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FTT Alumnus to Launch Kids Web Series After Winning Mister Rogers Award

Author: Aaron Smith

eugene_staples_300 Eugene Staples, now performing as “Genie Deez.”

Eugene Staples has a vision.

Entertainment can be more than a distraction—it can be an inspiration. It can teach kids how to be better people. It can make the world a better place.

That sense of responsibility—the desire to make things that make an impact—was sparked at Notre Dame, he said.

“People who work in entertainment carry a great responsibility. It’s my personal philosophy that media should serve the community,” the 2012 alumnus said. “It’s a collaborative experience, so it takes a team effort to carry out, but in doing so, we should also keep the larger community in mind.”

The Television Academy Foundation sees potential in that vision. The charitable arm of the organization that runs the Emmy Awards presented Staples with a Mister Rogers Memorial Scholarship at the College Television Awards in Los Angeles this spring. The annual honor is given to encourage students to pursue careers in children’s media and build on the values and principles espoused by the late television personality Fred Rogers.

Now pursuing a master of fine arts degree at the University of Southern California, Staples performs under the stage name “Genie Deez” and will co-produce and star in an educational Web series for kids called “Hangin’ with Genie” with creative partner and friend Paisley Smith.

The project will feature magic, music videos, and field trips, and a related curriculum is in development. Inspired by the seminal Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that debuted in the 1960s and ran until 2001, Staples hopes his show can build a similar bond with a new generation on a new platform.

“There is a magical quality and dynamic between a viewer and a host,” he said. “So many shows molded me during my formative years. Maybe one day, others will feel nostalgic when they think about the programs I created.”

Finding His Passion

Staples grew up watching his dad produce content and host programs on local TV stations and a Christian broadcasting network. Staples made a few short films in middle school and had leading roles in high school plays, but the South Bend native wasn’t considering entertainment as a career when he arrived at Notre Dame with plans to be an engineer.

On his first day in a mathematics class, the professor began an extensive lecture on derivatives, and Staples began mapping “the quickest exit route.”

He majored in marketing with a concentration in film, television, and theatre—a combination that foretold his future pursuits.

“Ultimately, that was one of my best decisions, because I was studying advertising, consumer behavior, film, and digital media during the digital boom and rebirth,” Staples said. “We were fortunate to be at a prestigious institution studying under the best professors at a time when media and Internet literally transformed the way we consume content and receive information.”

His experiences in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre helped him develop skills and make connections that fueled his desire to pursue his entertainment ambitions.

His first course, Intro to Film and Television Production, was with associate professional specialist Ted Mandell, one his favorite teachers at Notre Dame. Later, he participated in The Career Center’s annual Career Trek to Los Angeles, in which students meet Notre Dame alumni working in the film and television industry.

“That sealed my fate,” he said. “It was the confirmation I needed to head toward Hollywoodland and pursue these crazy dreams of mine. That trip truly had a lasting impact on me.”

Experiences with the Department of Music proved formative, as well, and are among his most treasured memories. He directed the Voices of Faith Gospel Choir, was a member of the Notre Dame Drumline, and volunteered with BandLink, a university outreach program offering music and band instruction to local schools with limited resources.

Those and other experiences cultivated that strong sense of responsibility and leadership that he believes comes with creating art.

“We should share our gifts and passions with others, and at Notre Dame I was able to do so, all the while honing my public speaking and teaching abilities,” he said.

Honing His Craft

Eugene Staples with collaborator Paisley Smith Staples, with friend and collaborator Paisley Smith.

Given that his decision to pursue children’s entertainment was a relatively “recent and retrospective realization,” Staples hit the ground running. After producing a thesis documentary during his second year of graduate school at USC, Staples and Smith came up with the idea for “Hangin’ with Genie.”

“We were contemplating the next move, brainstorming, and she said to me, ‘You would be an awesome kids show host.’ I had grown up in the church playing all the instruments and working with choirs. I also loved magic and traveled with a vaudeville group for a while, performing at festivals and fairs,” he said. “So it made sense to combine all those talents and passions into a kids show.”

Staples’ creative inspiration comes from a wide variety of sources. His youngest brothers, ages 7 and 10, influence his show’s music, comedy, and themes.

He is also driven by the approach and ability of his favorite TV show host, Conan O’Brien. He was especially moved by O’Brien’s farewell speech as host of The Tonight Show, when he encouraged young people not to be cynical and to remember that “if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

That earnestness rang true with Staples—but O’Brien’s comedic abilities have provided just as much motivation.

“It takes a connection to make someone laugh. It takes a shared human experience and endearing quality to make another person smile,” Staples said. “And laughter is so often what’s missing in the world. There’s a passage in Proverbs that says ‘a cheerful heart is good medicine.’ That’s what inspires me—the laughter of others.”

Staples’ vision has lots of style. But it also has plenty of substance.

“What type of world can we actualize if we all work really hard and are kind? Can we mitigate cynicism? How can we demonstrate love to our neighbor?” he said. “Those are questions I ask myself when producing content.”