Move over, Sinatra: Ol' Brown Ears is Back.
Rowlf the Dog, that gravelly voiced, shaggy-haired saloon singer extraordinaire, is celebrating 210 dog years in show biz, with a new solo album of memorable hits.
Rowlf pairs his distinctive vocal stylings with his unique piano artistry in a collection of memorable tunes that range from the poignant "I Never Harmed an Onion" ("So why should they make me cry?") to the practical, "You and I and George," offering an unusual resolution of a romantic triangle.
Actually, it is the late Jim Henson who is heard on this delightful new Jim Henson Records release, giving humorous voice to one of his earliest Muppet creations, savvy Rowlf, who began his career on "The Jimmy Dean Show" in 1963 and went on to star in "The Muppet Show," Muppet movies and gigs on the nighttime talk-show circuit.
Many of the songs, backed by a full orchestra, were heard on "The Muppet Show," and, whether he sang them originally or not, Rowlf has no trouble making them his own. He pays tribute to Kermit the Frog with his rendition of "Bein' Green," talks and croons his way through Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," offers his perspective on Beethoven's "Fur Elise"--"I don't know who he wrote it fur"--and demonstrates his imperturbable canine savoir-faire as he strolls musically down "Memory Lane" "without a single thing to remember. . . ."
And no one, not even Henson's other alter ego, Kermit, gives "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" quite the lusty fillip that Rowlf does.
The album, produced with an ear for quality, is a treasure for Henson fans and a family listening treat.
* "Rowlf the Dog: Ol' Brown Ears Is Back." Jim Henson Records. Cassette: $7.98; CD: $11.98. Tune In to Nature: Silver-haired and bespectacled, "Grandpa Art" mixes lighthearted rhythms with a whole heap of learning. At 70, Arthur Custer, an award-winning composer of music for television, audio and video children's recordings, has branched out on his own to introduce children to the wonders of nature with a love of word play and tuneful inventiveness.
The first recordings in his "Nature Songs for Children" series on the Sun Group label, are about birds, sea creatures, insects and pets. They target 4- to 8-year-olds but are accessible to older children.
Custer carefully researches his songs about such natural phenomena as metamorphosis, bird migration and "the honey bees' dance" and then "finds the right hook so that it becomes a song and not some kind of lesson."
He uses his love of language to create vivid word pictures--"Dolly the Dolphin" is notable for "her delightful adorable grin, her hardly ignorable grin" and his owl is not a sleepy, wise cartoon but a fierce predator, "a cat with wings," while birds don't fly--they swoop, wheel, dip, twirl and soar.
He's not "afraid" of exposing children to rich vocabulary, he said. "This is verbal play that I think kids might enjoy.
"Some of the songs are about nothing at all, of course," Custer added. " 'The Kitten's Tea Party,' 'I Know a Beetle'--nothing much happens in the way of teaching facts, but there's the language and that nice old-fashioned shuffle rhythm that I grew up with when I was doing music in grade school and high school in the Swing era. It seems to be the rhythm I keep coming back to the most."
Custer, who lives in Lower Manhattan, where he rides his bike to the studio and tries to "avoid getting sideswiped by taxis--they really do seem to want to kill you"--began writing songs for his four grandchildren. "I love being a grandparent," he said, and he likes the idea that he can "relate to so many kids I don't know in this special way."
* "Grandpa Art's Nature Songs for Kids Series." Each cassette: $8.95, plus postage and handling. Information: (800) 227-2712.
Semi-Great "Nate": An all-kid cast headed by Nicolas Cowan does a respectable-enough job with "Nate the Great," a Serendipity Theatre Co. production at the Coronet Theatre based on Marjorie Weinman Sharmat books. At more than an hour, though, Amela Sterling's easy-reader, narrative-heavy adaptation, directed by Katy Henk, is a bit wearing.
The remarkably self-assured young Cowan, however, has the tough, '40s private-eye body language down pat and can snap the brim of his fedora with panache. His equally youthful co-stars play off him without too much self-consciousness, while puppets, filling in for a variety of pets, are crowd-pleasers. For ages 4 and up.
* "Nate the Great," Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, 1 and 4 p.m. $12; $6 for ages 13 and younger. (310) 652-9199.