Archive for January 13th, 2009


What I’m Reading: Street Gang-The Complete History of Sesame Street

The Complete History of Sesame StreetA while back I was listening to the MuppetCast, one of the many podcasts that keeps my attention to and from work, play rehearsal, and buying comic books. This week’s episode included an interview with Michael Davis, whose new book was about to hit store shelves. I didn’t need to listen very long to know I needed to read this book as soon as it came out.

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, is the most comprehensive volume I’ve ever read about the TV show that helped me get a head start in school. The earliest TV show I ever remember watching was Sesame Street— I watched for the Muppets, but I came away knowing numbers, letters, spatial relationships, and I learned them all from an eight-foot-tall canary and a green sock that lived in a trash can. Before I got to school, I was already counting. It may have been the most important TV show I ever watched.

For this book, Davis conducted hundreds of interviews with the people who have been involved with the show over the years — actors, writers, producers, musicians, puppeteers, and the friends and families of those same people. He starts with an absolutely heartbreaking depiction of Jim Henson‘s memorial service, before bouncing back in time to show us a father watching his young daughter transfixed by a test pattern as she waited for her morning shows to begin. From there, we go into chapters about the early lives of many of the principal players such as Jon Stone, Joan Ganz Cooney, Carroll Spinney and, of course, Jim Henson.

The book was very much an eye-opener for me. I knew who Henson was, of course — I consider the man the second-greatest creative force of the 20th century, right after Walt Disney. And Carroll Spinney was familiar — six-year-olds may not know the name of the man inside the Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch puppets, but 31-year-old me certainly does. But I never heard of Stone or Cooney before, never knew the story behind the heated rivalry of songwriters Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss, each responsible for some legendary songs (including the Sesame Street theme and Rubber Duckie, respectively, amongst many, many others).

Davis weaves the stories he got from his interviews into a tapestry worthy of a generational novel, tracing the earliest meetings that would eventually create the Children’s Television Workshop, how it would hit a home run with its first outing and try to follow it up with lesser shows, its struggles against the dark forces of Barney and Friends in the 90s, and up to the dominance of the force that’s called Elmo.

The book pulls no punches. While it plays up the talent and genius of everyone involved, Davis is candid about things like Henson‘s resentment at being branded a “children’s entertainer” and how poor behavior by early TV show hosts like Howdy Doody‘s Buffalo Bob and Captain Kangaroo himself, Bob Keeshan, helped to shape Sesame Street into the show it is. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner comes across particularly badly in this book, from the way he tried to shape an attempt to buy the Muppets from Henson in the 90s, then again after his death. Sure, in 2004 the buyout finally happened just the way Henson wanted it to, but if this book has a villain, it’s Eisner. And a particularly sad storyline running through the book involves the tragic self-destruction of actor Northern Calloway, who played David on the show in the 70s and 80s.

Even in tragedy, though, Davis manages to find the rays of hope that a show of this caliber should be known for. The passage devoted to the passing of actor Will Lee  — Mr. Hooper — is particularly moving. In fact, if I have any complaint about the book, it’s that I didn’t feel we got quite enough about the human inhabitants of the Street. Each of the principal actors is profiled in the book (except, bizarrely, Roscoe Orman, who has played the role of Gordon since season six. His profile is available at the website as a “bonus chapter.”), but as these are the faces I actually grew up with, I would have liked to learn a bit more about them.

Still, it’s hard to be too critical of the book. The stories told here are unique, invaluable things that I likely never would have known had I not read it, and I feel infinitely better off now that I know them. If you grew up learning with Bert and Ernie, playing with Big Bird, or even singing along with Elmo, take a look at this book. It’ll take you back to Sesame Street, but let you see it in a whole new light.

January 2009

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