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40 Years On, 'Free To Be' Still Resonates

Actress Marlo Thomas has been gracing television screens since the 1960s and earned a Golden Globe for her role on That Girl in 1966. (Getty Images)

The children's album Free To Be... You and Me was the brainchild of Emmy-winning actress Marlo Thomas and a bevy of celebrity friends, from Michael Jackson to Rosey Grier, all the way to Carol Channing and Harry Belafonte.

It contained stories, skits and songs that were not your typical children's fare. On it, a football player sang a ballad titled "It's Alright to Cry." Another track featured a long-overdue explanation that housework isn't fun for anyone — mothers, fathers or children.

Forty years after its release, the album, with its themes of gender neutrality and individuality, is still a favorite among parents. Thomas talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about the record's staying power.


Interview Highlights

On the surprising success of the album

"When we were making the album, we figured we were making a little kid's album, and the record company told us we'd be lucky to sell 15,000 copies. And of course the record went gold and platinum and everything, and it's phenomenal, actually."

On the importance of the song "William's Doll"

"So many men have come up to me through the years and said that song really helped them when they were growing up, that it really made them feel they were going to be OK — that song and "It's Alright to Cry" because every boy should be allowed to pick up a doll if he wants to. Every boy should be able to cry if he wants to."

On whether the ideals in the album have been realized today

"They've been realized for those children who are allowed to have them realized. There are still children whose parents may not believe they are free to be whoever they want to be. I mean, if every child was free to be who they wanted to be, then there wouldn't be gay children killing themselves. The whole point is that we don't seem to have completely grasped the idea that every single boy and girl can be whoever they want to be."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Forty years ago, actress Marlo Thomas got some of her famous friends together and released a children's album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE TO BE YOU AND ME")

MARLO THOMAS: (Singing) There's a land that I see, where the children are free, and I say it ain't far to this land from where we are...

MARTIN: There were stories, skits and songs, and it wasn't your typical children's fare for the time. A football player belting out a ballad called "It's Okay To Cry." A long overdue explanation that housework isn't fun for anyone. The album is "Free to Be You and Me." Emmy-winning actress Marlo Thomas was the creator, performing alongside the likes of Michael Jackson, Rosey Grier, Carol Channing and Harry Belafonte. Marlo Thomas joins us now. Welcome to the program.

THOMAS: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: Let's retrace a little bit of the story of this album. Let's go back in time. It's 1972, and Ms. magazine runs an ad to promote the album. And the slogan on the advertisement is: Liberate Little Ears. Could you explain what that meant? What was that concept about?

THOMAS: The album was conceived because I was reading stories to my little niece, who was around four, five years old. And all of the stories that I was reading to her that she had in her little library were all the same stories that I grew up - that the prince was going to come along and he's going to make things better, you're going to get a glass slipper. So, I went out to bookstores to find something more progressive, thinking something that would give her some ambition, that would want her to be somebody, anybody that she wanted to be. And they weren't there. So, I decided that I would do it myself.

MARTIN: I'd like to play a track. This is called "William's Doll."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIAM'S DOLL")

ALAN ALDA: (Singing) When my friend William was five years old, he wanted a doll to hug and hold...

THOMAS: (Singing) A doll...

ALDA: ...said William...

THOMAS: ...is what I need to wash and clean and dress and eat. A doll to give a bottle to...

MARTIN: That, of course, is Alan Alda and...

THOMAS: I love that song.

MARTIN: ...and you singing. You think that message is still pertinent today for boys, for young men?

THOMAS: Oh, of course. I mean, my goodness, this is what one of the big bullying things is about. In fact, so many men have come up to me through the years and said that that song really helped them when they were growing up, you know, that it really made them feel they were going to be OK. That song and "It's All Right to Cry" - because every boy should be allowed to pick up a doll if he wants to. Every boy should be able to cry if he wants to. I used to always say when I promoting "Free to Be You and Me," that when you're born, they put a F or an M in a little box that says sex. And that's the end of it. You don't have to spend the rest of your life proving whether you're a female or a male. You already are. And I think, you know, saying some things are feminine and some things are masculine are really a disservice to any human being.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIAM'S DOLL")

THOMAS: (Singing) Can I please have a doll now?

ALDA: (Singing) Said my friend Bill.

MARLO THOMAS AND ALAN ALDA: (Singing) A doll, a doll, William wants a doll. A doll, a doll, William wants a doll...

MARTIN: Do you think that the ideals that were espoused in this album have been realized today?

THOMAS: Well, they've been realized for those children who are allowed to have them realized. I mean, you know, there are still children whose parents may not believe that they are free to be whoever they want to be. I mean, if every child was free to be who they wanted to be, then there wouldn't be children who are gay killing themselves. I mean, the whole point is that we don't seem to have completely grasped the idea that every single boy and girl can be whoever they want to be.

MARTIN: Clearly, the entire album, it was your brainchild. It was your project. But I wonder if there was a particular track on there that is most personal to you?

THOMAS: "Atalanta," without a doubt. "Atalanta's" the most personal to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATALANTA")

THOMAS: (Reading) Once upon a time, not long ago, there lived a princess named Atalanta.

'Cause when I was growing up, every fairytale ended with the happy ending of the prince and the princess going off together. And I didn't want to get married so much when I was growing up. I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to travel the world. There was so much that I wanted to do, and there wasn't anything in the book that told that was OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATALANTA")

THOMAS: (as Atlanta) (Reading) You don't have to choose, father, said Atalanta. I will choose, and I'm not sure that I will choose to marry anyone at all.

ALDA: (as character) (Reading) Ho, ho, ho, ho. Of course you will.

MARTIN: I'd like to move to another project of yours that's close to your heart, also about children. It is the 50th anniversary of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which is a project that was started by your dad, comedian Danny Thomas. And it started, I understand, with you in a way, as a very young baby. I wonder if you wouldn't mind telling us that story of how it came to be.

THOMAS: Well, my father's promise started there. My dad was very struggling as an actor and it was going to cost $50 to get me and my mother out of the hospital, and he didn't have any money. So, he took his $10 and went to church. And the message that day, the sermon that day, the priest was talking about St. Jude, patron of the hopeless causes. And my father was so struck by the fact that there was a somebody that was a patron of hopeless causes. So, he prayed to St. Jude, and he took seven of his 10 dollars out of his pocket and put it in a collection basket, and said to St. Jude I need 10 times this seven. And the next day he got a phone call to play a singing toothbrush on a radio commercial. And the pay was $75. So that was his first sign. When it came time to pay back St. Jude, he thought he would do it in a way that would help kids who just didn't get a fair chance at health. So, he put it in the South. It was the first fully integrated hospital in the South, in Memphis, and he promised that all children could come there no matter their race or religion or if their family could pay. So, all children go to St. Jude without having to pay.

MARTIN: Your father was very good at leveraging the power of celebrity for good, and you went on to do the same thing. Do you think that there is some kind of responsibility that comes along with celebrity, to use it to give back in some way?

THOMAS: No, I don't. I think that's a personal choice. You know, I really don't believe in shoulds and woulds and coulds and all. I think you should be free to be. You should do what you want to do. For me, I mean, that's the way we were raised. You know, my father used to always say there are two kinds of people in the world: the givers and the takers. The takers sometimes eat better but the givers always sleep better. And I think it's true.

MARTIN: Marlo Thomas. She's an award-winning actress, producer and activist. Ms. Thomas, thanks so much for talking with us.

THOMAS: Thank you. It was nice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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