'Reading Rainbow's' LeVar Burton will be a guest at Steel City Con
In Pittsburgh, it's absurd to compare anyone to Mister Rogers.
Yet, if there's anyone who combines that nostalgic, reassuring voice from childhood with a radiant personal warmth and total lack of modern-media cynicism, it's LeVar Burton.
The host and producer of PBS' “Reading Rainbow” — and acclaimed actor, known for his iconic TV roles in “Roots” (1977) and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-94) — will be one of the many special guests this weekend at the Steel City Con at the Monroeville Convention Center.
Burton's had a busy past few months.
Recently, “Reading Rainbow” was reborn as an app (of course) after a record-breaking Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. The outpouring of support for the “Reading Rainbow” app, donations and otherwise, floored Burton. With a stated goal of $1 million, it ended up with $6.4 million — bringing him to tears in a video clip that was seen widely online.
Given the attention it's received, it's easy to forget what made “Reading Rainbow” remarkable in the first place — it was a TV show about the importance of reading.
At first, it seems like an odd pairing. Yet, “Reading Rainbow” ran for 23 seasons, starting in 1983. It became the third-longest-running children's television show in PBS history, after “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street.” It won 26 Emmys, a Peabody and hundreds of other awards.
“What we tried to do with ‘Reading Rainbow' is to meet kids where they are and take them where we want them to go,” Burton says. “We did that with TV, and to do that today, you've got to do that on digital (formats).”
“I think the Kickstarter is evidence that there are people who grew up on the show and have a vested interest and want it to be there for future generations,” Burton says, adding that “105,000 people donated. That's a record for any crowd-funding campaign.”
The plan is to expand it to platforms other than the iPad and Kindle Fire, including Android and gaming consoles. The app is free to download, but additional content (books, videos) must be purchased. The campaign will help gain free access for 7,500 classrooms “in need.”
At the Steel City Con, many (if not most) fans will know Burton as Lt. Cmd.Geordi La Forge from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The character was blind but wore a special visor that gave him enhanced vision capabilities. That Burton created one of science-fiction's most memorable characters without having access to an actor's most important, expressive asset — his eyes — is a testament to his skill as an actor.
Plus, wearing that thing was kind of a pain. “It was problematic,” Burton says. “It wasn't comfortable. At the end of the day, I feel like it forced me to use different ways of communicating. I think it made me a better actor. Was I glad to take it off? You bet!”
Not only was he expected to carry the show as its biggest-name star (at the time), he was also given a role that — along with Brent Spiner's Data character — would be compared to one of the most iconic of all: Spock (Leonard Nimoy).
“I'm a fan of ‘Star Trek,'” Burton says. “I think the hallmark of most ‘Star Trek' fans is open-mindedness. I didn't pay much attention to those comparisons. If anything, I'm more proud that people who deal with physical challenges found a character that was representing them.”
Others recall Burton best as the lead in “Roots.” The 1977 TV miniseries told the story of a African teenager captured and sold into slavery in Colonial America. The adaptation of Alex Haley's novel was utterly unlike anything else and remains one of the most-watched television events in history.
“‘Roots' wasn't just a piece of TV, it was a sociological phenomenon,” Burton says. “It was an event in my time when I was introduced to the power of TV, that it could be more than a vehicle for entertainment; it could spur social change.
“‘Roots' was my first job. I've been lucky enough to be involved with vehicles of entertainment that bring more to the table than just entertainment. There's a common thread, from ‘Roots' to ‘Reading Rainbow' to ‘Star Trek.' They're socially conscious examples of how we can use this medium for education and enlightenment, as well.”
Nowadays, Burton is likely to pop up just about anywhere on television. His cameos range from the mega-hit “The Big Bang Theory,” to the cartoon “Adventure Time,” to a regular role on TNT's “Perception,” to playing himself on the cult comedy “Community.”
“They're all fun,” he says. “When you reach a stage in your career and a level of status where they ask you to come on and play yourself, you know you've done something right.”
Of course, one of the biggest cultural changes in the past 20 years or has been the mass acceptance of what was once considered “nerd culture.”
“I'm a big fan of diversity in all its forms,” Burton says. “As a kid who was a little pudgy, wore glasses and was studious, I'm thrilled that archetype has achieved a level of not just acceptance, but status. It's hip to be smart.”
It's no secret that the Steel City Con is a hot ticket.
And the folks at the con know it, too. This year, they are adding six portable ticket windows to get the crowds moving faster.
As usual at the con, hundreds of toys, comic books and childhood collectibles will be on display and for sale. Attendees get the chance to get autographs, take photos and interact with famous guests.
Who are those famous guests this year?
Steel City Con guests
• LeVar Burton (“Roots,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Reading Rainbow”)
• Penny Marshall (Laverne from “Laverne & Shirley”)
• Steve Guttenberg (“Police Academy,” “Three Men and a Baby”)
• Dean Cain (“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”)
• Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian from the “Star Wars” trilogy)
• Verne Troyer (Mini-Me from “Austin Powers”)
• Tom Savini (“Dawn of the Dead,” “Creepshow”)
• “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart (pro wrestling legend)
• Clare Kramer (Glory from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”)
• Steve Cardenas (Red Power Ranger from “The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”)
• Cerina Vincent (“The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” Cabin Fever)
• Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster from “The Munsters”)
• Pat Priest (Marilyn Munster from “The Munsters”)
• Paris Themmen (Mike Tee Vee from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”)
• Mark Madden (radio personality)
• Ecto-1 (car from “Ghostbusters”)
• The Delorean time machine from “Back to the Future”
• 1966 Batmobile replica
• “Knight Rider” KITT replica
• “Dragula” from “The Munsters”