E. German TV star still twinkles Up there with Big Bird: The Sandman, an East German puppet who has been telling bedtime stories since 1959, remains one of the few successful survivors of the Communist regime. The children of reunified Germany adore him.

Sun Journal

January 23, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERLIN -- For sure, his pointy little beard looks a bit like Lenin's, and there's no denying that in the old days he once visited Red Square and led a "Pioneer" club parade of Young Communists.

But the little television character known as the Sandman has never been anything but a winsome puppet with an innocent mission: to send German children off to bed with a story and a wave.

For that reason he has prospered after reunification, even as the rest of East German popular culture has dwindled to little more than a rusting fleet of Trabant cars and a few brands of cigarettes and beer.

Sandman's nightly 10-minute story time now beams across all of Germany, while the show of his competitor, the more rugged Sandman West, went out of existence even before the Berlin Wall. Now, in fact, both eastern and western television networks cooperate on producing Sandman episodes.

"It's a real reunification work-together production," says Angelika Paetow, children's television editor for the western German NDR network.

If any further validation was needed of the staying power of Sandman East, it is offered now by a traveling exhibition of old Sandman props and models.

The exhibit, depicting Sandman's history from the first broadcast in 1959, has pulled in more than a million paying visitors since it went on tour in 1992, playing in cities and towns across eastern Germany, as well as making a breakthrough stop in the western German metropolis of Hamburg.

Sandman, or "Our Sandman," as some eastern Germans still call him, has also proved adept in adjusting to a free-market economy. One may purchase a growing variety of Sandman dolls, puppets, books and videos.

On a children's train on the Berlin transit system, his face appears alongside such international giants of children's merchandise marketing as Big Bird, Mickey Mouse, and Bert & Ernie.

But Sandman almost didn't survive.

The 1990 move to merge the two Germanys was so fast and sweeping that Sandman was nearly shoved onto the scrap heap of East Germany's industrial obsolescence and consumer junk. DFF, the East German state television network which produced Sandman, was among the casualties, presumably taking Sandman into oblivion with it.

Then, in the fall of 1990, the call went out across playgrounds and schoolrooms: "Sandman must not die!" Leading the way in an early display of unity were a West Berliner and an East Berlin couple, who helped collect hundreds of thousands of signatures from concerned parents. Children too young to write joined in by sending colorful pleas on poster boards and bedsheets, using their handprints as signatures.

In the East, Sandman had been a hit almost from the beginning, according to his creator, Gerhard Behrendt, now retired and living in Berlin.

"He at once became the children's darling," Mr. Behrendt says proudly. "A nightly ritual developed that no one in the family wanted to miss."

The popularity didn't come without a few unforeseen problems. The original version of Sandman, with heavy eyelashes and a fluffy beard, was if anything a little too effective as a sleep-inducing storyteller. As Mr. Behrendt explains, "His appearance in general had a soporific effect on the young viewers right from the start.

"But not only that, even Sandman rested against a wall at the end of each episode and fell asleep. That was too much. Children were offering Sandman their beds and other places to rest. We had to change his character and his appearance."

The result in 1962 was the redesigned Sandman, a little sharp-eyed fellow with peaked cap, the innocence of a child and yet, by virtue of his tiny beard, "the mark of old-age wisdom," as Mr. Behrendt describes it. And that's the Sandman one still sees today.

Sandman West, meanwhile, was also born in 1962. Clearly an older fellow, with tales that tended to be louder and jazzier, neither he nor his theme song conveyed quite the sweetness achieved by Sandman East, whose music blended a flute solo and a chorus of young children.

In the border areas where either show could be easily received, such as Berlin, some western Germans who grew up watching both now confess to a preference for Sandman East. Easterners, of course, are almost unanimous in this preference, and can sound downright prideful about it.

"I always thought he was the nicer one, the more appropriate one," says Silke Bedrich, 26, who travels with the Sandman exhibit as it moves town to town. "And when adults come into this exhibit they all become very young again."

Despite the occasional inclusion of Communist symbols, such as in the episode featuring the "Pioneers" parade, for the most part Sandman East "was actually independent of ideology," according to Ms. Paetow, the western German TV executive.

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