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Big Stars, Little Fans : CELEBRITIES LEND A VOICE, HAND OR NAME TO FALL’S NEW CHILDREN’S PROGRAMS

Times Staff Writer

A year ago DIC Enterprises-a major producer of children’s programming- ran an ad in the Hollywood Reporter headlined “Open Letter to the Acting Community.” DIC and the Turner Broadcasting System were looking for major celebrities to do the voices and live-action tags for Ted Turner’s new animated environmental action-adventure series, “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.”

“It was sort of an open invitation,” said co-creator and co-executive producer Barbara Y.E. Pyle, vice president of environmental policy at TBS SuperStation. “The first person to pop out was Tom Cruise.”

But when Cruise’s “Days of Thunder” schedule conflicted with “Captain Planet,” the actor popped out. But other performers-including Sting, Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Tim Curry, Ed Asner, Dean Stockwell and James Coburn-found the time to commit to the series, which premieres Sept. 15 on KTTV at 10 a.m. and Sept. 16 on TBS at 5:35 a.m. and 2:35 p.m.

“Captain Planet” isn’t the only star-studded fall series geared for the 2- to 11-year-old crowd. Steven Spielberg, Roseanne Barr, Robert Klein, Howie Mandel, New Kids on the Block, George Carlin and Rick Moranis are just a few of the many personalities working on new children’s programming.

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John Ratzenberger, mailman Cliff on “Cheers,” is the voice of polluter Rigger on “Captain Planet.” He answered the ad the day it ran. “I started being an environmentalist in 1967,” he said. “I lived in Connecticut and wrote an angry letter to my congressman about pollution and wondered why I couldn’t swim in the same river my father and grandfather had.” Ratzenberger has seen the first two episodes of the series. “My son just loves ‘Captain Planet,’ ” he said. “He doesn’t know I am in it; he’s only 3. But he’s really interested in it.”

“The show is remarkable because it does challenge children,” said LeVar Burton, whose voice is Kwame, one of the Planeteers. “The children are going to be responsible for the environment.”

Whoopi Goldberg is the voice of Gaia-Mother Earth. “It’s important to me that children are given interesting information in an entertaining fashion,” she said. “I want kids to know that they can make a difference-regardless of race, creed or color.”

Goldberg also is set to do two specials for cable’s Nickelodeon. The first, “Hot Rod Brown, Class Clown,” airs in November.

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“I’m a big fan of Nickelodeon’s programming,” she said. “They’ve given me three ‘Kid’s Choice’ awards, which means a lot because it comes from kids.”

“Whoopi wanted to meet us,” said Geoffrey Darby, senior vice president of programming for Nickelodeon. “She likes what we do on the air. Her idea is develop (the specials) into ‘Tales from the Whoop’ and introduce them.” David Lynch’s Propaganda Films also has found a home at Nick. Last month Nick aired its “Salute Your Shorts,” a live-action comedy special set in a summer camp.

“They (the people at Nickelodeon) are very much on the edge,” said Matt Loze, executive producer at Propaganda. “They are willing to take chances.”

Shelley Duvall, who produced Showtime’s “Faerie Tale Theatre,” is producing three specials for Nick called “Stories from Growing Up.” Celebrities will take part in a re-enactment of a special moment in their lives. For example, Roseanne Barr’s first date; Billy Crystal’s bar mitzvah. . The first is set to air in October.

“I want to do children’s programming the entire family can enjoy,” said Duvall. “Programming that doesn’t condescend.”

Barr created ABC’s “Little Rosey,” premiering Saturday at 11 a.m., which chronicles the adventures of a 10-year-old Roseanne Barr, she said, because a lot of her fans are kids.

“I did it for them,” she said. “I love animation still. It’s the most compelling thing to watch. Being a mom, I wanted to do a show about imagination.” Though Barr is overseeing the scripts, she is not doing the voice of Rosey.

“She came to us sometime last October,” said Jennie Trias, vice president of children’s programming at ABC Entertainment. “We were happy with the concept.” Carol Rosen, director of original programming at HBO, approached comedian Robert Klein to kick off its new series “HBO Storybook Musicals,” premiering Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. He adapted, narrates and sings the classic “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.”

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“He is a wonderful storyteller and a lovely singer,” said Rosen. "(He) has a young boy, and I asked him if he would like to see this book made into a program for children.”

“I loved the idea,” said Klein. “I read the book to my son. I adapted it along with animator (and producer) Michael Sporn. I think having a child makes me more interested in doing this kind of thing.”

Margaret Loesch, president of Fox children’s programming, gave the green light to “Bobby’s World,” an animated series based on “Baby Bobby,” a 4-year-old character in comic Howie Mandel’s act. The series, which premieres Saturday at 7 a.m., will look at the world through little Bobby’s eyes. “He’s a very talented guy and has this vision,” said Loesch of Mandel.

“I will do the voice of Bobby and will play his father in live-action,” said Mandel, who did voices for “The Muppet Babies” and “Gremlins.” “My two kids can be with dad (on Saturday mornings) and I don’t even have to get up (to watch TV with them).”

Steven Spielberg is the mastermind behind Warner Bros.’ new weekday syndicated cartoon series “Tiny Toon Adventures,” premiering the week of Sept. 17 on KTTV. “We wanted to create a new group of characters that reflected the essence of the old Warners characters,” said Jean MacCurdy, general vice president and general manager of Warner Bros. animation.

Spielberg isn’t just lending his name to the project. He is extremely involved in his role as executive producer. “Steven has been reading all the scripts and going to the storyboard meetings and has looked at all the rough cuts”

Celebrities are being used for children’s shows because of the competition for their attention: regular TV, cable, home video and video games.

"(Those media are) taking an audience already shrinking and dividing it up in a number of different ways,” said Phyllis Tucker Vinson, vice president of children and family programming for NBC. “We go to (celebrities) and convince them to get involved. Rick Moranis (whose voice and image appear in “Rick Moranis in Gravedale High”) is a good example. He has proven to be popular with kids.”

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Familiar movie titles also help lure young viewers. CBS is adding the animated “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” premiering Sept. 15 at 8 a.m., to its lineup, as well as an animated version of the 1989 hit film “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” beginning Sept. 15 at 10 a.m. Fox has animated the cult film “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” which kicks off Saturday at 8:30 a.m.

Judy Price, vice president of children’s programs and daytime specials at CBS Entertainment, said she insisted to the producers that Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and George Carlin reprise their roles in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures.”

“They bring a whole degree of credibility to the project,” she said. Fox also called on John Astin to repeat his movie role of the evil Dr. Gangrene in “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”

“Many years ago in New York, I did voices and cartoons,” he said. “As my career developed I sort of dropped that part of my work. I kind of re-oiled those gears to do the voice. I am having a great time.”


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