Baltimore’s Mister Rogers: ‘Danny Joe’s Tree House’ is a nod to retro kids’ shows

Published on: September 30, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: September 30, 2022 9:50 AM EDT

Danny “Danny Joe” LaBrecque and wife, Stefani LaBrecque are the creators of Danny Joe’s Tree House, a local children’s puppet show that takes people back to the basics with feel good lessons and classic puppetry. Danny Joe’s Tree House uses current social issues to help guide children (and adults!) through their emotions and feelings with fun, original characters.

The iconic jingle captivated the shy, home-schooled New Hampshire kid as he sat in pajamas on the living room floor with a bowl of cereal.

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood/ A beautiful day for a neighbor/ Would you be mine?/ Could you be mine?

When he was a kid in the ’80s, Danny “Danny Joe” LaBrecque found comfort watching the children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on his family’s big-box television. He also enjoyed “Captain Kangaroo” and “Reading Rainbow,” but gravitated to Fred Rogers because of his genuine persona and way with words — always able to say exactly what LaBrecque needed to hear.

“He was automatically there for me,” LaBrecque said.

Rogers was a guiding voice when LaBrecque found out his mom, Barbara, had cancer. While his parents juggled chemotherapy and full-time jobs, LaBrecque could tune into Rogers’ programming, a consistently therapeutic outlet when normal routines were disrupted. Rogers would also be there through multiple family moves and when LaBrecque first left home to go to college.

As an adult, Rogers was more than a familiar face who gave great advice through his television show. He left an impression on LaBrecque, now 46, as he journeyed to create his own kids’ show.

Fifteen years ago, LaBrecque started the web series “Danny Joe’s Tree House,” which teaches kids how to handle big thoughts, ideas and feelings. It also gives adults opportunities to relive the simplicities of childhood. LaBrecque pulled inspiration for the series from other television shows and idols, but also his own life experiences and background in early childhood development. LaBrecque believes that play, even in its simplest form, is therapeutic. Play has a big role in the series.

Each episode of “Danny Joe’s Tree House” begins with a jingle that LaBrecque wrote. He uses his ukulele, “Penelope,” as accompaniment.

Can you come out and play?/ Won’t you come out and play?/ It’s a really great day, day, day

Filmed as if the viewer is peering into a treehouse, LaBrecque introduces the playful agenda. Past episodes have covered topics like asking for help, learning from mistakes and acceptance. Like Rogers, he speaks softly and directly to whoever’s on the other side of the screen, leaving pauses for viewers to interact with a question or concept he introduces.

The show is available on Sensical, a streaming service from Common Sense Networks, an for-profit affiliate of Common Sense Media. The service’s target audience is kids 2 to 4 years old, but LaBrecque thinks adults can get something useful out of the series, too.

As a former educator, it was important to LaBrecque to connect with local schools. Betsy Decker, an educational associate with Early Learning Programs’ Birth to Five, said she heard about LaBrecque from an acquaintance who referred to him as “Baltimore’s own Fred Rogers.” Last year, episodes of “Danny Joe’s Tree House” were offered to different Baltimore City Public School pre-K classrooms. The kids, Decker said, loved the show, and there are plans to continue the partnership after winter break.

“He connects with the kids so well. … he gets them thinking really critically,” she said.

On certain weeks, kids in the classroom participate in STEM-based projects assigned from different episodes. During livestreams, LaBrecque showcases their work, which Decker said really resonates with the kids. When he came to visit Lakewood Elementary, you would have thought a celebrity walked into the room, she said. Kids yelled and flocked to LaBrecque, wanting to meet him and take pictures.

But the man behind the charismatic Danny Joe wasn’t always comfortable being center stage.

To build his confidence, LaBrecque’s mother put him in dance classes after seeing how much he enjoyed watching “Singing in the Rain” and other musicals. Through dance, he connected with other kids and emerged from his shell.

He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and performed in several musicals, including “Singing in the Rain.” After a couple of years, exhausted from working and attending school, LaBrecque was ready to transition to something else. He saw in the newspaper that a local preschool was looking for an art teacher. He applied and soon learned kids were naturally drawn to him.

“I fell in love with it. It had all the aspects of everything that I enjoyed: the arts, theater, talking about feelings, and puppetry,” LaBrecque said.

One day, as he chaperoned a classroom, kids threw blocks, cried and ran around when their regular teacher left the room. LaBrecque said he knelt down and talked to them calmly, channeling his inner Mister Rogers and LeVar Burton, known for his “Reading Rainbow” children’s series. It worked, and the director of the school said he should go back to school and pursue early childhood development.

As a teacher, LaBrecque started to survey kids’ television shows. The programs, he thought, were giving kids what they wanted, but not necessarily what they needed.

LaBrecque doesn’t think kids need more shows, but instead should have more educational, social-emotional programming. A visit to the Fred Rogers Institute in Pennsylvania reinforced his view.

LaBrecque’s wife, who he met in Illinois, is his creative partner. Stefani LaBrecque went to Northwestern University and has a background in media, film and online education. She urged her husband to stop waiting for production companies and instead trust his own talent.

Danny “Danny Joe” LaBrecque and wife, Stefani LaBrecque are the creators of Danny Joe’s Tree House, a local children’s show that takes people back to the basics with feel good lessons and classic puppetry. Danny Joe’s Tree House uses current social issues to help guide children (and adults!) through their emotions and feelings with fun, original characters.

“We’re such a creative pair. … We really enjoy working together,” Stefani LaBrecque said.

Some of the main characters of the show are puppets. Kingsley, purple-robed with orange hair, assisted Danny LaBrecque with teaching the concept of “being the boss of you.” Puppet Teddy was Danny LaBrecque’s childhood bear and has a twisted nose from when he teethed on it as a baby.

Several of his original puppets sit on a shelf in his in-house studio, a room lined with dozens of windows where natural light flows in from all directions. Hats from various musicals he performed in hang above the windows.

Danny LaBrecque typically wears a plaid shirt, bowtie and jeans for taping. When parents felt disheveled during the pandemic, he filmed a few episodes unshaven and in pajamas.

Danny LaBrecque’s look, and the name of the show, were inspired by his grandfather, Lawrence, who was a lumberjack and hunter in Maine. His grandfather once took him hunting and they sat in a hideout of sorts in a tall tree to better spot deer. Young Danny LaBrecque told his grandfather he didn’t want to hunt and the older man understood. They called the hideout “Danny Joe’s Tree House,” and today Danny LaBrecque’s forearm is tattooed with a forest and treehouse.

Danny LaBrecque said he spends hours in the studio making props for the show, writing scripts or working on other art projects, like the half-finished portrait of his dog. His children often do their homework on the cream-colored corner couch.

During the taping of a recent episode, Stefani LaBrecque told her husband to stand on his mark — three pieces of blue tape on the floor — as she peered through a Canon camera. She joked that she often has to add ambient sound during editing to silence her husband’s grumbling belly or the snores of Felix the family dog.

Jennifer Cupp, who lives in Colorado, said she and her family have watched every single “Danny Joe’s Tree House” episode and they can’t wait for the upcoming third season. Her 21-year-old daughter, Isabelle, especially enjoys the show. Isabelle has Angelman syndrome, which causes developmental disabilities and nerve-related symptoms. Danny LaBrecque’s positive energy, songs, and puppets connect with her.

“She just loves him so much,” Cupp said. “He puts things in a way she really understands.”

During the pandemic, Cupp said, Isabelle did not like wearing a mask or seeing others in masks. A “Danny Joe’s Tree House” episode taught her that masks keep people safe from germs. In another episode, LaBrecque described a therapist as a “feelings doctor,” a term that Cupp adopted.

The show also includes guest appearances, including David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“In today’s world where everything is virtual and robotic, here’s a real person giving original thoughts and ideas,” Newell said in a testimonial about the show.

The Beatbox Dads musical duo, Max Bent and Jamaal “Root” Collier, have also appeared on the show. The collaborating artists met the LaBrecques when they lived in Hampden.

“He really opens himself up,” Bent said. “That’s why he makes the art that he does.”

Danny LaBrecque and his wife receive quarterly proceeds from views of their videos, but not enough to work on the show together full-time. Stefani LaBrecque works in online education and her husband is a stay-at-home dad. They say the show is not just about making money, but doing what they love.

When asked about the show’s universal message, LaBrecque paused, holding his puppet Teddy. The show was created, he said, to be a space where anyone can be accepted, no matter what.

“I’m here with you in this moment,” he said.

An updated version of this story reflects the name of the show is "Danny Joe's Tree House."

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