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Hey, This Huge Yellow Creature Isn’t Big Bird : The West African-Flavored ‘Gullah Gullah Island’ Is a Surprise Hit With Preschoolers on Nickelodeon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With children’s TV so often synonymous with cartoon violence, sappiness, know-it-all kids and dumb adults, Nickelodeon’s surprise hit show for preschoolers, “Gullah Gullah Island,” is as fresh as an ocean breeze--from its unusual setting in the West African-flavored Gullah region off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia to its uncloying celebration of family.

Packed with upbeat character-building messages, problem-solving lessons and just plain fun, the live-action half-hour show features a mom, dad, kids, neighbors and a giant yellow amphibian named Binyah Binyah Pollywog.

Each show’s title reflects its theme--"Yes I Can,” “Natalie’s Sick,” “Oops!,” “Grandmas and Grandpas"--and each revolves around such preschooler concerns as a parent’s illness, a new task or skill, a birthday or a new baby.

Viewers also go on field trips to island locales, meet local residents, discover flora and fauna and sing along with tuneful songs notable for their musical sophistication.

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The heart of the series, however, is the real-life married couple who play Mom and Dad, serving up some of the best TV parenting since “The Cosby Show”: Ron and Natalie Daise, whose comfortable warmth and seasoned performance skills have made them favorites with kids and TV critics alike.

“We get fan mail from parents and kids. . ,” Ron Daise began, ". . . preschoolers and grandparents,” Natalie finished. “One little girl said she wanted braids like mine,” referring to her trademark multitude of short, tight braids.

“An elementary school teacher told us he had his fifth-grade students watch every day,” Ron said, “and he gave them writing assignments to do. He said they liked how the family got along together because so many of them came from violent homes. For them to see an alternative way was really encouraging.”

It’s not that Mom and Dad are “perfect parents,” he noted. “I think our characters, as well as the children’s performances, give the show an authentic family setting.”

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“Daddy can get mad,” Natalie said. “Mommy can get sick. We like showing the humanity of the parents. Of course, we do burst into song all the time,” she added with a laugh. “But we really do that at home, too.

“We’re just sort of good guys on the show. Sometimes, because we’re parents, we’re firm good guys, but I think good parenting is being a good guy.”

Born out of a meeting the couple had with executive producers Maria Perez and Kathy Minton, the series, now entering its third season, was tailor-made for these two traveling performers, who really do make their home in the Gullah islands, and who have celebrated Gullah--an indigenous African American culture--through songs and storytelling since 1987.

“The producers and the network have been very careful with the culture,” Natalie said. “We’ve spent most of our performing lives as champions of cultural diversity and cultural celebration. To have been part of a show that was based in the community and not representative of the community would have been terrible.”

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“Gullah Gullah Island,” a nominee in this year’s NAACP Image Awards, is a true family affair: The Daises’ son Simeon, now almost 3, plays their on-screen toddler, and daughter Sara, 6, plays a neighbor.

Indeed, for all the show’s fun, the family-affirming interaction between the characters frames every episode. Hugs are plentiful and natural, a parental hand reaches out to gently stroke a worried brow, big brother James (James Edward Coleman III) is perfectly secure playing with baby Simeon.

Brown Johnson, executive producer and vice president of production and development for Nick Jr., which provides preschool programming for Nickelodeon, says breaking male stereotypes “in such a gentle way” is one of the series’ goals.

“You see that James loves Simeon and he will take him and show him things and sing to him and play with him,” Johnson said. “Ron changes the baby, he cooks. I think all the men on the show are really great role models. And how they treat women, it’s very benign.”

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No overt point is made of such nurturing behavior, however. “The writers are very much concerned,” Ron pointed out, “with making sure that our TV family, and therefore our viewers, learn things through discovery, without preaching.”

“We don’t have marital strife and the harder parts of life on the show,” Johnson said, “but in the episode where Natalie is sick, the kids are jumping around and making noise and Ron comes down and chews them out. It’s a slightly simplified version of life, but it’s not the goody-goody life one can encounter on other kids’ TV.

“Kids who watch, see the thinking happening, they get to share in how decisions are reached.”

(Johnson said other Nickelodeon shows with more anarchic content are for older kids, ages 6 to 11, “who understand why it’s funny when you get slimed and when the grown-ups are stupid. Little kids, they don’t know why that’s funny. It makes them nervous.”)

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“Gullah Gullah Island,” which premiered in October 1994, has obviously struck a chord with viewers, spawning the recent launch of a line of show-related books, audiocassettes and videos.

Indeed, after this interview at Nickelodeon headquarters in Universal City, the Daises were continuing a five-city tour in book and retail stores, performing with their polliwog pal Binyah.

The couple is finding that their new recognizability has had an unexpected effect, however.

“I was asked to do a show for Women’s Black History Month at a college,” Natalie said, “and I prepared a serious show. When I got there, all kinds of kids were there because ‘Miss Natalie’ was coming.” As a consequence, the Daises are adapting their own shows to be “more in tune with who our audience is now"--preschoolers.

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* “Gullah Gullah Island” airs weekdays at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Nickelodeon.


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