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'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

After pre-testing it, the producers decided not to risk unsettling any kids with separation anxiety by having the program end on the image of Baby Bear away from his parents alone in the dark after Gina says good night. So, just as the theme song is about to end, the music shifts to loud and happy, and Big Bird pops onscreen with tomorrow's "coming attractions," which show the joyous reunion of Baby Bear and his parents at the day care center. That's the image children are left with when the show ends.

"A key concern in our research is that we don't want to leave potentially difficult situations unresolved for the kids," Holz says. "We want to make sure things have a good resolution in each episode.

"Now, it may not always be a happy one, because not everything in life works out happily. But, at least, we want the kids to have a sense of closure, especially if it's something that is potentially sad or scary."

Gender issue

The most valid criticism of "Sesame Street" over the years has been in terms of gender, specifically, the predominance of male vs. female Muppets. Outside of the androgynous Big Bird, the famous ones are still male.

The producers acknowledged a problem when they launched "Around the Corner" and added Muppets like Zoe and characters like Ruthie (Ruth Buzzi), who runs the Finder's

Keepers thrift shop.

But the progress since goes beyond numbers. It can be seen in a segment like one airing this month featuring Prairie Dawn as a reporter for the TV newsmagazine, "Fairy Tales Today." In it, she interviews Rapunzel, the fairy tale character who is standing in tears at an entrance to Central Park with her hair tangled around several trees, a lamppost and street sign.

Rapunzel wants to get her hair cut so she can play with the other kids -- a desire that shocks Prairie.

"But you're Rapunzel, and you have to just sit here and let your hair grow and wait for the prince!" she says. "Don't you understand?"

Meanwhile, every few seconds, a Muppet comes jogging along, trips on the mass of tangled hair in its path and crashes in an angry heap.

On the level of Muppet pratfalls, it is simple slapstick silliness, but on another level, the sketch is doing nothing less than dismantling the tale's sexist message of female passivity.

The same sort of thing appears to be going on in the scene between Prairie and her Whoopi godmother. Prairie has an apple she wants to eat, while godmother wants to turn it into a coach so Prairie can go to the ball and meet a prince.

Fairy tales are one of the key ways a culture passes on its values from one generation to the next. When you start deconstructing them so entertainingly for 11 million little kids, you shouldn't be surprised at catching some flak.

Russian revolution

The great cultural story of "Sesame Street" is how it has revolutionized thinking for a generation of Americans age 32 and younger.

In the words of Anna Guenina, head of research for the Russian "Sesame Street," "Ulitsa Sezam," the primary goal of that show is to "help change Russian children so that they know how to behave as citizens in an open society."

The Russians know it can work because the goal of our "Sesame Street" in 1969 wasn't just to teach children from underprivileged backgrounds to count and say the letters of the alphabet -- a popular misconception. The original grant proposal said it would teach "moral and social development to children," according to "Children & Television: Lessons From Sesame Street," by Jim Lesser, the show's first academic consultant.

In that regard, "Sesame Street" set out to teach America's children to live in the new and more open society envisioned in the civil rights legislation of 1965 and '66. Put another way, it has been teaching multiculturalism for 27 years.

No older, white male in a sweater as the sole authority figure here, as in "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood." "Sesame Street" was offering new roles and possibilities in a country where power would be more shared. In short, it was in the business of changing little hearts and minds.

Teaching ideology

"Sesame Street has been openly teaching ideology to children from the beginning, and they have always been very open about it," Parks says.

Open and rightfully proud.

"Twenty-eight years ago, before 'Sesame Street,' you did not have an integrated show for children," says Loman. "And whether it's integration in terms of race or ethnic background or culture -- I mean, we have a little girl [Tarah Lynne Schaeffer] on the show as a regular now with a disability, she's in a wheelchair -- it's all the same thing.

"The point is to make all different children feel good about themselves and to show every other child that different isn't scary -- that people who look different, who are different, who have different backgrounds, are not frightening.

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