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HBO BIDS FAREWELL TO ‘FRAGGLE ROCK’

Dance your cares away, Worry’s for another day. Let the music play Down in Fraggle Rock.

For as long as my kids can remember, the bouncy little theme song to “Fraggle Rock” has served as a welcome invitation to enter the magical world of Jim Henson’s delightful cable TV series.

Over the years, Henson and his master puppeteers have charmed the dickens out of Hilary, now 4 1/2, and Evan, two years her junior. So, how am I going to tell the little ones that it’s over--that the weekly Home Box Office series has ended, scheduled to resurface in the form of a network Saturday-morning cartoon series on NBC in the fall?

Say it ain’t so, Jim.

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Those without HBO might wish an explanation: “Fraggle Rock” featured a collection of Henson’s most endearing Muppet creations, the Fraggles--small, furry, fun-loving subterraneans with long tails who constantly engaged in swimming, laughing, singing, playing and exploring. Just like a couple of kids I know.

Each episode took us down into the cave city known as Fraggle Rock, which shared a wall with the workshop of an eccentric inventor named Doc (a real live human) and his faithful dog Sprocket (a real live Muppet), both of whom became increasingly intertwined with the Fraggles. The Rock also bordered what seemed to be a parallel universe occupied by a trio of large, dim, furry human-like things called Gorgs.

There were secondary characters a-plenty: cute little wind-up-toy-like construction workers called Doozers who also dwelled underground and who labored as diligently as the Fraggles played; an all-knowing pile of leaves and refuse named Marjorie (a.k.a. the Trash Heap) who doled out wisdom in a Yiddishe Mama whine, and a clumsy Fraggle known as Travelin’ Matt who bumbled his way out of the Rock into “Outer Space” (civilization) where he could report back on the activities of the “Silly Creatures” (us).

All of the above served as foils to the central quintet of Fraggles--five individuals who revealed surprising depth of character, for puppets. They had their strengths and weaknesses, their pettiness and their, uh, humanity. They were also cute as hell.

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In no particular order:

Gobo--the moody explorer. He longed to follow in his Uncle Matt’s footsteps. Expert on the guitar and in sulking. Looked up to by the others, though he refused to serve as leader, in keeping with Fraggle traditions (one of their songs went, “You can never be the boss of someone else”).

Wembly--the confused one. Always garbed in a Hawaiian shirt, he was perpetually bewildered at events around him, ready to believe or follow anyone who pretended to know the Truth. Occasionally an unwitting, unwilling hero.

Mokey--the passive dreamer. Never without her tattered shawl, she was forever boring everyone with her endless verse. Fond of meditating, she was always seeing the bright side of things--even the dreaded Pebble Pox.

Red--the lovable egocentric. Competitive to a fault, but possessing the athletic skills to support her unstoppable self-pride.

Boober--the serious loner. Disinterested in fun (though his party-animal alter ego, Sidebottom, often bubbled to the surface). Preferred doing laundry and preparing food. Obsessively compulsive about both: terrified of germs and bland cooking.

Together or separately, the five chummy Fraggles would get themselves in a fine mess each week, managing by program’s end to escape from whatever danger they faced, while learning an Important Lesson of Life. A standard, if laudable, concept for children’s television--but oh, so cleverly handled.

Through each character’s personality flaw, young viewers were able to discover the pitfalls of materialism (a hilarious episode in which Boober coveted a beautiful pebble called a Blue Rollie), blind obedience (Gobo followed Matt’s written instructions instead of his own intuition, leading to a near-disastrous adventure), selfishness (Gobo gobbled up all the Grapes of Generosity and paid dearly for it). In one memorable show this past season, the subject of death was approached honestly and unthreateningly.

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With economical writing and deft direction, Henson et al. never failed to keep matters moving along, mixing the adventures underground with a comparable story set in Doc’s workshop. Often, the Fraggles--alone or in chorus--would erupt into a silly nonsense song, a rave-up rocker, a touching ballad or an uplifting hymn of praise to help carry home the point, aided by top-notch support from some very hot off-screen pickers.

Quality and imagination. That’s what set the show apart from other kiddie fare. My wife and I usually would join Hilary and Evan when a new episode aired, marveling at the complex manipulations of the puppets, the cleverness of the sets, the liveliness of the dialogue, the charm of the whole package.

When the last show had aired--a moving tribute to the spirit of friendship--I found myself with a lump in the throat as the credits rolled while, for the first time, all the characters joined in on the theme song. My emotion was partly at sensing that this was the end of the series, and partly at the knowledge that my children would not be amused by this fact.

Thank goodness we have six full videotapes of four years’ worth of shows, along with Fraggle dolls, wind-up Doozers, games, books, puzzles, a cassette of songs and a lunch box.

No, we haven’t seen the last of Gobo and the Muppet gang. HBO plans to repeat all 96 episodes of “Fraggle Rock” and also will spotlight Henson and the Muppeteers in a special, “Down Behind the Scenes at Fraggle Rock” in July. The series also will probably end up in syndication on free TV eventually--replete with inserted commercials.

I’m sure the new two-dimensional animated Fraggles on NBC will be as cute and funny as their HBO Muppet counterparts, and that Hilary and Evan probably will watch every Saturday-morning episode.

Henson has stated that by moving the show into animation, he’ll be able “to explore the world of ‘Fraggle Rock’ in ways that aren’t possible given the limitations of puppetry. With animation, there are no boundaries to the fantastic things we can do with the characters.”

That’s all very nice. I just hope the cartoon series doesn’t air opposite Pee-wee Herman. There are just so many traumas a modern-day parent can handle.

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