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Originally published Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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All aboard the "Dinosaur Train," a new kids' show created by Seattle native Craig Bartlett

Seattle native Craig Bartlett, who created the kids' TV series "Hey, Arnold!" is back on the small screen with PBS' "Dinosaur Train," debuting Monday.

Special to The Seattle Times

On TV

"Dinosaur Train"

9:30 a.m. Mondays and 8:30 a.m. Saturdays on KCTS. Special two-hour premiere 8-10 a.m. Monday. Check local listings.

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Tonight in Prime Time

Take a toy dinosaur. Put it in a toy train.

Bang. You've got a surefire concept for a preschool television show.

"Dinosaur Train," a computer-animated, half-hour series premiering Monday on PBS, was born some years ago in such a moment of innocent inspiration.

"I was playing with my son, Matt, when he was 3 or 4," says the show's creator, Craig Bartlett, a Seattle native who lives in Los Angeles. "He was cuckoo for dinosaurs and trains. I watched him put the two together with his toys, and I thought, 'Boy, if you could build a show on that, you'd reach a lot of kids who also love those things.' "

It would be a while before Bartlett could do anything with his revelation. He spent the 1990s serving as a story editor, writer and director for the first season of Nickelodeon's "Rugrats," then created another popular animated series for the cable channel, the vibrant and very funny "Hey, Arnold!"

Bartlett went to work on "Unstable Fables: The Three Little Pigs" for the Jim Henson Company in Los Angeles. It was there, working with Brian Henson and Lisa Henson — son and daughter of the late Muppets creator and managers of the company he founded — that Bartlett found a perfect home for "Dinosaur Train."

The Hensons saw potential in "Dinosaur Train" for helping children, ages 3 to 6, develop scientific thinking while enjoying the show's lead characters: a young tyrannosaurus rex named Buddy and the pteranodon family that adopted him.

"We made the pilot last summer, tested it, and it was greenlit in September," Bartlett says. "PBS wanted it by Labor Day, so the pressure was on to write 80 11-minute stories [two per show] in less than a year."

Renowned paleontologist Scott Samson, who appears as himself in each episode to provide scientific context, also acts as an adviser to Bartlett.

"I'm consumed by facts about dinosaurs," Bartlett says. "When people at parties see me coming, they run the other way."

Born in Seattle, Bartlett moved with his family at age 12 to "a funky house on the beach" in La Conner, Skagit County. He spent his teen years largely alone, exploring Skagit Bay.

"I had a quiet, rich inner life as a kid," Bartlett says. "I had a canoe, and spent a lot of time in the woods. That ability to make my own fun fed my inner life, my fantasy life."

Bartlett found his niche at The Evergreen State College, which has attracted its share of famous cartoonists, including Bartlett's brother-in-law, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening.

Despite the rustic trappings of his youth, Bartlett's visual inspiration on "Hey, Arnold!" was the urban density of some neighborhoods in Seattle.

"People always thought 'Hey, Arnold!' was set in New York," Bartlett says. "But it was really places like Pioneer Square and the old Victorian houses in Seattle."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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