EXPIRED: 12/07/07 – Mark Ritts, 63, was a dirty rat. Seriously. With a Harvard degree.

Well, at least he played one on TV, much to the delight of kids all over the world.

Ritts played Lester the lab rat on the wacky children’s science series “Beakman’s World” and operated and voiced the puppet co-host Kino on the PBS children’s show “Storytime.”

He grew up in a household of puppeteers. Both of his parents ran Ritts Puppets, a popular TV act of the early 50’s.

When he started on “Beakman’s World” in 1992, he thought he’d be operating a puppet named Lester the rat. He showed up  to the set unaware that he would have to actually get into a rat costume and perform.

When the giant rat costume was brought in for Ritts to try on, the arms had not yet been sewn on. It looked so bizarre, they went with it, allowing the wierd lab rat the opportunity to sport a wide variety of ever-changing arm tattoos.

Instead of wearing a complete costume rat’s head, the bearded Ritts wore a whisker-sprouting rat nose with the elastic that held the nose on was a hundred percent visible. Ritts’ rat ears had what looked like bites taken out of them — one ear bore a metal lab ID tag — and the fur on the body suit had different-colored blotches. He looked like he had been experimented on multiple times.

Ritts made sure he was the perfect lab rat. And the kids loved Lester.

“Beakman’s World,” which began in 1992 in syndication and on the Learning Channel, moved to CBS, where it ran from 1993 to 1998. It is still in worldwide syndication.

During the ’90s, Ritts also voiced and operated Kino, the 7-year-old boy puppet, on the PBS reading series “Storytime,” winning a Los Angeles Area Emmy Award for his performance. He was also one of the writers.

For Ritts, it was an opportunity to work with a long list of celebrities who read children’s stories to the young viewers, including John Goodman, Tom Selleck, Ellen DeGeneres, John Ritter, Kirk Douglas, Little Richard and Kirsten Dunst.

Not bad for a rat with a degree in English literature at Harvard University.



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