Even Mister Rogers Had a Past

In the summer of 2000, Melanie Martinez—who was fired a few weeks ago as the host of the PBS kids program The Good Night Show—responded to an ad in Backstage. Someone was seeking a “young-looking” actress who could play a short role in a public-service announcement.

“No nudity,” the ad promised.

Fifty women auditioned for the part. The director was David Mack, a onetime aspiring filmmaker who has since gone on to a lucrative career authoring Star Trek novels.

Mr. Mack and his partner picked the obvious candidate. She declined. He and his partner offered the part to their second choice. She also said no. Thus the role fell to Ms. Martinez.

Filming occurred on a tumultuous July day in Weehawken, N.J., on the steps of an elementary school across from Mr. Mack’s best friend’s house.

Dressed as a goal-oriented Catholic schoolgirl, Ms. Martinez delivered such memorable lines as: “One thing I’m not planning on is getting pregnant. That’s why I choose anal sex. I mean, sure it hurts a little, and I wind up walking funny for a day or two. But I think my future’s worth it.”

Locusts, an idling school bus and chatty workmen wrecked the audio. “But Melanie was very consistent, very sincere in her delivery, and she didn’t try to camp it up and oversell the humor,” Mr. Mack said. The short was called I Have a Future, and Ms. Martinez was paid the going Screen Actors Guild rate of $500 for her work.

They shot a second short, called Boys Can Wait, in February 2001. In it, an actress playing Ms. Martinez’s mother gives her a purple dildo. She was paid an additional $500.

“I did them as an actor, and, you know, I thought they were really funny,” Ms. Martinez said. “It was on a really timely issue that was part of the current social climate, if you will, and I thought they were funny, and I did them because they were funny, and I knew that I could add my humor to it, and I did them.”

Three years later, Ms. Martinez decided that boys couldn’t wait any longer, and she and her husband had a baby. She had met her husband in the mid-90’s, just after her grunge-era graduation from Tisch at N.Y.U., when his underground New York rock band Gorgon was hitting it big enough to sign with a German record label. He was the lead singer, and “it was love.” Their honeymoon was a concert tour through Germany.

“I don’t recommend that to any girl,” she said. “We had to take a couple other honeymoons after that to make up for it.” With a new baby, her husband left Gorgon to work behind the scenes on commercials and short films, and they were settling into a happy Lower East Side domesticity. Ms. Martinez decided to stay at home, forfeiting all but the occasional theater roles. Then she heard about the Good Night Show auditions.

Produced out of Philadelphia, the program was to be the keystone of a new PBS channel on digital cable called Kids Sprout. It would be her own show, airing for three hours every evening, showcasing her talents as a singer, actress and soporific storyteller. “The audition was a lot of fun because, um, I really wanted it,” she said. “This was something that I really wanted, and I knew that if I got it, my son would have a lot of fun.”

After three auditions, she got the part and excelled at it. “It was my own show,” she said, “for a new network, and it was silly songs and silly dances and the scripts were ditzy and sweet, and there was nothing jaded about it at all.”

For Ms. Martinez, this was the role of a lifetime. There is something squeaky-clean about her, befitting the Texas-born and Virginia-raised daughter of a Department of Defense worker and a stay-at-home mom. The young Ms. Martinez had claimed a place on both the prom and homecoming committees of her local high school, where she was also a class officer.

She filmed two seasons and received positive marks from even the most enthusiastic “family television” watchdog groups. One such, called Common Sense, gave The Good Night Show four out of five stars and praised its host for “promoting sharing and other good behavior.”

Ms. Martinez said she neither hid nor disclosed the existence of the faux-P.S.A.’s when she auditioned for The Good Night Show in 2005. Mr. Mack, who still exchanges Christmas cards with his former starlet, removed the spots from his Web site, technicalvirgin.com, in 2004.

Still, the P.S.A.’s found their way—as all things will, eventually—back onto the Internet, on YouTube and other sites. It was then that Ms. Martinez voluntarily told her bosses about the existence of the P.S.A.’s. She was fired six days later.

“PBS Kids Sprout”—an 11-month-old digital network that reaches 20 million homes—“has determined that the dialogue in this video is inappropriate for her role as a preschool program host and may undermine her character’s credibility with our audience,” was the official comment from network president Sandy Wax.

On the afternoon of Aug. 7, 18 days after she was fired, Ms. Martinez took a short and cheerful stroll through Tompkins Square Park.

Along the way, she discussed the television makeup she no longer has to wear—“It’s the one nice thing about all of this”—and her love of the Lower East Side “because it’s filled with eccentrics,” one of whom, anal-sex P.S.A.’s or no, Ms. Martinez is not. Wearing a black cotton camisole, jeans and a light dusting of face powder, she declined to speak ill of her former employer.

She said hello to a few junkies and pointed out the playground where she takes her 3-year-old son. She then went home to “wash my face” and maybe change a cardigan or two.

In the annals of creepy kiddy-show hosts, from the boozy clowns to the convicted felons, Ms. Martinez ranks somewhere alongside Mister Rogers. Her television persona, “Melanie Martinez,” was gentle and upbeat, a kind of Ritalined Shari Lewis, given to singing silly songs to her audience of “sproutlets” and cuddling up in a giant chair with one or another of her anthropomorphized friends. The real-life Melanie Martinez is simply a petite 34-year-old actress whose many interests include singing silly songs, volunteering at the local Girls Club and leading her friend’s daughter’s Brownie troop.

“They did what they did” is Ms. Martinez’s non-defamatory take, no doubt mandated by the severance agreement it took her agent a week to negotiate. “I really—I loved my job. It was a dream job for me. It was a really, really, really special time, and the role was, you know, a joy to perform. Um. But it was out of my hands. I don’t make the decisions, and, you know, they did what they did.”

But dozens, hundreds or thousands of parents, known as “Big Sprouts,” used The Good Night Show to lull their toddlers to sleep every night, and they have not been so accepting. They have called and e-mailed the network, accusing PBS of hypocrisy and—worse!—of once again kowtowing to the conservatives who are perpetually threatening to cut off their funding.

The standoff recalls one of a year ago, when PBS pulled an episode of the children’s show Postcards from Buster in which the program’s star, a bunny, visited the child of a lesbian couple in Vermont. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wrote a sternly worded letter objecting to the topic. Public-television supporters and free-speech advocates erupted with outrage.

The response to Ms. Martinez’s firing has mixed this outrage with a strong hint of bafflement. Blogs have been launched, earnestly listing all the celebrity visitors to Sesame Street (George Carlin, Jason Alexander and so on) who have played unsavory roles or uttered explicit lines of dialogue in their careers.

Really, who can rationalize this decision? LeVar Burton, host of Reading Rainbow and a male-infertility awareness advocate, has spent far more time talking publicly about sex, his own abortive attempts included, than Ms. Martinez.

By further comparison, there is Pee-wee Herman creator Paul Reubens, who was arrested twice—first in 1991 for masturbating during a public screening of the adult film Nurse Nancy and again in 2002 in connection with a child-pornography investigation—and who made his triumphant return to the airwaves this summer. The Cartoon Network now shows Pee-wee’s Playhouse Monday through Thursday nights, and Mr. Reubens did Letterman in July.

Ms. Martinez’s only television interview was on CNBC—with Donny Deutsch.

“I just feel really badly for Melanie, that something so trivial as this could have cost her a job that I know she really loved,” said Mr. Mack.

Now that she’s out of it, Ms. Martinez has found temporary work and is spending the summer with her son, listening to the Ramones and preparing him for his first year in school. She “takes meetings” and does volunteer work with local girls’ groups. And in a struggle befitting any good former children’s show host, she seems to be searching for a moral to the story.

“I think it’s very important for girls to know that they can do anything and to stand up for what they believe in and to express themselves” is one. “I think it’s really important for them that they have a place to go to and know their place in the world.”

And another: “I think, now more than ever, I’m a role model to my son because I’m honest and truthful and, you know, am a loving individual to him. And, um. I just try to be the best parent I can be.”