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They've Learned a Lesson

For 30th season, 'Sesame Street' refocuses on its core characters to appeal to younger viewers.

November 16, 1998|LESLIE BERGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — As a little girl in Harlem, Tipharnie Dingle would munch on dry cereal as she watched "Sesame Street" and pretend she actually lived there. It seemed like such a safe and happy place, recalled Dingle, who was raised in housing projects by her disabled single father, "and I longed to be in a place like that."

Today, as a popular baby-sitter on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the empathetic Dingle often turns to the TV show and its familiar characters, songs and skits to help break the ice with her young charges. " 'Sesame Street' has saved me many times," said Dingle, 23.

Pieter Smit similarly bonds with his son over "Sesame Street" in suburban Stamford, Conn., watching not only current episodes with 22-month-old Samuel but also 1969 archival clips in which Smit himself appears as a very skinny kid with a very big afro, counting out ice cream cones and toys.

"It felt like things had come full circle," Smit, a 34-year-old banker, said of the first time he played the clips for his son. "Not only was I watching, but I was watching with him, and I felt like, 'Wow. This is really great.' "

As it begins its 30th year on the air, "Sesame Street" seems to be marking not only its unchallenged status as a landmark educational program but also its growing presence as an emotional reference point between generations. Fans and creators alike don't just credit the show with teaching the ABCs to millions of children, but also the Golden Rule, and with generating some of their profoundest memories. Even Joan Ganz Cooney, the formidable co-founder of the show's parent Children's Television Workshop, sentimentally describes sharing vintage videotapes with her grandchildren.

And just as original viewers like Smit find themselves coming full circle with the show, so "Sesame Street" itself has reached into the past for a simpler, cleaner new season that begins today and includes the program's most significant changes to date.

In a nod to its increasingly younger audience, the show's producers have created a 15-minute segment called "Elmo's World" devoted exclusively to the 3 1/2-year-old Muppet. Helping Elmo master basic, everyday things like balls, shoes and water is a human foil named Mr. Noodles (played by Bill Irwin), a Chaplinesque mime willing to make mistakes and learn a few lessons from kids.

The new segment, whose computer graphics are reminiscent of the classic children's book "Harold and His Purple Crayon," will appear every day at the end of the show; the same segment will be repeated five days in a row to enhance young viewers' comprehension.

A Big Bird in Every Episode

In turn, the first 45 minutes of "Sesame Street" promises to be a tighter production with clearer themes and a renewed emphasis on the original neighborhood and its best-known denizens, including Big Bird and Oscar, Elmo and Zoe, Rosita, Telly and Baby Bear. Big Bird, who was featured less frequently in recent years despite market research showing him to be the show's most popular character, is supposed to show up in every episode this season. Similarly, Mr. Hooper's Store, the timeless soda fountain where humor and wisdom were always dispensed in equal measure, will be used as a frequent backdrop once more. The store has a new proprietor too, named Alan (Alan Muraoka).

Gone will be Around the Corner, the expanded set that was created for "Sesame Street's" 25th anniversary, largely to prove the veteran program could still be fresh. Around the Corner, which represented fully half the show's set, had introduced Celina's Dance Studio, the Finder's Keepers thrift store, the Furry Arms hotel, and an army of secondary puppets that were cute but ultimately deemed confusing.

In its return to the basics, the reformatted show will also emphasize about 10 classic "Sesame Street" songs--original numbers such as "Sing," "Bein' Green," "People in Your Neighborhood" and "Rubber Duckie"--instead of constantly introducing new music. The program's creators are hoping that kids will be more inclined to sing along if presented familiar tunes and that, despite all the changes to the program, they and their parents will feel very much at home. Even the opening has been re-shot in a throwback to the original scene of children blithely following Big Bird through Central Park on their way to Sesame Street.

"The feeling we really wanted to stress was intimacy," said head writer Lou Berger. "We all wanted to go back to a place that you know. And we know Mr. Hooper's Store. We know Oscar's trash can. . . . We come back to Sesame Street more so we establish more of that intimacy."

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