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?