Do you know the Donut Man?
Kids who grew up in the church during the ’90s had lots of Christian-themed entertainment options. Some preferred Adventures in Odyssey, while others loved McGee and Me. My favourite was the Donut Man. His voice sounds gruffer than I remember hearing it as a child. “Hang on, I’m picking up my lunch — stand by,” Rob Evans, the man behind the persona, says to me on the phone. He’s talking to me on his lunch break. As I wait, nerves build. I never thought I would get the chance to interview my childhood hero. Evans is running a remodeling crew in, “a rather questionable part of town.” I try to hide my shock at the fact that the Donut Man has a regular day job.
My mom bought his cassettes when I was very young and his songs have stuck with me till today. Sometimes I even find myself singing his songs in the shower: “When I take a bath, I think about the Lord and how He washed away my sins . . .” And when I’m walking solo on lonely streets late at night, I’m comforted by singing softly, “Great and mighty is He . . .”
There was something about the Donut Man that I always loved as a child: the trustworthiness of his voice, his sincere interest in instruction, his ability to explain complex concepts to kids without dumbing them down, not to mention all the catchy songs.
I set up the interview with Evans hoping to get to know the man behind the Donut Man. I was curious about his personal story. “I grew up in Philadelphia in a Presbyterian home and my parents divorced when I was six so we stopped going to church and I didn’t come back to church until I was 18. I got into the drugs and rock and roll scene of the ’60s and ’70s,” he tells me. “My mother was coming towards the end of her third marriage and it was a disaster, just a disastrous home life. There was violence and unhappiness and so my mom started to go to church with a friend. She introduced me to the pastor and the pastor introduced me to Christ. That was 1972, when I was 19.”
It was at that church that he met his wife Shelley. Evans married by age 20 and by 28 had five kids.
“I think that the Lord allowed me to suffer as I did as a child to make me permanently sensitive to the feelings of children. So don’t curse the darkness, light a candle. And for me, don’t curse the darkness, write a song.”
Evans had always liked music. He tells me that he was into the Beatles and Cat Stevens, but he didn’t pursue music professionally. Instead, his backgrocund was in general contracting and plumbing. This might partially explain his blue-collar costume choice of overalls and a newsboy cap — although he later tells me that Mr. Green Jeans of Captain Kangaroo inspired his look.
The philosophy of the Donut Man is that, “life without Jesus is like a donut, cause there’s a hole in the middle of your heart.” The Donut Man is on a mission to repair those holes by introducing children to God’s love.
I ask Evans why he decided to get into children’s music in the first place.
“Tucking my kids in with Bible stories, I just grew to love Scripture and story. I started singing songs based on parables,” he tells me.
Many people I talk to haven’t heard of the Donut Man, having grown up with Psalty videos instead. I was never a fan of Psalty, his blue book/man outfit freaked me out, and I’m sure I had nightmares about him as a child. However, the Donut Man, was for me, almost a Christ-like figure. He was humble, compassionate, and wise.
“What’s the most important thing that you can think of when you think of your relationship with God?” Evans asks me rhetorically. “God is close to you, as close to the breath you breathe and the words of your mouth. I tried to take as much Scripture as I could and put it in a first person framework. So that when you were very young, I didn’t exploit but rather I acknowledged your fertile imagination that you so loved to wield.”
Maybe the reason I connected to Evans and his songs was that he made Jesus real to me, describing him in certain songs as a little boy who would fall and scrape his knee and in other songs as a king worthy of praise. As a child this would have been a hard concept to grapple with, but somehow Evans explained it with ease. It seems fitting that the tagline for his albums was, “Songs that teach, songs that praise.”
“That whole storytelling approach is very personal. It could be applied with Scripture and with God. So that was my mindset all along,” he says.
Twenty years later, his music still resonates with me. Although his target audience is kids, he makes sure that his music is also inoffensive to adults.
“How can I possibly do any better than the Bible? I can’t. So I just tried to deliver the goods as best as I understood them to an audience that was six years old and their parents,” says Evans.
“We designed the music to be palatable to the adults.”
Evans had moved to Los Angeles in 1982 to attend Bible school and be near to the man who led him to Christ in 1972. There he and his family began attending Jack Hayford’s church in Van Nuys, California where he says he met some of the best musicians in the world.
“I taught in Sunday school. Children in Sunday school liked my songs and their dads were the best musicians in the world. For example, Abe Laboriel played bass on my album. Abe Jr. mowed my lawn, and he is now the drummer for Paul McCartney.”
Abe Senior’s credentials aren’t bad either. He’s played bass for the likes of Barbara Streisand, Stevie Wonder, and Madonna, among others. The producer for the Donut Man’s records was Mark Gasbarro, who later went on to produce music for the Academy Award winning score to Pixar’s Up and the latest Star Trek feature film. Chester Thompson, the drummer for Phil Collins, also drummed for the Donut Man.
“It was just the way things happened. I didn’t go looking for these things rather one door opened, and then the next door opened.”
I read somewhere that Evans converted to Catholicism. I asked if this changes the way he evangelizes. “I don’t use the word convert, because the word convert is a very broad term which means in some places that I have denied and rejected my Protestantism which is not true,” says Evans. “I am a Christian who does not view baptism symbolically. I do not view communion, that is the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the wine, symbolically.”
Evans says that there are certain things about the Catholic Church that aren’t intrinsically Catholic but rather cultural. For example, he says many Catholics do not read Scripture. “To the degree that the Catholic Church is Christian, yes I’m Catholic. To the degree that the Catholic Church does not read Scripture, and is not focused on worshipping the person of Jesus Christ, that’s not Catholic, that’s not Christian. To the degree that the Catholic Church is idolatrous, it’s not Christian so it’s really not Catholic.”
I tell Evans that he still sounds like an evangelical to me. “I’m an evangelical Catholic,” he retorts. “I love Jesus with all my heart and I love Scripture.”
Evans says that he’s still making music to this day. “I’m constantly giving concerts, I give about 80 to 100 concerts a year,” he says. Not bad for a man nearing 60.
I ask what he thinks about some of the newer children’s Bible programs like Veggie Tales. “I haven’t listened to it. I’m a bit of a prima donna — I just think my music is the best. I listen to the music in my head, I’m always writing new songs and when people ask me what’s my favourite song, I say the one I’m working on right now.”
I might be biased, but I agree. While writing this article, I had the Donut Man’s music blaring in the background and couldn’t help but feeling that it was some of the most honest worship music I’d heard in a while. It’s music that I won’t mind playing for my own children some day. I just hope they don’t mind when I start singing along.