The children’s television program “Reading Rainbow” aired on PBS from 1983 to 2006, and “Butterfly in the Sky” is the story of how that show came to be, what it was like to work on it and its afterlife. The people interviewed here are all so nice, warm and likable that watching this movie is like sinking into a warm bath.
The key creators of the show were Twila Liggett, who started out as a teacher of eight- and nine-year-old kids, and Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit, a married couple who had a production company in New York. Liggett left teaching because she didn’t like the excessive and superficial testing of young kids, and she wanted to take what she had learned and bring it to television, which was seen as an enemy of reading for children in the early 1980s.
LeVar Burton had become a star on TV in the miniseries “Roots” in the late 1970s, and when he was approached to host “Reading Rainbow,” he immediately saw its potential and committed himself to it. Burton had studied for the priesthood in his youth, and he was a serious theater student before getting his groundbreaking TV role, so he always had a sense of vocation. Burton says here that when “Roots” aired and caused major discussions about the reality of slavery in America versus the myth, he realized that “all television is education.”
Burton shot the pilot for “Reading Rainbow” in 1981, and it aired in 1983. The producers wanted him to look the same in each season in order to provide some continuity for kids, but Burton trusted that children would understand that he was still the same host even when he wore a mustache or an earring.
So much of the success of “Reading Rainbow” was based on Burton’s relationship to the camera and to his audience of young kids, and the reason for that is as intangible, ultimately, as the reason why Fred Rogers was such an innately soothing and kind authority figure on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Burton himself analyzes what he brought to the show: “It’s LeVar, but it’s a version of LeVar that appeals to an eight-year-old.” The simplest way to express it may be that the camera loves Burton’s open face, and he knew how to direct his positive energy to that camera when he addressed the children watching him.
In one episode of “Reading Rainbow,” where Burton introduces rap music to his audience, he is very wholesome-seeming while explaining, “It’s a kind of street poetry,” with his trademark upbeat and energetically earnest sense of wonder. But we see a different side of Burton in footage from when he addressed Congress in the mid-1990s in order to save funding for public television. Republican politicians were actually saying that “Reading Rainbow” was “anti-family propaganda,” a reminder that members of this party have been beyond belief for a long time. Burton expresses anger at this foolishness very directly; it seems clear that he is as genuinely sweet off-screen as Fred Rogers was, but Burton is no pushover.
“Butterfly in the Sky” contains stories about filming episodes of the show in some dangerous places like bat caves, and Burton even filmed one episode against the backdrop of an erupting volcano in Hawaii. Some of the young kids who did the book-report segments for the show are interviewed today, and we find out that what the kids said about the books they were promoting came directly from them.
“Reading Rainbow” stayed on the air even when Burton got a time-consuming role on the series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and he made time where he could for “Reading Rainbow,” because the producers knew that they couldn’t ever find another host who had just the right quality for their show. Everyone gets very emotional talking about the end of the series in 2006, for it had been a key part of their lives for such a long time.
Liggett recalls that George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on the excessive testing she so disliked in her own days as a teacher, sounded a death knell for what they were trying to do. But the legacy of “Reading Rainbow” is indestructible, and hearing directly from the people who made it is as inspirational as some of the best episodes of the series itself.
“Butterfly in the Sky” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.