Saturday, August 8, 2009

Grown-up reading (sorta)

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street

Davis' background as a journalist really shines through in this exhaustively researched look into the team behind Sesame Street. Spanning five years of interviews with cast and crew, Davis paints a painstaking picture of all the ins-and-outs, all the personalities, all the behind-the-scenes office politics that shaped this television institution. Pioneering the "edu-tainment" niche, Sesame Street was really the first children's show to take educational research seriously, incorporating PhDs on their staff and applying for educational grants to meet budgetary needs.

There's a lot of background info here... quite a lot on the earlier show, Captain Kangaroo. Warm and genial on screen, Bob Keeshan was a sometimes moody prankster on the set. A number of the writers and crew made the jump to Sesame Street when it started, and they brought lessons they learned from the Captain with them, mainly, that an ensemble cast would provide less headaches than a single, temperamental actor.

Jim Henson was probably the most widely celebrated Sesame Street contributor, with his furry, funny, wonderful Muppets. Davis also spotlights Children's Television Workshop founding member and Sesame producer, Joan Ganz Cooney and her struggles to be taken seriously in the "man's world" of television production in the late 60's and onward. I didn't know that Bob McGrath, one of the longest-running original cast members got his start as a Japanese pop-singing sensation! I was also unaware that Northern James Calloway, who played David on the show, had such a troubled history. Towards the end of his run on the show, his behavior became increasingly erratic as he struggled with manic-depression.

As I suspected, Sesame Street, especially in it's first decade on television, was a very collaborative effort. In the 1990's post-Barney era, the show floundered for a bit under new management, as the suits tried to micromanage the creative process, until finally hitting on a huge hit with Elmo. Considering the meticulous detail afforded to the early years of Sesame Street, I was a little surprised that even more energy wasn't expended in explaining the Elmo phenomenon but one can't blame Davis for running out of steam towards the end of this epic history. It feels odd to say it, but as long as the book was (and it is long) I did wish for a bit more info about most of the performers. Also, no mention of the Snuffleupagus controversy!

The final 100 pages are perhaps the saddest, beginning with the death of Will Lee, the actor who played the venerable corner-store owner, Mr. Hooper. From there, many of the other founding members passing, especially that of Henson, is covered in detail.

The book is being released in paperback this October.

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