Chasing dreams and other wild things

June 01, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

IN THEIR TV show for children that will begin airing nationwide Monday, globetrotting brothers Martin and Chris Kratt run with cheetahs, dive with sharks and stalk Tazmanian devils.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing they've been chasing the past several years is a dream.

Launched with help from Maryland Public Television, their series, ''Kratts' Creatures,'' aims to teach pre-teens about animals.

The Kratt brothers' own story about how they pursued this show to reality, however, may be just as instructive for their audience's older siblings, in high school or college, who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

Martin, now 30, left college with a degree in zoology. Becoming a veterinarian or doing research were options, but not passions. Perhaps six months in Central America living off bananas would help him figure it out, he thought.

His brother Chris, three years younger and earning a degree in biology, decided to join him. They had heard of the Arribada, the annual beaching of thousands of sea turtles in Costa Rica. They went to see it, shot some film and considered making a show about it for kids -- a hankering of Martin's back to when ''Mr. McFeeley'' visited the family's harmonica factory years earlier for a segment for ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.''

They took their footage to schools near their home in New Jersey, got feedback, traveled and filmed more, tried to woo producers and heard a lot of doors slam.

They eventually heard of an executive then with Maryland Public Television, Leo Eaton, with a reputed appetite for unusual concepts. They brought him theirs. After winning a top award at a Wyoming film festival in 1993, the Kratts and Mr. Eaton met with Alice Cahn, the new head of children's programming at PBS, hoping for some seed money.

They walked away with the farm. PBS requested a year's worth of shows, put up $1.7 million and helped tap $7 million more from Paragon Entertainment Corp., which also works with famed puppeteer Shari Lewis.

Africa to Assateague

Having spent the past two years filming from Africa to Assateague, the Kratts are on the cusp of fame and, maybe, fortune.

Admittedly, it's all but impossible for adults to predict what kids will like: Anyone who says he would have gladly invested his life savings years ago to invest in a show about a dandyish, purple dinosaur or about a group of ''power rangers,'' is a good liar. Whether kids will find the herky-jerky, hip-hop editing of Kratts' Creatures riveting or distracting is any grown-up's guess. But if you see these fellows emblazoned all over lunch boxes and T-shirts next year, you'll know they hit it big.

They've already met one requisite for success -- being in the right place at the right time. Children's TV is a hot button in Washington now. Their offering was unique. And the money was there because Paragon was flush with cash after a stock offering.

New in her role at PBS, Ms. Cahn was also in search of new products. What attracted her most to the Kratts, however, is something one might not expect to hear from a TV mogul: Theirs is the kind of program, she says, that motivates kids to turn the set off and go do something fun.

Indeed, for youth, that is the most compelling message underlying ''Kratts' Creatures'' -- Do what you love, think big, chase a dream. It's a path being chosen by many creative 20-somethings who are avoiding the corporate behemoths that left many of their parents high and dry. Their generation's ''X'' may come to stand for experiment.

Linda Kratt says her husband used to press their sons about settling down and getting ''real jobs.'' ''Funny,'' she says, ''I haven't heard that in a while.''

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/01/96

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