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Main Line Times

Bala Cynwyd native Billy Aronson divides his time between writing for children‘s TV and the stage
By: LINDA DORMONT, Main Line Ticket

For Bala Cynwyd native Billy Aronson, life has been like an off-Broadway play. In love with the theater since childhood, he has been an actor, musician, starving artist and successful playwright and television writer, in just about that order.

Aronson, 47, still collects his percentage of the residuals from Rent, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical that was based upon his original concept and for which he wrote the song “Santa Fe.” And, although he gives full credit for the success of the production to his late partner, Jonathan Larson, from whom he parted company early in the show‘s development, the idea was his. It was based, he said, upon his experiences and those of his friends as aspiring artists in Manhattan.

Now, Postcards from Buster , the PBS children‘s TV program for which he writes, has been nominated for two Daytime Emmy Awards. The awards show will be nationally telecast Friday, May 20, from Radio City Music Hall in New York. Buster has been nominated as Best Children‘s Program (2004-05 season) and for Best Writing for a Children‘s Series. Three writers, including Aronson, were selected by their producer, Cookie Jar Entertainment Inc. of WGBH in Boston, to be in the running for this Emmy.

“There are really about a dozen writers for the show,” said Aronson in a telephone interview from his New York City office. “But rules require that only three be named for the award.”

He said he loves writing for Buster, but that viewers have no idea of the many hours of work and the long sequences of live filming that go into the making of the show, which combines cartoon animation with live action.

“Buster is a spin-off from the very popular Arthur show on PBS,” he said. “In fact, Postcards from Buster made its first appearance as an episode on Arthur, when Buster Baxter, the lovable rabbit who is Arthur‘s best friend, went on vacation and took his camcorder along to send ‘postcards‘ back home.

“The whole concept fit into the post 9-11 atmosphere in this country,” he added. “People were looking inward toward families. Americans also felt a need to celebrate diversity and tolerance, and Buster‘s visits to the homes of children from all backgrounds and from all over our continent, including Mexico and Canada, seemed a perfect answer.

“Since the program was first telecast in October,” Aronson added, “Buster has visited children who live as far afield as Texas and California, Florida and Maine, and their families represent just about every kind of family structure. We always choose a boy or girl between 7 to 10 to be our central character, and it‘s my job to write a story that is true to their life, while at the same time celebrating their region, their music and their culture. We‘ve visited families who are Pentecostal, Mormon, Hasidic—you name it. And we‘ve had a great response from critics.”

Last fall, U.S Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings criticized the program for showing a family with two moms. However, Postcards from Buster continues to be funded, in part, by the U. S. Department of Education.

Aronson said his upbringing on the Main Line played no small part in his successful career. He starting acting in plays at Bala Cynwyd Middle School. At Lower Merion High School, from which he graduated in 1975, he was a member of the Lower Merion Players, appearing in An Evening of Tom Stoppard Plays and singing as a cast member in Wildcat.

“I had great teachers at LM,” he recalled. “Paul Mims for creative writing, for example, who had us writing two pages every week. And Joan Cobb for Shakespeare—she was the one who really made me understand Shakespeare‘s plays, because she treated them like drama, with people talking to each other as they would on the street—not as merely spoken poetry.”

The inspiration for Rent began with necessity, he said. “I was living in this cramped, small apartment when I first came to New York,” he recalled. “And my joy was get out of my apartment and walk to nearby Lincoln Center to watch operas from the topmost balconies. I‘ve always loved opera—especially La Boheme. And I got to thinking about how starving artists really live today in New York, and how they deal with the problems around them: AIDS, homelessness, poverty. I thought it would be great to write a version of La Boheme for our times.”

He added that, while the necessity to earn a living has led him to a lot of day jobs as a writer, his real love is playwriting, and he can‘t wait to return to it full time.

“It‘s what I live for,” he said, adding, “I have a head full of ideas I can‘t wait to get down on paper, hopefully next October when this season of Buster comes to an end.”

In the meantime, Aronson has just been appointed head writer for The Wonder Pets, an animated music program for children to be shown on the Nickelodeon cable TV network in 2006.

He also has a busy family life with his two children, Anna, 12, and Jake, 13, and his wife, Lisa Vogel, who works for New York University. They live in Brooklyn, where, Aronson said, “we see every kind of family situation, and people accept each other as people.”

The city no doubt will continue to be an endless source of inspiration as Aronson attempts to create the next great American play.