With the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street upon us, it's a good time to look back at "Street Gang," which chronicles the humble beginnings of the show. Michael Davis, a former editor at The Baltimore Sun, has written an insightful and entertaining tale about the iconic kids' show. Here's an excerpt from a 2009 Sun review by Diane Scharper:
The show came about in a perfect storm of creativity, need, idealism, serendipity and technology. As Davis tells it, that convergence began at a dinner party in the 1960s. Lloyd Morrisette, a vice president at Carnegie Corp., was talking about his 3-year-old daughter, Sarah, and her interest in television when he attended Joan Ganz Cooney's dinner party. Sarah had been so mesmerized by television that she learned to recite cereal commercials - what goes snap, crackle and pop - by heart.
Cooney, a little-known television producer, listening to Morrisette, wondered whether underprivileged preschool kids could learn numbers, the alphabet and concepts like over, around, under and through by using a jingle. Soon Cooney, with money from the Carnegie Corp., conducted a study of children's television, which found that television could use its expertise, especially with regard to frequent repetition, clever visual presentation, brevity and clarity, to teach children the basics.
Although her report was overwhelmingly accepted, Cooney was not considered experienced enough to be offered the position of executive director. Davis also notes that several people thought Cooney's duties as a married woman would preclude her from giving the project its necessary time. But after much protest and string-pulling, Cooney was finally given the top job. She would become the person most responsible for the show's success, mainly because of her management style and her sense of inclusiveness.
Davis says Cooney is one of those rare individuals who hires extremely competent and talented people and allows them the freedom to do their jobs. If nothing else, Sesame Street showed that women could be successful high-level managers at a time (1960s) when most women were encouraged to pursue only careers in teaching and nursing.
Cooney also set the precedent of including an integrated cast of real-life characters: Hispanic, black and Asian actors, senior citizens and the disabled - men, women and children. Cooney hired the brilliant puppeteer Jim Henson (a University of Maryland graduate), whose Muppets became the icons of the program. Davis considers Henson the key to Sesame Street's success. His touch established the show's "delicate balance between fun and learning."
Henson attracted other extremely talented individuals. They include puppet-artist Caroll Spinney, who plays both the sunny Big Bird and his opposite, Oscar the Grouch; and Frank Oz (Bert) who was like a brother to Henson (Ernie). Henson's protege, Kevin Clash of Baltimore, brought life to Elmo, the Muppet who has become one of the show's most popular characters. After nearly 40 years of steady broadcasting, Sesame Street has received more Emmy Awards than any other television series. And with over 77 million American viewers, it's also one of the most watched.