Alumni Profiles

Back to Alumni Profiles

New Documentary Chronicles Acclaimed PBS “Reading Rainbow” Series Created by CJC Alumnus

By Lenore Devore, B.S. Journalism, 1984

Larry Lancit

What started as a way for Larry Lancit, B.S. Telecommunication 1970 and Hall of Fame 1992, and his wife, Cecily, to pay the bills in New York in the 1980s evolved into one of the most beloved children’s shows on PBS and is now a documentary that will begin airing on Netflix in June 2024.

Butterfly in the Sky” – taken from the first line of the show’s catchy theme song – revisits the PBS children’s series “Reading Rainbow” that aired on more than 260 public television stations, starting in 1983. The Lancits co-created the show to help first-grade students retain reading skills during the summer leading into second grade.

Actor LeVar Burton hosted the series for its entire 23-year run. He received 12 Daytime Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award as host and executive producer of the educational series.

“Butterfly In the Sky” captures the spirit of the series and its effects on those involved, including children. “For over 25 years, ‘Reading Rainbow’ set the standard for literary children’s television. Thanks to its uncondescending approach, plus its immersive documentary-style adventures, LeVar Burton and the ‘Reading Rainbow’ creative team instilled a love of reading in millions of children,” according to its trailer.

Lancit said Sidestilt Films approached him about doing the documentary.

“There are not many PBS children shows that last 25 years,” he said. “What happens is you develop a huge audience over time. The program was the most-used TV show in American schools for many years during the ’80s and ’90s because of its ‘cross-curriculum’ value. So, there’s a huge audience of kids out there who have been watching this show for the last 30 or 40 years and now they are all in their 30s, 40s and 50s.”

Three years ago, Sidestilt started working on the documentary, finishing it in 2023. It is directed by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb and produced by those two and Bryan Storkel.

Lancit, far right, with his wife Cecily and actor and program host LeVar Burton at the Tribeca Film Festival 2023.

The film debuted in June 2023 at the Tribeca Festival as one of the showcase films, and this year had a limited release at AMC theaters around the country in March. In May, it will be available on iTunes and Amazon Prime before debuting on Netflix.

“It’s won awards already. We’ve been to a number of the debuts and it plays to really enthusiastic crowds; most who come to watch the movie are people who watched the show,” Lancit said.

The Lancits partnered with two public TV stations, WNED in Buffalo, New York, and GPN in Lincoln, Nebraska, to start “Reading Rainbow.”

“Producing a new children’s show, we wanted to break some new ground. We wanted to do state-of-the-art production,” Lancit said. “We hired a black host – that was very forward-thinking in the early 1980s. There were a lot of raised eyebrows, but LeVar was the right person for the job – he was great on camera, he had a tremendous personality, he connected with kids in a non-condescending way.”

Burton in a scence form the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” episode in 1993

Burton was himself, which was a different type of role for the actor, Lancit said. “There aren’t many people who do that well. His natural vibrant personality made his success immediate.”

In the trailer, Burton said: “When I first heard the pitch for ‘Reading Rainbow’ I thought, ‘what a great idea.’ Let’s use the medium of television to steer kids back in the direction of the written word.  … I know that my life has been immeasurably enhanced by my love of the written word.”

In the documentary, Lancit said, “Burton talks a lot about why he’s involved, the things he did, how it changed his life in terms of his goals, what he wanted to do as a kid, how it became a mission in his life.”

Lancit and his wife Cecily at the Larry and Cecily at International Film and TV awards 1990

Also interviewed for the documentary are people in their 40s who did “book reviews” on the show when they were 6, 7 and 8 years old, he said, along with some educators who used the program, as well as key production staff during the 25 years of production.

The documentary “provides an insight into how important ‘Reading Rainbow’ was in their lives,” Lancit said. “It’s a heartwarming story. Sidestilt captured the spirit of the show. They provide the viewer with a real window into what made ‘Reading Rainbow’ tick. I’m proud to be part of it.”

Lancit said he enjoyed working with PBS because they did not try to manipulate or control the content. “We could pick the books we wanted to use. We were really appealing to the 7-year-old in ourselves, doing the things we knew would be interesting to kids. There was a great freedom in that as a television producer.”

The show stopped production when funding became too difficult to obtain. There were several efforts to create interactive versions of “Reading Rainbow” that met with limited success. Now, there is a library of shows centered around the picture books featured in the series. “Over the years, those books have done very well in sales. It was a very successful series in that regard.”

Production still from the “Sunken Treasure” episode in 1990.

The “Reading Rainbow” brand and imprimatur remain as the defining element of quality children’s literature. During its 26-year run, “Reading Rainbow” garnered more than 250 awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award, Telly Awards, Parent’s and Teacher’s Choice Awards, and 26 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Director for Lancit.

“People loved it. They still do, which is the reason Sidestilt decided to do the documentary about it.

‘Reading Rainbow’ had great karma. Things would happen positively for us that we could never understand.”

Lancit is writing a book about the production and all the anecdotes that went along with it. “There were some very funny things that happened. It will be a companion piece to the documentary. Hopefully, I’ll have it done by the end of the year – when people want to make Christmas gifts out of the video,” he said with a chuckle.

Owners of Lancit Digital Media, Lancit said “Reading Rainbow” was a “life’s work” for the couple.

“It’s so interesting to feel the effects of it now, all these years later, when audiences are still interested. It made such an important impact on their lives. It helped them foster a true love of reading in their lives.”

Posted: May 22, 2024
Category: Alumni Profiles, College News, Profiles
Tagged as: ,