'Street' Wise For 27 years, there's been a warm place in the hearts of children and parents for "Seaame Street.' Let's take a sunny day stroll.

November 18, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

NEW YORK -- "Fairy godmother. Oh, fairy godmother," the little, blond-haired Muppet known as Prairie Dawn calls out.

And in bops the Whoopi Goldberg, silver scepter in hand, crown set at a loopy angle on her head, wearing a thrift-shop, blue gown with lots of spangles.

"Oh, fairy godmother, fairy godmother, you're here. You're really, really here."

"Yes, and here would be where again?" this fairy godmother asks.

"Here" is "Sesame Street" -- surely the most beloved, if not the best known, thoroughfare in America. Broadway, Sunset Boulevard, Pennsylvania Avenue -- they don't hold a candle to "Sesame Street," which exists nowhere and almost everywhere (it's seen in 131 countries).

"Sesame Street" runs straight through the shared memory of a full generation of Americans who first watched it in 1969 as little kids and still find themselves smiling and comforted when they happen to channelsurf across Big Bird & Co. or sit down with their own children to watch.

For the current crop of pre-schoolers, it remains an electronic highway to a marvelous cityplace full of fuzzy monsters, music and learning.

The celebrated children's series starts its 28th season today on PBS with a two-part episode featuring Noah Wyle of "ER." With all the talk in recent weeks about the new Russian version of "Sesame Street" revolutionizing childhood there, it seemed like a good time to revisit the original Street and see where it's headed this year.

Sesame Street proper and the place known as "Around the Corner," which was added on the show's 25th anniversary in 1993, are located in a clean, cavernous and extremely well-lighted soundstage at the historic Kaufman Studios in Queens.

The scenes with Goldberg (which were filmed there one day last week and will air on Feb. 6) as well as the segments with Wyle illustrate a "Sesame Street" trademark: using celebrities.

In addition to Wyle and Goldberg, this season's high-profile lineup includes: Melissa Etheridge, Hootie and the Blowfish, Patti La Belle, Jason Alexander, Kathy Bates, Placido Domingo, Alfre Woodard, Shaquille O'Neal, Cal Ripken Jr. and Monica Seles.

All these famous faces get adults to watch, one of the series' most important goals, says executive producer Michael Loman.

"A 3-year-old's probably not going to know who Noah Wyle or Whoopi Goldberg is, but their presence will get adults to watch the show -- and not only parents, but older siblings and day care providers as well. And this is important, because when children watch the show, they ask questions, and adults can answer them," Loman explains.

"All our research shows that the most effective learning takes place when children watch with an adult," says Dr. Jo Holz, vice president of research at Children's Television Workshop, which produces the show.

"Sesame Street" is renowned for its research, which explains why the show is so smart and so trusted by so many parents.

Every year, Children's Television Workshop tests each of 30 to 50 episodes before at least 30 children in day care centers and pre-schools, says Holz.

Children are observed as they watch to see how they react, then interviewed and tested to see what they learned. Parents are then interviewed to get at feelings or reactions the kids may not have been able or willing to articulate to interviewers.

"I know of no other television show -- children's or adult -- that has such an elaborate or deliberate and extensive a program of )) research," says Holz, a former Rutgers University professor and head of research for NBC News.

Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches a course titled "Children and Television" at the University of Maryland, confirms Holz's claim, adding a reminder about the series on divorce that " 'Sesame Street' produced, pre-tested and then decided not to air because it made the children too sad."

66 Emmys

Dealing with things that might make children sad without overwhelming them is another trademark of "Sesame Street" -- the most honored children's television series ever with 66 Emmys, 22 of which are for "Best Preschool Series."

For example, an episode that aired earlier this month featured Baby Bear's first day and night away from his parents, who were going out of town on a business trip. (Baby Bear is the Muppet who puts a "w" where his "r" or "l" should be -- as in one of his favorite expressions, "awww-wwwight" -- and is a little territorial since the trauma of having an intruder sleep in his bed and eat his porridge.) It is a lovely and brilliant little piece that ends with Baby Bear -- after only a few tears and lots of comforting from Gina (Alison Bartlett O'Reilly), who runs the Family Day Care Center -- drifting off to sleep in Gina's bed as a lullaby version of the show's theme plays.

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