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Wednesday, October 25, 2000

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
The Cookie Monster pays a visit to
congratulate Jeffrey Watanabe.

paves way for
‘Sesame Street’

Attorney Jeffrey Watanabe
has been named chairman
of Sesame Workshop's board

By Treena Shapiro

Back in the pre-Elmo days, Honolulu attorney Jeffrey Watanabe would not have guessed that he would be a part of the nonprofit organization that produces "Sesame Street" and other educational children's programming.

"Never, not in a million years," he said. "If you had said that to me when my children were first watching 'Sesame Street' 25 years ago, I would have said you were crazy."

But Watanabe, a Big Bird and Elmo fan and a senior partner with the law firm Watanabe Ing & Kawashima, has been named chairman of the board of trustees for Sesame Workshop, known until last year as the Children's Television Workshop. He replaces co-founder Lloyd Morrisett, who held the position for 31 years.

Hawaii has a long relationship with the educational nonprofit, Watanabe said. In the early 1970s, the Children's Television Workshop was one of the companies that started Oceanic Cablevision. When Oceanic was sold to Time Warner Inc. 15 years ago, the workshop used its proceeds to set up an endowment used for making major investments.

Watanabe, 57, got involved because his law firm represented first the Children's Television Workshop, then Oceanic Cable.

In 1982, Watanabe was asked to join the board of trustees of the Children's Television Workshop, and for the past 18 years has been traveling to New York about once every three months. The new position will increase the frequency of his travel, but he calls the responsibility a "long labor of love."

Two of his "Sesame Streeter" children live in New York, he added.

The board's responsibility is to set the strategic mission for the organization, Watanabe said. While he does not get involved with the co-productions in foreign countries, he does get to watch them. "It's such a unique institution. We're all over the world now," he said.

With co-productions in South Africa, Egypt, China and Israel, language could prove a barrier, but "if you're a Sesame Streeter, you don't have to understand the language because it's familiar," he said.

As "Sesame Street" has branched out into other countries, its format has remained the same, but some themes have changed. In the version for Israel and the Palestinian territories, for example, there are two streets. "Palestinian kids have their own street. For the Israeli kid to go to visit a Palestinian kid, they have to be invited," Watanabe explained. The show is multilingual, in Arabic and Hebrew with a little Yiddish.

Even the Muppets are different, Watanabe said. "Different cultures react differently to different Muppets," he said. But, "every once in a while you will see one that you will recognize as being a cousin of Elmo."

In addition to "Sesame Street," the Workshop recently launched the animated program "Dragon Tales." Its older shows -- "Electric Company," "3-2-1 Contact" and "Square One TV" -- are still aired on the Noggin channel, a joint venture between the Workshop and Nickelodeon. The Workshop's name change reflects its expansion from television into publishing, software, compact discs, toys and even food, Watanabe said.

Watanabe, who is also chairman of the Consuelo Zobel Alger Foundation and sits on the boards of Hawaiian Electric Industries, American Classic Voyages, Grace Pacific Corp., First Insurance Co. of Hawaii and Oceanic Cable, said he recognizes the importance of his involvement with the Sesame Workshop. "We touch the most valuable asset that any country has: its children."

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