Sunday, January 17, 2010

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

If you wonder why the sixties are characterized as such a volatile decade consider that 2009 marked the 40th anniversaries of such disparate events as the first moon landing, Woodstock, the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz––and another one that went less noticed by me since my kid is grown––the debut of Sesame Street. To mark that last one, Michael Davis's Street Gang gives us the entire history of the much-acclaimed children's program from its beginnings in 1965 as a dinner party discussion between Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd N. Morrisett through Elmo's surpassing of Big Bird as the show's biggest star.

This is not the kind of reading I normally purchase for myself, but as a Christmas present from a gal who was raised on the Street, as it were––my daughter––I found it quite enjoyable, kind of like reading People while getting my hair colored. As you can imagine, if all behind the scenes were as copacetic as on the set (Oscar the Grouch notwithstanding), it wouldn't make for a very interesting read. So Davis includes the disputes and envy, false starts and government intrusion, and the impossible to ignore tragic life and death of Northern Calloway (David). Thankfully, the author has the grace not to go into detail on things like the Hensons' divorce or other possible "juicy" but irrelevant tidbits.

Those of us who know the show only from the years spent watching with our children (which for me included the marriage of Luis and Maria and Gabby's birth) will enjoy the history of early children's programming, particularly Captain Kangaroo, the show that nurtured much of Sesame's seminal staff, much to Bob Keeshan's chagrin as he watched them all jump ship. It will also bring you back to an earlier time when the education of inner-city kids with programs like Head Start was a national priority. Indeed, Sesame Street that eventually became the program of choice for so many suburban moms like myself, was originally meant to serve as a sort of on-air Head Start program. Changes in national priorities in the mid-ninties were reflected in the temporary addition of "Around the Corner" "...a new array of spaces that seemed less like Harlem and more like any gentrified up-and-coming neighborhood in America." (p.321)

The thoroughness of this history is both its plus and minus. While Davis attempts to cover everyone who worked a puppet or wrote a word or a note of music for the show, there are far too many people to keep track of, and most of us reading are interested mainly in the big behind-the-scenes names like Jim Hensen and Carroll Spinney, or those actors who played the humans. Also, he insists on telling the entire life story––literally from birth––of every participant. After a while that got a little old.

Overall the book was a pleasant surprise and one I'm glad I had the chance to read.

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