Stuuuupendous!

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HE'S PURPLE AND GREEN AND 6 FT. tall, with perfect TV-anchor teeth and bright yellow toenails. He has a doofy chuckle and a bouncy waddle, and when he isn't singing syrupy songs ("I love you/ You love me/ We're a happy family"), he has a habit of exclaiming, "Stuuuupendous!" He gets 10,000 fan letters a week, and his recent tour of America's malls had to be cut short because the frenzied tens of thousands who turned out to catch a glimpse of him created safety hazards.

He's Barney, a pudgy, fuzzy Tyrannosaurus rex who stars on the smash children's public-television show Barney & Friends. Virtually every day, some 2 million youngsters do not so much watch the show as enter into it, talking back to Barney, singing and dancing along with him.

With such a constituency, can the merchandisers be far behind? There are Barney dolls (shhh! It may be a surprise for somebody special, but President- elect Bill Clinton reportedly just bought a 4-ft.-high model from F.A.O Schwarz) as well as Barney bed sheets, books, earrings and underwear. JC Penney has opened Barney boutiques, which sell everything from jogging outfits to necklaces. "It's going to be the hottest toy this Christmas, because every two- to five-year-old child in America knows who Barney is," says Standard & Poor's toy analyst Paul Valentine. Next year Hasbro intends to market an 18- in.-tall talking Barney. Plans for a network-TV special, a Barney movie, a line of books and a record deal are all in the works. Watch your flank, Big Bird.

Unlike Big Bird's Sesame Street, Barney & Friends is a simple, slow-paced show, more like an after-school play group than a slick TV production. In each episode, a multicultural cast of children uses imagination to bring Barney, a small stuffed animal, to full-size life (embodied by actor David Joyner inside the purple-and-green suit, with Bob West providing the voice). Together the children and Barney spend 30 nonviolent minutes exploring a theme -- ranging from recycling to counting -- through song, dance, crafts and creative play. Says creator Sheryl Leach: "It has a magical simplicity to it that parents don't understand."

Many parents, in fact, want to throttle Barney as much as their children want to hug him. "The kids love it," says Leah Horton of Atlanta, a mother of three, "but you don't want to be in the same room when it's on." Cloying and sappy as Barney's manner seems to adults, it, like the rest of the amateurish production, is carefully calculated to keep a two-year-old transfixed. "We kind of have to say, 'Bear with us as we talk to your children,' " explains executive producer Dennis DeShazer, "because it is a mystery to a lot of adults."

But there is no mystery about the spell Barney casts on children. One Washington toddler wakes up each morning and greets his parents with an eager, "Hi, watch Barney." A four-year-old girl in Pensacola, Florida, who learned that Barney appears on TV while she is attending preschool, threatened to boycott school until her parents agreed to videotape the show for her. At a Connecticut elementary school, first-graders pay homage to a Barney poster on the door before they walk into the classroom.

Barney was born five years ago when former schoolteacher Leach could not find a video to hold her two-year-old son's attention for more than five minutes. One day, as she drove along a freeway, she got the idea for her own videos. "The thought was, How hard could it be? I could do that," Leach recalls. With her knowledge of kids, and with help from a father-in-law who owned a video-production facility, she joined with a friend, Kathy Parker, to develop Barney. He started out as a cuddly teddy bear but evolved ultimately into a snuggly dinosaur. Leach and Parker hawked the initial videos to preschools and slowly built a national following.

Then one Super Bowl Sunday, Leora Rifkin, 4, daughter of Larry Rifkin, a programming executive with Connecticut Public Television, pulled a Barney tape off the video-store shelf and went home to watch it. And watch it. And watch it. Seeing the magic, her father called Leach's company, the Lyons Group, and they teamed up to produce 30 PBS episodes, which started airing last April. When PBS considered canceling the show last summer, parental howls saved it. Now 20 new episodes, which will introduce another dinosaur character, are scheduled for next year.

Like many a superstar before him, Barney is learning that fame can be a heavy burden. A legal team is scrambling to quash a rash of Barney impostors. And grandiose plans to market and export the creature may, through overexposure, make him a victim of his own success. Still, not a bad fate, given what happened to the rest of the world's dinosaurs.