Steve Harper and Kenny Curtis, the new co-hosts of the WBFF-TV (Channel 45) Clubhouse program for kids, bring some heavyweight credentials to the job of improvising 60-second spots between Dennis the Menace and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Mr. Harper, 25, is a Yale graduate with a degree in English and theater. Mr. Curtis, 21, is a veteran of the highly regarded theater program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.
But for the past six months now, Steve and Kenny -- as they're known to just about everyone -- have been putting their skills to less lofty uses: hosting goofy activities (like the recent Taking-On-Taking-Off-Clothes race), celebrating birthdays and reading letters from Clubhouse members.
Their aim, says Mr. Harper, is to be interesting enough that kids don't "turn us off and say, 'I'd rather be watching Tom & Jerry cartoons.' "
Nonetheless, "I'm very happy to be a working actor," says Mr. Curtis, atall, blond and bespectacled man, who appeared in John Waters' "Cry-Baby." "To have a five-day-a-week job is an achievement for an actor."
Mr. Harper, in his friendly Mr. Rogers-style magenta sweater, agrees. Sure, he's worked with the Negro Ensemble Company in New York and played opposite Tempestt Bledsoe of "The Cosby Show."
But, he says, "What we're doing here is one of the purest forms of acting. . . . I get to use a lot of my talents and skills working here. It's a constant challenge, and I hope we can reinvent ourselves every day."
The two -- who were selected from among 80 applicants to fill the slot created by the retirement of Captain Chesapeake (aka George Lewis) -- did not know each other before they were teamed up. They call themselves a kind of "Odd Couple."
"We're like one of those cop [duos] teamed up on those TV shows in the '70s," jokes Mr. Curtis, a Baltimore native who attended Boy's Latin and is now married and the father of a new-born. Mr. Harper, the son of two public-school professionals, grew up on Long Island.
Since their debut in March, the duo have been fairly popular, if you go by the numbers. The Clubhouse program, begun several years ago with Captain Chesapeake, has doubled its membership in the past six months, and now boasts 70,000 members.
"Originally, we were looking for a man and a woman team, but these two really worked well together," says Philip Guthrie, Clubhouse's executive producer. "A lot of kids felt Captain Chesapeake was more of a grandfather figure. But I feel that these guys are more understanding of what kids are into. They really understand how kids think."
They show this insight in 30- , 60- and 90-second bits -- mornings and afternoons, five days a week -- on recycling, imagination, dairy farms. And, of course, they mention birthdays and read letters over the air.
They say they hope to find the balance between being informational and entertainment-oriented. "We have to continually walk the line between both. Combining them is a little like juggling, but it can be done," Mr. Curtis says.
Mr. Harper has another goal as well -- to help raise self-esteem among black viewers. "A lot of what I want to say and what we do say is about diversity. We live in a time in which more young black men are in prisons than in higher education. I want to address to children that we all can make a difference and that each person has a lot to offer and shouldn't feel limited in any way in what they think is possible in the future."
Both of them say they try to address kids on a fairly sophisticated level. "There's a stigma in doing a kid's show," says Mr. Curtis. "People tend to underestimate the intelligence of the viewer."
His technique for avoiding this? "I tend to think about what I was like at 10."
Mr. Harper adds, "Kids today are more jaded or more intelligent, depending which way you look at it. You can't talk down to kids."
The program includes lots of viewer participation. There are guest hosts -- a boy and girl selected each week at random from the members -- as well as students appearing for special events, such as the group from Dundalk Elementary who were recently featured describing hardships in Colonial times.
Steve and Kenny can be unpredictable, doing rap one minutand a satire of TV soap operas -- "As the Clubhouse Turns" -- the next.
"We're still experimenting," says Mr. Curtis. "It's just like being back at the theater program. One of the things that was stressed at UMBC was the theater of change. 'Take a risk. Don't be predictable.' And I think we take that risk."