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Tricks for Kids : Penn and Teller host PBS series aimed at boosting creative skills


Move over Mr. Rogers and Big Bird.

Penn and Teller, the self-proclaimed "Bad Boys of Magic," are joining PBS' ranks as hosts of a new kids' series.

The tall, outspoken Penn Jillette and the short, sweet and mute Teller will host "Behind the Scenes," a new 10-part series geared at children ages 8 to 12 and their families. The show's aim is to instill creative thinking skills through the exploration of visual and performing arts. Each episode will focus on an aesthetic idea and show an artist at work. Penn and Teller will perform tricks that illustrate the aesthetic idea.

Artist David Hockney is featured in the first episode titled, "Drawing: Illusion of Depth," which illustrates perspective by drawing a "walk around a chair."

Featured in future episodes are composer Allen Toussaint, artist Robert Gil de Montes, choreographer David Parsons, sculptor Nancy Graves, jazz percussionist Max Roach, photographer Carrie Mae Weems, conductor JoAnn Falletta, artist Wayne Thiebaud and theater director Julie Taymor.

Executive producers Alice Trillin and Jane Garmey fell in love with the irreverent Penn and Teller after seeing their off-Broadway show five years ago. The two, Trillin said, reflected the concepts for the show: "How do you get kids to think in interesting ways? How do you look at things differently and come up with new solutions? It seems like that's what Penn and Teller are all about. They are upsetting all your preconceptions."

"The original idea was that the pilot would be done by us and every other show would be hosted by different people," Penn said. "In the five years they were waiting to get funding, it changed to us doing the (entire) show."

Teller, who does speak to print media, said that after the pilot was shot five years ago "we completely forgot about it."

"We had other things to do," he said. "Within that time I even got personal phone calls from Madonna, so I kept busy."

Penn and Teller had to create kinder and gentler tricks for the series. No sword-swallowing, pin-eating or blood drawing--mainstays of their stage act--were allowed.

"They begged us to use pre-existing ones but, in fact, none of ours worked," said Teller, who is a former high school Latin teacher. "We really needed stuff that would absolutely make the academic point."

They ended up using a lot of frogs and mice to make their various points. "You see real mice, gerbils and frogs being used for all sorts of purposes--always very well cared for," Teller said.

"All life on this planet is sacred to us," Penn said.

"To show rhythmic patterns in a song, we produce a mouse each time the pattern goes one way and when there is a variation, we produce a frog," Teller said. "This continues until there are quite a number of mice and frogs all over the place."

Penn and Teller said they didn't want to talk down to the series' young viewers. "Kids tend to be desperately curious," Teller said. "There is a certain element we are doing in this that is making the analogy between the arts and a magic trick. When you think of something like perspective in a painting, it really is a magic trick."

Mexican-born, Los Angeles-based artist Robert Gil de Montes was interested in participating in the series because he is a teacher. "I have a commitment to teaching," he said. "We concentrated on doing something in color so it would be fun for children. Looking at an artist's life is not just (looking) at the art. It is a certain attitude that is very important. My idea was to open possibilities that color can be used in different ways."

Sacramento-based artist Wayne Thiebaud, who teaches at UC Davis, said he hopes kids will attempt to draw after watching him work. "I found from personal experience that watching people work demonstrated there was something about that immediate experience, that not only was it a kind of exciting opportunity, it was a specific way of learning physically what happens when someone does something like a painting."

Did Penn and Teller ever learn anything growing up by watching television?

"I don't think I watched PBS once until I was 18," Penn said. "I didn't learn a thing from television."

That wasn't the case with Teller.

"I think I was really affected by 'Winky Dink,' " he said. "You sent away and got a magic window, which was a piece of plastic that you rubbed on your TV screen and crayons that went with it. During the show, they would give you a secret message and you would copy it with those crayons. TV that has a certain element of reaching out and grabbing (an audience) more than a movie does."

"Behind the Scenes" premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on KPBS, KCET and KVCR. The series will subsequently air Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. on KVCR and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on KPBS and at 5:30 p.m. on KCET.

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