‘Ernie’s’ AOL trip to ABC

“Santa’s Home Page,” born on America Online last Dec. 5-31, makes the jump from computers to traditional TV on ABC as “Ernie”s Chistmas Special.” It’s the first of many such shows from Brandon Tartikoff as chairman of the Entertainment Channel of AOL in the deal made with AOL’s Ted Leonsis.

When “Santa” bowed on AOL’s “Kids Only” channel last year, it created the Ernie character in “Santa’s Home Page” (written by Jenny Tripp) and attracted many onliners. Danny Krifcher, president and CEO of Greenhouse Network at AOL (of which the Entertainment Channel is a part), said Ernie received 50,000 E-Mails, and they had 162 people responding to letters sent to Santa.

Characters in the special will be created by Will Vinton of the California Raisins fame. But the animation will not be in claymation, rather in the mode of the current Nissan commercials that use dolls.

Tartikoff says, “When I was at NBC I was jealous Vinton took his characters to CBS.” Brandon took this special to ABC’s Marilyn Wilson and John Mass of William Morris put the deal together.

Why ABC? Because, said Tartikoff, AOL has a good relationship with Disney/ABC; also CBS already has several perennial Christmas specials and NBC tends not to do this type of special. Also, Disney has several forums on AOL and there are great possibilities of promotion possibilities, added Tartikoff — like kids writing the best letters to Santa and winning trips to Disneyland or Disney World. Tartikoff was as exuberant as a kid on this project, saying, “This is only the tip of the iceberg” — for transition from online to conventional network shows in his capacity as chairman of the AOL unit. He has also engaged Lightspeed Media (creators of “The Spot” and now owned by AOL) to launch projects in the fall with AOL. Tartikoff added, “Studios already want to be a part of the ‘secondary life’ in the world of online media.” The AOL ventures are in addition to Tartikoff’s other traditional TV and feature plans. How does he handle ’em all? “I come from a discipline of running NBC and Paramount — I’m more like an orchestra leader. I come from a world of juggling 20 balls.” But he was doing his juggling while back in the hospital Monday — “But it was just for a 1,000-mile checkup,” he said confidently.

ROBIN WILLIAMS CAN THANK Mike Farrell for the “Patch Adams Story” in which Williams will star for Universal. Farrell met Dr. Adams when both were on goodwill missions in Russia. He describes Adams as a doctor who often dresses as a clown, wants to create laughter wherever he is. Farrell and production partner Marvin Minoff took the project to Barry Kemp at Universal where Farrell’s wife, Shelley Fabares, toiled for Kemp in “Coach.” Kemp will produce the project with ’em; Tom Shadyac directs. Farrell and Minoff will also produce the feature “In Silence,” which they describe as the emotional story of a hearing child born to deaf parents. The duo also produced “Sins of the Mind” which airs June 11 on USA. In between these ventures, Farrell just returned from a 5,000-mile motorcycle ride across Australia. “I don’t like to ride in city streets,” laughed Farrell, who dodged snakes, kangaroos and emus instead. He broke his ankle en route across Oz, but friendly aborigines and cattle station people helped him achieve his goal. P.S. He’ll be on crutches here for several weeks.

TONY NOMINEE director Charles Nelson Reilly (“The Gin Game” ), Daryl Hickman and composer Peter Matz are readying a musical, “Sardi’s,” for next season. George McGarvey will design the sets. Sardi’s is Reilly’s regular hangout — nightly — when he’s in N.Y. “I even get my mail there,” he says. Reilly will sparkle up the first hour (on PBS) of the Tony telecast. The versatile Reilly next directs “The Student Prince” and “Die Fledermaus” operas, the latter with Dom DeLuise starring … “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” coming to B’way this fall, gets two hourlong presentations at the Broadhurst May 19 … Gwen Davis’ play “The Women Upstairs” (with her music, as well) got its first reading with Veronica Chambers producing, Helaine Head directing Monday at the Canon with Michael Learned, Marian Mercer, Joanna Cassidy, Cecile Hoffmann and Christine Rouner plus singer Michele Lawrence to an applauding industry-packed house … And Corky Hale, nabbing rave reviews in SanFran at the Plush Room of the York is now getting inquiries (to her agent Tom Korman) from N.Y.’s Algonquin and Rainbow and Stars … Harve Bennett receives the Dept. of the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal today for his five-year participation on the DOD’s national committee to commemorate the 50th anni of WWII. He is now exec producer (with Steven Spielberg) on “Invasion America” for the WB Network. Rory Lerman (27) daughter of the late Oscar L. and Jackie Collins, joins the literary ranks of the ladies in her family with her first book, “Charlie’s Checklist” (Orchard Books) — unlike the Collinses’ writings, this is a children’s book and young Lerman makes her only U.S. appearance (she lives in London) at Storyopolis May 10 when Joely Fisher (also second generation — Connie Stevens-Eddie Fisher) will be featured reader of the book … Liza Minnelli, who had to cancel a West Palm Beach date due to hip problems two weeks ago, is now skedded to re-start her U.S. tour May 13 at the Civic Center in Tallahassee … Marilyn (Mrs. Harry) Lewis is recuping after gall bladder surgery.

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