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Saturday, November 23, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Sesame Street' Still A Pillar Of Education

Baltimore Sun

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

And in bops 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 channel-surf 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 place full of fuzzy monsters, music and learning.

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, N.Y. The scenes with Goldberg (which were filmed there one day last week and will air on Feb. 6) illustrate a "Sesame Street" trademark: using celebrities.

In addition to Goldberg, this season's high-profile lineup includes: Noah Wyle, 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 Jo Holz, vice president of research at Children's Television Workshop, which produces the show - the most honored children's TV series ever with 66 Emmys, 22 of which are for "Best Preschool Series."

"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, Holz says.

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.

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 such as Ruthie (Ruth Buzzi), who runs the Finder's Keepers thrift shop.

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 "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.

"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.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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