The television show that can appeal to children and make parents feel like they are good parents and upright citizens for showing it to their kids, that is where the money lies, my friends. Growing up I was not a discerning television viewer. I watched Mr. Rogers, Reading Rainbow, Pinwheel, Today’s Special, and a whole host of bad cartoons ranging from Space Ghost to that bizarre time traveling one that was basically just a half hour commercial for Laser Tag. There was maybe only one show amongst the batch that some part of my small reptilian brain recognized as better than the rest. I was an avid Sesame Street fan. I loved the show, the movies, the awful books they churned out (The Monster at the End of this Book excepted). Oddly, this love didn’t fade as I grew up. I still have a strange fascination with the world it created and years ago I purchased Sesame Street Unpaved to sate some of my curiosity. Who were these people who created my mental childhood home? Who were the actors? The puppeteers? The writers? Unpaved didn’t do much to answer any of that, aside from giving me choice nuggets like the fact that Bob was a teen singing sensation in Japan. So the time seems just about right for Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. Pulling in at a cool 406 pages, author Michael Davis has gone above and beyond the call of duty. And while I might have removed a chunk or two for the sake of svelting down the book as a whole, you will not and can not find a book that will better answer your questions about the birth of this most impressive of children’s television shows.
It began at a dinner party where a man launched into a speech about the vast unfulfilled potential of television. It began with a sentence from a psychologist: “Do you think television could be used to teach small children?” There wasn’t any answer to either of these points at the time, until Sesame Street formed. Sesame Street, the greatest educational television show for young children ever created, was the product of a lot of sweat, tears, and psychological blood. Under the care of Joan Ganz Cooney it found its legs. Performers like Jim Henson were brought on board. Actors and teachers, corporations and people who worked the streets of Harlem… there were people involved in its birth that would have no idea of its future impact. With a practiced eye author Michael Davis dives into Sesame Street’s world, bringing up everything from previous children’s programming to musical geniuses to the death of Jim Henson and beyond. An exhaustive, almost entirely complete, examination of the forces behind Oscar, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and even Elmo.
Picking up the book I admit that at first I did not much care about the people behind the scenes. In fact, if you are reading this book solely for the purpose of finding out more about Carol Spinney and Sonya Manzano, you may just want to start reading at Chapter Fifteen and not look back. I’d encourage you to reconsider, though, because when you get right down to it Sesame Street owed its very existence to the people involved in everything from Howdy Doody to Captain Kangaroo. From Ding Dong School to Tinker’s Workshop, from Kukla Fran and Ollie to Laugh-In (it makes sense when you think about it), all these shows played some small role in Sesame Street’s creation. And then you start to become involved with these characters pulling the strings. Joan Ganz Cooney wasn’t just the show’s mother; she was and is a truly fascinating woman in her own right. The kind of person who was, for example, Vin Scully’s date the night the Dodger’s won the World Series in 1955. Every person involved has stories like this one in their histories. And Michael Davis has done his best to sniff them all out.
Of course, if all you want is to know about is information on the performers, there’s plenty of that to go around as well. This book delves into the nitty gritty of everything from Northern Calloway’s (David’s) mental instability (and the real reason he died) to the Belgian born jazzman who plays during the show’s musical opening. You can find out how every guy on the show essentially thought that Maria (Sonya Manzano) was way hot. Or the fact that Bob really really WAS a Japanese pop star for a while there. There is an odd blip when it comes to talking about the third Gordon on Sesame Street, Roscoe Orman. Davis chooses not to talk about this major player in spite of the fact that he is the Gordon most children watching from Season Six onward think of when his name is said. As one of the early major players, his absence is an odd glitch in an otherwise complete collection.
A significant portion of the book is dedicated to the seemingly dull but strangely fascinating topic of basic funding for an untested hypothesis: Can television teach? Our new millennium renders such a question almost laughable. Duh, of course it can teach. But it wasn’t so evident pre-Sesame Street. So it is that for me, a child of the 80s, the book provides some background to those mysterious names that would appears before and after each episode of the show. Things like The Children’s Television Workshop, The Carnegie Corporation, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and (altogether now) viewers like you! Children of the 60s may have memorized commercial jingles but children of the 80s memorized funding contributors.
If this history does anything it may make you shake your head in wonder over the fact that so many different concerns (money vs. education) could successfully come together to create something as cohesive as Sesame Street. It reminds me of the creation of Casablanca. Now there was a script that went through so many hands, revisions, changes, and writers that it should have ended up some kind of unholy mess. Instead it’s one of the greatest movies today. Likewise Sesame Street had to run the gamut between corporations, funding entities, educational critics, artists (who would contend that all creative products had to avoid objective scrutiny) not to mention feminists, blacks, Hispanics, and other people who wanted a show to reflect an all inclusiveness never before seen on the airwaves. And credit where credit’s due, the show really didn’t become all that inclusive until people like women and Hispanics started to complain about their exclusion. So it is that Sesame Street stands as the last true legacy of the 60s. At least, until recently.
Because maybe one of the things the book does most perfectly is to provide a step-by-step explanation of why Sesame Street sucks today. For many members of my generation, a long lingering look at today’s incarnation of Sesame Street can be a painful experience. We see the princess fairy Muppet and cringe. We watch a little bit of Elmo’s World and experience sugar shock. I read through this book and I discover that in the past there was a team of in-house researchers who would regularly consult with the writers on what to produce for the kids. That prior to each broadcast the content was tested in daycare centers or Head Start classrooms for the children. And that after the shows the researchers evaluated the programs to see how effective they were to meet the shows “education goals”. Davis says that Sesame Street was “the first children’s television series with a bona fide curriculum and evaluation mechanism.” Is this still the case? When we consider a show that could combine the educational with the truly emotional, everything that happens on the current incarnation rings strangely false. I can’t imagine any writer talking about today’s Sesame Street saying: “There was birth and death, love and loss, courtship and calamity, pleasure and pain, all from a little show whose aims at first were simply to test television’s ability to stimulate the brain.”
Truth be told, Davis spends surprisingly little time considering the show in its later years. We know the changes it went through had something to do with Franklin Getchell. Something to do with the rise of Elmo. Something to do with the Tickle Me Elmo craze… actually a LOT to do with that. I was pleased as punch to read about the rise and fall of that brief attempt to expand the neighborhood with elements like a hotel and other places around the corner from “the street”. However, I was utterly unprepared for the revelation that Abby Cadabby, the Ally McBeal of the Sesame Street universe, was the direct brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney herself. That hurt. Now we have a show that is profitable, that can compete with Nick Toons, the Disney Channel, and other major competitors, but that somehow lost its way in the process. It met Barney head-on and then proceeded to emulate that horrid purple dinosaur. Not the happy ending one might have hoped for.
And none of this even touches on the millions of tiny details Davis has fearlessly worked into his book as well. Were you aware that Maurice Sendak sat in on some of the early Sesame Street planning seminars (and was bored to death by them)? Or that Mo Willems was the guy responsible for the look of Elmo’s World? Or there’s the fact that Cooney mistook Jim Henson for one of the Weathermen the first time she saw him. Or the fact that Frank Oz was able to turn Bert into “everyone’s idea of a blind date.” Or that Mississippi originally refused to run the show because it was “not yet ready” for a program where kids of different races played together. Or that Linda, who was deaf, really did have a library science degree just like her character. I could go on, really. But best that you find out some of this stuff for yourself.
In terms of the writing itself, as an author Davis plays with time and continuity like a child with a bouncy bauble. One minute you’re in the 1950s, then you suddenly leap forward to the 70s, and then back again to where you were when you started. One such example is when he mentions the Children Television Workshop on page 121 (I’m working off of a galley, so my page numbers may not match up to the final copy) and then doesn’t go about explaining what it is until page 127. The result is that you’re left with the impression that you must have missed something along the way. It also means that as an author Davis has decided to be consistent about names, which adds its own confusion. For example, Joan Ganz Cooney is always referred to as Cooney (her married name) even when we hear about her pre-married life, while Sesame Street is always called by that name rather than a generic “the show”, which makes the whole how-it-got-its-name section seem almost redundant (not to say, confusing).
Davis also has a penchant for a pretty bizarre turn of phrase. When discussing the hanky panky that went on behind the scenes he says with a straight face, “Philandering tends to rub the topcoat off a man’s soul. All it took was a look at the reflection in the shaving mirror to see the painful loss of luster. ” Hoo boy. Or how about the night Sesame Street was thought of, which involved some people having a dinner from a recipe in a Julia Child book. “Let history note, then, that Julia Child, public television’s grand dame, provided the savory sauce poured on the night Sesame Street was conceived.” But you can get used to it. Once you get into Davis’s style the words become enjoyable. Like describing Jon Stone’s attempts to sidestep “a water bug the size of a Sunsweet prune.”
Of course, the book is long. Too long, one might think. For a Sesame Street fanatic like myself, this is not a problem. I love diving into the minute details and the millions of tiny backstories. Others who simply want a comprehensive look at the show itself, however, may find themselves wading through a lot of information before they find what they want. So while I enjoyed every page in my own way, I concede that some judicious pruning would probably be in order.
In the end, the book makes for a perfect complement to the Sesame Street Old School: Vol. 1 DVD released a year or two ago. The information gathered in the book spills over nicely into the DVD. Now before picking this title up, I suggest that you figure out what kind of Sesame Street fan you are. If you’ve only a passing interest in the show, you may wish to skim this book. If you are a rabid fan, it will answer your every need. And if you fall somewhere in the middle you will find a book that answers your questions, raises even more, and though a bit long is a fun and satisfying look at a world that has passed. A world that did a lot of good in its day, and that will continue to charm in one way or another.
Notes on the Title: I’m just impressed that they got away with it. Seriously. "Street Gang” is almost too good. You’d have thought someone would have tried to have pulled the plug on it at some point in the process.
Worst Tagline of the Year: "The story of one of the most important and beloved shows on television – how it got started, nearly failed, and was saved by Elmo." Bypassing the usual complaints, this is just plain untrue. The "nearly failed" in the sentence makes it sound as if Elmo single-handedly rescued the show not long after its start. In fact the show did just fine for the first twenty years. The "nearly failed" should probably be changed to "nearly ended" and even then there would probably be a bit of debate. *sigh*
Other Online Reviews:
Listen to Michael Davis talk about the book on the Muppet podcast Muppetcast.
As you can see, Frank Oz approves of this book.
Aw. And he’s collecting people’s individual Sesame Street memories. For good or for ill, if you have one you should probably include it.
If any of you guys want to join me I’ll be heading over to the Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center on January 5th at 7:30 to hear Michael Davis, Carroll Spinney, Roscoe Orman (interesting), and one other bloke talk about the book. I’ll try to take pictures in case you can’t make it.
Author Michael Davis was on an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Shoot. Now I gotta go find out which one.
Not too long ago the book was used to test Denis Leary on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.
Wish I could go to that event he’s hosting for Sesame Street at 40. New Jersey, bah.
One last amusing fact… I mentioned The Monster at the End of This Book in this review. While checking the link I couldn’t believe my eyes. We children of the 80s complain about Elmo usurping Grover’s role. Was there ever any clearer evidence of it than this?