It's not easy being green. It's even harder fighting child sexual abuse.
While television shows like NBC's To Catch a Predator may garner headlines with lurid exposés of lurking pedophiles, Milwaukie movie director J. Gary Mitchell soldiers on with his two felt frog puppets, named What and Tadoo, in a series of videos that talk directly to kids about how important it is for them to tell grown-ups about unwanted touching.
Mitchell, a soft-spoken 70-year-old with a dapper white mustache, has been directing and producing short educational movies for three decades, creating characters who warn against smoking (The Wizard of No) and drinking (Sooper Puppy: Drink, Drank, Drunk). But his specialty since 1985's What Tadoo is gently informing children about sexual abuse. He's the Mr. Rogers of anti-molestation videos, a grandfatherly presence surrounded by puppets. The frogs, bears and fish are created by Sesame Street veteran puppeteer Brian Narelle; in each pleasantly trippy video they appear to children in mist-shrouded dreams and recite the formula of "say no, get away, tell someone."
In 2006, Mitchell returned from stints in San Francisco and British Columbia to his hometown of Milwaukie—where he directed his own grand-niece and nephew in a 15-minute feature, Time to Tell, in which What and Tadoo return to help a little girl whose brother is being abused by his soccer coach. After years of marketing his videos to schools, churches and police departments, Mitchell decided this year to begin offering his library of DVDs (the J. Gary Mitchell Company keeps its stock in a Milwaukie motel-turned-office park) for family viewing.
Last week, Mitchell sat down for lunch with WW at Canby Asparagus Farm's Casa de Tamales, where he talked about how puppets like Professor Sir Hillary Von Carp can defeat real-life Humbert Humberts.
WW: When did you first realize you wanted to make anti-pedophilia videos?
J. Gary Mitchell: Ah. In the '70s I was making documentaries. When I moved back from Los Angeles to San Francisco, it's when the women's movement was getting started. So my first one was called Rape: A Preventive Inquiry, for distribution to police departments and rape crisis centers and things like that. So as I was doing that, I met different social-worker kind of people. So the next documentary I did was—what did we call that?—that was called Child Abuse: Cradle of Violence. That documentary led into the next one, which was called Incest: The Victim Nobody Believes. Then after I did that, the next one was Battered Women. So through that process, I just met an awful lot of social-service women, ladies, and I really got a sense of what these issues were. And they were the issues of the women's movement—that was the driving force.
Then I did a documentary in '77 called Squires of San Quentin. It was about how a bunch of lifers would counsel kids that juvenile officers would bring in. I was in the short documentary category and I was nominated for an Academy Award for that. I think it was really because of the politics of it, I don't think it was because it was a great movie. [Laughs.] It didn't matter. That's like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on your forehead. Am I going into too much detail?
Well, I'm just curious how you get to the point where you start making the videos for kids.
I'm at that point! What happened was, [my distributors] said, "What would you like to do?" And I said, "Well, I think all these films are really important issues, but it feels like I'm too late. I'm doing them for adults. I'd rather be doing this stuff for children. And I'd rather be doing little short stories, rather than documentaries." It was because of the incest and the child abuse [films] that I got into these issues, and realized: That's what nobody wants to talk about. It's not a popular subject. People don't like to talk about sex. It's really embarrassing. So I just stuck with it. It's very definitely a niche market.
How many videos have you sold?
Oh God, I dunno. Thousands. Yeah, I have no idea.
What's your basic goal in making all these movies?
Stop child abuse. See, here's the issue. Let's talk about why it's a problem still. Back in the '70s and the '80s we were still doing a lot of "dangerous stranger" stuff. It wasn't until people started doing research that we figured out, oh, well: It's really who we know. It's members of the family, friends of the family. Today we've got a name for that: It's called the "groomers." They are pedophiles. You're not supposed to call them addicts, but they have the same behavior as an addict. They're just so focused on children, that everything that they do in their life is focused on seducing a child.
Why do you call them groomers?
First of all, they groom the community that they live in, make everybody feel like they're a wonderful guy. They pick out families that are vulnerable—let's say a single parent, or perhaps a woman whose husband is drinking too much—and they'll zero in on that vulnerable family and they'll groom that family. They'll move in and start doing favors. They're your new best friend, right? And then they start playing with the children, spending a lot of time with the children. And then grooming the child—desensitizing the child. They start touching, they start being physical with the child without being sexual. They're in essence sending a message to the child: "Your parents think it's OK for us to be physical." So then when the parents aren't around, then they move in and like, maybe "accidentally" touch the child inappropriately and that kind of thing. Another thing to bring in, what very few people realize is that [in] over 50 percent of child molestations, the perpetrator is a teenager.
How common is all of this?
It's really common because it's still a secret. Nobody wants to talk about it. Think for a minute: If you have a friend that you've known for a year or so, and he's always helping you out, he's just a nice guy, he's just a really good person. And then all of a sudden one day you realize, "I think he's molesting that child next door." Now what are you going to do about it? You don't want to lose your friend, you don't want to risk that maybe you're wrong, so you'll dismiss it. And so it becomes secret. And then at the same time, the guy who's molesting the child is telling the child, "Nobody's gonna believe you. And if you tell anybody, I'm going to tell them it's your fault." Or: "I'll hurt your mother. All these terrible threats. That they put on kids.
Have you ever known a pedophile?
[Chuckles.] Through groups that I've been privy to. One of the first therapy groups that I got to go to down in San Jose, when I was working on some pictures, I got to meet people that were in therapy.
How can a video fight against all this social pressure being put on a family by these abusers?
Letting the kids know that it's never their fault. Having the parents reinforce that. That's the key. Because here's what's happening: With all of this stuff that we've been doing, kids are still not reporting [abuse]. The reporting rate is five percent. Well, how come? They know this is not OK. Why aren't they reporting? It's because they don't have a rapport with their parents. So my feeling is, if parents have these films… You know, kids have a habit of—and I learned this from my daughters—they get a new movie, and if it's got, like, puppets or characters on their age level, they'll watch the damn thing over and over and over again. That's going to allow the parents to talk to their kids about these issues: Sex is not a bad thing, but some people have problems and they touch children. And it's not OK for children to touch adults in a sexual way, or adults to touch children. And kids can get that. They can get that as simple as, you don't cross the street when the light is red.
Do kids trust the puppets?
Yeah. Sure, why not? And the way I do it, see, it's not proscenium. In every case, the kids are interacting with the puppets. Suspension of disbelief works. Especially when you're a little kid.
On your website, it seems like you're marketing to Catholics a lot.
Because they finally, after all the publicity [of sexual abuse by priests], the bishops mandated to have sex-education classes. Well, there's kind of nobody in the country that has the product I have. So I was hoping, with the release of this last [video], that's where the big market would be—the Catholic churches, because there's thousands of them. But so far we've sold a couple of hundred. Not well received.
You got me. Ask the Catholics.
So you're looking for nonprofit financing now, right?
Yeah. That's the only way I can keep going. It costs between $50,000 and $70,000 dollars to do a 15-minute movie. And I'm doing 'em cheap. To do broadcast quality, you've got to go out with a crew—I mean a real crew. Your cameraman's gonna cost you a thousand dollars a day, and the sound man is $750…it's big money.
How long has it been now—40 years of doing this?
Since I started making movies, yeah.
[Laughs.] I'm impressed. God knows I'm not a rich person at all; I just barely make a living. And I'd really like to have somebody to mentor.
SEE IT: Clips of J. Gary Mitchell's films can be found at empowerkids.com, where DVDs can be ordered for $24.95 each. The J. Gary Mitchell Film Company can also be reached at 1-800-301-4050.