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At Play With English : TV producer Joe Wallenstein rechannels his skills into an audio-video program that teaches young and old how to read.

February 26, 1993|DAVID JAY PRICE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; David Jay Price is a North Hollywood writer

Joe Wallenstein has just completed a video project that could attract a lot of Americans who probably can't even read his name.

He just finished producing and directing "Read Now," an interactive audio-video program that teaches people how to read.

Wallenstein, who lives in Van Nuys, has produced such mainstream fare as "Dallas, the Early Years" in the early 1980s, and has producing and directing credits for television shows such as "Knots Landing," "Jake and The Fatman" and "Hotel."

"I enjoy working in the mainstream," he says, "but I loved doing this project." He says parents may want to air his reading program as "an alternative animation option to the Saturday morning violence."

The program incorporates animated characters and an actor portraying a character called Sam the Lion in a format of songs and games utilizing 174 key words and designed to make it fun to learn to read.

The complete project consists of two videotapes and two audiotapes, each about 50 minutes long, 14 read-along books--which graduate in difficulty as they progress--and a parent-teacher guide so parents can become part of the learning process.

The program is intended either for children or adults learning English as a second language.

"Read Now" was recently released and will be sold through infomercials for about $129. A portion of the proceeds--a couple of dollars a video--will be donated to the Los Angeles Public Library system.

First Learning Programs Inc. of Burbank acted as the program's executive producer--in other words, financed the project. In making "Read Now," the firm's president, Ann Eldridge, a former college professor, revitalized the "I See Sam" reading program, a series of books published in the 1970s that she created.

A $10-million grant from the U.S. Department of Education was used to fund the program two decades ago; it was tested then in 480 school districts in 24 states. The series of 52 original books is still being used in some places, she says.

Eldridge and Wallenstein updated and incorporated the same concepts and characters in the current program in the belief that today's children, being more TV-oriented, need a product to match.

" 'Read Now' has matched education and entertainment, creating "edutainment,' " Wallenstein explains. "This is the wave of the future. By the turn of the century, edutainment will be an integral part of supplemental education in America."

"Sam is a wonderful, warm and loving character, and Joe Wallenstein captured those qualities" in his direction, Eldridge says. "He made Sam someone who shows how special caring, kindness and relationships with others can truly be." She says he was also "great with the kids we use on the videos."

While the well-known "Sesame Street" teaches the ABCs and counting, this program emphasizes learning the sounds of the letters, says Eldridge, who also has produced a program for "Wonderworks" on PBS in 1990, "A Girl of the Limberlost," which has since been released on video.

By directing the program, Wallenstein has received an award without parallel. "My kids think I have rehung the moon," he says of his children, ages 9 and 5.

Although he continues to work in the mainstream, he is negotiating to produce and direct a series of children's videos for the Jenny Jones Image Foundation, an organization founded by talk show host Jenny Jones to promote educational programs.

Wallenstein and Eldridge also have plans for videos covering math, music, art and science.

"They say never to work with kids or animals. 'Read Now' does both," Wallenstein says.

Where and When What: "Read Now" audio-video program. Cost: $129 plus taxes and handling. Call: (800) 235-2474 to order the program.

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