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Mariette, gentile Mariette

(ran TP edition)

It wouldn't be fair to call what Mariette Coulter does a cable access show.

Because French with Mariette, Coulter's twice-weekly program on cable channel 23 is something more.

Like a parallel universe. An alternate reality. Another planet.

In Mariette's world, everyone, including the Barbie dolls, wears pleasing shades of blue and green. Everyone, including the sock puppets, practices basic French _ but only the verbs.

And everyone, including the befuddled guest humans, sings Frere Jacques _ over and over and over.

For more than six years, Coulter's show has been a staple of Tampa public access cable, catching channel-surfers by surprise with its unique blend of mild disorientation, language instruction and color-coordinated props. The show's format is mystifying, and it has no set time slot, but even so, a sort of cult following has sprung up around it.

"People recognize me all the time when they see me," says Coulter, a Tampa grandmother who formerly gave French instruction to gifted children. "They say, "Oh, you're that lady who teaches French on television."'

To present her curriculum _ which after six years still consists solely of verb conjugations, usually in the past perfect _ Coulter relies on cut-out letters and a tattered textbook, Manuel de Langue Francaise par les Freres Maristes, published in 1931 with quaint pen-and-ink illustrations. The book was her high school text, but she says her French instruction began at the knee of her French-Canadian father when she was a girl in New Hampshire.

"He used to sing Frere Jacques to me and my sister when I was 5 years old. I grew up with my parents speaking French."

Coulter moved south in the 1950s to attend the University of Tampa. She met and married a fellow student, Robert Coulter, and raised two children in Sunset Park.

French With Mariette started in 1989 after Coulter returned from a Paris sojourn with Helene Roque, a friend who has since passed away. Coulter was participating in the taping of a senior citizens' program at the government access television studios near downtown Tampa, and a producer asked if she'd like to do her own show.

Not long after, a Tampa icon was born. Mariette learned how to run the cameras and taping equipment. She collected Barbie dolls for props and dressed them and herself in blue and green, colors she feels "look good on television." Snapshots of her trip with Roque became the opening sequence of French With Mariette: Pictures of the pair in front of Paris landmarks flash by while delirious, '60s-tinged music loops in the background.

Mariette also began wearing her trademark beret _ de rigueur equipment for a French teacher, non? The hat was a gift from a friend "who bought them from a Rastafarian in Jamaica."

Coulter carried on with her show, alone, for four years, until her daughter, Janet Stanley, moved from Atlanta to Tampa. It was then that creative tension crept onto the set of Mariette.

"She had perfected this new art form _ I call it still-life video," says Stanley, 37, a writer and actor who works with the Loft performance company. "She would focus on the Barbie Dolls and play music behind them. She would have them set up in a scenario and film them for half an hour."

Stanley added music and movement to Mariette, as well as introducing guests to the show (poet Susan Hussey appeared on one installment). She sits in on the Thursday afternoon tapings and pecks out tunes on her Casio keyboard.

"Before she would sing the songs a cappella," Stanley explains. "I thought the songs would be much more entertaining if she could keep the melody and the rhythm. I like to move the song along _ before she would just sing those songs forever. There's a clock in the studio, but it doesn't matter to her. She'll just be "ONE MORE TIME' _ she'll sing all 10 verses of that Alouette song."

Stanley calls her mom's show "performance art."

"Performance art is a good way to put it. It's the form, not the content, because all she ever teaches is the verbs. I'm trying to get her to move on to nouns. She tells me people are learning French, but all these people are gonna know is verbs."

Despite the show's apparent simplicity, Mariette puts a great deal of effort into its production. Tapings take about two hours, but according to Stanley, "she spends forever fiddling with those props."

In her free time, Mariette, 70, babysits for her son's two children and volunteers for several charities that help the elderly. A resident of Seminole Heights, she attends mass at St. Paul's Catholic Church every morning after her breakfast of "Coffeenog" _ coffee with a raw egg in it.

She also takes belly dancing and tap dancing lessons and plays with her pet ball python, Kah.

Mariette's other pets live with her in three salt-water aquariums that are mucky, dun-colored miniatures of her beloved Tampa Bay. When her children were young and she and her late husband lived in Sunset Park, Mariette led a protracted battle to preserve a little stretch of beach in the neighborhood.

Her scrapbook is filled with newspaper clippings that show her knee-deep in the water, holding up sea grass or crabs before crowds of school-age children. Although her fight to prevent development along the shore was lost, Mariette thinks she got many young people interested in the ecology of the bay, and is proud of her effort.

She is also proud of her show. No matter how the world changes, Mariette always has French.

"It's my language, and it's my show. Wherever I go there's someone who recognizes me. I feel like I have audience participation. I talk to the camera like there's someone there. It makes me feel good."