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TELEVISION : Primal Secrets From the World of 'Dinosaurs' : Disney reveals both the wizardry and the wizards behind the prehistoric stars of a prime-time sitcom

November 17, 1991|DANIEL CERONE | Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer. and

Mack Wilson stood on the fringe of a dark, cool sound stage and stared intently at the monitor before him, waiting for the director's cue. Wilson slipped his right hand into a mechanical glove, hard-wired to a master-control computer. His left hand gripped a joy stick that would drive Nintendo junkies giddy--a swiveling wrist mechanism, separate push-buttons for each finger and an independent joy stick for the thumb.

Twenty-five feet away on a dense jungle set spilling over with fog and prehistoric flora, Bill Barretta also waited for the director's cue. Barretta, in constant contact with Wilson via radio headset, squatted inside a hot, sweaty foam-latex dinosaur suit. An assistant held a small electronic fan to the mouth of the fubsy dinosaur to cool off Barretta.

Meet the puppet team behind--and inside--Earl Sinclair, the megalosaurus star of ABC's prime-time comedy series, "Dinosaurs," from Jim Henson Productions and Michael Jacobs Productions with Walt Disney Television.

Remember when puppets weren't much more than a sock with buttons for eyes? The walking, talking, mugging creatures from "Dinosaurs" are prodigies of electronic, mechanical and computer engineering, manipulated by performance artists who have made it their life work.

"Dinosaurs," a 1950s-style sitcom about a wise-cracking family of blue-collar dinosaurs whose daily lives are a comment on modern times, stomped its competition during a smash five-episode run beginning last April. The premiere episode of the series, accompanied by a banzai of network promotion, was seen by three out of four children watching television in America that night. For several weeks, "Dinosaurs" ranked in the Top 10 of all series on television and was the No. 1 show among all viewers under 50.

But this fall, "Dinosaurs" has been suffering through something of an Ice Age.

Encouraged by early promise, ABC this season took a chance with "Dinosaurs," pulling the fledgling series from its sheltered Friday-night time slot--behind ratings powerhouse "Full House"--to head up ABC's Wednesday-night comedy block. The results have been mixed. "Dinosaurs" retained its core audience, remaining the most-watched TV show by children 2 to 11. But the series plunged in overall ratings. Last week, "Dinosaurs" finished 43rd out of 93 shows on the four major networks and regularly finishes second in its time slot.

"I think it's fair to say we were made somewhat nervous by the (scheduling) move," said Dean Valentine, Disney's executive vice president of network television. "Producers want to see their show protected for at least a year and have audiences fed (into it) before you're put into an 8 p.m. time slot, where you're responsible for an entire evening's lineup. We weren't sure the show was ready for that."

As long as the series has been on the air, the "Dinosaurs" set has been strictly off limits to the press. Recently, however, Disney's publicity department rolled out the red carpet for The Times to take a peek behind the scenes. The producers shrug off the suggestion that their defenses have suddenly come down to push ratings up.

"That is very cynical indeed because it's completely untrue," series creator and executive producer Michael Jacobs said. "We said all along that for the first season we would have no press on the set, because we did not want to blow the integrity of the show for kids. I didn't want the press around because the angle would have been to take pictures of these creatures with their heads off. It's like 'Alf': Do you want to see pictures of Alf or somebody's hand up Alf?

"I wasn't going to have it. It's the kids who come first, and I didn't want to blow the fantasy for kids."

Now that the "Dinosaurs" characters are living entities that many children have come to know and believe are real, the producers reason that it's OK to start letting people in to take a look.

On the director's signal, the puppet team went to work. Earl, a sort of reptilian knockoff of Ralph Kramden from "The Honeymooners," bounded onto the jungle set propelled by Barretta, who says he can see where he's going only when Earl's huge mouth is open.

"Hang on, Robbie, Daddy's coming!" boomed Earl, who was searching for his lost scaly green son, a 14-year-old herbivore with a Mohawk.

Off stage, Wilson's hands were a flurry of activity, as each minute movement activated one of the 30 tiny servos and motors implanted in Earl's head to operate his mouth, eyes and facial expressions. During filming, Wilson records Earl's dialogue live into a microphone as he maneuvers Earl's head. Later, in a recording studio, Wilson's voice is dubbed over by the gruff voice of Stuart Pankin from HBO's "Not Necessarily the News," which is what viewers hear on television.

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