Saturday, December 5, 2009

Book Review: Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, by Michael Davis

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, by Michael Davis

It all started with a conversation among friends.

Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist and vice president with the Carnegie Corporation, was a guest at a Manhattan dinner party in 1966 hosted by Tim and Joan Ganz Cooney. The evening's conversation naturally turned to television, given Joan's profession as a producer at Channel Thirteen and Lloyd's interest in the medium from a funder's and a parent's perspective. His 3 year old was fascinated with TV.

He wondered aloud about whether TV could be used to entertain and teach kids, even ones as young as his daughter Sarah.

There were other children's shows prior to Sesame Street - such as Ding Dong School, Kukla Fran and Ollie, Captain Kangaroo (which gets a lot of ink in the first third or so of the book), and Romper Room - but as Michael Davis writes in Street Gang:

"Sesame Street came along and rewrote the book. Never before had anyone assembled an A-list of advisers to develop a series with stated educational norms and objectives. Never before had anyone viewed a children's show as a living laboratory, where results would be vigorously and continually tested. Never before in television had anyone thought to commingle writers and social science researchers, a forced marriage that, with surprising ease and good humor, endured and thrived."
The book opens with a vivid description of Jim Henson's funeral on May 21, 1990. Those passages and all in between represent an extensively researched and very, very detailed book (Davis even includes the page number from the Julia Child cookbook where one could find the exact boeuf bourgieonne recipe that Joan Ganz Cooney, who would later become the founder of Sesame Street and the head of the Children's Television Workshop, made that very night of her dinner party).

Throughout Street Gang, Davis meticulously takes his reader through each step leading to Sesame Street's creation, which did not happen immediately. It would be three years from the dinner party before the first episode of Sesame Street went on the air.

For as much as the brownstones of 123 Sesame Street are the backdrop for a carefree and breezy day, getting there proved to be anything but easy. There was funding to acquire (and in several cases, much convincing of project's worthiness to the bigwigs who controlled those foundations' coffers). And there was the question of who would be the executive director of Children's Television Workshop, the head honcho in charge of bringing the as yet unnamed show to life. The logical choice would have seemed to be Joan Ganz Cooney herself.

But Joan wasn't on the minds of many. Her perceived lack of experience for the executive director job - despite doing exhaustive research and writing the concept of what would become Sesame Street, travelling around the country meeting with everyone from esteemed academicians to kids in day care - was almost secondary to the fact that she was a woman. (Again, remember the times. We're talking the late 60s, and even though the women's movement was making strides, we still had a ways to go in the corporate echelons.) The perception was that a project headed by a woman couldn't be taken seriously and attract the funding it would need to get off the ground ($8 million dollars, a hefty sum back then.) Not to mention the discussion about whether Joan was a good choice for the position because she had the audacity to be married.

Even casting the human characters (not to say that the Muppets aren't akin to people) wasn't a cakewalk. For example, just five months before the show was to begin taping, the cast hadn't been assembled yet.

What's interesting about this is that almost everyone on the show had some connection to another Sesame Street cast member - and that several initially said no (sometimes firmly) to an offer to become part of what was originally perceived to be just another children's show. (Think of the quality of children's television back then, and it's understandable to see why actors who were already established with solid credentials were reluctant.)

Street Gang is, for the most part, a fascinating and satisfying glimpse into the world of children's television, the development of the various beloved Sesame Street and Muppet characters we all know and love, and the episodes such as the death of Mr. Hooper that will live on forever. Michael Davis gives us all the stories behind the stories - the workplace dynamics, the personal lives of everyone involved (including, in several cases, their sad and tragic deaths).

Perhaps the most fitting description of the timeless quality of Sesame Street is this quote from singer/songwriter James Taylor, who appeared on the show as Jellyman Kelly in 1983.
"Elsewhere on television, there was a corporate Novacain that crept up and killed spontaneity. Television doesn't trust spontaneity because it's not reliable. The wonder of Sesame Street is that it has never tried to wrap children up in cellophane. It's as if the show has been saying, 'Come on and
join the real world,' helping children relate to that world. ...
Kids particularly need to find a vision of themselves that works in the world, a way in which they can tell themselves, 'Yeah, there's a place for me. I can go through and make it.' They need to know this daily, and in time it all comes together. And it's not only about children, it's about us as grown individuals and how we see ourselves, how we react and what kind of internal myths and self-images we construct for ourselves out of what's available. It's what our
culture is.
I find it amazing how much Sesame Street has offered of that essential process, and what a wide range of people it offered it to, a hugely inclusive group. Always in a joyous way." (pg. 253)

After reading Street Gang, I believe even more that Sesame Street is a national treasure, that those of us who grew up watching it (and "The Electric Company") are so lucky and all the more richer for having this experience. I'll even go as far to say that this is one factor that distinguishes those of us whose formative years were in the early and mid-70s with today's generation of professionals who were weaned on the likes of Barney.

(I know, I shuddered too.)

I believe that we will not see the likes of "Sesame Street" again, given the corporatization and marketing driven nature of today's children's programming and the erosion of childhood itself.

Street Gang pays homage to a show that represents a time when we were all a little more innocent, a little more trusting, and the world was full of sunny days and a community to help us sweep the clouds away.

I got Street Gang from the New Releases shelf at the library.

What Others Had to Say (and Other Interesting Sites):

Although I read Street Gang in its printed version, I learned that the audio book is read by Caroll Spinney (perhaps better known as Big Bird). How cool is that?

Michael Davis' website for Street Gang is

New York Times Book Review (I love the quote in this that describes Street Gang as the definitive book on Sesame Street, one that allows the viewer to touch Big Bird's feathers.)

Shelf Life


Niksmom said...

Awesome review! I can't wait to read it. I love Sesame Street. Wish my Nik liked it as much as I do...he can't seem to get into it. :-(

Florinda said...

I have the book in TBR Purgatory right now; I bought it a couple of months ago after reading an excerpt via the Email Book Club. I'm really glad to know you liked it so much!