When we broke the story last week about why Hallmark pulled the airing of “Hear My Song,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates, as a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation that was to air on CBS last Saturday night, Hallmark Cards had given us this statement: “‘Hear My Song’ is a fictional story about a troubled but talented boy who overcomes great odds to find success. While the movie and actors were not intended to depict any particular individual, organization or institution, Hallmark was recently made aware of serious allegations of misconduct made many years ago at a school similar to the one depicted in the movie. After careful consideration, it was decided that the movie will not air on CBS, Hallmark Channel or Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.”
Hallmark was clear that it would have nothing else to say about the matter.
It’s important to remember, as you read this blog, that “Hear My Song” was originally titled “Boychoir” when it was in production and when it was released theatrically.
As we explained in our story last week, the “misconduct” referred to in the Hallmark statement is child sexual abuse and the school “similar to the one depicted in the movie” is the American Boychoir School in New Jersey. And while the statement says “allegations” of misconduct, the school, on its Facebook page, admits “sexual misconduct” did occur at the school in the past. Furthermore, as we also mentioned in our piece last week, in 2002 The New York Times did a major investigative piece about child sexual abuse at the American Boychoir School.
My biggest problem with the Hallmark statement is the line that “the movie and the actors were not intended to depict any particular individual, organization or institution…”
I have a hard time believing this. Here’s why. In a Variety article on February 24, 2014, announcing some of the casting of the movie, Variety writes, “Set in present day New England, ‘Boychoir’ follows a troubled 12-year-old boy who is enrolled in a boychoir school modeled after the real-life American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J.”
The same day Hollywood’s other major trade, The Hollywood Reporter, had a similar piece, which said, in part, “Set in a school fashioned after the American Boychoir School in Princeton …”
Both stories said that Informant Media was the company producing the movie, and that Judy Cairo, Carol Baum and Jane Goldenring were the three co-producers of the movie. The Informant Media website also notes that Cairo is the co-founder of the company.
I used to work at The Hollywood Reporter, and if I were writing up a story like the two I cite above, I’d only have mentioned the connection to the American Boychoir School if it was in the press release or if the publicist who gave me the press release mentioned it. It’s not something a reporter (or two in this case) would make up on his or her own.
The articles about “Boychoir” that I cite above from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter I found on both the website and Facebook page of Informant Media. I tried to talk to the film’s co-producers Cairo and Baum about this entire incident. Cairo would only say “No comment.” Baum said, “I can’t talk to you and Jane can’t either.” That’s the film’s third co-producer, Jane Goldenring, who had not returned my call by deadline.
There’s also the following that I found on the Informant Media Facebook page that was posted on March 3, 2014. It mentions Ben Ripley. Ripley is the screenwriter of “Boychoir”:
“Writer and classical pianist Ben Ripley, says the inspiration for ‘Boychoir’ was prompted by an article in the Princeton Packet in 1997 that chronicled the experience of students at The American Boychoir school.
“’It was about how they learned to master the difficulties of choral singing while still growing up as boys, and the heartbreak of losing their voice when they entered adolescence. To me, that seemed like a fascinating journey — a complete artistic career that was over by age 13,’ Ripley said.
“‘Boychoir’ will feature the 40 members of The American Boychoir! Currently in production!!”
Separately, Ripley has also said that he grew up near the American Boychoir School. I contacted Ripley’s agent’s office several times with a request to interview Ripley, but had not received a response by my deadline.
So why would Hallmark put out a statement that was both substantively untrue and minced words about what the “misconduct” involved?
Because the movie is a fictionalized version of the American Boychoir School, where child sexual abuse did actually occur, Hallmark doesn’t want to be associated with that. Doesn’t fit with their brand. So much better to put out the obtuse statement they did and kill the airing of the movie. Time to move on and forget about this one. Since we here at TVWeek were able to find out about the abuse at the American Boychoir School in about 5 seconds on Google last week, it is somewhat puzzling that no one at Hallmark seemed to have a clue until one of the victims of sexual abuse at the school contacted them by email. Homework was not done.
It’s important to understand that “Boychoir” does not mention child sexual abuse. That’s not the story Ripley and Informant Media chose to tell in their movie. Theirs is an inspirational story of a troubled youth who finds himself through singing with the choir. But what scared Hallmark was the noise that at least one of the victims of child abuse at the American Boychoir School was making about the fact that child abuse was not mentioned in the film.
Since students from the American Boychoir School did appear in “Boychoir,” they were very disappointed that Hallmark pulled the national TV airing of the movie. They also had hoped to use it for some positive exposure, since the school has had financial problems and is currently in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy that it filed about a year ago.
After Hallmark announced last week that it was pulling the movie, the American Boychoir School posted this statement on its website:
“The American Boychoir School wants to respond directly to CBS and Hallmark Hall of Fame’s decision to not air ‘Hear My Song,’ the feature film originally titled ‘Boychoir’ starring Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates. As you know, the movie included a number of our students who contributed to the soundtrack and who appeared as extras.
“The decision stems from decades-old incidents of sexual misconduct that we have publicly acknowledged in the past. These past incidents were wrong, reprehensible, and caused pain to students and their families. We recognize their suffering.
“The American Boychoir School today promotes a caring, healthy culture that provides a nurturing environment for our students. We receive regular advice and training from local child welfare organizations, including PEI Kids and the New Jersey Child Abuse Prevention programs. We follow the strictest guidelines to prevent abuse.
“While we do not seek to silence criticism, our students and their dedicated faculty and staff are being unjustly punished for events that happened long ago and do not reflect our school today. Our boys want to learn, sing, and contribute to the arts — be it on stage, on tour, or in film. They are justifiably proud of their work on this movie, and our community shares that pride.”
I was able to get the president of the American Boychoir School, Kerry Heimann, on the phone. He told me that Hallmark had “reached out to us at the beginning of [last] week. They were very forthcoming and collaborative. We shared our impressions with them, and them with us. It was a very collaborative exchange.” He said it was the first time he had heard from Hallmark.
When I asked him why he thought that his point of view did not persuade Hallmark to air the movie, he said he did not know. He said the people he spoke to were PR people at Hallmark, who, he added “were not the ones necessarily making the decisions. We all shared a certain frustration that social media can often give a louder voice to a smaller number of people who are not necessarily representative of the whole story. We are obviously disappointed. Two TV shows about murder aired instead.”
He also said that the sexual abuse at the school was something that had happened before he arrived at the American Boychoir School, and added, “I’m happy to say that in my 12 years here we’ve had a very positive, healthy atmosphere for our students and we work very hard to continue that.”
Heimann’s comment about social media was clearly referring to Shonna Milliken Humphrey, whose husband, Travis, was a student at the American Boychoir School from 1988 to 1990 and says he was sexually abused when he was there.
On April 7 Ms. Humphrey wrote a blog entry on her website decrying the upcoming showing of the retitled “Boychoir” by Hallmark and CBS, and she posted an entry on her Facebook page asking people to contact some PR folks at Hallmark and CBS to protest the scheduled airing.
Here’s the letter Travis emailed to PR people at Hallmark and CBS on April 6:
“My name is Travis Humphrey. For two and a half years, I was a student at the American Boychoir School (1988 to 1990). I was eleven years old when I got there. I came from a small town in northern Maine, and I was a very long way from home. The sexual abuse that I and other students endured there, as well as the culture of sexual abuse that had been in place there for decades, affects my life fundamentally and horribly on a daily basis. I don’t expect that will change for me in this lifetime.
“It was brought to my attention, tonight, that the movie “Boychoir” has been rebranded and renamed “Hear My Song” by Hallmark, and that it will be debuting on CBS on April 16.
“To see the organization responsible for so much suffering held up and celebrated as a movie, under any name or branding, is hard for me to take. The knowledge that this movie’s broadcasting will be a public relations vehicle as well as a potential revenue and recruitment stream for the American Boychoir School is worse.
“They have never, to my knowledge, accepted any responsibility as an organization. They have always, to my knowledge, acted to silence survivors. They’ve told me it was a long time ago. Get over it. They claim everyone is safe, now. I sincerely hope that is accurate, but I doubt it. It’s not right.
“I don’t expect that my words will mean much to you or Hallmark, but I felt I had to say something. The ads are bought and this thing will air. I know that. I just wish you folks weren’t giving that organization the vehicle to bring more boys into its grasp.
“Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Travis says he thinks the reason Hallmark pulled the film “was purely a business decision” and that they didn’t want to be associated — at arm’s length or any other distance — with child abuse that went on for decades.
After Travis sent his email he said he heard nothing from CBS nor Hallmark until the PR person at Hallmark responded, on the afternoon of April 13, with a note that only contained the Hallmark statement.
I think Hallmark has handled this situation poorly, and I think the man who came up with the Hallmark Hall of Fame, the late Joyce Hall, who was the founder of Hallmark Cards, would be disappointed as well.
In his entertaining and revelatory 1979 memoir, “When You Care Enough,” written with Curtiss Anderson, Hall wrote about the beginnings of the Hallmark Hall of Fame:
“We [Fairfax Cone of Foote, Cone & Belding and Joyce] wanted shows that would not only be top entertainment but top quality as well. … We soon found out that knowing what you want on television is one thing and getting it is quite another. … We were cautioned against sponsoring shows that were ‘not in the popular vein,’ whatever that meant. But Fax and I were convinced that the American public was more interested in quality than some people in television realized. We were also convinced that the average American did not have the mind of a 12-year-old, which many people in television seemed to feel. We didn’t set out to get the largest audience on television — we wanted the best. We wanted thinking people to watch our shows — the people other people follow. And we wanted to reach the upper masses, not just the upper classes.
“… I do worry about the ratings, but I worry more about the show. I’d rather hold the attention of 25 million people than just ‘reach’ 50 million.”
The first TV show Hallmark Hall of Fame presented was “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” on Christmas Eve in 1951.
Joyce tells how Hallmark Hall of Fame’s next milestone program came about two years later: “In 1953 I was at the Plaza Hotel in New York when Ed Cashman, a broadcasting executive at Foote, Cone & Belding, came to see me just as I was packing to catch the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago. It was less than 15 minutes before I had to leave.
“Ed had an option from NBC to produce a special two-hour version of ‘Hamlet’ based on Maurice Evans’s famous ‘G.I. Hamlet,’ which Evans had taken to military bases overseas. The option expired at midnight that night, so there was no chance to consult anyone. It seemed like a long shot. No one had presented a Shakespearean play on television before, no one had produced a show longer than an hour, and no single sponsor had supported two hours of TV time on one show.
“Ed continued to discuss the idea as I checked out of the hotel; then he followed me to a cab. I suggested that he ride with me to the station. The train was right on time, and as I jumped aboard, I gave him the okay to go ahead with the show.”
Hall then notes, “[P]erhaps the most important first was that ‘Hamlet’ was seen that April Sunday by more people than had seen it in the 350 years since it had been written.”
It also showed how gutsy Hall was with regard to content. “Hamlet” is not for the faint of heart — it’s a serious play with serious, adult themes. And some of his dealers complained as well: “Shakespeare isn’t helping bring customers into our stores,” one wrote Hall. Hall’s response: “[T]he audiences were relatively small compared to those drawn by westerns and quiz shows, but we were determined to stick with our programming concept and it wasn’t long before [we] were winning larger audiences.”
Content-wise, the Hallmark Hall of Fame became more and more daring. More Shakespeare was presented. Hall tells of watching one Hall of Fame show at home one night, and soon after the word “damn” was uttered on the program his home phone rang. It was a woman who was also watching the show, who went on a tirade about her “two teen-aged daughters” being “exposed to this ‘kind of language.’ She added that previously she had always felt Hallmark programs were the best on television. Had she ever bothered to call when she liked a show, I asked her. No, she said, but she would in the future. I told her not to bother.”
Joyce Hall died in 1982. But the Hallmark Hall of Fame continued to produce great television, often tackling controversial, uncomfortable subjects. Howard Rosenberg, then the award-winning TV critic at the Los Angeles Times, once wrote, “There has never been a TV signature as enduring as Hallmark Hall of Fame. As comparisons vividly show, nothing is even in its neighborhood.”
The best Hallmark Hall of Fame production I have seen — and one of the best movies of any sort that I have ever seen — was the December 1986 TV movie “Promise.” With a screenplay by Richard Friedenberg, and featuring James Garner, James Woods and Piper Laurie, it’s a devastatingly moving, emotionally shattering drama in which not a false word is uttered and in which all three performances are flawless. It was honored with Emmys, Golden Globes, a Peabody, a Christopher Award and a Humanitas Prize. Woods has been quoted as saying it’s his favorite part.
The movie is about coping with someone who has schizophrenia.
Of course some top executive at Hallmark back then could have said, “What? Mental illness? Schizophrenia? Really? Connect our brand to that? Are you … crazy?” But in the spirit of the risk-taking Hall of Fame, grounded in Joyce Hall’s sense of quality and excellence, it became one of Hallmark’s most acclaimed productions.
I’m not sure how or exactly when the Hall of Fame went off its tracks, but it did even before last week. This entire sad episode for Hallmark surrounding “Boychoir” could actually be remedied if Hallmark went back to its roots and looked at this like it looked at the subject matter of “Promise.” A good place to start would be to read a remarkable New York magazine piece from 2005 by John Heilemann called “The Choirboy.” You can read it if you click here. It’s smart, layered, horrific, scary, and poignant. If I were Hallmark I’d hire someone to adapt it five minutes ago.