Years before PBS introduced Fred Rogers to a national audience, he was a frequent visitor to my kindergarten classroom at the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in Pittsburgh. I was 5 in 1964 when the courteous man with puppets became a familiar face in my small circle. Having first dibs on Mister Rogers provided a remarkable opportunity to experience his extraordinary goodness firsthand, albeit as a child.
Perhaps that’s why I see something familiar in Baltimore neighbor Danny LaBrecque (pronounced “La-Breck”), the unheralded, light-haired, soft-spoken host of “Danny Joe’s Tree House,” a live-action children’s web series broadcasted on Facebook and YouTube and filmed in the basement studio of LaBrecque’s home. He brings a human voice back to children’s media and a serious passion to serve families of the very young.
Simply introduced to his online audience as “Danny Joe,” LaBrecque displays an unpretentious sincerity by being himself. There is no part to be played as he interacts, listens and openly communicates with preschoolers. Each episode begins as LaBrecque climbs into his Tree House, inviting families to “Come Out and Play” while playing the theme song on his trusty ukulele. He then introduces a topic through a show-and-tell object and features real-life visits from guests as they guide viewer families together through songs, art projects and storytelling with colorful hand puppets.
At times, LaBrecque literally talks through the screen with watching families and responds through the comment window for as long or as short as they need him. That means that sometimes “Tree House” episodes run longer than their 20-minute average.
LaBrecque’s wife, Stefani, a professional cinematographer, is the director and co-producer of the program. She also produces online education for 2U, a digital education company.
Like most adults, LaBrecque grew up with the passive television screen, watching shows like “Captain Kangaroo,” “Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow” and most notably, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” During an extended period of uncertainty while his mother, Barbara, fought a long-term battle with cancer, Mister Rogers became the extra adult voice that a young Danny Joe desperately needed.
“Even then I knew that he was real — not just an actor playing a part.” LaBrecque says. He feels that children today deserve that same type of real human relationship coming from their screens more than ever before.
Last season, after the presidential election, LaBrecque heard from parents whose kids were concerned about the political climate, the threat of deportation or even freedom of speech. He created an episode to deal with this.
“‘Tree House’ isn’t just another show or media babysitter for kids. It needs to be more,” LaBrecque says. “The secret is that it is just as much for the parents and caregivers, as we all attempt to examine the complexities of our current shared human experience through the safe and objective place of play.”
LaBrecque studied behavioral science with a focus in early childhood development at National Louis University in Chicago, and prior to that, studied children’s illustration at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He currently works as an early childhood specialist through Holistic Life Foundation, which serves Baltimore City Schools including Robert W. Coleman Elementary, and he volunteers at The Ark Preschool, the only accredited preschool in Baltimore for families experiencing homelessness. His preschool audiences often have first or secondary experiences with gun violence, abuse, racism or discrimination — experiences that are not typically discussed directly in the mainstream media for very young children.
“In the classroom, I am learning just as much, if not much more, from the children. When my puppets come out, they don’t speak at first. I ask the children how they think each puppet is feeling and then they naturally project their experiences onto the puppets, allowing a safe place to talk about anything,” LaBrecque explains. “If I listen carefully to the verbal and non-verbal communication of each child, I can get a pretty clear idea of where they are coming from and how I can best serve them.”
In season two, the current season of “Tree House,” Danny Joe and his guest, Andres Gonzalez, the real life co-founder of Holistic Life Foundation, speak just after Hurricane Maria with parents and caregivers during the pre-show live broadcast. They then incorporate feedback from that conversation into the episode called “I’m Here to Help.”
“The benefit of our modern screens, if they are used responsibly, is the potential to offer a real relationship between human beings,” LaBrecque says.
David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” appeared as a guest on “Tree House” and became a fan of the format.
“What I like about ‘Danny Joe’s Tree House’ is that children can interact with a live person,” Newell says. “Danny is a big kid at heart and I think that is very helpful. In today’s world where everything is virtual and robotic, here’s a person giving original thoughts and ideas.”
“Danny Joe’s Tree House” is independently produced and, to date, receives no outside funding. LaBrecque feels very strongly that media should not market to children directly or indirectly. . Still, he hopes to secure funding, without compromising his values, to create a daily version of the show.
“My goal isn’t to sell a product. I’m not a brand. I’m a human being. I don’t think of ‘Tree House’ as a show, but more so a safe place online to visit and work through complex thoughts, ideas and feelings,” LaBrecque says. “I’m attempting to earn the trust of the families I strive to serve and I know that that will only happen with time and consistency.”