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Monday, August 8, 2022

Marc Brown on the End of ‘Arthur’ and His Favorite Fan Theories

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From the minute Marc Brown meets you, he’s sizing you up. Just maybe not in the usual way.

“People remind me of animals,” said Brown, the 75-year-old creator of the illustrated character Arthur Read, the 8-year-old bespectacled aardvark who, since the book “Arthur’s Nose” debuted in 1976, has been helping children navigate the world around them. “When the child that I’m talking to reads a book and all the characters are animals, they don’t care what color their skin is. They are immediately drawn to the character that they identify with and feel an affinity with.”

For more than 25 years, Brown and a team at WGBH, Boston’s PBS affiliate, have produced the animated adaptation series “Arthur,” in which the aardvark, his friends and a lineup of animalized guest stars tackle difficult subjects like bullying, divorce and disability. The series, which has won praise from both children and parents for its candor in depicting challenging situations — as well as seven Emmy Awards and the distinction of longest-running children’s animated series on American television — will air its final episodes this week. (All four will air on Monday afternoon and stream free on PBS Kids.)

“One of the reasons I love ‘Arthur’ is because of the imperfections in our characters,” said Carol Greenwald, who created the show with Brown and now serves as an executive producer. “It’s important to show kids that you can really screw up and it’s not the end of the world. You can learn from your mistakes and come back a better person.”

Both Brown and Greenwald said that the idea from start was for the series not only to reflect issues relevant to kids but also to present a world in which they could see themselves. When they first got started, Greenwald said, the WGBH team dispatched people with cameras to capture neighborhoods around Boston to help animators diversify the homes in Arthur’s world.

“Arthur lived in a beautiful little house with a picket fence,” she said, “but we wanted to diversify the world enough that kids who lived in apartment buildings, or in smaller, lower income neighborhoods, would feel like they were as a part of that story.”

And Elwood City, Arthur’s fictional home, did come to feel like home for many viewers, not just in Boston but also around the world. So when one of the show’s writers revealed in July that the show had wrapped production — and when PBS later announced that the series’s final episodes would air this winter, the reaction, at least on social media, was a collective balled fist (a riff on a popular Arthur meme).

But for fans who have been with Arthur across more than 250 episodes, there’s some consolation: The characters will live on in a new Arthur podcast, games and digital shorts — and the series’s final episode will flash forward to provide viewers a glimpse of what Arthur and his friends grow up to be.

“There are definitely some surprises,” Greenwald said.

In a recent video call from his sunny West Village living room, Brown was candid, sprightly and puckish. His clothing and furnishings were impeccably tidy, his white hair neatly combed — it wasn’t hard to see where Arthur, fond of polo shirts and V-neck sweaters, took his sartorial cues. Brown, who is still an executive producer of the show, reflected on its longevity and why now was to right time to end it, and he talked about some of his new projects, including the long-gestating Arthur movie that has gained new momentum recently. (He also set the record straight on a few fan theories.) These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Congratulations on 25 years! Did you ever think you would be having this conversation when the first episode premiered in October 1996?

Not in my wildest dreams. I thought it’d last two years — if I was lucky.

Many authors help create a show, then step back. Why are you still so intensely involved after 25 years?

I still have the same feeling I had when PBS came to me and wanted to put Arthur on television. I had invested 15 years before that in the characters, and I was getting lots of letters from kids. It felt like a little family, and I wanted the characters to be faithful to my vision. And so I’ve been a guard in the corner in that way.

So many of the stories are inspired by real-life experiences you had when your kids — Tolon, Tucker and Eliza — were little. Now that they’re adults, is it more difficult to come up with fresh ideas?

So many episodes grow out of our writing team’s experiences — and it turns out they’re still helpful and relevant to kids! There are episodes, like the one on head lice, that every time we run them, because it’s still an ongoing problem for a lot of kids, it gets a lot of positive feedback.

Why end it now, then?

Technology has changed in the last 25 years, and kids are now watching stories on their iPhones, listening to podcasts, playing games on their devices — they’re getting information so many other ways. We’re looking for ways to try new things.

Have you been surprised by the reaction?

It was wonderful to see the response. I’m still getting many messages on my Instagram page: “Is Arthur really over?” I love seeing reactions from these young adults who grew up with Arthur, the fact that these characters are still fresh in their minds. It’s great that he’s touched so many people so deeply that they want him to continue.

In the first book, “Arthur’s Nose,” Arthur looked like an aardvark with a long snout, not a mouse with glasses. What happened?

The second book, “Arthur’s Eyes,” came from when my son Tolon was getting glasses. He came home and said, “Dad, I thought all my friends were better-looking.” You can’t make that up! So of course Arthur had glasses, too. As the series went on, I just got to know him better, and he became more lovable and more humanlike — and his nose got shorter. It was not intentional!

Have you ever met an aardvark?

[Laughs.] I haven’t had any encounters with aardvarks, although I think there may be one that lives in an apartment across the street.

The series is notable for its diverse characters, including ones with blindness, dyslexia, autism and dementia. How did you ensure those representations were accurate?

We work with a series of experts for each episode, like the one we did about Arthur’s grandfather, Dave, who was struggling with Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember Arthur’s name. Things like that are so important, and so many families are dealing with that. We heard from a dad who watched the show about autism and discovered through the show that his son was autistic and wrote to thank us. The show helped parents understand their kids. Matt Damon’s mom happens to be one of our wonderful experts who’s helped us with many episodes. That’s how we got Matt Damon as a guest star. The poor guy didn’t know what hit him!

The show made headlines in 2019 when it revealed that Mr. Ratburn, Arthur’s teacher, is gay. The episode also showed his wedding to a man. Did you have any worries about how people would react?

We want to represent the world around us. When we wanted to have Arthur’s teacher get married, we thought it could be opportunity for him to marry a same-sex partner — and kudos to PBS, who got behind us and let us do that, and do it in a way that wasn’t about his sexual orientation. It was about the fact that their teacher, who they love, found a partner who he loved, and they were happy for him.

When The New York Times talked to you in 1996 — shortly after the first episodes aired — you were getting 100,000 letters a year from kids. How much fan mail do you get these days?

I get letters asking for Francine’s phone number — well, Francine [a monkey character on the show] doesn’t have a phone number! Years ago, I was really stupid: In the book “Arthur’s Thanksgiving,” I put our home phone number in a little illustration of a bulletin board that says “Call Arthur at 749-7978.” Every Thanksgiving, the phone began to ring and ring and ring. My wife, Laurie, had the best response. You’d hear a little voice say: “Hello? Is Arthur there?” And she’d say, “No, he’s at the library.” That was when we lived outside Boston; it went on for a few years!

What’s next for you?

For three years now, I’ve been working on a new preschool animated show called “Hop.” It’s a little frog, and one of his legs is a little shorter than the other. It’s a show about the power of friendship, solving problems together and kindness.

And my dream for an Arthur feature film, which I decided wasn’t ever going to happen, might actually happen in a way I could be proud of. When that idea was hatched 15 years ago, I spent way too much time out in Los Angeles talking to people that weren’t making a whole lot of sense — in my mind. But now I think I’ve found the right people.

Can we do a quick speed round? There are several fan theories that I’d love to have you confirm or deny.

Sure.

Let’s start with the most plausible: Arthur lives in Pennsylvania.

Well, I grew up in Erie, Penn. Lakewood Elementary School was where I went to elementary school. I can still see my third-grade class, and all my friends, many of whom turned into characters in Arthur’s world. But I also lived in Massachusetts for many years, and I used a lot of elements from there — the movie theater in “Arthur’s Valentine” was the theater down the street where we lived. When Carol and I were trying to come up with a name for Arthur’s hometown, she suggested Elwood City, which is also in Pennsylvania, near a place where she lived as a child. That’s how it happened, folks!

Arthur gets married.

I’m not telling you! You’ll have to tune in and find out.

Arthur takes place in a multiverse.

No? [Laughs.]

Arthur is a reality series directed by Matt Damon.

I hadn’t heard that one. That’s interesting.

The whole show is acted out by aliens.

Well, we did do something similar a few years ago with Buster and his fascination with aliens, so …

That’s not a no?

I couldn’t be happier inspiring people’s imagination. That’s a good thing!



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