Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street
By Michael Davis
Viking / 384 pages / $27.95
Just the name Sesame Street evokes fond memories in almost everybody 40 and younger. Muppet characters like Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, and Elmo seem like family. And that, Michael Davis explains in Street Gang, The Complete History of Sesame Street, is no small feat.
As Davis, a former editor for TV Guide and The Baltimore Sun, tells it, this program changed the course of not only children's television programming but also of social and cultural history.
Davis, who spent five years interviewing nearly everyone connected with Sesame Street, focuses primarily on the show's founding and early years. He looks carefully at how the show got its start; how it was influenced by other early children's television programs like Captain Kangeroo, The Howdy Doody Show and Ding Dong School; and how its founders laid out its guiding eclectic philosophy.
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.
As Sesame Street prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary in November, the show seems as youthful, creative, energetic and effortless as it did when it was first broadcast in 1969. Although Street Gang sometimes feels overreported, it never gets too heavy, thanks to Davis' lighthearted style, which seems inspired by the show itself. Davis writes puns, tells jokes and uses a narrative drive as he weaves profiles of the show's major players with Sesame Street chronology. Davis writes with such vivid details that one can almost see the brownstone houses and the furry, feathery, fresh-faced Muppets with googly eyes talking to human friends like David, Bob, Gordon and Susan.
There's Big Bird learning of Mr. Hooper's death and asking Susan the childlike question: When is he coming back? There's Buffy Sainte-Marie discreetly breast-feeding her baby boy and Big Bird asking whether that's all he'll ever need to eat. There's Bert singing his rubber duckie song, and Oscar praising the joy of trash, and Kermit offering his plaintive rendition of "Bein' Green." Even the (unintelligible) conversation of the Twiddle Bugs seems to echo through the years.
"[Kevin] Clash began experimenting with a falsetto voice that he had used from time to time. 'But I really didn't find Elmo's soul until I took a trip home to Baltimore, back to the kids in my mother's care. That's where I found his innocence, his positiveness, and his sweetness.' "
Diane Scharper is co-editor of the anthology "Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability," winner of the first Helen Keller international memoir competition. She teaches English at Towson University.