Made to Bring Joy, a Mural Instead Creates Anger, Pitting Homeless Harlem Kids Against the Cosby Show

updated 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

To an unsuspecting viewer, the backdrop for the opening titles of The Cosby Show—row upon row of primary-colored apartment houses peopled with smiling kids and parents—surely looks like the result of some high-priced animator's dream. But to one contingent of underage fans, Mr. Cosby's neighborhood seemed distinctly familiar. It was, charged Manhattan's Creative Arts Workshop for Homeless Children, a near copy of Dream Street, a 50-by 100-foot mural painted last year in a Harlem neighborhood by 63 homeless kids, ages 11 to 15, as part of a project to brighten the landscape of decrepit city streets.

According to project head Brookie Maxwell, she was first approached in August by Cosby representatives seeking permission to adapt the mural. "We were totally excited, not just for our kids, but for all the kids in East Harlem," she says, "We said, 'Great.' "

When negotiations broke down before final legal clearances could be granted, Cosby decided to design its own mural, which added the antidrug graphic of a hypodermic needle with a slash mark through it. When Maxwell saw the painting on the show, she enlisted a law firm to help fight for compensation. Cosby producers then offered to give the Harlem kids a credit for having inspired the backdrop, but only if they signed away permanent licensing rights. Maxwell refused the offer, requesting instead that Cosby establish academic scholarships for her charges. "Part of what we try to teach our kids is to stand up for their rights in the world," she says. "We had to fight back."

Described by his publicist as "furious," Cosby apparently felt that 63 scholarships were excessive and said in a statement released last week that he had copied the wall art with only the noblest of intentions: "I thought utilizing the mural would give a resounding cheer for the children throughout the community...Instead, there is a woman who is saying, 'We want money for what you've done.' "

With negotiations at an impasse, Cosby producers announced last week that beginning with its Oct. 18 episode, the controversial mural would be removed from the show's opening credits. "It has saddened us," said a spokesman for the producers, "to see something which began as an attempt to create a sense of community pride turned against these children and against us."

Yet no one seemed sadder than the mural's young artists. "The wall was supposed to be our dream of what life should be," says 11-year-old Josie Menzies. Instead, it turned into a hard lesson in reality.

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