It’s a beautiful day in Vt.: ‘Mister Chris’ revives ‘Neighborhood’ feel, philosophy at PBS
BURLINGTON, Vt. — Before the singers even opened their mouths, the audience knew, from the opening beats, what they were supposed to do. Little legs that had been dangling from the edges of folding chairs leapt to the ground and scurried to the stage. There were squeals, giggles, and looks back to Mom and Dad that couldn’t contain the excitement.
It was time to jump!
A tall, lanky man wearing a navy blue shirt with a heart stitched on its front pocket started to sing a bouncy tune to the children and parents gathered along the Lake Champlain waterfront at Burlington’s ECHO Center. Members of his band and a trio of guest musicians played and sang alongside him as the children bounced and twirled.
To this crowd, “Jump Up and Down!” is a hit, and the man with the ukulele is a rock star.
His name is Mister Chris, a character with the same gentle demeanor as his creator, Chris Dorman, a 35-year-old musician and father of two who writes and stars in “Mister Chris and Friends,” a new program set to air online and on Vermont PBS this November.
Dorman first made a name for himself among Vermont parents with Music for Sprouts, a music and movement class for parents and children. The idea for the PBS show was hatched when a producer whose daughter attends weekly “Mister Chris” shows went to Holly Groschner, Vermont PBS’s president.
“He told me, ‘You’ve got to get this guy to do a show,’ ” Groschner said.
And despite the challenges of funding an original children’s program as a PBS affiliate, Groschner said she “didn’t know of any opportunity that could match it.”
Over the summer, Vermont PBS has been crafting a six-episode first season of “Mister Chris,” filming in their Burlington studio, in outdoor locations, and at several concerts sites, including a mid-August performance at ECHO, a science and nature center.
The show, which aired its pilot last November, has prompted comparisons to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Fred Rogers’ iconic children’s television program, which Pittsburgh’s PBS station launched 50 years ago.
Like Rogers’ show, “Mister Chris and Friends” has a simple, careful formula: Start with something familiar. End with something familiar. Make space for questions, wonder, and adventure in between.
Each episode has three acts. In the first, Mister Chris makes a wish to learn something new, and in the second, he ventures outside to learn.
In the pilot, Mister Chris goes to an orchard to find out how apple blossoms become apples. In a forthcoming episode, he follows the journey of a raindrop, all the way from a mountain stream to a lake.
Then, he celebrates with a “Big, Big Concert” — always two bigs, never one — where an audience of “kiddos” and parents join him for two songs, one which fits the theme of the episode and always a finale of “Jump Up and Down!”
At the heart of the show is a deep respect for children, Dorman said.
“Our goal is to reach the most sensitive child in the room,” Dorman said. “If they feel comfortable, then we’ve created an environment where most people are going to feel comfortable.”
The character of Mister Chris is “beautifully naive,” Dorman said, constantly raising new questions and being delighted by their answers. Like Mister Rogers, he looks directly at the camera and sings in a pleasant, measured voice.
The parallels between him and the iconic PBS host were drawn “before the TV show was even a seed,” Dorman said.
Before the show began, Dorman re-watched old episodes of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and began showing them to his children. He knew it was the kind of television he wanted for them, as he saw the similarities between Rogers’ program and his own approach: gentle, genuine, slow-paced, curious.
“I think anybody who wants to build a trusting relationship with children is going to come to similar conclusions,” Dorman said.
Dorman, like his Mister Chris persona, lives on a farm in Vermont. Dorman and his partner, Corie, bought the land for the Bread and Butter Farm from the Vermont Land Trust about a decade ago and live there now with their two children, Henry, 11, and Samantha, 7.
Also like his character, Dorman has a deeply calming aura, said Chrystie Heimert, who directs marketing for the station, describing his presence as “an exhale.”
Elizabeth Nuckols, youth education manager at ECHO and a guest star in one episode, compared the experience of filming with Dorman to a meditation class.
Groschner said she thinks Dorman’s approach will resonate with parents as more people gravitate toward positivity in media.
The pilot, which is streaming online, has been viewed in all 50 states, Groschner said, but has been especially popular in-state.
Vermonters such as Maria Mercieca have watched the “Mister Chris” pilot with their children “many, many times.” Like other local fans, she is now eagerly awaiting the release of new shows. Mercieca has been participating in Dorman’s Music for Sprouts class since her oldest daughter was 6 months old, she said.
“It’s inspiring to me as a parent because he lets the kids take the lead,” said Mercieca, who brought Violet, now 6, and her younger daughter, Sabine, 4, to the concert at ECHO. “After every class, I try to take some of that energy home with me.”
It’s that local fan base that made the first episode possible — more than 250 backers raised $30,000 on Kickstarter to film the pilot last fall — but the first full season was made with the support of donors Peter Swift and Diana McCargo, owners of Philo Ridge Farm in nearby Charlotte, Vt.
Swift, a retired physician who plays in a local bluegrass band, met Dorman when he performed at a weekly dinner held at the farm. Between the band’s sets, Dorman would play his own music.
“He’s like the Pied Piper,” Swift said. “The kids were entranced.”
Swift has fond memories of Mister Rogers and, as a grandfather to five young children, said he wants “Mister Chris and Friends” for them.
Dorman said he starts each episode with a nod to Rogers’ show. When Mister Chris walks into the barn studio (always singing the same opening song, “Listening is Giving”), he tosses his hat from one hand to the other, similar to Rogers’ light toss of a loafer during his iconic intro.
“It’s a literal tip of the hat to Rogers’ work,” Dorman said.
On the morning of the “Big, Big Concert” at ECHO, Holt Albee, the show’s producer and director, found a little red envelope in his mailbox at the station’s headquarters — the first piece of Mister Chris fan mail. Inside was a note from a girl from Michigan. She had drawn a stick version of Mister Chris in thick red marker, complete with the heart on his pocket.
From the envelope’s upper right-hand corner smiled Fred Rogers in a wool cardigan. The stamp was released in March to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rogers’ groundbreaking show. But on that little red envelope, it looked more like a stamp of approval.