Being silly pays off for writer

June 07, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

Susan Flori Amerikaner is doing lunch her way. Munching a bagel in her sister Ilene's Owings Mills home and chatting about her evolution from Montgomery County elementary school teacher to award-winning children's television writer.

"I love the challenge of looking at things in a new way," she says. "In unique ways, in ways that are fun, and are silly -- I'm very good at silly."

Ms. Amerikaner's talents -- silly and otherwise -- shine in "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle," debuting tonight with a "Parents' Sneak Peek" on the Showtime cable network. Ms. Amerikaner wrote the script for "The Not Truthful Cure," the first of 13 episodes based on the classic book series by Betty McDonald. Starring Jean Stapleton in the title role, the series was produced by actress Shelley Duvall, creator of the acclaimed "Faerie Tale Theatre" and "Bedtime Stories."

Though disappointed that children (including her 12-year-old twins) do not read as much as she believes they should, Ms. Amerikaner takes a practical approach to vanishing literacy.

"This is our literature for the children," she says of "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" and similar video adaptations.

Transferring literature to TV is not an inherent demotion of the written word, Ms. Amerikaner says. She regularly rejects job offers involving the "typical Saturday morning thing" in favor of quality projects that offer "heart, charm and fluency."

Even as an eighth grader in a Pimlico junior high school honors program, Ms. Amerikaner aspired to be a writer. She credits English teacher Kay Kershman for encouraging her to discard stilted mimicry of great writers and "speak in my own words." Her former teacher remembers Ms. Amerikaner well as an enthusiastic student who loved words and was "perceptive about people [in a way that was] well beyond her years." When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, "Susan on her own wrote a poem. . . . I thought it was haunting. It was beautiful for someone her age," Mrs. Kershman says.

A Disney dream

Ms. Amerikaner, 44, majored in English at the University of Maryland and received her master's degree in teaching at George Washington University. After teaching kindergarten through sixth grade in the Montgomery County public school system for five years, she returned to Baltimore and wrote copy for the Rosenbush Advertising Company. Two years later, she landed a job designing classroom products at Walt Disney Educational Media Company in Los Angeles.

It was, in Disneyesque parlance, a dream come true.

Ms. Amerikaner remembers strolling on Dopey Drive on the Disney studio lot for the first time and thinking, "I can't believe I'm here."

In 1982, Ms. Amerikaner left Disney to free-lance. She produced books, guides, scripts and games for her former employer and other education firms. She wrote a popular coloring book called "It's OK To Say No to Drugs," and a series of Gifted and Talented workbooks that sold more than 1 million copies in its first year.

At one point, Ms. Amerikaner had a job naming toys. "I couldn't believe someone was paying me to do this," she says. Of her various toy christenings, just one comes quickly to mind: "Heather Hollow," applied to a line of Easter toys.

One of Ms. Amerikaner's earliest television forays earned a Writers Guild of America Award for Outstanding Children's Script in 1993. Penned for the "Adventures in Wonderland" series on the Disney Channel, the script playfully explored the definition of "oxymoron." Writing the script, titled "Pretzelmania," was a tailor-made challenge for the inveterate teacher. "Give me a dull, dry educational objective and [ask] me how we can get kids to want to learn this," Ms. Amerikaner says.

When she read about the proposed Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series in a trade magazine last year, Ms. Amerikaner knew it could be yet another project built to her specifications. "This is me," she thought at the time. "Nobody can do this better."

Ms. Amerikaner got in touch with Ms. Duvall and her co-executive producer, and found an instant rapport with the two women. Hired as the "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" staff writer, Ms. Amerikaner worked in New Zealand for three months with the production crew as they taped the whimsical and witty series.

Her other television work includes "The New Adventures of Madeline" for the Family Channel. Ms. Amerikaner has also been closely involved with "The PuzzleWorks," a new PBS production that she says is the network's most ambitious children's project since "Sesame Street."

Missing snoballs

A bubbly and unassuming woman, Ms. Amerikaner remains in awe of her swift ascent in the maw of Los Angeles. And she keeps her distance, living in idyllic San Luis Obispo, several hours to the north, with husband Erik and sons Jon and Mike.

Ms. Amerikaner misses Baltimore and its culinary delights, namely chocolate snoballs. When she created some for her sons' Little League team recently, they were left untouched.

"They just don't get it in California," she says.

She has plans to push her skills in new realms, including interactive software, film and adult television programming. But Ms. Amerikaner can't really talk about these projects right now. And most important, she says, "I would just like to keep working."

Adults can get a "Parents' Sneak Peek" of two "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" episodes at 9:35 tonight on the Showtime cable network. The series premieres 7:30 p.m. June 14 and will air again at 7:30 a.m. June 16 and 8 a.m. June 19.

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