Electric Youth

“I was blown away that he was using television to address issues in child development,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to do what he was doing.” So she typed up a letter to Fred Rogers’s show, saying how impressed she was with the “honesty and gentleness with which the material is presented,” and asking for an audition. Rogers invited Linn and her puppets to come to Pittsburgh for an audition, but he didn’t wind up offering her an appearance on the show. To this day, though, Linn recalls him saying, “It was evident that I really remembered what it was like to be a child.”

A year later, Linn was back in college, studying psychology at UMass Boston, when she received a surprise letter. It was from a Rogers producer, and this time he wanted her on his show — an invitation that would lead to a string of appearances. In one of her first episodes, in 1971, Rogers, Linn, and an early incarnation of Audrey Duck try to work through Audrey’s jealousy of another Linn puppet, Catalion. Linn is wide-eyed and smiles warmly at her yarn-and-fabric charges. “Oh, Audrey, I don’t think Mr. Rogers will like Catalion better than he likes you,” she assures her in the slow and honey-tinged way television actors once spoke to children.

Linn would appear several more times on the show, and also continue her own live performances for children. “Ultimately, I want to do the sort of thing you are doing,” she wrote to Rogers in a 1973 letter. “Use media to help children with their growth and development.” That quest would lead her to pursue a doctorate in counseling psychology, and also a job at Children’s Hospital, where she used Audrey Duck and Catalion to help very sick children cope with their illness. “It’s an unusual skill she has,” says Children’s Hospital psychiatrist William Beardslee, “to be able to enter into the world of children and understand them and be able to take action. Susan really came to understand what those children’s experiences of being hospitalized were like. Giving kids the opportunity to use puppets as a vehicle for expression was very powerful.”

Beardslee and Linn would go on to partner with the Fred Rogers production company to make a series of videos aimed at helping children cope with difficult situations. In the early 1990s, they took on the topic of racism, beginning a collaboration with the famed Harvard child psychologist and civil rights activist Alvin Poussaint, who is perhaps best known for his work on The Cosby Show.

In 1994, the Judge Baker Children’s Center at Harvard launched a media center that had the goal of working with “media to promote healthy child development and to mitigate its negative effects.” Judge Baker made Poussaint director of the new media center, and he asked Linn to come work with him. Before long, they won a grant to produce their own television show, which they called Willoughby’s Wonders. Their goal was to create an educational and entertaining show about an ethnically diverse, urban soccer team. The pilot, shot on a shoestring, won awards, but they quickly realized how expensive it would be to turn that first episode into a full-blown series. McDonald’s offered to offset the cost by sponsoring some of the show, but that would have meant having the characters wear McDonald’s shirts, or creating a character who worked at a McDonald’s restaurant, Poussaint and Linn say. Another funding option, suggested by a colleague, was to have the characters wear some object, like a bracelet, that could then be sold to kids to raise money for the show. But Linn and Poussaint objected to both product placement and tie-in toys. In the end, the series was never made.

Raising a daughter in Brookline, Linn was already concerned about the effects of commercialism on children, but she says the experience of trying to fund a show was a “crystallizing moment for me about what was going on in media.” Still, it took a few more years, and the arrival in America of a band of four colorful, lovable aliens, to convert Linn from a budding television producer trying to use the medium to help children to an activist who saw it as something from which they needed protection.