`Sesame Street': 25 - and Growing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS it begins its 25th season on public television today, ``Sesame Street'' is turning the corner.

Just beyond Big Bird's nest and the familiar sights of 123 Sesame Street, an extension is being added. No. 456 Sesame Street hosts the Furry Arms Muppet Hotel, Finders Keepers thrift shop, a dance studio, and a playground.

``It's the same Sesame Street, but we've opened it up around the corner,'' says Michael Loman, executive producer of the program.

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The new season is bringing the biggest changes and additions in ``Sesame Street'' history. ``Any successful show has to review itself,'' Mr. Loman says. ``Our 25th birthday seems a good time to reassess and make sure the show doesn't get stale.''

``It gives you new places to go and people to meet,'' said head writer Norman Stiles during an interview over the counter at Mr. Hooper's Store.

In addition to the enlarged set, new Muppet and human characters are being introduced. Seven of the eight new Muppets are female characters. ``While there have been some successful female Muppets, we felt there was a need for a wider range,'' Loman says.

The Squirrelles are a trio of female squirrels who live in the park and sing Motown music styled after the Supremes. Yet the highest hopes are pinned on Zoe, an energetic three-year-old girl monster. ``She has a lot of charm,'' says Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who brings the popular character Elmo to life.

``Sesame Street'' has traveled a lot of ground since it was started in 1969 as an experiment in using television to help prepare preschoolers for the transition from home to school.

That experiment has turned into the most successful children's show in American television history. The series has won 51 Emmy Awards, and the English-language version is seen in 38 countries. Some criticize pace

Despite its success, critics say ``Sesame Street'' is too fast-paced and disjointed for young children. ``I like the pace of Fred Rogers and Barney much better,'' says Dorothy Singer, co-director at Yale University's Family Television Research Center.

``It's like talking about apple pie,'' Dr. Singer says. ``It's not patriotic to say that there are certain things on `Sesame Street' that you don't like. But I really feel the show needs a host to tie the segments together.''

Mr. Stiles takes such criticism in stride. ``It's just a television show,'' he says. ``We're not pretending to be a classroom.''

``Initially, the show was very simple,'' says supervising producer Lisa Simon, who has been on the show since it began. ``The educational principles were right out there. You would do a bit, and it would be teaching that a square had four equal sides and four equal corners. That could have been the segment. Today, that kind of lesson is couched in some sort of dramatic piece. I don't think you could get away with doing it the other way today.''

Societal changes have created a younger audience for ``Sesame Street.'' When the show first went on the air, it was aimed at four- to six-year-olds, Ms. Simon says. ``Now, they are watching at 18 months and two years.''

During the past quarter century, the world has changed enormously for preschoolers. ``The show was originally geared toward preschoolers who were at home. Now, most kids aren't home,'' says Sonia Manzano, who has played Maria since 1971. ``Most kids are watching the show from day-care centers in groups. We've changed the show to accommodate those kids and talk to those kids. We can help them get through that stressful time. Kids need that today.'' New characters and issues

An African-American couple being introduced this season is opening avenues for dealing with day-care issues. The wife, Angela, runs a day-care program.

Through the decades, ``Sesame Street'' has done shows on such issues as death, birth, marriage, and adoption. As the most thoroughly researched program on television, however, nothing slips in easily. ``There is curriculum at every level,'' Loman says. ``Everything is constantly evaluated and researched.''

After producing an episode on divorce, for example, research proved it too upsetting to children. It was dropped. ``We ate the cost and never aired it,'' Loman says. ``We feel there are a range of issues that we can deal with in the family that do not go to the extreme of divorce.''

Life on the set of ``Sesame Street'' is not that different from the show itself. Between takes on a recent morning, a handful of children huddled together waiting for their turn to take center stage again. ``Hey, tell us a story,'' shouts one boy to Caroll Spinney, who has played the part of Big Bird since the show began. Mr. Spinney launches into a spellbinding tale that easily fills the time until they return to work.

All the change on the street makes the staff and cast a little nervous, they admit. ``You're dealing with a sacred cow to some extent,'' Loman says. ``My quest has been for a middle ground - keeping the best of `Sesame Street' as it has always been while introducing some new elements.''

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