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Theater for the whole family

Even if you consider yourself an avid theatergoer, you could be missing out on scores of worthy plays, concerts and dance performances.

Plenty of kids, however, know all about them.

Children's theater doesn't get a lot of attention, but it's an important element of the season for many local venues and theater companies. For at least two local groups _ Bits 'n Pieces Puppet Theatre in Dover and Eckerd Theater Company (or ETC) in Clearwater, it's their reason for being.

Though the shows are marketed toward young audiences, parents who tag along find they're often just as enjoyable for adults.

"The parents are the ones who make the decision to buy the tickets and take their kids to the show," said Lee Ahlin, a Tampa playwright and musician, who has created numerous plays for young people and wrote music for the upcoming The Hundred Dresses. "And they're part of the audience, too. So you have to have some content in there that will entertain them."

Much of contemporary children's theater, Ahlin said, is akin to such films as Finding Nemo, which are full of jokes and references that amuse adults but go right over the heads of most kids.

Here's a schedule of some of the most promising performances aimed at young people and families through the end of the year.

SUNDAY _ The Emperor's New Clothes. Stages Productions, which often performs locally, presents its version of the Hans Christian Andersen classic. Part of the Mahaffey Theater's Young Children's Series, although it's being performed at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. Show time is 3 p.m. $7. (727) 822-3590.

SUNDAY _ The Big Bang. Portland Taiko, an award-winning Asian-American drumming ensemble, mixes storytelling with traditional drumming. 2 p.m., Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $8. (727) 791-7400.

OCT. 9 _ Alice in Wonderland. A touring production of the Lewis Carroll classic aimed at ages 3 to 5. 10 a.m. and noon in the Rehearsal Hall at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa. $5.50. (813) 229-7827.

OCT. 16 _ The Open Circle Players bring Brer Rabbit and His Friends: Tales From the South to American Stage in St. Petersburg to begin the fall Theatre for Families series. Refreshments are served after each 45-minute show. 10 a.m. $7. (727) 823-7529.

OCT. 16 _ Rumpelstiltskin. Central Park Players presents the classic tale about a magical and mischievous man with an odd name. 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., at Largo Cultural Center. $6.50. (727) 587-6793.

OCT. 17 _ Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats. Gravity-defying stunts mixed with comedy and magic. 2 p.m., Ruth Eckerd Hall. $12. (727) 791-7400.

OCT. 17 _ Mime Mask and Physical Theater with mask-movement artist Doug Berky. 2 p.m., Ferguson Hall at TBPAC. $6.50 to $10.50. (813) 229-7827.

NOV. 13 _ The Magic School Bus _ Live! A new stage version of the popular TV show. 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Ruth Eckerd Hall. $12. (727) 791-7400.

NOV. 14 _ Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Company. Comedy, dance, juggling and inflatable costumes mean a fun time for kids and adults. 2 p.m., Ferguson Hall at TBPAC. $6.50 to $10.50. (813) 229-7827.

NOV. 18-19 _ Peter Rabbit. Bits 'n Pieces resurrects its hit show from nine years ago at Tampa Theatre. The show features 9-foot-tall puppets. 10:30 a.m. both days. $5. (813) 659-0659.

NOV. 20, NOV. 27 _ American Stage will perform Who Put the Sea Serpent in My Soup? in a tour of schools this year but offers these two public performances of the adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story. 10 a.m. $7. (727) 823-7529.

NOV. 27-28 _ The Hundred Dresses. An endearing tale about tolerance and responsibility from Eckerd Theater Company. 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at Murray Studio Theater at Ruth Eckerd Hall. $5. (727) 791-7400.

DEC. 4, DEC. 18 _ King Island Christmas. This production by American Stage will feature 25 to 30 local children. 10 a.m. Dec. 4 at American Stage and 8 p.m. Dec. 18 at the Palladium. $7. (727) 823-7529.

DEC. 10 _ Holiday magic show. Award-winning magicians Mark Byrne and Erick Olson present an evening of family entertainment. 7:30 p.m. Largo Cultural Center. $6.50. (727) 587-6793.

DEC. 10-12 _ The Chocolate Nutcracker. Local students are the stars in this African-American version of the holiday classic. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10, 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11, 2 p.m. Dec. 12. $12-$17. Ruth Eckerd Hall. (727) 791-7400.

DEC. 18 _ "Children's Holiday Revue." A tour of the world's various December holidays, presented by the Central Park Players. 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Largo Cultural Center. $6.50. (727) 587-6793.

DEC. 18-19 _ "Sing-Along With Santa." This one isn't exactly theater but is sure to be a fun outing. (Santa brings a treat for each child.) 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Dec. 18 and 5 p.m. Dec. 19. American Stage. $7. (727) 823-7529.

DEC. 23-24 _ The Nutcracker. The Miami City Ballet performs George Balanchine's choreography at Ruth Eckerd Hall. $26-$40. (727) 791-7400.

DEC. 26 _ A Garfield Christmas. The sardonic and laconic feline learns the true meaning of Christmas. 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Ruth Eckerd Hall. (727) 791-7400.