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Saturday, September 14, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lenz Keeps Working His `Magic'

Drum roll, please . . .

"Music Magic" - KING-TV's tuneful tutorial - turns 10 today.

In a year accompanied by funeral dirges for several local programs canceled by KING - "Seattle Today," "Celebrate the Differences," "Graham Kerr" - "Music Magic" plays on, steady as a metronome.

"It's a unique critter," said Cliff Lenz, who has hosted the show from its first episode, trying to do for his subject what Mr. Wizard does for science.

KING-TV's late founder Dorothy Bullitt adored classical music, and suggested that her station produce a weekly music series for young viewers. Lenz, with his experience hosting "Seattle Today" and his background as a musician, must have seemed the logical choice to develop and host the half-hour program.

"I didn't want this to be a conveyor belt of performers," Lenz said. "I thought, let's make this a show that tries to educate as well as entertain."

So far, so good.

In the past decade the show has covered much of the musical alphabet, from aria to zither. Along the way, Lenz has crafted a crude reed instrument out of a plastic drinking straw, given the bagpipes a whirl, and explained the workings of an electric guitar's whammy bar.

Today's season premiere, at 11 a.m., features a local rock band, a violin solo and a tour of a local sound effects studio.

"A lot of so-called educational programs have the right subject matter, but they handle it so badly you might as well be watching a rotten cartoon," said Peggy Charren, whose Action for Children's Television gave "Music Magic" an award in 1987 for its contributions to the medium.

Many similar shows "use tricks to attract the children to the information," Charren said. "The tricks usually overpower the information. That's not true of `Music Magic.' "

A national textbook publisher has incorporated video clips from the show in a music curriculum aimed at fourth- through eighth-graders.

The show has also been honored with five local Emmy awards, and in 1985 was named one of the 10 best educational children's programs by the National Education Association.

"It's very much a prestige item," explained KING-TV program director Craig Smith. "Each time it comes around (for renewal) you go OK, where does this fit into our plan? It seems to live through each planning cycle we go through."

This despite attracting relatively few viewers in a time period dominated by cartoons and sports. It remains to be seen whether KING-TV's new owner, The Providence Journal Co., which takes control later this year, will renew the show for an 11th season.

One key to reaching a target audience of 10- to 15-year-olds, Lenz believes, is his young supporting cast. This year's trio of co-hosts consists of Abraham Wu, a 12-year-old Seattle Youth Symphony cellist, Christy Little of Everett, 14, a violinist in the Seattle Youth Symphony, and Mario Sweet, an 11-year-old vocalist from St. Paul Parochial School in Seattle who has sung jingles in commercials for Wheaties and Pop-Tarts.

Lenz also tries to connect with kids by building bridges between music and everyday experience: How do video games make music? What sort of workout does a tuba player - like an athlete - use to build stamina?.

"Music is so close to me," said Lenz, an accomplished composer who can play seven instruments. "A lot of people would think: The reed of an oboe? It's just bamboo, is that interesting? To me it's fascinating."

Lenz's childhood memories include his mother strumming guitar and singing folk songs around a fire on the California beach, and his first guitar - a plastic, Mickey Mouse Club model.

By the time Lenz entered high school in San Diego he had formed a surf band named the Centaurs.

They recorded a couple of songs that received a smattering of radio airplay, and opened for some of the '60s biggest headliners: Jefferson Airplane, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Doors.

Upon graduating from college, Lenz decided to give his music career a rest. He enrolled at the University of Washington, earned a master's degree in communications, and studied classical organ in his spare time. After a short stint as a radio newscaster, Lenz landed his first job at KING-TV in 1972.

Lenz still practices piano and guitar every day. Sometimes he plugs in his Ibanez electric guitar and matches licks with a record by Van Halen, his favorite rock band.

Guitar god Eddie Van Halen has yet to appear on the show, but in a decade the guest list has grown long and distinguished: composer Phillip Glass, the late Metropolitan Opera baritone John Reardon, Paul Revere of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz.

"These days, so much of the time, we listen to music in a very superficial background way," said Schwarz. "What the show does is to deal with specifics - to make people open their ears to what they're hearing rather than let it just slide by."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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