Barney the Dinosaur gets 1,500 fan letters a week, and he hasn't even been on TV. Until now.
The singing purple dinosaur, star of eight "Barney & the Backyard Gang" videotapes since 1988, came to PBS last week with 30 half-hour programs called "Barney & Friends." (The show airs Monday through Friday at 7:30 a.m. on Maryland Public Television stations.)
Barney, a costumed character with a person inside, like Big Bird, is the brainchild of Michigan native Kathy O'Rourke Parker and her partner, Sheryl Leach, both 38. They live in the Dallas area, where Barney was born.
"We jokingly, smilingly say there was this big thunderbolt on the Central Expressway," Ms. Parker said during a recent interview.
The truth is a little more mundane. A few years ago Ms. Leach, searching for programming that would hold her 2 1/2 -year-old son's attention for 15 minutes, came upon one of the videos in the "Wee Sing" series and he sat through it.
Neither Ms. Leach nor Ms. Parker could find many other videos that could keep preschoolers entertained without making them dumber. This gave them an idea. "We both had marketing experience and education experience and we're both moms," Ms. Parker said. Ms. Leach was a software manager and Ms. Parker an early childhood product manager for an Allen, Texas, firm called DLM, which, coincidentally, had just built video production facilities.
"We sat with our children," said Ms. Parker, "and took notes. . . . We went to our preschool and asked, 'What are your children's favorite songs?' "
What sort of character should the video be built around? "Initially, it was going to be a teddy bear," Ms. Parker said, until Ms. Leach pointed out her son was crazy about dinosaurs. A dinosaur is fine, Ms. Parker said, but "it must be purple with green spots."
Purple with green spots it was, and a star was born. Emphasizing songs and activities, "Barney and the Backyard Gang" home videos sold more than 500,000 units. The TV series is an outgrowth.
"I still want to look over my shoulder and say, 'Who really is doing this?' " said Ms. Parker, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in education from Eastern Michigan University and was a special education teacher before moving to Texas.
She and her husband, Phil, a former math teacher who writes songs for "Barney," have a daughter, Kaitlin, 6, and a son, Ryan, 15 months.
And a 4-year-old purple dinosaur who seems to keep growing and growing.