NEW YORK -- "Fairy godmother. Oh, fairy godmother," the little, blond-haired Muppet known as Prairie Dawn calls out.
And in bops the Whoopi Goldberg, silver scepter in hand, crown set at a loopy angle on her head, wearing a thrift-shop, blue gown with lots of spangles.
"Oh, fairy godmother, fairy godmother, you're here. You're really, really here."
"Yes, and here would be where again?" this fairy godmother asks.
"Here" is "Sesame Street" -- surely the most beloved, if not the best known, thoroughfare in America. Broadway, Sunset Boulevard, Pennsylvania Avenue -- they don't hold a candle to "Sesame Street," which exists nowhere and almost everywhere (it's seen in 131 countries).
"Sesame Street" runs straight through the shared memory of a full generation of Americans who first watched it in 1969 as little kids and still find themselves smiling and comforted when they happen to channelsurf across Big Bird & Co. or sit down with their own children to watch.
For the current crop of pre-schoolers, it remains an electronic highway to a marvelous cityplace full of fuzzy monsters, music and learning.
The celebrated children's series starts its 28th season today on PBS with a two-part episode featuring Noah Wyle of "ER." With all the talk in recent weeks about the new Russian version of "Sesame Street" revolutionizing childhood there, it seemed like a good time to revisit the original Street and see where it's headed this year.
Sesame Street proper and the place known as "Around the Corner," which was added on the show's 25th anniversary in 1993, are located in a clean, cavernous and extremely well-lighted soundstage at the historic Kaufman Studios in Queens.
The scenes with Goldberg (which were filmed there one day last week and will air on Feb. 6) as well as the segments with Wyle illustrate a "Sesame Street" trademark: using celebrities.
In addition to Wyle and Goldberg, this season's high-profile lineup includes: Melissa Etheridge, Hootie and the Blowfish, Patti La Belle, Jason Alexander, Kathy Bates, Placido Domingo, Alfre Woodard, Shaquille O'Neal, Cal Ripken Jr. and Monica Seles.
All these famous faces get adults to watch, one of the series' most important goals, says executive producer Michael Loman.
"A 3-year-old's probably not going to know who Noah Wyle or Whoopi Goldberg is, but their presence will get adults to watch the show -- and not only parents, but older siblings and day care providers as well. And this is important, because when children watch the show, they ask questions, and adults can answer them," Loman explains.
"All our research shows that the most effective learning takes place when children watch with an adult," says Dr. Jo Holz, vice president of research at Children's Television Workshop, which produces the show.
"Sesame Street" is renowned for its research, which explains why the show is so smart and so trusted by so many parents.
Every year, Children's Television Workshop tests each of 30 to 50 episodes before at least 30 children in day care centers and pre-schools, says Holz.
Children are observed as they watch to see how they react, then interviewed and tested to see what they learned. Parents are then interviewed to get at feelings or reactions the kids may not have been able or willing to articulate to interviewers.
"I know of no other television show -- children's or adult -- that has such an elaborate or deliberate and extensive a program of )) research," says Holz, a former Rutgers University professor and head of research for NBC News.
Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches a course titled "Children and Television" at the University of Maryland, confirms Holz's claim, adding a reminder about the series on divorce that " 'Sesame Street' produced, pre-tested and then decided not to air because it made the children too sad."
Dealing with things that might make children sad without overwhelming them is another trademark of "Sesame Street" -- the most honored children's television series ever with 66 Emmys, 22 of which are for "Best Preschool Series."
For example, an episode that aired earlier this month featured Baby Bear's first day and night away from his parents, who were going out of town on a business trip. (Baby Bear is the Muppet who puts a "w" where his "r" or "l" should be -- as in one of his favorite expressions, "awww-wwwight" -- and is a little territorial since the trauma of having an intruder sleep in his bed and eat his porridge.) It is a lovely and brilliant little piece that ends with Baby Bear -- after only a few tears and lots of comforting from Gina (Alison Bartlett O'Reilly), who runs the Family Day Care Center -- drifting off to sleep in Gina's bed as a lullaby version of the show's theme plays.
After pre-testing it, the producers decided not to risk unsettling any kids with separation anxiety by having the program end on the image of Baby Bear away from his parents alone in the dark after Gina says good night. So, just as the theme song is about to end, the music shifts to loud and happy, and Big Bird pops onscreen with tomorrow's "coming attractions," which show the joyous reunion of Baby Bear and his parents at the day care center. That's the image children are left with when the show ends.
"A key concern in our research is that we don't want to leave potentially difficult situations unresolved for the kids," Holz says. "We want to make sure things have a good resolution in each episode.
"Now, it may not always be a happy one, because not everything in life works out happily. But, at least, we want the kids to have a sense of closure, especially if it's something that is potentially sad or scary."
The most valid criticism of "Sesame Street" over the years has been in terms of gender, specifically, the predominance of male vs. female Muppets. Outside of the androgynous Big Bird, the famous ones are still male.
The producers acknowledged a problem when they launched "Around the Corner" and added Muppets like Zoe and characters like Ruthie (Ruth Buzzi), who runs the Finder's
Keepers thrift shop.
But the progress since goes beyond numbers. It can be seen in a segment like one airing this month featuring Prairie Dawn as a reporter for the TV newsmagazine, "Fairy Tales Today." In it, she interviews Rapunzel, the fairy tale character who is standing in tears at an entrance to Central Park with her hair tangled around several trees, a lamppost and street sign.
Rapunzel wants to get her hair cut so she can play with the other kids -- a desire that shocks Prairie.
"But you're Rapunzel, and you have to just sit here and let your hair grow and wait for the prince!" she says. "Don't you understand?"
Meanwhile, every few seconds, a Muppet comes jogging along, trips on the mass of tangled hair in its path and crashes in an angry heap.
On the level of Muppet pratfalls, it is simple slapstick silliness, but on another level, the sketch is doing nothing less than dismantling the tale's sexist message of female passivity.
The same sort of thing appears to be going on in the scene between Prairie and her Whoopi godmother. Prairie has an apple she wants to eat, while godmother wants to turn it into a coach so Prairie can go to the ball and meet a prince.
Fairy tales are one of the key ways a culture passes on its values from one generation to the next. When you start deconstructing them so entertainingly for 11 million little kids, you shouldn't be surprised at catching some flak.
The great cultural story of "Sesame Street" is how it has revolutionized thinking for a generation of Americans age 32 and younger.
In the words of Anna Guenina, head of research for the Russian "Sesame Street," "Ulitsa Sezam," the primary goal of that show is to "help change Russian children so that they know how to behave as citizens in an open society."
The Russians know it can work because the goal of our "Sesame Street" in 1969 wasn't just to teach children from underprivileged backgrounds to count and say the letters of the alphabet -- a popular misconception. The original grant proposal said it would teach "moral and social development to children," according to "Children & Television: Lessons From Sesame Street," by Jim Lesser, the show's first academic consultant.
In that regard, "Sesame Street" set out to teach America's children to live in the new and more open society envisioned in the civil rights legislation of 1965 and '66. Put another way, it has been teaching multiculturalism for 27 years.
No older, white male in a sweater as the sole authority figure here, as in "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood." "Sesame Street" was offering new roles and possibilities in a country where power would be more shared. In short, it was in the business of changing little hearts and minds.
"Sesame Street has been openly teaching ideology to children from the beginning, and they have always been very open about it," Parks says.
Open and rightfully proud.
"Twenty-eight years ago, before 'Sesame Street,' you did not have an integrated show for children," says Loman. "And whether it's integration in terms of race or ethnic background or culture -- I mean, we have a little girl [Tarah Lynne Schaeffer] on the show as a regular now with a disability, she's in a wheelchair -- it's all the same thing.
"The point is to make all different children feel good about themselves and to show every other child that different isn't scary -- that people who look different, who are different, who have different backgrounds, are not frightening.
"We try to show what all children, what all people, have in common and we celebrate what's different about people in a positive sense," says Loman. "And, so, we really have a mixture of all kinds of Americans on the show, which starts children at a very early age on the road to learning how to live in this America. It is one of the most positive and powerful things we try to do here at Sesame Street."
Festival salutes 'The Best of...'
Cookie Monster says, "These short films satisfy a hunger deep within me. Me hungry just thinking about them."
What more need be said, except the facts about the first Sesame Street Film Festival that opens tomorrow night and runs through Sunday at the New Victory Theater, New York's theater for kids at 209 W. 42nd St?
The festival, which celebrates the start of the 28th season of "Sesame Street," features 47 animated, film and puppetry shorts produced for the series.
Highlights include: three works with William Wegman's Weimaraners, En Vogue in a short titled "Adventure Song," Veronika Soul's "African Alphabet Box Song" and the unforgettable "Monster in the Mirror" starring Grover with Ray Charles, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Candice Bergen, Julia Roberts and the Simpsons among others.
I say unforgettable, because once you see this short -- the happiest two minutes of film that I've ever seen -- you will never be able to get the refrain out of your head: "Wubba, wubba, wubba, wubba, wee, wee, wee/Wubba, wubba, wubba, wubba, woo/Wubba, wubba, wubba, wubba me, me, me/And I will wubba, wubba, wubba, wubba you."
Times are 7 p.m. through Saturday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call 212-239-6200.
Pub Date: 11/18/96