Thomas Serves Up 'Free to Be' Family Style

Marlo Thomas and Friends wrote a book in 1974, "Free to Be . . . You and Me" that challenged racial, sexist and economic stereotypes for children. It became a beloved national best-seller, a gold album, a TV special--and made it OK for boys to have dolls and girls to be good at sports.

Get ready, for this fall, Ms. Thomas and her friends are back, challenging stereotypes once again, this time with "Free to Be . . . a Family."

Sunday, she was in a recording studio with pals like Lily Tomlin, Mel Brooks, Bea Arthur, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Mike Nichols, putting together the A&M; album set for next spring. But first, the book debuts in November with a 350,000 advance hardcover printing from Bantam--and a waiting audience, since many parents across America can echo Goldberg's line to Thomas on Sunday that, "I raised my child on 'Free to Be . . . ' " The efforts reunite Thomas, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Chris Cerf, Judith Viorst and Shel Silverstein in what Thomas said Monday was "really about the family as it exists today, not the family as a storybook idea. We're saying to children of our country, 'Whatever your family is is a family.' "

As Thomas pointed out, today's children can be part of a family that has only a mother or a father, a family that blends two sets of children, or sometimes a woman down the hall who is called "grandmother."

"There is so much that is different in what makes a family today," Thomas said, the actress herself a Hollywood child, who said her own family was different from the stereotype since her father traveled a lot. Danny Thomas "missed Marymount's Father's Day because he was performing in Las Vegas," she said, pointing out that many children have no idea--"Is this a real family?" What the book and the album will try to teach a child is that, "if the people whom you live with are happy to see your face, that's a family."

For generations, children have been "embarrassed about families--parents who didn't speak English, or a house with broken dishes," she said. The book and album will stress that there is "no definition for what a family should look like . . . but allow a kind of understanding for children that the way they are living is good."

As with "Free to Be . . . You and Me," the profits from the book and album will go to the Free to Be Foundation, which Thomas said made more than $2 million off the first effort, money that goes to "survival issues" for children--issues like anti-hunger and child-care efforts. All the artists, writers and actors--including Elaine May, Carly Simon, the Fat Boys, the Muppets, Christopher Reeve, Gilda Radner--again contribute their time.

The book is a collection of stories, songs and poems--starting with the family at home, the family in the community, the global family.

Perhaps the best example of what strength the book and the record will have, is Thomas' relating of one small story that will be included--Superman appears on "Donahue" and tells how hard he found it when he realized that Ma and Pa Kent weren't his "real" parents, but that he was adopted.

OK, Ms. Thomas, just take it away--and those stereotypes with you, please.

ROCK 'N' ROLL--"There's a factory in Pasadena and they just keep turning out young Dick Clarks," producer George Schlatter insisted. And, indeed, the Clark receiving the kudos at the Chasen's party Monday night--celebrating the inclusion of his long-running "American Bandstand" into the Guinness Book of Records--looked almost as youthful as the fellow on the big TV screens introducing acts in the '50s. Schlatter (the "Laugh-In" maven whose "Comedy Club" begins next week in 180 markets) laughed as loudly as anyone when Julio Iglesias complained, "Maybe I'm the only singer who has never been on the show." Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. watched as the video showed singers like Bill Haley and the Comets, the Jackson 5, Danny and the Juniors, the Silhouettes, Buddy Holly and an extraordinarily young Diana Ross with the Supremes--all making their appearances on Clark's show.

But leave it to Cyndi Lauper to steal the show, showing up as a waitress carrying a tray of hors d'oeuvres.

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