Monday, February 2, 2009

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, by Michael Davis

I found this book at Borders the night I bought New Moon. Since I only had enough cash to buy the paperback, I wrote down the title, went to my library's website, and immediately put the book on reserve.

I got it the other day; it was such a new book that it was a 14-day loan. Still, when I saw the cover, I knew I had to read it.

I grew up during the Golden Age of Sesame Street. I loved the show so much, my childhood teddy bear is named Radar, after Big Bird's. I had a little Ernie doll that went everywhere with me, including Sister Kitten's baptism (I was three at the time). I also had Bert and Ernie finger puppets, as well as a plastic, full-size Bert puppet.

I loved the human actors as much as the Muppets. I grew up with Bob, Gordon, Susan, Maria, Luis, David, Olivia, and Buffy. My 3rd grade class got to see Bob perform live at the Bushnell. It was a sold-out performance, and the way all of those grade-schoolers acted, you would think that Springsteen was there. (BTW, yesterday's halftime show? AWESOME!)

Anyhoo, with that spot of childhood nostalgia in my heart, I picked up the book late Saturday night. When the author says that it's a complete history, he really means it. Years of research went into this book; Michael Davis not only poured over various magazine articles, he studied an extensive oral history of the Children's Television Workshop (CTW). He conducted many detailed interviews with many of the actors who have starred on Sesame Street through the years, and they were all very happy to give the project their blessing.

More importantly, Street Gang received the blessing of who many consider to be the mother of not only Sesame Street, but children's educational television as we know it today: Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of CTW.

The first few chapters provide not only a fascinating history of Sesame Street's origins, but also a very interesting tome about the fledgling first years of public television. So much was involved: government funding, endowments, private donations, and research, just to name a few of the factors that went into even getting a pilot approved for the program. The parts about PBS, funding, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are a little dry, but are absolutely essential in understanding how revolutionary an idea Sesame Street was back in the mid-1960s, when Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, who worked with the Carnegie Corporation, came up with the following question at a dinner party:

"Could television be used to teach?"
From there, Davis tells the story of how the Sesame crew came together, and the way it did was almost serendipitous. A few original producers once worked for Captain Kangaroo, and as I read their recollections of working with Bob Keeshan, the Captain himself, another part of my childhood died. I won't reveal too many details, but let's just say that Keeshan was not the easiest man to work with (as was another childhood icon, Buffalo Bob Smith, who also merits some recollections in this tome).

This book is very thorough in dissecting Sesame Street's history up until the 1990s, when various other children's programs started to air. (Barney? Blue's Clues? Dora the Explorer, anyone?) Davis almost glosses over the tumultuous period that CTW faced once counterprogramming to Sesame Street became popular. Still, at 379 pages, and with 40 years of history, this period may best be explored in another volume.

At various times this book brought a smile to my face, as Davis wrote about the events leading up to the episode where Luis and Maria were married. Yet there were also times when I found myself biting my lip. I remember, very clearly, the episode when Big Bird learns about Mr. Hooper's death. I was seven years old, and sobbed throughout the whole show. It aired on Thanksgiving day, and I also cried at various points during the turkey dinner.

Davis devotes a lot of this book, and rightfully so, to Jim Henson's role in the production of Sesame Street. I got the most emotional during the chapters that recalled Henson's death and subsequent funeral.

This was a very, very interesting book, and one that was written in very thorough, caring detail. Davis makes it very clear that everyone who ever worked on Sesame Street was passionate about the show and its role in educating children. I was left with a much greater appreciation about the hard work, research and development that goes into this show. I didn't realize as a kid that I was learning the ABCs, or even another language. I just viewed this show, as well as The Magic Garden, as a time to be among my favorite playmates.

And to me, Big Bird will always be the prominent symbol of Sesame Street. Elmo?!?! Elmo who?

***This book is the latest installment in two of my challenges: My 100+ Book Challenge, as well as my Support Your Local Library Challenge. Click on the buttons at the sidebar for all of the latest updates!!!***


rahul_PAAJI said...

It's Indian version is called Galli Galli Sim Sim :-)

drollgirl said...

sounds like a fascinating read!

my sister used to work for henson. it is quite a crew of dedicated, creative and fun people, but jim is missed VERY MUCH.

Vickie said...

Thanks for stopping by. I don't know why I am having the dizzys. Still dealing, but not as bad.

I remember watching Sesame Street as a kid. I still get a warm fuzzy feeling when I happen to pass it channel surfing. I love Elmo, so did my older daughter.

I can't believe PBS aired that sad episode during Thanksgiving!

The Blonde Duck said...

Stopped in to say hello! This looks like a great book!

Anonymous said...

Very cool, I'm definitely gonna read this one.

Kitten said...

Rahul: The book mentioned that Sesame Street has many international versions, but didn't talk much about it. I hope this author writes a sequel, because it would be great to learn more about what went into the international shows.

Drollgirl: The author doesn't directly state this, but you get the feeling from the text that no one at the Jim Henson Company has ever fully recovered from Jim's death, professionally or emotionally. He writes a lot about the sales to Disney and the company in Germany. You also get the feeling that the Henson Company is still lost without its leader, nearly 20 years after his death.

Vickie: One of the reasons they aired the show on Thanksgiving was that, the producers reasoned, families would be together to talk about it. Sadly, in my family, this reasoning backfired.

Blonde Duck: Howdy! Thanks for stopping by again.

Yaya: Let me know your thoughts once you've read this.

Jodi said...

Elmo was and still is trying to steal Grover's thunder! LOL!

My favorites are Grover and Ernie. I also was fond of Barkley.

This seems like a book I have to get for my hubby. We love Sesame Street. We own the Old School DVDs.

Bob is from NJ and about 5yrs ago my best friend and I took his parking spot at the Garden State Plaza Mall in Paramus. We knew it was him because we were following him to his car since we were in dire need for a spot. When he got in the car, we were screaming out the window "BOB!!" and he looked at us, smiled and waved as he was driving away. Too funny!

Amber said...

Aww, now that's one book I'm gonna hafta delve into myself. Big Bird will always be my hero. He's a major reason why I love yellow.

Kitten said...

Jodi: BARKLEY!!!! I loved Barkley! And I think Elmo is way too popular. Kitten doesn't like people who talk about themselves in the third person. ;)

How do you like the Old School DVDs? I've been thinking about picking up a copy for myself. Oh, and Bob is my favorite human on the Street. He seems like he's just as warm off camera as he is on.

Amber: I'm a Big Bird fan too. I read Caroll Spinney's memoir last year (he's the puppeteer who plays Big Bird). It's a charming little book. I will never forgive Elmo for stealing Big Bird's thunder.