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Children's Entertainers : Teaching Valuable Lessons By Song

October 24, 1986|LYNNE HEFFLEY

You've seen them: Children's entertainers dressed up in funny costumes, singing funny songs. Nice folks, but would they be performing for children if they could get a real job?

Peter Alsop and Dan Crow are two artists who consider entertaining for children a vocation. They bring to the field--by very different routes--a love of music, a commitment to making a difference in a complex world and a belief that humor is one of life's most valuable learning tools.

Touring separately throughout the nation, performing at schools, theaters, clubs, community centers, churches and temples, Alsop and Crow will both take part in the second annual Theatre Arts Festival for Youth at the Peter Strauss Ranch in Agoura on Sunday.

"You figure you get a pink bunny suit and you're a kids' performer," Alsop, a tall, soft-spoken 39-year-old man with gentle dark eyes, said at his rustic Topanga Canyon office. "Our culture places an inherent value on things. Children, who are considered non-economically viable beings, are discounted."

A father, lecturer, feminist, singer and songwriter with a Ph.D. in educational psychology, Alsop spends much of his time between concerts lecturing to human service professionals in the United States and Canada. He uses humor to address such issues as death, child abuse, sexism and parenting.

"A highlight of my career was playing at a Criminal Justice Conference in Houston for FBI and CIA agents, Houston policemen and Texas Rangers," he said. "I had 600 of them singing 'It's Only a Wee-Wee, So What's the Big Deal' (a children's non-sexist song) at the top of their lungs. Because everyone was a kid, if I can get adults (as well as children) in touch with those feelings, they can relax, have a good time and be more open to new ideas."

Alsop is a long way from his comfortable, conservative Connecticut roots. The one-time military academy student was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War who ended up teaching the developmentally disabled in the South Bronx.

In 1973 he became director of Maine's Harbor Schools Residential Treatment Center for emotionally disturbed adolescents.

"It dawned on me that so many of the scars we carry came from injuries we sustained as children, and wouldn't it be great to have kids grow up with some tools to cope with things that happened, so they wouldn't be so injured?"

Alsop's "Wha'd'ya Wanna Do" album was named Best Children's Album of 1984 by the National Assn. of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers.

Some hospitals use a "breathing" song from that album for children needing bone-marrow treatments.

Singer and songwriter Crow is a speech therapist, reading specialist, teacher and producer with a master's degree in communication.

Husky, bearded and bearlike, Crow, 40, has a ready laugh and enormous vitality. In a recent Burbank interview, sandwiched between a production meeting and a Dodger game, he said his silly, often hilarious, material has a serious purpose as well: to supply children with the tools of communication.

"I consider myself (primarily) a teacher. Peter does an excellent job dealing with necessary issues. While he's doing that, I'm giving children exposure to the importance of becoming communicating human beings."

Like Alsop, Crow, who taught elementary school on a Montana Indian reservation and was a speech therapist for 10 schools in the Virginia Appalachians, developed his material in response to the need he saw around him.

Working with phonics, vocabulary development, auditory stimulation, reading and writing skills, he tours public schools, has several records and cassettes out, is a songwriter for the Disney Channel's "Welcome to Pooh Corner" and "Dumbo's Circus" and has written a multi-award-winning film-strip series for Walt Disney Educational Media Co.

"There are a lot of negative influences out there," Crow said, his big smile in abeyance. "If we can communicate on an interpersonal level, then we can communicate on an intergovernmental level--and we can start to get some sense here, some sanity back."

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