No show in Escondido

His TV gala fundraiser just wasn’t in the stars for Fred Rogers ‘understudy’

By Dru Sefton

On the latest of several nights when Kinsell planned to introduce himself as Fred Rogers’ successor, 1,500 seats were empty. (File photo: California Center for the Arts, Escondido)

Michael Kinsell imagined that his Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood show would replace Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on public television.

Instead, Kinsell and his dream ended up on The Museum of Hoaxes website, which tracks “dubious claims and mischief of all kinds.”

For at least the past 18 months, the young San Diego man took his plans to a sequence of top entertainment pros, pitching a gala fundraising concert that would pay tribute to the late Fred Rogers while presenting Kinsell as Rogers’ successor.

Though the event fizzled last month, leaving an empty concert hall in the San Diego suburb of Escondido on Sunday night, May 31, Kinsell had demonstrated he could come from nowhere, win the assistance of others and nearly reach the spotlight. The 1,500 seats in the hall were to be filled with people who paid $300 or more per seat to support children’s public television; millions more would watch the broadcast as a pledge special.

In his quest for pubcasting fame, Kinsell sent e-mails, obtained by Current, in which he touted the “confirmed” luminaries who would appear at the tribute: Andy Williams, Bill Cosby, Christina Aguilera, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, President Bill Clinton, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and first lady Maria Shriver. The list went on. So did the list of musical numbers, and stars who would perform them.

He courted companies as lofty as the PR firm Rogers & Cowan, regarded by many as the top Hollywood agency, with a starry clientele of hundreds including Tom Cruise, Sharon Stone, Eddie Murphy and Prince. A source familiar with Kinsell’s dealings with the agency confirmed that Kinsell met with at least one Rogers & Cowan agent; Kinsell listed two of the firm’s agents as publicists for his Rogers gala in a November 2008 e-mail. That source, like many who spoke to Current for this story, requested to remain anonymous because they feared that any association with Kinsell, however tenuous or even untrue, would threaten their business reputations.

For instance, Kinsell managed to get a longtime Academy Awards staffer on the phone several times, that person confirmed to Current. But the staffer demanded anonymity, denying any business relationship with the young promoter. Kinsell added the staffer’s name to his  list of “Fred Rogers Tribute Concert Contacts” in later e-mails to others.

Kinsell wasn’t alone in his dogged quest. He had the help of his mother, Liz Kinsell, and an associate who described himself on a website as a close friend of Johnny Costa, who played piano on Fred Rogers’ show. (That associate did not return phone calls from Current.) Promotional materials also listed a corps of impressive people as supporters, vendors and advisors — although a number later told reporters they had never been involved in the project.

When courted to join the project, the Academy Awards staffer said Kinsell dropped the name of William Cosel, the Massachusetts-based producer of WGBH’s Evening at Pops for 30 years, as producer of the tribute.

Cosel remembers getting a call from Kinsell last fall. The two chatted briefly. Kinsell sent him a 32-page letter dated Oct. 28 describing the tribute event with “invited guests” including “select members of Congress” and “costumed characters such as Big Bird and the Sesame Street Gang.”

Cosel didn’t get involved, he said. He began to doubt the show would go on as described. He contacted relatives who are “big arts supporters” in San Diego. “They had heard nothing about it,” he said.

“It just didn’t smell right,” Cosel decided. He politely declined the job and recalls Kinsell’s disappointed reply: “Well, now what am I going to do?”

Under the surface

Mallory Lewis — daughter of and former writer-producer for the late children’s TV star Shari Lewis — told Current that Kinsell contacted her publicist a few months ago about the gala. Kinsell mentioned an array of celebs and said Lewis would be introduced on stage by California’s first lady, Maria Shriver.

Lewis agreed to attend and planned to go with her husband and several business associates, she said. Her husband purchased a tux; Lewis bought a new purse.

But she began to have doubts about the event. She heard Bette Midler also was to appear—but she knew Midler would be doing her ongoing show in Las Vegas on the same date, May 31. Lewis started calling contacts in the entertainment industry and hearing that other stars named in the event publicity would not be there.

Two days before its scheduled date, the Rogers tribute was canceled by organizer Michael Kinsell. (Photo: KNSD, San Diego NBC)

Others were also intrigued or even enthusiastic about Kinsell’s plans and passion at first, but they soon walked away after finding they couldn’t confirm the event would occur.

More than a year ago, PBS and Family Communications Inc., Fred Rogers’ longtime production company in Pittsburgh, became aware of Kinsell’s plans. PBS said its lawyers would have no comment. The pubcasters may have heard Kinsell was using Rogers’ name and the PBS brand; they may even have seen the photo on a college newspaper website of Kinsell in classic Rogers’ attire, wearing a red cardigan, tying on sneakers.

The two nonprofits say they sent Kinsell cease-and-desist letters demanding that he stop associating himself with them.But Kinsell went ahead with plans for Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood as well as the gala.

The show needed cash backers. His mother said she has financed “all these endeavors” through earnings from her tax-prep business, putting up “around and over $100,000,” she told Current last month.

In fall 2007, Kinsell approached KPBS, the PBS member station in San Diego, to help him produce his Neighborhood show. Nancy Worlie, station spokesperson, said KPBS offered its services for $55,000, but Kinsell didn’t have the money.

Last summer Kinsell submitted a funding proposal to the San Diego Foundation. Kinsell told the group he was working with KPBS to produce Michael’s Enhanted Neighborhood and that it would air on the station. Worlie said the foundation contacted KPBS to verify that information, and was told it was not true. The foundation denied Kinsell’s request.

Kinsell continued fundraising. In e-mails to prospective donors, Kinsell he solicited production funds in the name of the Children’s Media Corp. and, later, the Children’s Media Foundation, which he called a nonprofit.

Kinsell told Current that CMF had a board of directors as well as an advisory board. When asked to supply those names, he replied that due to the Memorial Day Holiday “and other factors” he couldn’t do so. Despite several subsequent requests, he did not provide the names.

The website promoting Kinsell’s tribute to Fred Rogers uses multiple photos and a video of the late PBS Kids program host.

The gala’s website and at least two news releases identified CMF as a nonprofit and sponsor of the event. But three days before  the soiree, Dana Simas, a spokesperson for California Attorney General Jerry Brown, said CMF had not completed the process to be authorized to do business and receive tax-exempt donations in the state.

Kinsell acquired new credentials as he circulated material about himself and what one of his e-mails called his “new PBS program.”

“As Fred Rogers’ understudy,” Kinsell said in a November e-mail to a potential vendor, “Michael Kinsell continues the work of Fred Rogers with his caring and trusting ways.”

Kinsell, who told Current last month that he is 18, would have been 10 or 11 years old if he had been Rogers’ understudy when the last Mister Rogers shows were taped in 2001.

Though Kinsell worked to develop his series, the Rogers tribute gala remained his main project. He hoped it would raise funds for “quality children’s television,” as well as his show. His organization would give a $10,000 donation to Rogers’ production company and honor Rogers with a posthumous Children’s Hero Award, he told Current.

“Big red flag”

Kinsell’s early draft script for the gala, sent to a vendor in October, opens with Big Bird asking a stranger for directions to “Mister Michael.” Characters from PBS Kids shows have cameos in quick succession—including lion puppets and a sloth from Between the Lions and It’s a Big Big World as well as Muppets fromSesame Street.

Celebrities are seen arriving for the show. “The crowd is going wild,” the script notes.  A crane-mounted camera swoops down toward Kinsell when he steps forth to deliver opening remarks. The show continues with Tony Bennett, Tom Hanks, Yo-Yo Ma and others.

Half a year later, hard reality was intruding into Kinsell’s plans. Vendors, partners and sponsors were getting nervous. Some had not been paid. Others insisted on proof that Kinsell’s foundation was actually a nonprofit.

More were troubled by constant date changes. According to correspondence to Kinsell obtained by Current, the show was once set for Dec. 9, 2008, at the San Diego Civic Center. It was rescheduled to Feb. 8, 2009, at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. The date moved to March 20, then May 31.

One vendor who was becoming suspicious was Jeff Donnelley, founder and president of 760 Media, a marketing firm that serves such clients as Mitsubishi, BMW and McDonald’s. The firm routinely develops five-figure marketing plans and arranges media buys for similar events, Donnelley said.

The company met with Kinsell to plan the show—which Kinsell said would air on PBS, according to Donnelley. The company offered Kinsell a contract requiring him to pay for services before it would start work.

“I’ve been in the industry almost 20 years, and I can sometimes sense when something doesn’t quite check out,” Donnelley said.

Besides, Kinsell “wanted us to invest in this event,” Donnelley said. “That’s a big red flag. Based on that, we walked.”

A dream dissolving

Other vendors and participants fell away.

Sponsorship fees were too rich for some prospective underwriters, former Kinsell advisors said. A top-level Presenting Sponsor, according to one document, would be expected to donate “$200,000 (plus 2 additional annual installments of $200,000).” For that it would receive, among other perks, “two 15-second on-air spots per daily broadcast of Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood (airs afternoons, Monday-Friday, during PBS KIDS GO! block starting February 19th 2009.)”

Other “on-air benefits”: “Eight million viewers a week with a local satellite distributing span of three hundred PBS stations in and out of the United States for both Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood” and the gala.

By late May, with the event looming, the team working with Kinsell apparently included his mother, publicist Lisa Jammal, and Andy Abrams, named as his attorney in Kinsell’s May 28 news release.

Except the lawyer said he was not involved. When contacted by Current just after Kinsell issued the release, Abrams said he had sent Kinsell a formal disengagement letter asserting that the promoter had “misled” him regarding “virtually all of the details of the upcoming award ceremony.”

Jammal, from LJAM PR in Los Angeles, was named as publicist on several Kinsell news releases, also said May 28 she was no longer associated with him. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she told Current. “I am not sending anything out, and I don’t want to be present at the gala. I have to detach myself.”

By then, several San Diego-area media outlets were chasing Kinsell’s story. Agents for stars named as supporters in Kinsell’s publicity began to hear from reporters.

Actor Danny DeVito’s Los Angeles attorney, Joel Behr, told Kinsell in a letter to stop using DeVito’s name: “Mr. DeVito has not received an invitation . . . and will not be attending the event. He has no prior knowledge of this event. He has not contributed financially to the organization as you claim. Until we were informed of your false statements, Mr. DeVito was, in fact, unaware of the existence of your organization. Accordingly, please be certain to refrain from using our client’s name and photograph in publicizing this event, effective immediately. Any such use is clearly unauthorized.”

PBS and Family Communications Inc. also were intensifying efforts to protect their copyrights and trademarks. The two filed a complaint with the California attorney general’s office saying Kinsell was “falsely claiming association” with the network and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and his activities, especially the gala fundraiser, could divert donations from the network and Rogers’ company.

In spite of these setbacks, it appeared Kinsell might bring forward one of his claimed celebrity supporters two days before the gala.

The promoter had consistently touted his gala’s association with Prince. Kinsell offered a San Diego radio station an exclusive live telephone interview with the reclusive musician.

On May 28 Kinsell e-mailed a producer at KMYI, a Clear Channel station: “Tomorrow is the Big day! Prince does not do alot of talking. everything he says is really short you are going to have to do most of the talking. Can we please try to do the interview in the way it’s written and formatted below? We really need this interview to be effective and we think the way it’s set up below will really do very well for us. . . . The most important things we need to talk about are: ALL the big names, the fact that this is the biggest celebrity turn out in history for San Diego and you actually have dinner with all these icons in one room.”

But on the same day, in an e-mail to Current, Kinsell wrote: “It ends up that after all that Prince will not be having anything to do with this event . . . please do not associate his name with anything we are doing.” Kinsell also canceled his own appearance in the studio during Prince’s interview, a producer at the station told Current.

Nevertheless, someone who identified himself as Prince gave a lengthy live phone interview to the station May 29.

But the voice on the phone was not that of Prince, Rogers & Cowan exec Maureen O’Connor told NBC affiliate KNSD on June 4.

With news reports raising questions about the event on KNSD, in the local North County Times, in Current, in Broadcasting & Cable magazine and elsewhere, Kinsell announced he was canceling. Late on May 28, he e-mailed the news to Current: “Event is in motions to be officially canceled today. I am in the means of letting our staff know now. At this point I’m finished with this whole thing. Do not be inclined to contact me ever again.”

“I’m sure it’s all over,” he e-mailed reporter Mark Walker at the North County Times that evening. “I’m so sorry for any trouble.”

Later that night, however, when Broadcasting & Cable journalist John Eggerton reached Kinsell at the phone number of the Children’s Media Foundation, Kinsell told him “The event is still on.”

It didn’t stay on. The city-owned concert hall in Escondido began issuing refunds for tickets. Officials there declined to say how many had been sold. One of Kinsell’s former associates estimated about 300.

Mallory Lewis, who gave up on the event just a few days before showtime, remained philosophical about Kinsell’s efforts. “Although this is quite egregious,” she told Current, “we’re all lucky that the mistakes we made in our late teens or early 20s weren’t such public ones.”

EARLIER ARTICLE

First report on the subject: Young promoter cancels his debut as Fred Rogers’ successor.

NEWS RELEASES

News of the event was spread by websites that appear to take little responsibility for checking what they publish.May 23 PR Web news release reposted by Topix.com, still online a week after Kinsell’s event was canceled. Archived text of same or similar release May 23.

May 31 news release promoting attendance at Children’s Hero Award event, posted on The Walrus, San Diego rock station.

DOCUMENTS

Musical numbers Kinsell planned for the Rogers event include one each for Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli and three for Tony Bennett. Diana Ross, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder would sit quietly in the audience.

LINKS

Michael Kinsell gave a June 5 interview to San Diego NBC affiliate KNSD. In it, he tells reporter Catherine Garcia that requests from PBS and Fred Rogers’ production company to disassociate himself from Mister Rogers are “a very big misunderstanding.” Other KNSD coverage.

“He had a sweater and a dream,” writes Randy Dotinga in the Voice of San Diego nonprofit online newspaper, adding: “Kinsell is lawyered up and his true motives remain unknown.”

PBS posted information regarding Kinsell on the Frequently Asked Questions page of its website. Scroll down to “Is PBS affiliated with Michael Kinsell and the 2009 Children’s Hero Award honoring Fred Rogers?”

Remainder of Kinsell’s website for Children’s Hero Award event as cached by Google.

“Under construction” website of Children’s Media Foundation, sponsor of gala tribute. The address given for the foundation is the same building and suite number on La Jolla Village Drive as a web hosting company.

Kinsell interviewed in The Point Lookout at Point Loma Nazarene University, Feb. 11, 2008: “PLNU student wants to be your neighbor.”

Kinsell’s Internet Movie Database page says he appeared as himself on KIds Say the Darnedest Things 11 years ago. His bio on IMDb says he’s a student in an M.A. program in early childhood education and host of Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood “on PBS.’

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood website on PBS.org.

Family Communications Inc., the Pittsburgh company founded in 1971 by Fred Rogers.

Research assistance provided by WNET.org Information Specialist Richard Romeo.
Comments, tips, questions? seftond@current.org
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