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‘Riders’ Rides to the Rescue : * Television: A new CBS children’s series promises to offer stalwart Western values and wholesome frontier fun.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What’s a parent to do? Despite all the recent scrutiny of quality and values in children’s television, the networks’ Saturday-morning lineup still banks heavily on forced hipness, materialism and mayhem. Where can kids pick up the stalwart Western values and wholesome frontier fun that Hopalong Cassidy and Sheriff John gave their moms and dads?

Enter, screen right, in broad white hats and toothy cowboy grins, Riders in the Sky. The CBS series that bears their name premieres at 7 a.m. on Sept. 14. Each week, the three cornball cowboys will hobnob with various people and puppet characters at their home, the Harmony Ranch. They will overcome the subtle forces of evil in a live-action adventure, or tune in an animated one on their bunkhouse contraption, the Thingamajig.

And they will sing; no one this side of Roy Rogers can rustle up a cowboy chorus like this trio. Naturally the home audience, whom the Riders address as “buckaroos and buckarettes,” can sing along, following the bouncing buffalo or other Western character as it sprints along the printed lyrics.

It’s a far cry from the Ninja Turtles. One objective of “Riders in the Sky,” executive producers Thomas Lynch and Alan Sacks say, is to give new life to the singing cowboy B-Western genre.

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“It plugs into a collective unconsciousness that exists in this country,” explains Sacks, himself wearing cowboy duds. “I’m from Brooklyn, and yet I grew up hearing ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ and ‘Happy Trails to You.’ Every adult out there is familiar with that stuff, and we’re going to make every kid familiar with it.”

Riders in the Sky include Ranger Doug, Too Slim and Woody Paul. (These are the names on their parking spaces on the CBS/MTM lot; their real names, which they never use professionally, are Douglas B. Green, Fred LaBour and Paul Chrisman.)

Guitarist Ranger Doug, also known as the Idol of American Youth, carries on the upright cowboy hero tradition of Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger. He can also yodel and speak “horse,” which he learned from his faithful steed, Turbo.

Too Slim, who plays the bunkhouse bass, is the bespectacled loose cannon and a cook of questionable skill. (At the Harmony Ranch, the normal response to “Come and get it!” is “Do we have to?”)

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Blue-eyed fiddler Woody Paul, the eternal innocent, is always the last to get a joke. But only Woody can spin the magic lasso in which appear the opening titles of the cliffhanger serial. He also has a way with machines, some of which help the goofy good guys outwit Mr. Slocum, a greedy villain who plots to own all of Tumbleweed Valley.

Riders in the Sky are not a synthesized TV project, like the Monkees, or even a relatively recent musical phenomenon, like the New Kids on the Block. They have been successful concert and recording artists for a dozen years, with 13 albums and a close-knit international fraternity of fans. Their characters have been alive and well on a half-hour radio show, “Riders Radio Theater,” carried by 161 public-radio stations (including KCSN-FM (88.5) in Northridge) for more than two years. Their recently released Sony/Columbia CD, “Harmony Ranch,” is their second children’s recording.

Captivated by their live concerts, producer Sacks presented the idea for “Riders in the Sky” to Judy Price, vice president of children’s programming at CBS. She was initially skeptical.

“It is an old-fashioned show,” says Price. “But it does have very contemporary sensibilities. It’s the kind of thing we all want for our children: flesh-and-blood heroes doing things in a gentle, feel-good way.”

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While it’s not exactly “Sesame Street on the Range,” some lessons are cheerfully taught: finding the North Star, making art from objects found in nature, showing good manners around the campfire, and something called the Cowboy Way, a simple code of honesty and integrity. The cowpokes and their producers believe that it’s as good a philosophy as any for the 1990’s.

“The goal is to put on a contemporary, progressive show that has real values,” Lynch explains. “The Cowboy Way is something that’s so American, but it’s not being expressed on television. It’s a sense of decency, a sense of honor, a sense of love for your country.”

Ranger Doug agrees. “I guess we’re hoping that kids will enjoy a gentler, more humorous thing than just all super-action and superheroes--something that has real people that they can relate to and feel friendly with.”

For the Riders, who have spent years nurturing the lore of the singing cowboy, there is an extra thrill about working at CBS/MTM Studios.

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“This is where the old Republic pictures were shot,” beams Ranger Doug. “This is where Gene and Roy and the Sons of the Pioneers walked and delivered lines and made movies--this lot!”

“We were trying on costumes,” Too Slim adds, “and we said, ‘Pat Brady stood right here and looked in this mirror, and Hugh Farr was grousin’ about his hair over there.’ A lot of dream-come-true stuff.”


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