Monday, January 6, 2003

'Berenstain Bears' find home at PBS


Just the bear essentials; that's what kids will find on PBS' new The Berenstain Bears cartoons (2 p.m. today, Channel 48).

They won't see Weasel McGreed, or any gangs of bears gone bad.

The new 15-minute cartoons will be drawn strictly from the 230 The Berenstain Bears books written and illustrated by Stan and Jan Berenstain over 40 years.

The Messy Room, Visit the Dentist, Go to the Doctor, Mama's New Job and many other titles have been adapted into 80 15-minute cartoons premiering nationwide today on PBS.

Kids (and parents) even will see the Berenstains' Too Much TV on public television. CBS refused to let them do a story about TV addiction when the Berenstains had a Saturday morning series in 1985-87.

"They told us: `You can't put that on (CBS), knocking television!' " recalls Mr. Berenstain, who writes the books with his wife. Both are 79.

When they met with PBS about this series, programming executive John Wilson insisted they do the TV addiction episode. Then he asked them to autograph some The Berenstain Bears books he had read to his children.

The Berenstains knew they had found a TV home.

"We wanted to get away from commercial television," says Mr. Berenstain by phone from his home in Bucks County, Pa., north of Philadelphia.

"CBS made us all kinds of promises. CBS wanted hare 'em scare 'em comedy shows, and we wanted to do shows based on our books. We ended up having to write (new stories for) an awful lot of the shows - and it was a huge headache," he says.

The children's book series illustrates simple, universal topics - manners, managing money, messy rooms, Mom's career, junk food and sibling rivalry. Many are based on the Berenstains' parenting experiences, or their grandchildren.

"The books are about normal, everyday events. They're about real experiences that kids have - even though they're bears," Mr. Berenstain says.

The Berenstains were drawing magazine cartoons when they approached Random House in 1962 about doing a children's book, The Big Honey Hunt.

Mr. Berenstain credits Dr. Seuss - also known as Theodore Geisel, editor of Random House's Beginner Books series - with making several crucial decisions that contributed to their success.

First, he shortened the authors' first names from Stanley and Janet to Stan and Jan, so they would rhyme. When they wrote a second book, he put a big label on the cover announcing: "Another adventure of the Berenstain Bears!"

The writers were puzzled. They had never made the connection.

"We were the Berenstains - and the bears were the bears. He kind of put us on the map," Mr. Berenstain says.

The Berenstain Bears, which have sold more than 260 million copies worldwide, continue to be a family enterprise. Their son Leo writes some of the stories, while son Michael illustrates them. It looks good for a third generation.

"One of our granddaughters can draw pretty good bears," Mr. Berenstain boasts. "But she's only 11."


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