Author Spotlight: Stu Krieger, The Man Who Wrote Your Childhood

Author Spotlight: Stu Krieger, The Man Who Wrote Your Childhood

I met Stu Krieger through my Disney Channel research in 2021. In 2022, I learned about his next novel — and now that novel is here! RAFT follows children’s book author Clark Whitaker, his wife Julia, and their children Katie and Charlie on an adventure like no other. Clark’s midlife crisis manifests itself in his sudden transformation into a penguin. The Whitakers must work together to keep their arctic bird safe as they navigate their changing family life on a road trip, which is a “journey of healing,” Stu explained. Stu’s publishers told him, “We pretty much laughed on every page and we cried at the end.” That is his unique gift, and many of us have been fortunate to experience it in our lives.

Stu has been a screenwriter for over four decades and wrote some of the best family movies of all time, including The Land Before Time, The Parent Trap II, and DCOMs such as Smart House, Cow Belles, Phantom of the Megaplex, Tru Confessions, and the Zenon trilogy. Stu won the Riverside International Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Screenwriting in 2017. He is a professor of theatre, film, and digital production at UC Riverside. You can pick up a copy of his new book, RAFT, on Amazon or through Warren Publishing. Don’t forget to leave a book review and follow Stu on Instagram and TikTok! He is here with us to share more about RAFT and how this story came to be. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Left: author Stu Krieger; Right: RAFT novel with penguin on bed

Clearly there are some parts of Clark that are inspired by your life: You’re both from Rochester, in the writing profession, living in the L.A. area, are a husband and a dad with a son and a daughter. I’m curious about some of your other life experiences or discoveries that might also be in Clark’s DNA.

It’s so fruitful for me to be teaching at the same time that I’m writing because I’m constantly, even at my advanced age, making new discoveries that I feel are really valuable to share with the students. And with this project, it actually began almost 20 years ago as a screenplay. When I wrote the screenplay version of it, I was actually in the throes of the midlife crisis that Clark is experiencing. So it was at the time when I was turning 50, my son was leaving for college, my father-in-law had died. There was a lot of things going on in my professional career that felt like it was slowing down. And I didn’t have the same juice that I had when I was the hot young kid in town, and I had this crisis of, I still feel really young and vital. Is everything going to be about loss, moving forward? I’m not ready to be at that place where every day is a different loss, and letting go of things I wasn’t ready to let go of.

At the core of it… it’s about an existential crisis. Unlike Big, it’s not ‘I found the Zoltar machine and it turned me into the penguin.’ It’s not ‘I pissed off a wizard who turned me into a penguin.’ It’s really about, ‘Some men leave their wives for a younger woman. Some buy a sports car. Some take up mountain biking. Clark Whitaker turns into a penguin.’ [In Hollywood] everybody would say, ‘Yeah, yeah, but why is he a penguin?’ And I would say, ‘As soon as I answer that question, the whole premise goes away. Why do some people get cancer? Why do some people get in a horrible car crash? Stuff happens, and you have to deal with it.’ So that was obstacle one. But then obstacle two that I realized partway through was, it was not the right time for me to write that story ’cause I was too in it to understand what I was bringing to the table. So the screenplay was much more, Clark was a victim of the world, and that just wasn’t really what I wanted to be writing about. And so I got frustrated, I put it away, went on to other things, started my teaching career. The rest is a beautiful history.

How RAFT transformed from screenplay to novel:

But then about three years ago — every summer from probably April to end of October, I swim every day — I was in the middle of my daily swim and suddenly I went, ‘Wait. I always loved that idea. But it’s a book.’ And the reason it’s a book is because this idea of the four different perspectives of each family member being able to weigh in and being able to talk about navigating this experience and what it meant to them was really interesting to me. But also, I’ve always been a journal keeper. And so what I was able to do, when I got out of the pool and dried off, was go back in and pull out the journals from that era. And reading what I was going through, reading now with 20 years of perspective of how that resonated, what that meant, what I learned from the whole experience — it was like, now I can write this story.

The best compliment I have gotten so far is when I finished the first three chapters, which end with his conversion to becoming the penguin. I gave them to my daughter, and she’s now a 34-year-old married woman. And she called me and she said, ‘I hope I don’t hurt your feelings, Dadda, but Clark’s kind of an asshole.’ And I said, ‘You just gave me the best compliment you could have possibly given me. Because if he’s not to begin with, how does he grow? How does he change? What’s his journey?’ So that was something that then being able to go back to my journals, going back to some perspective, going back to everything that had changed, I could write about that in a clean and clear and objective way that I couldn’t when I was in the middle of it.

Once Clark is in his penguin form, a lot of his emotions are conveyed and recognized in the eyes. I’d love to hear your writerly wisdom on revealing characters’ emotional states with such depth. Katie is very perceptive with this when her penguin dad is ‘smizing’:  And he couldn’t take those happy, smiling eyes off his wife. Melt me like butter; I was done.

You can’t write your characters without thoroughly knowing them. I use the trick of taking the Proust Questionnaire from the last page of Vanity Fair magazine and ‘asking’ each character those twenty questions. I fill it in with each character’s specific voice, manner or speaking and idioms so they begin to acquire three dimensions I can draw from in fleshing them out in the book.

I would love to hear a little bit more about some of your inspirations for the California road trip and bringing that dose of reality. Sometimes it can be a lovely family experience. And then there are also moments that are very much not wonderful.

Both of the towns that they visit, where they spend any kind of amount of time at all, are made-up towns. They’re made up so that I could do composites from different places we’ve been. Our daughter lives in Northern California. We have friends up in Alta, California, which is at the foothills of the Sierras. And anytime we were going on visits for two years, it was car trips rather than plane trips coming out of the pandemic. So there was a lot of opportunity to explore from Los Angeles to San Francisco and some of the quirky places in between that we would stop for meals or sometimes spend the night.

Over the years, raising kids, we did a lot of road trips. And a lot of that’s part of what Clark is longing for in the beginning — remember when we used to do that, what special time that was? So drawing from all those experiences, both when the kids were little and then as recently as the couple of years coming out of the pandemic, it was just thinking about all those people you encounter. Walking into a gas station with suddenly big six-foot-tall Trump piggy banks. You’re just going, ‘I thought I lived in California. What do I know?’ So realizing the diversity of the state and all those nooks and crannies was just something that was fun and interesting to me.

I think that a real gift of being able to read your work is — of course, in a movie, we’re seeing a lot of your writing talent come through in the dialogue — here we get to see these wonderful descriptive bits: Want to know the real problem with living in a house with so many bathrooms? If someone messes with the main line, you’ve suddenly got a quartet of toilets spewing out a shitstorm in four-part harmony. What are some of the joys you found in creating this story where there is a really serious life path coming together [but also] these whimsical moments, and you get to craft wonderful visions with the language?

One of the things that’s going to be very fun as the journey continues is, I will venture to say there are several incidents in the book that people are going to be 100% convinced are pure fantastical invention that are absolutely true.

Truly, aside from the fact that I can honestly tell you I have never been a penguin, 90% of the incidents in the book are things that happened, and what was so wonderful about having kept a journal, some of them I had forgotten completely, totally were out of my consciousness. The passage you referenced happened in the middle of a Thanksgiving dinner when we had 40 people at the house. And it was one of my daughter’s friends who caused the problem.

You have written for a variety of ages and audiences. So what did you enjoy most about, specifically, this adult audience, but still a highly creative focus with RAFT?

One of the things that the publisher said that was such a compliment, and it’s why I’ve put this toe in the water in social media after studiously avoiding it for so long is, they were saying this really feels like the book for the kids that grew up on your movies who are now young adults themselves, raising their own families. But it feels like the underlying sensibility that they responded to as kids is something they can now respond to and relate to as adults. And that was part of the goal for me. The family-centric nature of most of my film career really happened when I started to have my own kids, and I wanted to do things for them that were engaging and entertaining, but not stupid. And there was so much of the family entertainment like we’ve talked about before, of just dumb dads and peepee caca jokes and just things that were condescending to kids.

And even during my time at the Disney Channel, I would often get in fights with them because they would say things like, ‘A nine-year-old wouldn’t say that.’ And I would go, ‘Well, my daughter said it at a dinner last night and excuse me, how many kids do you have?’ And often, particularly at the Disney Channel, there were many, many executives with no children at all, which was quite ironic. But in any case, kind of the joy of the book was thinking about that. What is that underlying sensibility of my prime audience now as adults, dealing with all the things that they’re dealing with, raising their own kids?

I think I’m like the perfect age for this [with the multiple perspectives]. I can look ahead a little bit and see what the parents are going through, but I’m not too far off. I can kind of remember what Katie and Charlie, the teenagers, are going through from their perspective. Watching DCOMs now, sometimes [people my age are] closer to the age of the parents in a lot of these movies. So it’s interesting to have that more adult point of view in this story, but still know that it’s you, the man who wrote our childhood continuing to take us ‘on the ride,’ to use a Cow Belles reference there.

Yeah, and one of the other very interesting things about the process of writing the book was, once I decided that I was going to do the four perspectives, what I did was I went back to the outline of the book. I revised the outline, I revised the story and journey of it, and then I would sit with each chapter and go, ‘Okay, who’s the right narrator for this piece of the story?’ So if you observe, it doesn’t go like Mom, Dad, Katie, Charlie. Mom, Dad, Katie, Charlie. Sometimes it’ll be Katie, Julia, back to Katie again, because it was really looking at, here’s the information of this piece, whose perspective is going to be either the funniest or the most interesting or complementary to what came before? And so giving myself that permission of, it’s not the assigned narrator, it’s the right narrator, was also a really fun and interesting part of working it all out.

You also have the grandmother character, Nonnie Honey. So I was wondering, what were some of the inspirations for her and her [Boston] accent, her little quirks?

Pretty much 100% my mother-in-law. She has since passed, but she was an incredibly hilarious and wonderful character. And one of my favorite stories to tell is, it was the first time we got the four parents together. So I had known Hillary, my wife, we have been married for 42 years this summer. I knew her parents, but the first time we got all four parents together, her parents and my parents together, her mother was a great storyteller, and she maintained her Boston accent for all 50 years she lived in Los Angeles. Never waned. And the night we got the four of them together, she was just regaling us with these hilarious stories. And I remember very distinctly having this moment of looking at her, looking at my wife, who was in her twenties at that point, looking back to Bunny and going, that’s my future, and I’m okay with that.

If you had to choose one DCOM character to drop into this universe in the future, who do you think it would be and what would they think of the Whitakers?

Somehow it seems to me that Ryan Merriman, Smart House guy, would be the right guy to be dropped in there. It seems like he would kind of have the rye appreciation, he would not be freaked out by Clark in his penguin form. It just feels like he’d be the right guy to drop in there.

Next year will be the 25th anniversary of both Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and Smart House. What do you think of writing a crossover movie where these two worlds collide now that their futuristic technology is the norm?

I’m the guy who is absolutely fine with letting the original work stand as my legacy without feeling a need to revisit the past. It’s one of the reasons I voluntarily stepped away from the The Land Before Time franchise after the original movie. I was asked to write the first two sequels and passed. Been there, done that. I’m a writing shark: I prefer to keep swimming forward into new waters.


Replying to @mcanneli While my latest story may not feature our beloved Cera or Littlefoot, I think you’ll be delighted to meet Clark Whitaker: a father-turned-penguin, and the protagonist in my newest novel being released today, RAFT. And as luck would have it, today just so happens to be International Penguin Day! Celebrate by picking up a copy on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or 🐧 #RAFT #newlyreleased #stukrieger #newnovel #landbeforetime #zenon #smarthouse #truconfessions #trollincenteralpark #disney #dcom #nostalgia #disneychannel #90skids #movienostalgia #writersoftiktok #authorsoftiktok #authorsofbooktok #booktok #books #cera #littlefoot #clarkwhitaker

♬ original sound – Stu Krieger

You touched on your social media presence, but I’d like to highlight your popular Instagram and TikTok even more! What’s the best part of discussing your work — past and present — on IG and TikTok? Is there a particular work in your filmography you’ve especially enjoyed sharing stories or trivia about?

One thing that has amazed me in dipping my terrified toes into the social media pool is how rabid the fan base is for my work. I’m stunned by how it’s endured over 20-30 years. The fact that one The Land Before Time post has over 2.8 million views is stunning. Land Before Time, Zenon, and Smart House posts seem to generate the most buzz; it’s all very touching and gratifying.

In a family story like RAFT, translating it into real life, what do you think it takes today for families going in different directions and reaching different phases of their lives to come together and appreciate one another? And even if things aren’t going to be the same as they were, to find special new experiences together?

First and foremost, it’s communication. But interestingly enough, my son and daughter-in-law and their two-year-old, our first grandchild, were here and spent the weekend with us, even though they live locally. It was like, let’s do a sleepover because we never have time anymore. It’s either all baby-focused, and then you’ve got to get home to get her to bed, or you go out and we babysit. But the four of us haven’t had time in a very long time.

So they were here for the weekend, and after the baby was in bed, we had a fire pit going in the backyard, just sitting around with a beer talking. And I was saying to them, everybody is so afraid of the teenage years, and everybody gets so freaked out about that. And my daughter-in-law was saying, ‘Well, I was a rambunctious teenager, so I can’t even imagine what we’re in for already, looking at her as a two-year-old.’ I said, ‘For me (if I could be so bold when you were not asking for advice), I think part of the reason that we still like each other, we still spend time together, we make time for each other, is that we always really allowed the kids to just be who they were. And there were boundaries, there were guardrails. They had discipline in their life, but we never tried to control who they were.’

And I think that’s where families get in trouble. So many of the families I know where there’s so much underlying tension or distrust or lack of communication, it’s all about that need to control in a way that doesn’t allow everybody to blossom and be humanized and be who they are. So I think that’s a lot of it.

We talked about the process of families changing and coming together, and about Clark’s profound internal and external transformations. I think we’re all faced with opportunities to transform or grow in life. What advice do you have for readers who are going through the rougher patches of such a journey? You give great life advice, so had to ask!

Allow yourself to be present in your own life. Don’t regret the past and don’t worry about the future; both are fruitless wastes of time. If you allow yourself to feel the full range of your emotions without judgement or labels, you can begin to identify what the rough patch is truly all about; once you identify the issues you can learn from them, heal and move on.

Thank you, Stu, for sharing your insights with us! RAFT is now available in paperback and hardcover. You can let Stu know how much you love his work by leaving a book review and following him on TikTok and Instagram.

Whitt Laxson: The Lizzie McGuire Movie is still what dreams are made of – 20 years later!

Whitt Laxson: The Lizzie McGuire Movie is still what dreams are made of – 20 years later!

A personal essay about the cinematic experience that defined a generation (and my childhood), from Whitt Laxson, host of Duff Enough podcast

For millennials who grew up with the hit sitcom Lizzie McGuire, there’s a childhood experience we share beyond watching Disney Channel. In 2003, at the peak of Lizzie‘s success, Disney took the beloved series from TV to the big screen, releasing The Lizzie McGuire Movie in theaters. As a mega-Lizzie fan (and host of the ultimate Hilary Duff fan podcast, Duff Enough), it’s a moment in time I remember vividly. And as we celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, I’m reflecting on what Lizzie meant to me then and what she still means to me now.

Beautiful Hilary Duff out by fountain listening to Paolo

When the trailer for The Lizzie McGuire Movie first premiered on Disney Channel, I was speechless. If my memory serves me correctly, it aired in full one night after a DCOM around 9:55/8:55c. The network typically filled the time in between DCOMs and other shows with full-length music videos or interstitial series like Movie Surfers. This night was different, and instead, Hilary Duff appeared on screen to introduce a sneak peek of Lizzie McGuire’s first big screen adventure. Today, trailers tend to drop on social media before ever being shown as a preview in theaters. Back then, we didn’t have social media, so getting to see a trailer at home on TV felt like a very big deal. I even remember it starting with the traditional green rating screen and white text (“the following preview has been approved for all audiences by the motion picture association of America”). For whatever reason, I was watching all alone upstairs in our family’s bonus room. I’ve since watched the trailer many times on YouTube over the years, and I’m sure my eight-year-old brain was going through a sensory overload. The visuals, the music, the narration, all made this seem like the can’t-miss motion picture of a lifetime. At least that’s how I viewed it. “On May 2nd,” the narrator says, “an ordinary American girl is getting the chance to become Europe’s hottest new singer!” My love for movies and my love for Lizzie McGuire were coming together in the ultimate fan event, complete with new music from Hilary Duff. The release date of May 2nd just couldn’t come sooner.

My love for Lizzie was well-known among my family, friends and anyone who knew me. That’s because I never shied away from expressing it. Unfortunately, growing up in a small, rural town in the South, not everyone encouraged the love I had for the show. I was told that boys didn’t watch Lizzie McGuire. And in regards to seeing The Lizzie McGuire Movie, I was told I shouldn’t go because I would be the only boy in the theater. In reality, most kids my age were watching Lizzie, but I doubt many boys at my school were willing to admit it. The early 2000s was an era of “girl power” in tween entertainment, which I’m sure was long overdue. Though it was confusing and challenging to navigate, I’m thankful to have been a kid when such strong female characters were being portrayed on screen. I’m glad to know now that I don’t need permission to like something, such as a movie or TV show, based on whether or not other people like it too. I wish I had known that then, but nevertheless, I was not about to miss The Lizzie McGuire Movie. I convinced two other boys to go with me, so this was actually happening.

The film’s soundtrack came out the week before the movie opened, and I had to go to Walmart to get my copy. Of course, it was a CD, and I played it in our car right away. That was the first time I got to hear “What Dreams Are Made Of,” which had been in commercials on Disney Channel. Disney was sparing no expense in promoting this movie on their cable network. There were so many ads and numerous segments with the Movie Surfers. There was also Hilary’s music video for “Why Not,” her new single featured in the film. Another behind-the-scenes promo I watched was on TV Guide Channel. The clock had died in my classroom at school, and the teacher turned on TV Guide so we could keep up with the time. For what seemed like weeks, I got to watch Hilary Duff being interviewed on the set of The Lizzie McGuire Movie. The volume was turned down, but obviously, I was still distracted.

animated Lizzie in cat-eye sunglasses

I remember certain things about May 2, 2003 very clearly. I was counting down the hours, and a second grade field trip to a train attraction was keeping my mind off the endless wait. Still, passing a movie theater while riding on the school bus was torture. I looked out the window to see if I could spot The Lizzie McGuire Movie poster as we drove by. I couldn’t see it. I remember kids talking about the movie and a teacher telling us it was rated PG. If she was trying to rain on my parade by saying we weren’t old enough to watch, try again! I made it through the field trip, and it was finally time to go see Lizzie on the silver screen. I know it didn’t mean as much to the other two boys who were coming along, but in that moment, seeing this movie was everything to me. I soaked in every second of Lizzie’s grand adventure. I felt her embarrassment from falling at graduation. I shared her excitement for having adventures in Rome. I was torn between her new love interest and her lifelong best friend. I cringed as she tried on goofy outfits. I laughed as she stumbled on a red carpet. I felt her pain as she learned of betrayal. I cheered as she shined on stage. Thankfully, The Lizzie McGuire Movie had lived up to the hype and surpassed my highest expectations.

Lizzie McGuire in the midst of her fashion show

Today, I often get asked about my fandom for Lizzie McGuire and why I fell in love with the show and its title character. Like most kids and tweens at the time, I related to Lizzie. Still, I must have felt a deeper connection. Lizzie wanted to fit in like any pre-teen, but she was different. She was clumsy, quirky and awkward. She wasn’t an all-star athlete or a straight-A student. She didn’t quite fit in, and neither did I. Lizzie McGuire brought me comfort during a time when I was made to feel different. The Lizzie McGuire Movie took that emotional connection to the next level, giving me a cinematic experience I’ll never forget. When I was in college, I noticed the film got a lot of attention when it was added on Netflix. A generation had been re-introduced to a movie from our childhood. That might have been the first time I realized so many people connected to this film in the same way I did. And not just girls. Boys too. I once joined a group of college friends for a movie night, and yes, we watched The Lizzie McGuire Movie.

Lizzie McGuire is an iconic Disney franchise that’s as relevant as ever thanks to early 2000s nostalgia. With my podcast, I’ve been able to connect with Lizzie fans from around the world. I even had the opportunity to interview the director of The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Jim Fall. I still see a lot of myself in Lizzie, and I’m thankful for the positive impact the character has had on my life. I’m certainly curious if we’ll ever see Lizzie McGuire all grown up. If it doesn’t happen, I’m grateful we have The Lizzie McGuire Movie as a send off for the characters we know and love. Unlike the show that’s mostly rooted in reality, the film is pure fantasy, and that’s why we love it. It’s a form of escapism through a beautiful, heartfelt movie. Even twenty years later, it’s still what dreams are made of. And for those of us who were lucky enough to share that joyful movie-going experience, it always will be.

Whitt on vespa, animated Lizzie near him on hers


Eloise at the Plaza: Q&A with Screenwriter Janet Brownell

Eloise at the Plaza: Q&A with Screenwriter Janet Brownell

Today is the 20th anniversary of The Wonderful World of Disney’s adaptation of Eloise at the Plaza! The original Eloise books were written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight. There was one early live-action adaptation on CBS in 1956 for their Playhouse 90 series. The Los Angeles Times explained, “Though she even wrote the songs for the production, it was critically lambasted and Thompson vowed never to sell the film rights to her beloved heroine. But after Thompson died in 1998, her estate made the film rights available.” In 2003, ABC debuted both Eloise at the Plaza and Eloise at Christmastime. Sofia Vassilieva was the star, a little princess of the Plaza, and she was the perfect Eloise, in my opinion. I have such fond memories of watching these movies again and again with my sister, and I can’t believe it’s been 20 years!

I am joined by Janet Brownell, the screenwriter who brought Eloise to life for a new generation of mischievous kids. Janet discusses translating Eloise from book to movie, working with Julie Andrews, and being part of another beloved Disney film!

I read in the LA Times that you got to tour the Plaza with an ABC executive. What was that like, to take inspiration directly from this famous hotel?

The tour was great. It helped give me a sense of place. One scene that came directly from that tour was the one in which Eloise/Leon look out over Central Park from high atop the Plaza. I stood in a very similar place when exploring the hotel, and decided to put it in the script.

Did you have a chance to visit the set in Toronto (or perhaps go to the Plaza again when they filmed exterior scenes)?

I was in Toronto for the table read of the script and the first day of filming. But did not go to NYC for any of the exteriors. I was THRILLED when a little toss-away bit in the montage ended up in the film. I had written that [a] caricature artist does a drawing of Eloise. And parenthetically noted it would be great if it were Hilary Knight and the caricature was of Eloise from the book. Kevin Lima, director, got Mr. Knight to do it – AND the caricature was an original he drew for the production.

You mentioned that Kay Thompson’s book was more of a day in the life of Eloise. What was your process for gathering up the important pieces of Eloise’s everyday life and turning those vignettes into a feature-length story?

The book Eloise at the Plaza really has no plot. It has lovely little moments in Eloise’s day. My challenge was [to] come up with a story, while including as many of those iconic moments as possible. A few of Hilary Knight’s illustrations were seeds to creating arching plots: on page 41 of the book, there is mention of “debutantes.” That inspired the Molly debutante story.  From that, I wondered: Could I connect Molly with another character? Philip, Eloise’s tutor (pg. 54), seemed a likely possibility as he attended Andover and would be close to Molly’s age. I also realized Eloise needed a partner in crime (other than Nanny) – hence the creation of Leon (inspired by the “princely” looking guests on p. 45). So from the “moments” came [the] story.

I appreciate the Molly and Philip romantic storyline, along with the parenting pieces between Molly and her mother as well as “Leon” and his father. Was it always the plan to keep Eloise’s mom mysterious, as her face isn’t revealed in either film? Julie Andrews told The New York Times that she thought Nanny had been Eloise’s mother’s nanny, too. I thought that was a great bit of background info for her to think of!

“Parents and their children” was an undertone to the whole script: Molly’s relationship with her mother – Leon’s relationship with his father – all under the shadow of Eloise’s mother’s absence. And very clever of you to notice – it was absolutely a creative/conscious decision to keep Eloise’s mother a mystery.

Eloise wouldn’t be Eloise if she didn’t have some degree of independence, but illustrator Hilary Knight said he and Kay Thompson had thought of Nanny as “a stabilizing force.” What was your reading of Nanny, and how did you balance her role as an authority figure with Eloise’s necessary sense of freedom?

Absolutely Nanny is a stabilizing force in Eloise’s life. She also, however, has a little bit of a naughty streak in her as well.  (Smoking – which is not in the film, watching boxing, allowing Eloise to wreak a little havoc.) Which makes one wonder, is Nanny a stabilizing factor – or is she a bit of an influence on Eloise as well??

I realized that the song, “Oh what a lovely morning,” was musically notated in the book! Did you think early on that Nanny and Eloise should sing it in the film?

I think we were all a bit surprised. Julie Andrews had not sung for a VERY long time, due to throat issues. So what an absolute joy for her to bring it on [again].

#eloise at christmastime from all mirth and no matter

You were a co-producer for Eloise at Christmastime. Were you able to advise the creative team on the story for this film, or the transition from book to movie? I’m glad that many of the same characters were included.

I think my script was finished first – so Elizabeth Chandler (writer of Christmastime) was able to pick up some of the threads from there. She did an amazing job.

I was surprised to see that you scripted an uncredited rewrite on The Santa Clause. I wish you had gotten credit, and I’d love to hear about your work on this film (one of my favorites).

Short version: Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti wrote The Santa Clause on spec and sold it to Disney. They worked on several versions – but it wasn’t going in the direction Disney had hoped. John Pasquin was brought on as director. Tim Allen was already attached. Pasquin read a script of mine and had Disney hire me to do a rewrite. At the time, I thought it would be a two-week job.  I told Steve and Leo I would not arbitrate for credit.

I was on that film for about a year.

When credits were being settled – my agent called and said, “Today is the last day you can file for arbitration. Steve and Leo are in their manager’s office wondering what you’ll do.” I told him that I had said I wouldn’t arbitrate, tell them I won’t. (Also – I thought, “Meh – Christmas movie + Tim Allen – who’s going to see it?”)

Big mistake. One I have never made again.

You worked on a Paris script [for Eloise], too? I was wondering why a third film was never made with this cast in the 2000s.

Insert sad face. Legal issues interfered. 

Twenty years later, do you have any favorite memories or special stories from your time working on Eloise?

At the table read – I was pleasantly STUNNED to learn Julie Andrews swears like a sailor.  It was funny, disarming and so on point for Nanny.

Also, I had a funny moment a few years ago. I was in NYC and was meeting someone at the Plaza for drinks, and learned there is a whole Eloise shop. I went to check it out – and there was a birthday party of little girls watching Eloise at the Plaza in the shop. It was all a little too meta for me.

Tiger Town & The Blue Yonder: Disney Channel Beginnings

Tiger Town & The Blue Yonder: Disney Channel Beginnings

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Disney Channel, I’m looking back on two of the channel’s earliest cable movies. In 1983, all the original movies made for the network were called Disney Channel Premiere Films, and these were eventually replaced by Disney Channel Original Movies (the more well-known brand which debuted in 1997). Filmmakers Alan Shapiro and Mark Rosman were instrumental in the early lineup of Disney Channel Premiere Films.

Tiger Town poster

Tiger Town was the first Disney Channel movie ever, premiering in October 1983. Written and directed by Alan Shapiro, the film starred Jaws’ Roy Scheider as an aging Detroit Tigers baseball player named Billy Young. Alex (Justin Henry) is a local kid who loves attending Tigers games with his dad. When Alex’s father dies, the boy keeps going to the stadium and becomes a good luck charm to Billy. I always get emotional watching this movie, especially seeing Justin and his dad have one last day out where they enjoy a game together and splurge on an Italian dinner. Shapiro, a Michigan native, directed many scenes at the real Detroit Tigers stadium, which is now at a different location (right by my church, actually!). If you’re a baseball fan, you need to add this one to your list and see the late announcer Ernie Harwell in action. The film is not on Disney+, so I purchased it on VHS some time ago.

The Blue Yonder movie poster

Without a doubt, Tiger Town was an excellent way to kick off Disney’s legacy in telefilms. In fact, it had an angle that would become the bread and butter of the DCOM brand later on — a young person whose character and story easily bring the audience in emotionally. The same is true for The Blue Yonder. A few Disney Channel Premiere Films later, Shapiro produced and Mark Rosman wrote The Blue Yonder with a focus on another sensitive, kindhearted character. Jonathan Knicks (Huckleberry Fox) is growing up without his grandfather, Max Knickerbocker (Peter Coyote), who died flying across the Atlantic decades earlier. Young Jonathan learns from his grandfather’s ailing friend Henry (Art Carney) that Max designed a time machine, which Henry has completed. The boy travels from the 1980s to 1927 in an effort to save his grandfather — and he gets to know him in the process.

This was Rosman’s first Disney Channel project of many. We of the Lizzie McGuire generation certainly have seen episodes he directed, along with Even Stevens and iconic 2000s movies such as Model Behavior, Life-Size, and A Cinderella Story (which isn’t Disney but obviously includes our beloved Hilary Duff). Shapiro also continued to work with Disney — check out his film The Christmas Star on Disney+ next holiday season. In the early ’90s, he discovered Alicia Silverstone, who starred in his dramatic thriller The Crush. Disney Channel fans have Shapiro and Rosman to thank for establishing the pulse of the Disney Channel family feature. Sure, DCOMs changed with the times to eventually reflect a 2000s tween, but the masterful storytelling present in Tiger Town and The Blue Yonder makes this ’90s kid even more appreciative of the Disney Channel of the ’80s. Both films earned CableACE awards. I’d recommend watching behind-the-scenes slideshows on Alan Shapiro’s website commemorating each of the movies: here’s Tiger Town and The Blue Yonder!

Disney Channel & Anne of Green Gables

Disney Channel & Anne of Green Gables

To enter Disney Channel’s Anne of Green Gables universe, I watched two works, amounting to about seven hours. In the 1980s, these projects were released as miniseries, but I purchased them as cohesive films. Kevin Sullivan produced, co-wrote (with Joe Wiesenfeld), and directed the 1985 Anne of Green Gables adaptation for CBC, which became the most successful TV drama broadcast in Canada’s history at the time (per The New York Times). In 1986, the miniseries aired on PBS and WNET/Channel 13. It came to the Disney Channel in 1987, right before Sullivan’s next project: Anne of Avonlea. This sequel was made in collaboration with the Disney Channel. Though Sullivan hadn’t planned on a sequel, he shared in a behind-the-scenes video, “I was met with this wash of enthusiasm, that it sort of surprised me — I had everybody saying, ‘What happens?’ or ‘Gosh, we didn’t want the movie to end. We could have watched another hour of that movie.'”

Still of Anne Shirley (Megan Follows)

As a middle schooler, I read the first Anne of Green Gables book and loved the story, but I never finished reading L.M. Montgomery’s whole series. That’s still something I’d like to do, but I enjoyed seeing Kevin Sullivan’s first two miniseries, and I plan to watch his long-running TV drama, Road to Avonlea, which includes some of Montgomery’s characters from the Anne universe. Sullivan also produced Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story and Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning (neither are affiliated with Disney Channel).

Frankly, I took my time with these artistic films while I was in the process of watching so many DCOMs and Disney Channel Premiere Films. I’m so glad I began with the first Anne of Green Gables miniseries. Megan Follows is perfectly energetic and rambunctious as young Anne, and it’s so fun to watch her grow up. The first story establishes her home in Avonlea, where siblings Marilla (Colleen Dewhurst) and Matthew Cuthbert (Richard Farnsworth) adopt Anne. She quickly forms a friendship with Diana Barry (Schuyler Grant). You might remember the raspberry cordial scene from reading the first story — it’s perfectly adapted here.

The second film shows us a more grown-up Anne Shirley, who is pursuing her career as a teacher. The children in Anne’s class (all girls) are mostly horrible and make it obvious that they dislike her. There’s a disruption which causes one father, Morgan Harris, to pull his financial support from the school and withdraw his two daughters. I dislike the fact that Morgan and Anne have a flirtation; he must be at least 20 years older than her. Besides, Anne belongs with Gilbert Blythe (the late Jonathan Crombie), who teased her in the first film but matures into a loving and suitable mate. Anne turns down his advances for much of the sequel. I think it’s probably alright to spoil the ending and tell you that Gilbert and Anne do end up together. As sweet as her romance is, Anne will charm you all on her own. Writer Heather Cocks shared in a Vanity Fair piece, “Anne Shirley is pluck personified, and deeply theatrical, which makes it impossible not to love her. … But she’s also the first female heroine I can remember whose mind was considered flat-out cool.” 

In addition to a brave and beloved protagonist, the Canadian films come with splendid scenery, set in turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island. While there are gorgeous landscape shots of PEI, the Anne stories were mostly filmed throughout Ontario, including villages and a farm. You can read more about each film’s settings and historical research — including the Edwardian interiors crafted by production designer Carol Spier — on the official Anne of Green Gables website. Though it was a Disney Channel co-production, Anne of Avonlea isn’t on Disney+, so I would suggest purchasing a hard copy or renting/buying the film digitally from Sullivan’s streaming service, GazeboTV.

Life with Luca: Daphne Ballon Interview

Life with Luca: Daphne Ballon Interview

Today is an exciting day for our Canadian friends — the movie Life with Luca premieres on Family Channel at 7pm.

Life with Derek cast members Ashley Leggat, Michael Seater, Joy Tanner, and John Ralston reunite for this new film, where Casey and Derek are both parents! Daphne Ballon chatted with me about bringing the MacDonald-Venturi family back, and about her incredible work in family programming. Daphne has accomplished so much in television, including co-creating Disney Channel’s tween series Flash Forward in the ’90s, creating I Was a Sixth Grade Alien for Canada’s Family Channel, and of course, creating the award-winning comedy Life with Derek. Read on to learn more about her previous work and her newest project!

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

Becca and Tucker on Disney Channel Magazine cover for Flash Forward

Flash Forward

Allison: Looking back at Flash Forward on Disney Channel, how did you craft these authentic characters in a time when tween and teen television was still kind of finding its voice?

Daphne: We looked at some of our favorite shows. The head writer was John May, and we talked about The Wonder Years and Family Ties and shows that we’d loved and then tried to figure out how to get that feeling into more of the kids’ space. Because those shows were obviously prime-time shows. And then it was just a very interesting transition, and there were channels that were specifically geared to a kid audience.

Allison: I would imagine taking the kid and teen characters from those family shows and then zeroing in on them a little bit more, right?

Daphne: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think if you think of all those shows that I just talked about, in many cases, the adults were kind of the lead. Even a show like Malcolm in the Middle, right? [Adults] were the leads, and the kids were incredibly important. Obviously in Family Ties, they went on to have their own careers. But a show where it was those new channels, like Disney, Nickelodeon, and then up in Canada, it was YTV and Family Channel, they were kind of like, ‘These channels are for you kids.’ So what I tried to do was develop shows that were specifically for that age group, but also that had likable, believable parents in them.

Allison: Flash Forward is a great series. I’m curious about why it ended just when this genre was sort of picking up at the Disney Channel. Were there ever talks of extending Tucker and Becca’s stories?

Daphne: I’m not sure what the official story is. My take on it is that there was a change in the creative executives at Disney Channel at that time. So the new regime had their own shows that they wanted to bring in. So, honestly, it was quite crushing at the time. Those things happen in TV, but it’s hard… but I felt like it was really working. And I know there were lots more stories we could have told.

There were so many great actors. I’m sure you saw Ryan Gosling did two guest appearances on Flash Forward. … I think [executives] weren’t sure he was right for it, and so we said, ‘Okay, fine.’ And then we tried a bunch of casting. Then finally, we were like, ‘No, Ryan Gosling is the guy. We have to have him.’ And he was so funny, my God!

Allison: That’s awesome. I don’t think Ben Foster talks about the show much, but every once in a while I’ll see Jewel Staite say something about it online. And it’s always fun when the casts look back on those years.

Daphne: Ben always really wanted to do more adult, more serious roles. He was kind of a comedic genius, but I don’t think that was ultimately where he wanted to go.

Life with Derek poster, featuring whole family for Season 1

Life with Derek

Allison: I was in middle school when this show came out. I loved it. I especially loved the romances and all of Casey’s boyfriends… It’s just been so fun to revisit this show. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find in the States. I hope that will change with streaming at some point.

Daphne: Maybe with the movie, it will rekindle some interest.

Allison: This was definitely a unique concept for Disney Channel at the time, with a blended family. I love the play off of The Brady Bunch in the opening sequence. How did you initially come up with this series?

Daphne: Well, I was initially developing it with a family with five kids because I’m from a family of five kids; I’m the eldest. It was good, but it wasn’t really taking off. And then, when I sort of reconceived it, I weirdly still remember where I was when I sort of thought, ‘No, we should make it a merged family, because then it can be the battle of the two eldest kids — type A and type ‘Slacker.’ It really came to life when I made it a merged family. Obviously, something like The Brady Bunch was merged, but that was like a widow and widower as opposed to two single parents with children.

Allison: This show, at times, was a little more mature than other things that were on Disney Channel at the time… What were some guidelines that you had for the writing team in creating stories that were authentic, but would still be okay for the specific audience that would be watching the show?

Daphne: That’s a good question. Our goal was always comedy with heart. And in order to have heart, you sort of need for it not to be saccharine. Ideally, they’re real stories. My co-writer on everything, Jeff Biederman, also came from a family of five, so I think he was good at providing more of the male perspective, and me, the female perspective.

In terms of parameters, I think we just wanted it to be real because to us, that’s funnier. And then in terms of how far we could go, we would push it as far as we could, and then we would be told what we couldn’t do — S&P, standards and practices, we would be getting that from Disney and from Family Channel. You also develop a sort of gut instinct for what’s acceptable. I don’t think we ever felt like our wings were being clipped in any way. … I remember our Disney executive at the time. He was very good at giving very good notes. I think a lot of writers see people giving notes as an annoyance, but I’ve always found that if you have the right people in place, having that perspective, it’s very helpful.

Allison: One thing that strikes me, looking at it as an adult, is seeing George and Nora actually struggle with work-life balance. And they don’t always have a perfect plan for dinner, for the kids’ lunches, and things are messy and disorganized sometimes. So I really appreciate that, and it’s something I may not have picked up on from the parents’ or adults’ side as much growing up.

Daphne: That was important to me because it was sort of a tradition of shows back then where the parents would come in, in the scene at the same time, as though they did everything together, and then they’d sort of make a couple of cracks and then they would leave, or they were giving time-outs. They were kind of like old-style parents. And I really wanted parents that felt like parents that we all had, that were confused and disagreed sometimes and were bemused and [would] joke around with their kids. So that was important to me. At the same time, what Jeff and I discovered in writing the show is, it didn’t really work to have scenes with just the parents. They were an important part of the scenes that were there, but the kids were driving it. So we virtually never had a scene that didn’t have at least one kid in it with the parents.

Allison: I am a huge fan of Shadia Simmons. She was in lots of other Disney Channel stuff. I’m curious about her role as Emily and some of the other friends and love interests, and how you built this world around Derek and Casey’s high school experience.

Daphne: It was obviously an episodic series, so every story had its own beginning, middle, and an end. But we were hoping to have some arcing elements and really, that became whoever they were dating, whoever Casey was keen on, or who Derek was keen on. … Shadia, it was interesting because I was rewatching the first episode, and you meet her in the first episode and she says, ‘Oh, my God, I have such a crush on that guy Derek.’ And Casey is just like, ‘Um, it’s my stepbrother,’ but Shadia has a crush on him from day one. But then all this stuff happens, and she’s Casey’s best friend and she’s present in every season. And then the way the show ends is Shadia’s character, Emily, getting together with Derek.

Allison: I was pretty sheltered in my middle school years, so it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how big of an online presence Life with Derek had, and a fan community, and how much the cast engaged with that… When did you become aware of the ‘Dasey’ fanship for this series?

Daphne: I’m kind of innocent, too. And the online world wasn’t as highly developed when we started, but I obviously became aware of it. To be fully honest, we weren’t writing to it. We weren’t trying to foster that. That was something that just evolved out of this amazing chemistry that Michael Seater and Ashley Leggat have, and they’re best friends still. I think they sort of enjoyed pointing it out, too. I think there was a sort of magnetic chemistry between the two of them.

Cast posing for Life with Luca

Life with Luca

Allison: Could you tell me a little bit more about the significance of Life with Luca premiering on Family Day [in Canada]?

Daphne: I think it’s kind of genius marketing on the part of WildBrain, who are broadcasting it. I think all the best family shows reinforce the importance of family. I think that’s kind of a universal theme, and it’s something we really actively wrote to in this movie. Derek has a daughter who he’s raised all on his own in Europe while he’s been a musician. She’s best friends with her father. They do everything together, but she’s never had a family per se. So she knows about all her cousins in Canada, but she hasn’t spent a lot of time with them. And she doesn’t really understand why she would want to, even, so she’s brought on this impromptu visit/reunion, by Derek, who’s trying to figure out how to manage her. And he’s a little bemused as to how to raise her now that she’s a teenager.

She’s kind of plunged into the middle of Casey’s family chaos [with] three children. She is not happy about the whole thing and definitely not happy about spending time with her cousin, who she just thinks is kind of a jerk. One of the themes of the movie is this only child, who’s grown up really mostly just with her dad, finding the joy of being in a big family.

Allison: That’s wonderful. What can you tell us about Casey and Derek as adults and and how much of their teenage personalities they will still have in this movie?

Daphne: Well, that’s a great question, too, ’cause Casey and Derek were such strong personalities and we definitely tried to carry that over into their parenting. So Casey is, of course, an extremely conscientious parent. She’s one of the parents that’s got a shelf full of books on childrearing and has rules and takes her kids to lots of lessons and tries to do everything the right way, no matter, even if it’s running her ragged. She’s a lawyer, too, so she’s quite busy. Her husband spends part of the time away every year playing hockey abroad. But she is darned if she’s going to let anything slip through the cracks.

And Derek is, I wouldn’t say he’s a slacker dad, he’s just more kind of, raised his daughter like his pal, like his sidekick. He adores her. They totally enjoy each other. But he’s never really had rules or structure in their lives because they’re on a tour bus half the time. She’s been tutored. She doesn’t go to a normal school. She’s had quite an unconventional upbringing. And Derek’s never had to play the tough dad. It’s always just been easy. So now, when he realizes that he needs to be a little more firm, he doesn’t really know how to go about it. So he’s kind of looking to either his parents, George and Nora, or to Casey to help them figure this out.

So few showrunners get to do this, to have a reunion with these characters they created, and obviously, with the actors who we became so close to over those years. Joy [Tanner] and John [Ralston] are great, and that was a real pleasure to see them again. Not to mention Ashley and Michael.

Allison: Is there any difference between developing a teen and family story like this in the 2000s versus today — whether that’s technology or anything else that you’ve taken into consideration?

Daphne: Well, definitely technology. All of us have to write with cell phones; everybody’s got a cell phone at all times. And I think we have to write to that. In the old days, a show like Family Ties, they were all siblings and it was just one big family. And then in Life with Derek, we made it a merged family. So that’s a combination of two families. And then in Life with Luca, we tried to be much more reflective of these times. So, Casey’s kids are biracial. Derek has been raising a daughter on his own. Derek and Casey have a brother who’s not much older than their kids. I think families, the definition of family has changed from just kind of the old-style family to a family which is a composite of different relationships and different parents. That kind of conventional definition of family has changed so much.

Allison: Absolutely, I think that’s been sort of progressing over the years. So that’ll be really neat to see how it’s reflected in this movie. And I don’t know if you saw, but Jordan Todosey and Daniel Magder recreated their little closet scene as Edwin and Lizzie. So I’m curious about whether or not there might be more stories to tell for the McDonald-Venturis, especially after bringing fans back to the family with Life with Luca.

Daphne: I would love to do that. It was decided it was just too much, too many characters… Initially we thought, ‘Well, we’ll do a full reunion show, like a full family reunion with everybody.’ But then it was too hard to introduce these new characters. So we focused on just an impromptu reunion of Derek and Casey and their families, plus their parents. But yeah, I would love to write more for those characters. I saw The TikTok, and I thought it was really well done, actually.

You can watch Life with Luca, written by Daphne Ballon and Jeff Biederman, tonight at 7pm on Family Channel! Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us, Daphne! 🙂

Love Leads the Way (1984)

Love Leads the Way (1984)

Love Leads the Way was only the third Disney Channel Premiere Film, following Tiger Town and Gone Are the Dayes. The film was directed by Delbert Mann, an experienced Oscar winner who had worked in television since 1949. One of the most serious ’80s Disney Channel films, Love Leads the Way is based on a true story. Morris Frank (played by Timothy Bottoms) was the first American to have a Seeing Eye dog. He chronicled this experience in a book called The First Lady of the Seeing Eye, and Frank co-founded the first school for Seeing Eye dogs in the United States.

Love Leads the Way movie poster, featuring Morris Frank and Buddy

In the movie, set in the 1920s, we see Morris Frank become blind as a young man during a boxing accident. However, the real-life Frank reportedly lost sight in his right eye first, due to a horseback riding accident at age six. (I read that his mother was blind, as well.) Throughout Love Leads the Way, Morris Frank is determined to live and work independently, which is incredibly difficult in his Nashville neighborhood. In real life and in the film, an article written by trainer Dorothy Eustis (played by Eva Marie Saint) for The Saturday Evening Post changes the course of Frank’s life. “From the very small beginnings of becoming absolutely house-broken, [a dog] is taken step by step upward to his [life’s] work of leading a blind man, of being that man’s eyes and his sword and buckler,” wrote Eustis. Frank travels to Switzerland to work with Eustis and train his dog, Buddy (played by Berka the German Shepherd). Buddy must learn how to safely guide his owner through town, avoiding obstacles and staying aware of traffic.

Later in the film, Morris Frank advocates for Seeing Eye dogs to be permissible in public places. In real life, Morris Frank coincidentally made Morristown, New Jersey, the headquarters for the Seeing Eye, which still trains Seeing Eye dogs and operates as a philanthropic organization. The movie weaves a romantic story into Frank’s activism, with the carelessness of his ex replaced by the kindness of his collaborator and new girlfriend.

While Love Leads the Way debuted on cable in 1984, there was a special premiere in New York, then one in Nashville. Critic Bob Foster called the movie “Disney at its best.” Wolf Schneider reported that as the film was released on VHS, Walt Disney Home Video pledged $10,000 in charitable donations to benefit blind individuals. The price for that tape in 1984? $69.95! If you have this moving story on videocassette, I’d love to hear from you. You can find this important Disney Channel Premiere Film on YouTube, otherwise.

The Whipping Boy (1994)

The Whipping Boy (1994)

The Whipping Boy is based on Sid Fleischman’s eponymous children’s book, which won the Newbery Medal in 1987. The Disney Channel adaptation was directed by Syd Macartney and won a CableACE Award. The story is set in the mid-18th century. Orphans Jemmy and Annyrose see Prince Horace (Nic Knight, Quintin from The Santa Clause) when he is coming through town in his carriage. The prince nearly runs them over and the wheels splatter dirty water on them. Annyrose nicknames him Prince Brat since he is from Brattingham, and he’s bratty. Prince Brat harasses the orphans, who are busy catching rats to sell to a pirate. They use the rat money to secure lodging.

I believe I’ve commented before on kidnapping in a couple of Disney Channel Premiere Films. It happens more than once in this one. Jemmy is kidnapped by the prince’s men to become his new whipping boy. “Me? The future king? I’ve never been spanked in my life!” the prince exclaims. Instead of bearing the punishment for his own misdemeanors, Prince Horace has his whipping boy take the beating. The prince frequently acts out because his father is too busy to spend time with him. “You are old enough to know that affairs of State take precedence over royal recreation,” the king says when he bails on his son. Two of the prince’s offenses include putting rats on the dinner trays for a royal feast, and tampering with a painting of his grandmother by putting her head on a horse’s body and the horse’s head on her. The final straw: the brat puts goose grease on the saddle of an ambassador who is visiting the king about a border dispute. The king tells the prince that he will be whipped this time, not the whipping boy.

Prince Horace decides to run away, forcing Jemmy to go with him. In the forest, there’s another kidnapping — robbers who stole from the ambassador’s carriage turn around and take both boys. Luckily, the prince’s teacher taught the whipping boy how to write, so he fools the crooks when he agrees to write a ransom letter for them. These clowns aren’t very smart, but they know they want the prince’s weight in gold before they’ll set him free. They think Jemmy is the prince and Horace is the whipping boy. The children escape but again are kidnapped. Thankfully, a gypsy helps them by sending her pet bear to chase after the bad guys. The king is so grateful to Jemmy that he sets Annyrose free from prison (she was there for stealing a handkerchief, which she didn’t actually do). Jemmy and Prince Horace become friends. It’s not the writing, the acting, or the time period I dislike. It’s the fact that a homeless orphan is drafted to endure corporal punishment for about half of this movie. I was an infant in 1994, but I wonder what kids watching Disney Channel at the time thought of The Whipping Boy!

A Friendship in Vienna (1988)

A Friendship in Vienna (1988)

Jenny Lewis, Ed Asner, 1930s Vienna, Austria. Please note that this film contains antisemitic images and dialogue.

Jenny Lewis as Inge in A Friendship in Vienna

This Disney Channel Premiere Film was directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman and based on the book Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel. I had seen this film not too long ago but decided to watch it again as I wrap up my large DCOM/Disney Channel Premiere Film project. Jenny Lewis gives a discerning performance as Inge Dournenvald, a Jewish girl who is best friends with a Catholic girl, Lise Mueller. A Friendship in Vienna focuses on Lise and Inge’s changing relationship, as Lise’s father is a Nazi official. Set during the time of the Anschluss — when Nazi troops took over Austria and incorporated the nation into Germany — Nazis in the film target Inge and her family. An older Inge (Jean Simmons) narrates the opening of the film, recalling this part of her life as “a winter Hitler invaded our country and took from us all my family and I held dear. When I look back, I see pieces. Some significant, some trivial, but all combining through mysterious alchemy to comprise a life.”

The troops are vile, as we know from history, and the Dournenvalds endure horrible treatment up until their escape from Austria. Inge’s best friend’s brother, Heinz, purposefully trips Inge’s mother on the stairs so that she breaks her leg. The Dournenvalds’ former errand boy blackmails them by inventing an offense Inge’s father did not commit. Nazi soldiers force Inge’s father and Opah Oskar (Ed Asner) to get up one morning and use their toothbrushes to scrub horrific antisemitic graffiti off a building. After this scene, Inge’s mother tells her about her friend: “Tommy had a brain hemorrhage; they think it was from the shock of what the Nazis did to his father yesterday. Inge, he died this morning.” If they want to survive, the Dournenvalds must leave their home.

After Opah Oskar is able to leave first, Inge and her parents narrowly escape. They’ve obtained permission to go on vacation to Yugoslavia. But in order to do so, the Dournenvalds must pretend they are Catholic and produce baptism papers. When her parents are unsure of doing so, Inge reminds them that the ritual is meaningless but would save their lives: “I would bathe in gallons of holy water if it would bring Tommy back,” she says.

For reasons I’m not yet sure of, there are several Disney Channel Premiere Films set close to World War II. Yet, they’re all different, revealing how this time period affected people throughout the world. But the hatred in this specific film, sadly, didn’t end. I wish we could watch films like this and only know evil as a thing of the past. Instead, we watch them and are reminded that people in our world still feel this kind of hatred and show it towards others every day. If you have a chance to see it, I do recommend A Friendship in Vienna — but please note that the images capture heinous acts of cruelty.

Songs for Tomorrow: Remembering Aaron Carter and Advocating for Children’s Mental Health

Songs for Tomorrow: Remembering Aaron Carter and Advocating for Children’s Mental Health

On Wednesday, January 18th, I virtually attended a concert benefiting On Our Sleeves, a national movement to break stigmas surrounding children’s mental health. More than $150,000 was raised. The event was held at Lance Bass’s Heart WeHo venue in West Hollywood, California. After hearing recordings of Aaron’s music, I saw Angel (Carter) Conrad and Lance Bass take the stage.

Lance said, “When Aaron passed, Angel here, the twin of Aaron Carter, needed to do something.” She called Lance, who offered his stage and his help. Angel expressed her appreciation for the crowd and explained, “A week after Aaron passed away, a fire lit inside of me and I said, ‘I cannot let Aaron die in vain.'” Angel and Lance concluded their thoughts and introduced the host, social media influencer Rod Thill, who is known for his nostalgic TikToks and Instagram reels. The first musical performer was B. Howard, who was joined by two singers introduced as Ian and Blake. Dr. Drew briefly spoke to the crowd about the importance of taking care of the mind, just as we do the body. Next was singer Ryan Cabrera, who had a technical difficulty with his guitar battery but still resonated with the audience. Surprisingly, he started rapping the theme to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and he sang a snippet of “I Want Candy” (a cover Aaron Carter was well-known for) at the end of his set.

Rod shared more information about On Our Sleeves and then introduced Lori Knight, Aaron Carter’s former manager. She spoke candidly about the Carter family and defended Angel and Nick’s efforts to help Aaron. “We’ve been fighting like hell to save him,” she said. In describing 25 years of knowing Aaron, Lori used the words “scary,” “sad,” “heartbreaking,” as well as “love and laughter and pain and hope and hopelessness.” The manager expressed the complexities of working with the singer and told a story about his kindness toward a fan who had been in a car accident. “I know AC is here, I know he is, and I know how excited he is that we’re all here…” she said, naming audience members she knew, including Hilary Duff’s mother, Susan Duff, and several individuals who worked with Aaron.

Following Lori Knight’s emotional speech, David Archuleta was such a wonderful face to see on the stage. Like Ryan Cabrera, he experimented a bit with his set, opting for an impromptu piano-vocal performance of “A Thousand Miles” but stopping before the second verse. David said after his hit song, “Crush,” “Something that helps me get through — I benefited a lot from going to therapy, and I did an album called Therapy Sessions… one of the things that I felt was most most important to learn, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, when you’re feeling anxious, when you’re not feeling good enough, to take a step back and just breathe.” The last song in his set was “Just Breathe.”

I think the best performances of the night were from the boy band members — representing LFO, O-Town, *NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys. Brad Fischetti tragically lost both his former LFO bandmates, Rich Cronin and Devin Lima. He paid tribute to both of them, addressed the importance of mental health care — “Be vulnerable enough to say, ‘I need help,'” he said — and shared poignant memories of Aaron with the crowd. Brad was then joined by O-Town’s Erik-Michael Estrada, Trevor Penick, and Jacob Underwood. The “Girl on TV” performance was very moving, balanced by a rousing rendition of “Summer Girls.” O-Town stayed onstage for a bit, shared their Aaron Carter remembrances, and closed with “Bye Bye Bye.” They invited Lance to jump in, and he joined them toward the end of the number, which was amazing!

In between the boy band festivities, former manager Johnny Wright discussed the time when he worked with Aaron, at the beginning of the singer’s career. In fact, he shared that he started Aaron’s career. Johnny recalled how sad Aaron was that Nick would be leaving for the Backstreet Boys’ first headlining tour in Europe. He asked Aaron if he could sing, and the boy answered, “Yes! And I can sing better than Nick!” From there, Johnny had Aaron recording The Jets’ “Crush on You,” and the rest is history. The stories Johnny shared from Aaron’s adult years were more somber, involving his struggles with rehab. Later came an equally deep address on choosing sobriety from BSB’s AJ McLean, who performed his new song “Electric” while wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt. “I’m a f*cking ray of sunshine” was written on it. Both AJ and Brad Fischetti brought to life the energy and light of young Aaron’s memory.

Fans were met with Aaron’s voice as he sang “Recovery” in a previous recording. His sister Angel shared that the song had come out of his efforts toward sobriety in the early 2010s. Young Aaron was then projected on-screen playing basketball with Nick, right before Nick’s performance of “Hurts to Love You.” This heart-rending new song is worth a listen.

Closing out the night were the boy-banders with “I Want It That Way” and “Shape of My Heart.” In addition to Lance Bass, Nick Carter, and AJ McLean, 98 Degrees’ Jeff Timmons joined for these, too! It was so special to see these singers supporting each other, and Nick expressed his gratitude for the crowd’s support. “This is my little brother, and no matter what, I’m always gonna love him. And I know that you love him, too,” Nick said. The final song, with all performers invited back up, was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” From start to finish, the performers and speakers honored Aaron’s life and shed light on the importance of mental health and treating mental illness.

For more information about On Our Sleeves, visit their website. From this special event, I’ve been reminded of two important things: Seek help when you need it, and do everything you can to help the people in your life. Rest in peace, Aaron Carter.