By Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation
“Nobody can ever plan for something to be a success, you just do it and you believe in it and you do your best,” said Courtney Campbell in a recent interview with The Dove Foundation. Campbell hosts the public television show “Mustard Pancakes,” and the show is a hit. In fact, it recently won the Parents’ Choice Gold Award in the pre-school category. Campbell explained her creative process in the series. “I wanted to have characters that you care about and have good stories. To me, if you get those two elements you have an opportunity for success. I also think that there’s an invisible element that comes through the screen that people feel — that is love, quite seriously. The people that work on this show love this show. They care about their characters. Everybody really cares about being on this show—it’s not just another job to them. So there’s a collective coming together with that commitment and care for kids.”
When I complimented Campbell on one of the shows I had viewed on DVD, she said, “From this year it’s about twelve times better,” referring to the fact that Campbell and crew were just completing the filming of the new season of shows which are yet to air.
Campbell has quite a background in music, which includes opening for John Denver years ago. She said, “He was a lovely man, and gracious to everyone when I worked with him.” She also shared billing with Lyle Lovett and Jackson Brown. Campbell was invited several years ago to sing at a friend’s pre-school, and the reception she received was so amazing that she decided to start singing exclusively for children.
“I’ve always been a singer,” she reflected. “I grew up during the folk music genre. I wrote music — folk-pop. I’ve always known that I should do something with children, but I never knew what that would be. Many things came together when a friend of mine asked me to sing at a pre-school. I was at a point in my life that when she said, ‘We’ll pay you twenty bucks,’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ So I went and sang there and that was a turning point. I made up a song in the car. I didn’t have a clue as to what I would sing, but a song popped into my head and I wrote it in the car on the way to the school. I sang and the children liked it and the woman called me back and said, ‘They’re demanding you come back,’ so I went back. Then she said, ‘The parents are demanding you come back, they want to see this woman they keep hearing about.’ My friend said to me, ‘You need to pay attention to this. It isn’t normal.’ Being the kind of person I am I was open to hearing things like that, so I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll pay attention.’ It helped me find work and I’ve never looked back.”
Although she was raising a son at the time, Campbell had no idea that she would connect so well with the other children. She has a philosophical viewpoint about the turn of events in her life. “Is it an accident? Is it serendipity? It depends on your belief system you know. Was it meant to be?”
One of the benefits she has gained is her public access to meet new children and people. “It’s taken me all over the place. I’ve met so many kids from so many countries and teachers and families.”
Campbell reflected on the differences between performing live and on a taped TV show. “When I started this show I really missed the performing because anybody will tell you there’s nothing like live performing. This is a whole other experience, being able to do something for so many kids, to work with people, and to be a part of the creative process is a blessed thing. So then I was doing that and I thought, ‘I can’t imagine being on the road!'”
Campbell elaborated about working on the set of “Mustard Pancakes.” She mentioned that the puppets were pretty easy to work with, and that set problems typically arose in other areas. “The puppets are about two and a half feet tall. The things that go wrong on the set are much more technical—the camera angles or the puppet rod will fall out or their eye mechanisms break, things like that. I haven’t had any difficulty in working with them. On the contrary, what happens to all of us quite quickly, and I’ll give you an example, is I had to get the puppets to comment on a photograph, and the puppeteers hadn’t seen it yet. I’m on a stage three and a half or four and a half feet above, and the stage is built up so the puppeteers can stand up and raise their arms in the air because their comfort is everything. If I said to you to hold your arm up as long as you could, without a puppet on it, think of how comfortable that is. You’re talking and moving mechanisms and your other arm is holding something, you know. Here’s what I did. I held the photograph up right to the puppet’s face and said, ‘You need to have a look at this.’ Now, also at that moment I said to myself, ‘Courtney, that’s a puppet!’ I’ve even watched the director talk to a puppet. It’s easy to forget they’re puppets! I don’t even think about it — that they’re puppets. Of course I’ve written so many of the episodes and I’ve created these guys so they’re incredibly real to me.”
Campbell contributes to the writing along with Joel Wertman and does story editing when she is too busy to write. Writers who contribute occasionally to the show are given a writer’s Bible, which includes dossiers on the characters, backgrounds, etc. When it was suggested to Campbell that she was active in all aspects of the show, she said, “I even get to sleep occasionally!”
In fact, Campbell not only hosts the show every week, which is seen on over 200 public television stations nationwide, she also wrote every song and sings on a “Mustard Pancakes” CD.
“There are ten songs from the first thirteen episodes we shot,” she said. The CD also includes the theme song from the show.
Interestingly, Campbell has been compared to Mr. Rogers, another children’s TV show host who was obviously pretty well known. When asked about the comparison, she said, “If someone thinks that I’m a caring individual, and I think he was, and a loving individual, for children, and people really believe that I’m sincere and genuine, which I am, that’s an honor. I’m not exactly like him, but there’s nobody out there doing this too so I think it’s easy to draw those comparisons.”
Another thing that Campbell has enjoyed is the appreciation which people have shown to her for doing this show. “I’ve gotten the dearest e-mails,” she said, “from families, from parents writing for their children. I’ve gotten an e-mail from a twenty-seven-year-old insomniac who came across the show and said, ‘I don’t even know why I like it, but I really like your show!’ What I love is that in the e-mails people thank me for the slower pace of the show. They love the characters. The children become attached to the characters and they care about the stories. When I go out and perform you can just feel the love coming back and that’s because we had it to begin with, and that’s neat.”
As the show was about to wrap for the season I asked her about future plans and, after some rest, she said, “I’m going to take some time for some writing and time to visit my family and friends. I have a son and daughter-in-law and two marvelous young grandchildren and then I’m going to be on the road performing and promoting the show for a good deal of the summer.”
There will be twenty six new episodes for the next season of “Mustard Pancakes,” which she has been filming since November. The shows are slated to air in the very near future. Campbell reiterated that not only the joy but her satisfaction in doing the series comes from hearing from the viewers and knowing that they love the characters. “I got a letter from a woman whose daughter was inspired to play the guitar. She had been playing the guitar but quit. One of the stories on the show was about when I got discouraged and gave up. She listened to that story and I said on the show I didn’t give up for long because I really wanted to play—she was inspired by that. She started playing again. That’s very idealistic I think. Some feel like singing and going dancing with their family for an hour!”
Campbell is justly pleased with the show and its inspiration to others, and said, “We only tell stories that we know come from truth, and it’s either my truth or someone else who said, ‘My dog got sprayed by a skunk.'”
In fact, that very story was incorporated into one of the episodes when the character of the dog, Oggleberry Ink Dog, got spayed by the noxious black animal with a white streak down its back. Another episode based on truth, was when Courtney prepared dinner for her brother who was to come for a visit, but then called and cancelled. She became depressed as she longed to see her brother, but the animals cheered her up.
“We keep it positive and hopeful. We all know the reality but children need to believe. They’ll grow up and figure the rest out.”
If you have wondered where in the world, this side of Pancake Heaven, that Courtney Campbell came up with the title “Mustard Pancakes,” it is explained in the title song on the CD. Apparently her brother John put mustard instead of honey in the syrup jar and she put it on her pancakes and she loved it! So, that inspired the title of the show as well as the CD.
Although many people work on the show, it is obvious that “Mustard Pancakes” would not be the success that it is without Courtney Campbell. Whenever a host of a TV show is compared to such legends as Mr. Rogers and Shari Lewis, she must be doing something right.