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Where have all the heroes gone?

By Diane Casselberry ManuelStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 1982


It happens all the time to Mr. Wizard and Sky King.

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Don Herbert, who used to star in the popular children's television show ''Watch Mr. Wizard,'' will be walking along a street in southern California when someone will come up to him and say, ''I got interested in science because of your show. Today I'm working on the Saturn project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory because of you.''

Or Kirby Grant, TV's ''Sky King,'' will board a commercial airliner and the pilot will recognize him. ''Ladies and gentlemen,'' the pilot will announce over the intercom, ''the reason I'm flying your plane today is because of a man sitting in the coach section.''

Mr. Wizard, Sky King, the Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight, Annie Oakley, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Superman and Lois Lane - these were the heroes and heroines of the generation of Americans raised on children's television in the 1950s and early '60s. ''We decided to do things, to enter careers, because of these people,'' one fan recalls.

''I grew up in upstate New York and was the first kid on the block to have a TV - in 1951,'' he continues. ''By proxy, I was a very popular kid, and my friends and I watched all the Saturday morning shows. Sometimes we'd travel threE hours with our parents to Macy's in New York City to see Wild Bill Hickok in person. He was our hero. He was important to us.

''But who are kids going to go see 10 years from now? They're not going to try to meet Scooby-Doo because Scooby-Doo is an animated dog.''

Who are today's - and tomorrow's - heroes? Do children still need heroes?

These are some of the questions this fan, a former college teacher and television critic, is asking in his latest book, ''Saturday Morning T.V.'' (New York: Dell Books). An exhaustive look at ''Thirty Years of the Shows You Waited All Week to Watch,'' as the subtitle describes it, the book explores commercialism in television, violence in today's and yesterday's shows, today's cartoon shows, and the general spirit of live television.

When Gary Grossman was first approached by his publishers to do a nostalgic follow-up to his earlier book, ''Superman: Serial to Cereal,'' he told them no. ''I said, no, not nostalgia. I'm interested in doing a book on children's television, but only if I can be as critical as I want to be.''

In ''Saturday Morning T.V.'' Mr. Grossman is at his critical best. ''Some people may think they're getting a fun book with a lot of pictures,'' he says, ''but they're also getting a lot of anger - from people who shouldn't be unemployed, and who shouldn't be ignored by the medium they really love.''

Grossman spent more than a year researching his book and interviewing a variety of television personalities. ''I interviewed Lamb Chop (the hand puppet) , and Lamb Chop said things to me that Shari Lewis (Lamb Chop's creator) would not say. After all, Shari Lewis is working - she conducts symphony orchestras - but Lamb Chop is not working.

''Lamb Chop is the one who is highly critical of the networks today. Lamb Chop is the one who said that if you sent children's Saturday morning TV tHrough the mail today, it would be returned as junk mail.''

In his interviews with yesterday's stars, Grossman found one overriding, not surprising, criticism of today's children's programming: the lack of live actors. ''What they were talking about is the need for diversity,'' he explains. ''In the '50s and early '60s we had choices of 40 different shows to watch. Kids today don't have those choices.

''It really comes down to cost,'' he continues. ''You have to paiPyy- o to Roy Rogers, but you don't to Yogi Bear. In animation, the cartoon characters don't need health plans, they don't grow old, and they can be rerun ad infinitum. The scale for writing a cartoon show is much less than for writing a live-action show or a puppet show. And that, in essence, is why Saturday morning programming for children is almost exclusively cartoons.''