A ‘Today’ show for preschoolers

Alumnus Forrest Harding is one of the puppeteers that plays Chica the Chicken on Sprout’s “Sunny Side Up Show,” the only live mainstream preschool show in the U.S.

Before alumnus Forrest Harding became one of the puppeteers on “Sunny Side Up Show” on Sprout, he worked on “Trading Spaces” on TLC. | Margo Reed TTN
Before alumnus Forrest Harding became one of the puppeteers on “Sunny Side Up Show” on Sprout, he worked on “Trading Spaces” on TLC. | Margo Reed TTN

Sprout airs the “Sunny Side Up Show,” an educational live program for children, with four interchanging adult hosts and one furry yellow puppet, Chica the Chicken.

“Sunny Side Up Show” is an interstitial three-hour block of live segments linking Sprout’s other gold-standard shows like “Bob The Builder” and “Thomas & Friends” between the hosts interacting with Chica and the viewers at home.

Before Sprout launched the show in 2007, Temple alumnus Forrest Harding was working for production in reality TV for the TLC show “Trading Spaces.”  He received a call from a woman working for Sprout, seeking someone to work production on a new children’s show – someone who could be organized, have a creative mind and could also possibly play a chicken puppet.

“When I was at ‘Trading Spaces,’ I was not very happy,” Harding said. “When I moved back here and started working at Sprout, a reality is what I sort of found.”

At the time, Harding’s only experience in puppeteering was playing at home with his two children.

“I was always a production person,” Harding said. “I had done some acting in the past but never puppeteering. I had a sense I could do it because I did it for fun, but professionally it’s so much harder than it looks.”

Harding said the show’s original concept was to be like a Today Show for preschoolers.

“There has not been, and I think there still isn’t, a live preschool show in the U.S. other than ‘The Sunny Side Up Show,’” Harding said.

He accepted the offer and joined the show’s production team, beginning his career as a puppeteer.

Harding, along with two others hired to play the main character of Chica the Chicken, call themselves “chicateers.”

“Since it was a live show, we were tasked with having her be consistent, so the three of us had to all figure out exactly how she would be all the time – she couldn’t have a speaking voice since it was me and two women,” Harding said. “So we had to come up with the Chica-squeaker.”

Chica, who is still played by interchanging puppeteers, is voiced through the “Chica-squeaker” so that multiple people can play the character without sounding different.

The squeaker used for voicing Chica is a clown whistle Harding originally found online as a “mosquito whistle,” a small squeaker toy played through the mouth.

Depending on how it’s played, the Chica-squeaker can sound like a squeaking toy in a stuffed animal, a kazoo, or even words when the puppeteers use a specific technique of expanding syllables.

Chica is played alongside a human host each segment and they interact with the viewers by doing educational exercises, entertaining games and activities in addition to giving birthday shout outs and answering questions to those who submit online, all while linking Sprout’s other gold-standard shows throughout the 3-hour block.

The show airs seven days a week, from 9 a.m to noon, and promotes educational interaction with children 2-6 years old.

Throughout the segments, the hosts encourage viewers at home, with parental guidance, to send a message to Chica through the show’s website. The hosts then respond live to individual kids.

Sprout, the educational children’s programming network owned by NBC Universal, is approaching its 10th year running on air.

Chica the Chicken has become somewhat of a mascot and icon of Sprout.

Associate producer of “Sunny Side Up Show” and Temple alumnus Scott McClennen works one-on-one with the hosts to create entertaining themes for educational interaction.

“We really try and model what we do on the show after preschool curriculums,” McClennen said.

McClennen said a child psychological and educational consultant pitches ideas and key learning concepts to the team of associate producers who play Chica, including himself, and they rotate pitching ideas with the team of four hosts.

Segment ideas are always pitched to senior producers, educational consultants and the show’s legal department to receive approval for air-time.

Once approved, McClennen coordinates with the props and graphics departments to set up audio sessions for things like building original songs and sound effects for the show.

The April Fools’ Day segment featured “Opposites Week,” and focused on the differences between up and down, left and right, over and under, among others.

“On the show, we’ll think of either a craft idea we could do that will hopefully inspire kids at home to do with their parents, or come up with a game where we ask kids to stand up while watching at home and dance along with us to a funny song or something,” McClennen said.

Sprout began as a small local station based out of Philadelphia and because of its growth over the past decade, it has relocated to producing live shows at 30 Rockefeller Studios in New York City.

McClennen, who spent seven years in Philly during his time at Temple and working at Sprout, said he was sad to leave but happy to be growing with the network.

Harding has now been co-writing for Jellyman Productions’ “Carseat Stories,” an online series inspired by real conversations parents have with their children in the car, and also for Sprout’s “Ruff Ruff Tweet and Dave Show” since February.

Harding also said he was happy to grow with Sprout’s network and see the success of Chica.

“We were always the little guys and underdog network, then it led to more like me puppeteering as Chica at the Macy’s Day Parade, and that was so amazing,” Harding said.

Alexa Zizzi can be reached at alexa.zizzi@temple.edu.

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