Monday, April 29, 2002

'Blue's Clues' puts on new host, new shirts

By John Kiesewetter,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Steve Burns is hanging up his green-striped rugby shirt on Blue's Clues today — and so could many of his young fans.

        When Nickelodeon replaces Steve today with his younger brother Joe (actor Donovan Patton), producers of the popular preschoolers' show also will change the wardrobe.

        Unlike Steve, Joe won't wear the same green-striped rugby shirt every day. Maybe young Blue's Clues fans will take the hint.

    What: Blue's Clues “Meet Joe” special

    When: 7-8:30 p.m. today on Nickelodeon

    Repeats: 10-11:30 a.m. Saturday on CBS (Channel 12).

        “We got a lot of feedback from mothers that said, "My child will not change his shirt,' ” says Brown Johnson, Nickelodeon executive vice president.

        “So we thought it was a good idea to allow Joe actually to have lots of different colored shirts.”

        Joe will wear red, green, blue, yellow or purple long-sleeved polo shirts, each with three squares on the chest.

        Today he wears green when Blue's Clues fans meet him in a 90-minute special combining three half-hour episodes (7 p.m., Nickelodeon). By the end of the trilogy, Steve will be away at college, and Joe will be living in Steve's house with his dog, Blue, and animated pals (Mr. Salt, Mrs. Pepper, Slippery Soap, Tickety Tock, Shovel and Pail).

        Joe seems just as friendly and helpful as Steve in finding Blue's “clues,” the blue paw prints on items that help solve the show's puzzle. But it wasn't easy finding someone who could match Steve's “deceptively simple performance” speaking directly to kids through the TV, Ms. Johnson says.

        “As we began our talent search for a new host, it became really obvious how many people just cannot host the show,” Ms. Johnson says. “From fresh-faced actors to seasoned pros, many just didn't have a clue, so to speak.”

Unanimous decision

        After 1,500 interviews, producers chose Donovan, 24, a 1996 graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan who had appeared on New York stages in Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing. The son of an Air Force officer, he was born on a Guam military base, and later lived in Germany and in various U.S. cities.

        Preschool-age fans, and their parents, also helped pick Donovan by watching audition tapes.

        “The research was really integral in selecting — the kids, the parents, everybody. Really, it was unanimous,” says Angela C. Santomero, Blue's Clues co-creator and executive producer.

        Or as Ms. Johnson bluntly puts it: “We cheat — which is to say that we test everything with preschoolers three or four times before we actually make the show.”

        Donovan says his ability to relate to young children comes from talking to his 5-year-old sister.

        “I have that experience playing with her, and interacting with her to be responsive and playful,” he says.

        Donovan's youthful Joe “has more of a preschool persona,” says Traci Paige Johnson, the co-creator, executive producer and designer who provides Blue's voice. He's more innocent than Steve, and indecisive about his favorite color, she says. (It's not easy being green.)

A daunting task

        Steve, 28, who has left the show for other acting opportunities, helped teach Donovan to act in front of the “blue screen.” Blue's Clues humans perform in a blue void before computer animators add the house, yard, dog and other characters.

        “I was a little daunted by it,” Donovan says. “(Steve) showed me the ropes a little bit, much like the character will be showing Joe the ropes around the show.”

        Blue's Clues producers will change more than clothes with Joe's arrival. New characters, colors, shapes and songs (including “a potty song”) will be introduced “to give kids kindergarten-readiness skills,” Ms. Santomero says.

        “We saw Steve Burns' retirement from the show as a chance to put Blue's Clues on a new course,” Ms. Johnson says.

        Even the “handy-dandy notebook” used by Joe to jot down clues has been redesigned. But the dog, and house, and game will remain the same in this next generation of Blues's Clues.

        “I like to think of it, as I'm the Patrick Stewart to his William Shatner,” says Donovan, using a Star Trek analogy.

        To millions of preschoolers, he'll just be an ordinary Joe. One that wears different colored shirts.

       Contact John Kiesewetter by phone: 768-8519; e-mail:


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