Sunday, June 7, 2009 | He had a sweater and a dream.
A San Diego teenager named Michael Kinsell planned to become a children’s TV superstar, the next Mr. Rogers. On the road to fame — PBS was already on board, after all — he’d hold a celebrity extravaganza in Escondido to raise money for charity.
Prince would be there. Bette Midler too. And more: Maria Shriver, Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker and Sally Field.
A newspaper and a TV station believed part, or all, of his story. So did a couple of morning radio hosts and a respected performing-arts center. Even the daughter of a famous puppeteer got roped in.
Then it all fell apart at the last minute. Besieged by reporters who caught on to his serial exaggerations, Kinsell suffered the ultimate indignity: his benefit was cancelled and the world learned he was not the successor to the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” after all.
At the moment, a week after his event was scheduled to take place, Kinsell is lawyered up and his true motives remain unknown. Did he believe the stories he told? Did he just want to be the next Mr. Rogers? Or is he a would-be swindler? It’s not clear.
One thing is certain: Armed with charm, ambition and moxie, this young man’s imagination had no bounds. And neither did the credulity of those he dealt with.
“His plan was evidently to name-drop his way to success,” said Alex Boese, a La Mesa author and hoax specialist.
That part of Kinsell’s strategy worked on Mallory Lewis, the daughter of the late puppeteer Shari Lewis.
Kinsell called her in May with an invitation to appear at a May 31 benefit honoring children’s television icon Fred Rogers, who died in 2003. Bette Midler would be there, she recalled him saying, along with California first lady Maria Shriver and the ticklish puppet known as Elmo.
“He sounded very efficient, he sounded very excited, and he was very flattering,” Lewis said. “Celebrities are subjects of flattery. That’s what we eat for breakfast. Some people put Sweet’N Low in their coffee; we put flattery in.”
Lewis, who performs with her mother’s creation, Lamb Chop, agreed to come. While not as well-known as she used to be, the not-so-sheepish sock puppet was a major star of children’s programming for decades.
Lewis made plans for a new outfit and started primping — hair, makeup, nails, the works. She even found a tuxedo for her 10-year-old son to wear.
But it didn’t take long for her to realize something was fishy.
Midler, whom she was hoping to meet, was performing in Las Vegas at the exact time of the event. And a bit of research revealed that neither Shriver nor the man behind (well, under) Elmo were attending either.
In fact, NBC 7/39 tracked down representatives of six celebrities touted to appear at the event — including the governor of California — and found they not only weren’t attending but hadn’t heard of Kinsell’s foundation.
Kinsell said they were supporters, however, “so we can just expect them to be there.”
The media didn’t need flattery. It just needed a press release and an email or two to tell Kinsell’s story and promote his event.
The North County Times published a brief story on May 13 announcing that the benefit event would “include a 90-minute awards ceremony, a televised concert with a live symphony, celebrity guests and a post-concert reception.”
Tickets would cost as much as $300.
In addition, it said Rogers’ family would be in attendance and “PBS will air a follow-up program called ‘Michael’s Enchanted Neighborhood,’ hosted by Michael Kinsell, who will be introduced to the audience that evening.”
A story about Kinsell published in Point Loma Nazarene University’s student newspaper in 2008 suggested the show would be nearly identical to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” even featuring the host donning a sweater and sneakers.
The article also said 80 PBS stations had committed to air the show. The Internet Movie Database, meanwhile, says Kinsell — “an educator, writer, song writer, puppeteer” — hosts his show on PBS.
But late last month, PBS and representatives of Rogers’ family denied any connection to Kinsell when a reporter for a public-broadcasting trade journal contacted them. (Her story appeared May 26.)
Meanwhile, back in San Diego, KUSI aired a news story about the upcoming event. And Kinsell arranged for a special benefit guest to speak by phone to “Jeff & Jer,” the morning hosts on radio station Star 94.1.
The reclusive rock star Prince talked to the hosts for about 12 minutes on May 29, discussing topics from religion to acting.
Immediately after the interview, fans of Prince began a heated online debate about who that guy really was.
Definitely not Prince, some said. He’d never talk to some measly radio station in San Diego. Come on.
“Listen to the long vowels and the way the ‘n’ sounds hang. Not him,” declared one online denizen.
It was too him, others said. “That’s his natural speaking voice. It’s quite easy 2 tell,” one insisted.
At the time of the interview and for days afterward, show producer “Little Tommy” Sablan believed Kinsell had used connections to hook him up with the real Prince.
But a publicist representing Prince told NBC 7/39 last week that the man on the air was an imposter.
“I honestly don’t think I would have gotten burned,” Sablan said in an interview, adding later by e-mail that “honestly, one week later, I’m not sure what to believe.”
As for Kinsell, he said in a recent interview that he has retained an attorney and wouldn’t comment until he was sent a list of questions. As of Sunday afternoon, he did not respond to a follow-up e-mail message.
The California Center for the Arts, Escondido, ultimately decided to disbelieve Kinsell’s story, although only at the last minute. It cancelled the May 31 benefit event just a couple days ahead of time because Kinsell’s company couldn’t confirm that the scheduled performers would appear.
It’s not clear how officials checked out Kinsell’s background beforehand.
“The criteria used to research renters varies depending on the nature of the show,” said arts center spokeswoman Leah Masterson by e-mail. “How the center goes about that research specifically is private information we do not disclose out of respect for our clients.”
Not everyone bought in to Kinsell’s vision. William Cosell, a Massachusetts musical director and TV producer with 30 years of experience, said he knew right away that something wasn’t quite right when Kinsell called seeking his assistance.
“He didn’t fool me,” Cosell said. A written proposal from Kinsell, pitching a Mr. Rogers tribute in December 2008, “seemed so unprofessional and strange,” Cosell said.
“The first clue was the scale of ambition and the suggested approval by a long list of huge names,” he said. “To find all these people, even if they’re willing to do it, to be available on such-and-such a day in San Diego is never going to happen.”
In his proposal, an official with Michael’s Enchanted Enterprise, Inc., promised that Tom Hanks, Yo-Yo Ma and Barbra Streisand, among others, had confirmed.
Why didn’t others think Kinsell was, as Cosell put it, a “rank amateur?”
“People were very receptive to him largely on the strength of Mr. Rogers’ good name,” speculated Boese, the hoax specialist, via e-mail. “Mr. Rogers is a symbol of decency and honesty, so when he presented people with that name, their first impulse was to assume that he must share those traits.”
Indeed, TV producer Cosell said, Mr. Rogers is “vanilla ice cream and milk” to many people.
There may have been another factor at play, said Mitchell Zuckoff, a Boston University journalism professor and author of a book about the infamous con man who gave his name to the pyramid scam know as a “Ponzi scheme.”
“From my experience and research, people tend to not doubt other people,” he said. “It’s incredible. We know there are liars out there.”
Disclosure: Randy Dotinga, a San Diego-based freelance writer, contributes to the North County Times, which is mentioned in this article. Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.