencing to take care of.” It’s sad when you think about that!”
Paul began to pull the regulatory curtain back and show just how ugly the wizard is.
“The rules changed in 1938 when they passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. Whole categories of working children were exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you worked in agriculture and the family farm, you were exempted. If you worked in show business, you were exempted. If you worked for a non-profit, you were exempted. And the exemption itself bears the exemption from the kids who used to deliver our newspapers. That’s why it’s called the newsy exemption.
“But find me a family farm in 2012. My newspaper is not delivered by kid peddling his bike with two bags over the handle bars. It’s a business now. That’s the change we have not kept pace with. And, in the entertainment world, the most visible children in the world – for them to not be protected, for them not to be given our best as a society, frankly, it drives me crazy!
“Look at the kids who were engaged in Scumdog Milliionaire - this huge, successful movie out of India. As soon as the children were done with their job, they were thrown back into the ghetto in Mumbai and yet the movie made $300 million! I keep asking people wherever I go and wherever I speak, ‘Doesn’t it matter to you? Every person in that movie changed their address for the better except the children! That’s wrong!
“I must tell you, Randy, sometimes I look over my shoulder and wonder, ‘Where’s the line? Where’s my army?’ Because I know from talking to people who are genuinely decent and God-fearing people – over 70 percent are God-fearing – why are you permitting this? Why is it we accept that 250 million children in the world go to work every day at the same time 250 million heads of households are unemployed? Isn’t that absurd?
“I look at people and say, ‘All you have to do is swap the positions. Okay, heads of households get hired first and children just don’t get hired. They go to school, you know or they play soccer in the streets but they don’t go to the workplace where they can be killed and abused.”
With an organization such as A Minor Consideration, the challenges must be many and enormous. I asked Paul what their biggest challenge is today.
“Well, the biggest challenge, frankly – and I say this as a product of my age – is to recruit similarly experienced younger people to take up the banner. This problem is not going to go away and today’s working kids who have achieved a level of success are really the next in line to carry forward this mission. Every CEO of every company everywhere has an obligation to replace him or herself. That is what we are involved in.
“There’s a whole evolution of our membership - it’s over 600 former kid stars – but there’s an evolution going on because these famous youngsters just keep coming! We hope to provide them with the tools and the resources so that they can more effectively carry on this battle.
“Our near term mission is to end the exemptions to child labor laws on a national level so that anywhere a kid works in America, the rules are going to be the same and the money they earn will belong to them. A portion of that money will be set aside for their future use in their young adult years.
“But that still leaves the rest of the world. I believe in my heart that, if people are brought up short, they will understand that there should be a larger focus on the welfare of children than we place on animals.”
After sharing the challenges of A Minor Consideration, I asked Paul what his team’s biggest achievement has been.
“First, the public education campaign has been wonderful. People accept the work we’re doing and support. Just my airport conversations alone tell me that we’re making progress. But, in California, we changed the rules so that the money that children earn in California belongs to them and that every child has a savings account for their use when they turn age 18.
“We have smoothed out some of the unbelievable loopholes in the law. It’s no longer legal to hire a premature baby to do to work. Hollywood is such a wicked place. It wasn’t good enough that you could hire a baby who was fifteen days old. That wasn’t good enough for Hollywood because they like twins and triplets and quadruplets, etcetera. So, these children who were born ten weeks premature, after fifteen days were going work! My god! Our ‘premie law” passed in ninety days, Randy.
“But, the truth is that those things should be national. We’ve made progress internationally with our friends in Canada and Mexico and even in far-flung places like Ecuador and Chile. Brazil remains a puzzle but that’s how big this mission is. I’m not going to live long enough to see it successfully resolved but today’s working children – and you see them everywhere, right there on the television screens and movie screens – we hope to enlist them as a lifelong work; to pay attention to other visible and invisible children.”
How can people help A Minor Consideration?
“Well, in this world, we’re always starved for funds. That’s the reality of working with a non-profit. A Minor Consideration is a 501c3 with a special mission to change legislation. People can find out about our work on the internet by going to MinorCon.org or look up ‘Paul Petersen’ and the links are right there. Of course, they can help.
“But the other thing people can do is to speak up. If they’re at an AYSO soccer game and there is a parent shouting obscenities or berating the other team, you’ve got to walk up to that grown-up and say, ‘Excuse me! Your behavior is unacceptable.’ You just have to do it. We are all obligated to take care of young people. Sometimes, I know it’s painful and sometimes it might even be frightening. But you simply have to do it. When you see parental misbehavior, you must speak up.”
With our very interesting, thought provoking conversation wrapping up, I asked Paul how he hoped to be remembered and what he hopes his legacy will be.
“I must say that this has changed over the course of my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish things in various fields. When I was on The Donna Reed Show, I thought that being an actor was the most important thing. Then, with the singing career, being successful in selling records was important. Then, when I was writing books – sixteen of them – writing a good book and having it succeed in the marketplace was important.
“But nothing compares to the work I’m doing now because it has real, on the ground, net effects. In my late thirties, I feared that my headstone would say, ‘Here lies the guy who grew up on The Donna Reed Show.’ I did believe that. But now I think my advocacy for the rights of working children is going the accomplishment that will be remembered. I hope it will be remembered and I hope that it continues – not in my name but in the name of what is good and just and fair.
“I keep telling young people particularly, ‘You didn’t just pop up on the scene. You had nothing to do with your own creation. You have a debt to the society that created environment into which you were born. Part of that is to take care of it, to nurture it and to make sure, as the Indian said, that it will survive down through the seventh generation. If each of us made decisions that we could stand by seven generations down the pipe, we’d be a lot better world.”