Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Streetby Michael Davis
The New York Times bestselling account of the story behind one of the most influential, durable, and beloved shows in the history of television: Sesame Street, moving to HBO this fall
“Davis tracks down every Sesame anecdote and every Sesame personality in his book . . . Finally, we get to touch Big Bird's feathers.”/i>/i>/i>/i>
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The New York Times bestselling account of the story behind one of the most influential, durable, and beloved shows in the history of television: Sesame Street, moving to HBO this fall
“Davis tracks down every Sesame anecdote and every Sesame personality in his book . . . Finally, we get to touch Big Bird's feathers.” —The New York Times Book Review
Sesame Street is the longest-running-and arguably most beloved- children's television program ever created. Today, it reaches some six million preschoolers weekly in the United States and countless others in 140 countries around the world.
Street Gang is the compelling, comical, and inspiring story of a media masterpiece and pop-culture landmark. Television reporter and columnist Michael Davis-with the complete participation of Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the show's founders-unveils the idealistic personalities, decades of social and cultural change, stories of compassion and personal sacrifice, and miraculous efforts of writers, producers, directors, and puppeteers that together transformed an empty soundstage into the most recognizable block of real estate in television history.
People rarely look to find reality in TV shows, but to escape it. Sesame Street, the first educational program for children, is a happy exception, and Davis's true stories about the imaginary neighborhood only enhance the show's noble mission as well as its tone of frantic, fantastic realism. Looking beyond children's favorites of the 1950s-Captain Kangaroo, Howdy Doody, Miss Frances' Ding Dong School-four pioneering individuals asked, in 1965, "Do you think TV could be used to teach children?" Those pioneers-Tim and Joan Cooney and Lloyd and Mary Morrisett-would go on to helm "the world's most influential children's program," despite a lack of experience (Joan became an executive director with "no credentials except a BA in education"). Well-researched details and an unflinching eye make Davis's book continuously fascinating; beyond perfectly human tales of alcoholism, disease, psychotic breaks and affairs, he reports that Caroll Spinney, the man who would fill the towering, bright yellow Big Bird suit, weighed 42 pounds in the second grade and "answered to the nickname PeeWee." Davis also chronicles the barriers Sesame Street broke through, hiring women in powerful positions, reaching out to the black community with an "inner city ambassador," and addressing formerly taboo topics (breast-feeding, death) with care and sensitivity. Any grown-up fan will relish this account, gaining an even greater appreciation for the cultural contributions of Kermit, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and all their neighbors. B&w photos.
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Caroll Spinney (
Joseph L. Carlson
“Davis tracks down every Sesame anecdote and every Sesame personality in his book. . . . Finally, we get to touch Big Bird’s feathers.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Davis writes that when the show débuted, in 1969, the goal of its creators was nothing short of righting ‘the inequities in our society’ through the education of lower-class preschoolers. Such populist choices as an urban setting, a multiracial cast, and a catchy brand of ‘edutainment’ reflected both the mood of the era (it should ‘jump and move fast and feel and sound like 1969,’ a producer said) and painstaking research: a series of seminars held in the summer of 1968 was attended by developmental psychologists, television-industry insiders, and children’s authors and entertainers (Maurice Sendak endured boring sessions by making X-rated doodles; Jim Henson’s sandals and beard sparked fears that he was a Weatherman).”
—The New Yorker
“It was a pleasure to spend some time back were everything’s A-OK.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Street Gang is informative, heartbreaking, hilarious, and often eye-opening, even for the most Sesame Street-wise . . . Davis is a sensitive and subtly brilliant writer who conveys the soul of the program that has earned more Emmys than any other in history while managing to stay true to its founders’ idealistic vision: ‘All children deserve a chance to learn and grow. To be prepared for school. To better understand the world and each other. To think, dream and discover. To reach their highest potential.’”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Davis shows just how revolutionary [Sesame Street] was, from its tackling of taboo themes like death to its diverse cast and gritty urban setting. Boasting a panel of academic advisers, it was the first show to successfully teach kids letters and numbers in a way that was hip and raucous. Davis delves into the lives of the colorful folk who made it all happen, including Children's Television Workshop cofounder Joan Ganz Cooney and Muppets creator Jim Henson. . . . Davis's chronicle is as joyfully compelling as Sesame Street itself.”
“Davis writes with such vivid details that one can almost see the brownstone houses and the furry, feathery, fresh-faced Muppets.”
—The Baltimore Sun
“A fascinating page-turner chock full of juicy revelations.”
—Atlanta Journal Constitution
“Davis culls insights from the show’s creators and cast to serve up this painstakingly detailed history of television’s most famous address.”
“The author’s swift narrative—the product of hundreds of interviews—is essentially a Dumpster dive into Oscar’s trash can of cast stories. . . . A sensitive, honest account that could jog fond memories even from the amnesiac Street denizen Forgetful Jones.”
—Time Out New York
“Well-researched details and an unflinching eye make Davis’s book continuously fascinating.”
“Anyone who has ever seen Sesame Street as parent or child—or both—will love the detail and exuberance of this book.”
“What I appreciate about Michael Davis’s new book on Sesame Street is the depth of his research and how he spotlights those people who deserve to have more light shed upon them for their great contributions to the show. And what’s refreshing is how he does not run away from conflicts that sometimes occurred behind the scenes, which were part of the creative energy of the show. He has really captured the spirit of how Sesame Street came to be. A wonderful book.”
—Frank Oz, film director and original performer of Bert, Cookie Monster, and Grover
“This marvelous book reads like a novel and reminds us why and how Sesame Street came to be the national treasure it is . . . for all of America’s children, even the ones my age.”
—Linda Ellerbee, producer, Nick News and co-host of NBC News Overnight
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
Joan Ganz Coney walked toward the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street, lost in a fog of grief. Ahead were the crenelated parapets that crown the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a Gothic Revival Glory on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Black limousines lined the curbside, clogging the street, as NYPD officers waved their arms in a futile effort to get vehicles moving. The sidewalks were overrun by pedestrians, hundreds of them, all moving toward the cathedral steps. Cooney walked alongside mothers with toddlers clutching Ernie dolls, students playing hooky from school, executives in crisp suits, Midtown secretaries in heels, Latinas in scoop-necked tops, and bohemian types sporting jeans, running shoes, and long ponytails.
It was May 21, 1990, five days after Jim Henson, her friend and creative partner since 1969, had died from a runaway strep infection gone stubbornly, foolishly untreated. There was no other word to describe his passing other than shocking, and it was played just that way in the papers and on the nightly news. People who didn't know him wept as if a favorite uncle had died, that subversive adult who sat with the adults at Thanksgiving but would have preferred dinner at the kids' table. They came out in force for the public memorial, filling the vast, vaulted sanctuary, even more than the organizers of the event had anticipated. Some five thousand attendees filled the pews, standing in the antechamber and spilling into the aisles. The overflow was so great that people had simply dropped their backpacks, folded up their strollers, and sat on the hard stone floor.
Clustered row upon row near them were mourners bound by their years together working for and with the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), the nonprofit corporation Cooney helped build. Cooney took a seat next to Christopher Cerf, one of the founding fathers of "Sesame Street."
From the alter, the congregation was an impressionistic canvas, dappled with a profusion of spring green. That was to be expected. Just as teams, tribes, and nations have representative colors, Jim Henson owned Kermit green.
Cooney's thoughts wandered to Kermit and the early days of "Sesame Street." Reminders of that time were everywhere. Sitting nearby was Frank Oz, who in 1969—Sesame's debut year—became a Henson protégé, having joined the Muppets right out of high school. For more than twenty years, Oz had been uptight Bert to Henson's mischievous Ernie, the straight man of the odd-couple comedy duo. On "The Muppet Show," their roles had reversed; Oz was outrageously pushy Miss Piggy to Henson's pushed-on-the-brink Kermit.
At no time had Jim Henson's disparate worlds collided quite as markedly as at this memorial. Over to one side was Henson's friend Harry Belafonte. A humanitarian and artist, Belafonte had appeared on "The Muppet Show", where he introduced "Turn the World Around," a joyous, syncopated African folk melody that would be part of the day's program.
Not far away was Lorne Michaels, who gave the Muppets a weekly showcase during the audacious first season (1975) of "Saturday Night Live" at a time when the ambitious Henson feared he might be trapped for eternity in children's television. Henson's talent manager, Bernie Brillstein, saw to it that that never happened. Brillstein, who signed John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, and Gilda Radner, was like a second father to Henson, a Jewish one.
In the late 1980's, Henson had separated from his wife, Jane, the mother of his five children. For most of his career, he had been more married to his work than to Jane, and a relationship that began when they met as students at the College Park campus of the University of Maryland withered. Henson was known to work around the clock in the studio when a production deadline loomed, and his travel schedule and a list of business commitments would have seemed unreasonable to most. He seemed happier and more fulfilled away from home, but he craved time with his two sons and three daughters.
As a single man, Henson had his pick of staggeringly beautiful companions. Daryl Hannah, who had flown in from California for the service on a private jet and now wept softly in a pew, had been one of them. Henson went through a Hollywood stage in his late forties and early fifties, shedding his bohemian wardrobe for goods from Rodeo Drive. His beard was neatly trimmed and his hair styled for an appearance he'd made with Kermit on the late-night Arsenio Hall Show, just two days before he died. Complaining of a sore throat in the greenroom that day, he was uncharacteristically flat and slow on the uptake during the interview segment. Henson used the occasion to plug an upcoming special shot at Disney World in Orlando and to introduce Clifford, a new Muppet musician working with Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the house band from The Muppet Show. African American puppeteer Kevin Clash gave voice and performance to Clifford, he of the fuchsia dreadlocks, sunglasses, and vocal delivery that was distinctly urban contemporary. Clash was sensational, bantering with the black comic as the audience howled.
Henson seemed to enjoy it as much as anyone, and he looked relieved to have Clash carry the load. It was Henson's final televised interview.
Chris Cerf lost a dear friend and comic collaborator in Henson. Walking into the memorial, he was numb with grief, but being surrounded by his CTW colleagues was a comfort. Only months earlier, "Sesame Street" composer-arranger extraordinaire Joe Raposo had been laid to rest, dead at age fifty-one from complications of lymphoma.
Cerf composed tunes for "Sesame Street" as well, half-silly, half-sophisticated parody numbers. As the son of Bennett Cerf, the witty cofounder of Random House, Chris had used his book-world DNA to create the first paperback library of "Sesame Street" books. He was also sly and unpredictable, which made him a perfect fit for Henson's extended family of mirth makers. Cerf provided many good times in Sesame's freewheeling formative days, when an elaborate prank would reduce Henson to a puddle.
Cooney knew that everything about "Sesame Street" had been unalterably turned upside town the minute Jim Henson was declared dead at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 16.
In his final hour, he twice went into cardiac arrest, as the raging infection shut down his organs and left him struggling for air, surrounded by strangers. The cause of his death was Group A streptococcal pneumonia, an infection that probably started with that sore throat he complained about in Los Angeles the night of the Arsenio taping. A timely course of penicillin would have saved him, but he chose not to seek medical help until it was too late. Henson, whose mother was a practicing Christian Scientist, had considered calling a faith healer, but, after hours of feverish decline, he finally acceded to be taken to the hospital. Around 4 a.m., Henson's publicist Arthur Novell received a phone call in San Francisco. "Oh Arthur, I'm not feeling well," Henson rasped. Sensing danger, Novell arranged for a Manhattan car service to pick up Henson at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Henson, whose organs were failing, walked to the lobby and got into the limo. Precious minutes were lost as the driver pulled up to a door at New York Hospital that was three-quarters of a block away from the emergency entrance. More time was lost when Henson sent the driver on his way, insisting he could walk to the ER. There was no arguing with him. For all his exceptional attributes, Henson was a willful, unyielding man who almost always got his way. This served him well in business, where he could wear people down.
Jim Henson was a genius, and not only for reinventing puppetry for the television age and for inspiring a raft of characters that make you smile just thinking about them. Henson was a genius businessman, as well. His only flaws might have been an inability to stay within budget for his feature-length films and his unwillingness to fire people when prudence would have suggested he should do so. He always found someone else to take that responsibility.
"Puppetry," he once said, "is a way of hiding." At six foot three and perpetually bearded to cover acne scars, Henson was defined by bemusing and often baffling contradictions. He was shy by nature, yet his creations were explosively silly and spontaneous. Often reticent and contemplative, at times he eagerly played the Pied Piper, organizing one of New York's most outrageous annual costume parties. He spoke of simple pleasures but had a taste for European casinos, costal vacation homes, and four-star dining. He lived large but, as a proto-environmentalist, talked of protecting a small planet's shrinking resources. He embraced and celebrated life exuberantly and spread acres of joy but suffered through at least one major depression after his fantasy film, The Dark Crystal, bombed at the box office and was dismissed by critics.
Henson was deeply unhappy and fatigued in the months leading up to his death. Many believed he sensed that he would not live to see grandchildren, pointing to a plan he had drawn up five years earlier for the public memorial service as evidence that he believed the end was near. It was included in letters left behind for each of his children, in which Henson indicated a burning curiosity about the afterlife and an eagerness to reconnect with the dead, and assured the children that he would be waiting for them "on the other side." He also asked his survivors to bring everyone together for a few songs and stories, insisting that guests avoid wearing funeral black. As a son of the South and a jazz fancier, he requested that a New Orleans-style band play "When the Saints Go Marching In." He requested that the proceedings be entertaining and light, hoping that friends and colleagues would provide laughter in large doses and silliness worthy of the Muppets.
Henson wrote the letter three years before he began working—without a contract—for The Walt Disney Company. Doing so, some believe, was the beginning of the end.
Disney CEO Michael D. Eisner waited for the proceedings to begin alongside Frank Wells, his No. 2 at the company. In the late 1980's, Eisner had been clever enough to see that Disney's cast of classic characters aimed at the very young, such as Mickey Mouse and Goofy, were being slowly supplanted in children's hearts by fresher, hipper icons. Eisner and Wells had pledged a huge pile of Disney dollars—a sum estimated to be between $100 million and $150 million—to purchase Henson's production company and library of film and television properties. The price included ownership of the boisterous, satirical, and sometime sardonic puppet ensemble that had made The Muppet Show a worldwide sensation, but it did not—and would not—include the Muppets Henson had specifically created for "Sesame Street."
Henson believed there was no entertainment company better suited than Disney to perpetuate such multidimensional characters as Miss Piggy, the porcine diva; Fozzie Bear, the clueless comic; and hectoring balcony critics Statler and Waldorf. Disney's litigious history of protecting its characters in the stuff of Hollywood legend. Under Eisner, the company once sued the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over an unauthorized Oscar appearance by an actress portraying Snow White.
Cooney knew Eisner to be cold, arrogant, and insistent when he was in pursuit of a creative property. She was not pleased with his predatory forays into "Sesame Street." Her gut churned as she considered how miserable Eisner had made things for Henson in his final months. Henson's gentle manner masked a steely shrewdness—you could not budge him if he didn't want to be budged—but Eisner had been surprisingly relentless in the Henson campaign. Cooney—a courteous woman who had persuaded senators and top philanthropists to do her bidding, who had stared down cancer, and who was married to a private-equity mogul who could quite possibly arrange to buy the entire Disney company if push came to shove—was not intimidated by his tactics.
Cooney held Disney in high regard but regarded the company's merchandising arms as competitors in the marketplace of character-licensed toys, games, and consumer goods. She was convinced that Eisner would not be satisfied until his deal with Henson was sweetened by ownership of the Sesame Muppets, which generated an estimated $15 million to $17 million annually in licensing and merchandising fees split between Sesame Workshop and Henson Associates, Inc. In 1969, Henson had waived his performance fee for "Sesame Street" in exchange for full ownership of his characters, agreeing later to split any revenue generated by them.
In time, both organizations depended on that revenue for survival. By 1990, CTW had long shed its dependence on government and philanthropic grants, gaining its financial independence by building and sustaining a formidable endowment. Henson Associates, notorious for going over budget on productions, stayed afloat thanks to the huge popularity of its characters and the public's hunger for Muppet-licensed bed linens, apparel, computer games, action figures, books, CDs, and other products.
By 1989, after building his company from a husband-and-wife operation out of the trunk of his car into one of the world's most recognized entertainment brands. Henson was eager to return to a simpler existence of creating and performing. Disney had offered a way to cash out, and a letter of intent, by which he would have sold his privately held company to the California-based entertainment and media colossus, was already signed.
But after months of legal process, during which Henson had commenced working for Disney without a consummated deal, lingering doubts began to plague him. As media analysts were hailing the merger-in-progress as "a business association made in entertainment heaven," discord bubbled just beneath the surface at Disney Studios in Florida and California. Henson's employees, accustomed to his benevolence, creative freedom, and camaraderie, were suffering from massive culture shock in their day-to-day dealings within Disney's rapacious negotiate-everything hierarchy. They referred to their new working environment as Mauschwitz.
Beyond that, Henson was beginning to chafe at provisions in the deal for his exclusive personal services and for the rights to any future characters he might create. These were not unreasonable demands from a company about to dump an armored carload of cash at his door. But regret clearly was setting in for a man who valued creative freedom and independence how Henson felt, and she believed the whole situation was causing him immense grief and contributing to his lack of physical resistance. Henson felt that he would be Disney's highly compensated but indentured servants for the rest of his life.
What the business-page pundits and entertainment insiders never quite sniffed out about the stalled marriage had its roots in Eisner's covetous yen for the Sesame Muppets. Despite Henson's refusals to discuss the matter, Eisner wouldn't let up. Cooney recalled how early in the winter of 1990, Henson had invited her to attend what he described as a peace luncheon with Eisner, at which he wanted to put the matter to rest once and for all. She remembered how charming Eisner had been, how well the lunch was proceeding, until she looked over at Henson and saw that he had become upset over a stray remark of Eisner's in which he discussed the Sesame Muppets as if he might own them. "There you go again," Henson said to Eisner, blood rising up his neck. Cooney had never seen Henson that agitated.
It was that day that the dispute became bitterly personal. "It wasn't about business anymore," recalled Frank Oz, Henson's longtime creative partner. "It was about what Jim believed in, the simplicity and purity of the characters. There was a bit of anger in him about this, and he was not an angry man."
Henson believed that even though he owned the trademark to them, the Sesame characters really belonged to children, and he did not want those Muppets to be exploited. In his mind, they were in a special protected category and he was their caretaker. The thought of Eisner trying to hijack them bred no small amount of mistrust and ill will. "There was no way in hell that was going to happen," recalled Oz.
According to Cooney, Henson came up with a plan in late winter and early spring of 1990, vowing to her that he would change all the paperwork necessary to ensure that ownership fo the "Sesame Street" Muppets would be transferred to CTW upon his death. The split in licensing and merchandising would continue, but the trademark would rest with Cooney's nonprofit corporation.
That Henson died before his intentions could be codified in a legally binding document was a bitter pill for Cooney to swallow. She knew that a time would come, very soon, when she would have to engage in a blink first showdown with Eisner and the Disney machine over this issue. But today was not the day to dwell on that, no matter how the fear kept impinging on her mind.
Today was a day to remember and celebrate Jim.
Just then, the service began, not with an invocation but rather with the howling, growling strains of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a Dixieland band flown in especially from New Orleans for the occasion—just the way Jim wanted. To the measured refrain of the old Negro spiritual "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," Jane Henson and her children led a twelve-minute processional as the dirge filled the cavernous holy space with the blat of a tuba, the squawk of a muted trumpet, the squeal of a clarinet. It was music meant to send the spirit of James Maury Henson soaring to that great good place.
"Sesame Street" began as a flash of brilliance that struck like a bolt from the gods. Cooney was its mother of invention, while Lloyd N. Morrisett, a well-connected vice president at the Carnegie Corporation, was its financial godfather. Sesame's moment of conception occurred at a dinner party at Cooney's apartment, when Morrisett and his wife were discussing how their three-year-old daughter, Sarah, had become transfixed by television. She would sit in front of a test pattern at 6:30 a.m., waiting for the cartoons to appear at 7:00. It was the same thing millions of kids were doing all across the country, an image that confounded Cooney.
Within days of that dinner, Cooney, Morrisett, and three other contributors engaged in an outpouring of ideas on how to master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them. "What if?" became the operative phrase. "What if you could create content for television that was both entertaining and instructive? What if it went down more like ice cream than spinach? What if we stopped complaining about the banality we are allowing our children to see and did something about it?"
Over the summer of 1967, Cooney would crisscross the country testing the idea of a daily show for preschoolers that would teach basic school-readiness concepts. With her confident and persuasive writing style, the former reporter, drew up a proposal that, with Morrisett's skillful maneuvering and networking, secured a $1 million grant from Carnegie and millions more from the federal government, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Ford Foundation.
Then, with her funds secured, Cooney began to assemble her team, a talent roundup that would, after Sesame's first season, result in three Emmy's, a Peabody, and the cover of Time.
Henson loped in to provide the missing alchemy in the summer of 1969. Test audiences of preschoolers in Philadelphia had rejected live-action sequences shot on a mock urban street, with trash cans on the curb and laundry hanging from tenement windows. But that was before Henson began sketching a bird puppet that would be so oversized that a six-foot-tall man, hiding within it, would be required to work its long neck and mouth with an outstretched arm. And that was before the idea arose to have a contrarian, ornery puppet pop up from inside one of those trash cans and provide a grouch's view of everyday life. And that was before the idea arose to allow two best-friend puppets—one playful and upbeat, one overearnest and square—to provide comedy in the classic mode of Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, Martin and Lewis. In the history of show business, there probably never was a straighter straight man than banana-yellow Bert, the paper clip collector and pigeon fancier.
It was Henson who helped the grandest and ambitious experiment in children's television find its legs. That those legs were yellow and attached to a curious eight-foot canary is not the oddest part of the story, by a long shot.
Henson's touch helped definitively establish "Sesame Street"'s "delicate balance between fun and learning," as he once described it. Cooney understood from the show's earliest days, back before it became a brand of excellence here and around the globe, that using television to teach the alphabet and counting to twenty would have been a noble effort, but not nearly as much fun, without him. Henson's influence also helped to create the two-tiered audience that was essential to Sesame's vast and immediate appeal. Kids watched in rapture, but parents watched, too, often laughing to the winking references to pop culture, song parodies, and outrageous puns that came out of the mouths of the Muppets.
Henson was the key, but he wasn't the only visionary among the early architects of "Sesame Street." There was a whole gang of them, many of whom, curiously, had first names beginning with J, the letter that has acquired a near-mythical statute through the thirty-nine years the show has aired on PBS.
Besides Joan Cooney and Jim Henson there was the seductively handsome, multitalented Jon Stone, who as writer, director, and producer drew the cast and crew under his spell and established a creative atmosphere of risk and turst.
There was scriptwriter-composer-lyricist-poet Jeff Moss, a sometimes difficult but always passionate contributor to the show.
Finally, there was Joe Raposo, the musical prodigy who provided "Sesame Street" with its signature sound and sing-along melodies that endure to this day.
In those early years there was an Arthurian round table of other remarkable souls—logicians and artist, dreamers and pragmatists, folksingers, storybook illustrators, and bow-tied PhDs—all gathered with a singular purpose. They came together at a star-crossed moment in American life when people of means who lived in comfort chose to dedicate their energies to the less fortunate and the forgotten, the rural poor and the underprivileged of the urban ghettos. Sesame succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings and, in doing so, changed the world, one child at a time.
These memories, and memories of Henson in particular, washed over Cooney as the service got under way. She was consoled by the knowledge that Henson respected her as he respected no other woman in his professional life. Their affectionate, trusting bond was mixed into the mortar that held together every brick of "Sesame Street." She smiled as she recalled what Henson had said once about their relationship: "What we had was like a marriage. Lots of valuable time together and no sex."
Now, for the second time in less than a year, she was burying one of her "originals." The previous February had seen the death of Raposo, the gregarious, name-dropping, often bewildering talent whose final, tortured years were cursed by cancer. In a twist that seemed almost too much to bear, a television tribute to Raposo was scheduled to air on PBS hours after Henson died. Cooney watched it in bed and cried throughout.
She had also been in tears listening to Jon Stone earlier in the day, speaking about Henson from the pulpit. "I don't remember exactly how Jim and I met," said Stone. "it was in nineteen sixty-three or sixty-four. But from the moment we met, we were never very far apart. For me, the early hours of May sixteenth were a living nightmare. One by one, all of us heard the unhearable. And we all must have had the same reaction: This is an epic mistake."
Stone, overwhelmed, barely made it through his brief remarks. As he walked off, all eyes were on Big Bird, who walked toward a grand piano. Through the years, Stone, a stickler for preparation and prompt rehearsal, had grown impatient with Caroll Spinney, a puppeteer who could easily access his inner child. Spinney, who since Day One of "Sesame Street" had provided voice and movement for sweetly quizzical Big Bird and hypercritical Oscar, was marvelous on his feet. But he had an antipathy for studying his lines, preferring to read them fresh, often after he had already stepped into Bird's awkward and confining costume.
But on this day, there would be détente between director and performer, and Spinney left no dry eyes with Bird's aching rendition of "Bein' Green," the anthem to self-acceptance written by Raposo.
Just before Big Bird trudged off, he looked skyward and said, "Thank you, Kermit."
(Photo credit: Nick Raposo)
The big guns were summoned for an appearance by Lena Horne, standing between Joe Raposo and Jon Stone. Jim Henson cradled the puppet known as Fat Blue.
(Photo credit: Joan Ganz Cooney)
"The creator and longtime leader of the Children's Television Workshop, Joan Ganz Cooney, has consistently advocated for high-quality, even-handed programming in public broadcasting. Her brainchild, Sesame Street, remains the standard for educational television around the world, and has helped to produce a generation of Americans who embrace the values of tolerance, cooperation, and compassion." —President Clinton (9/95)
In awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1995, President Clinton said, "Joan Ganz Cooney has proven in living color that the powerful medium of television can be a tool to build reason, not reaction, for growth, not stifling, to help build young lives up rather than tear them down."
What People are saying about this
Davis culls insights from the show's creators and cast to serve up this painstakingly detailed history of television's most famous address. --Time.com
The author’s swift narrative -- the product of hundreds of interviews -- is essentially a Dumpster dive into Oscar’s trash can of cast stories... a sensitive, honest account that could jog fond memories even from the amnesiac Street denizen Forgetful Jones. --Drew Toal, Time Out New York
Well-researched details and an unflinching eye make Davis's book continuously fascinating. --Publishers Weekly
Anyone who has ever seen Sesame Street as parent or child -- or both -- will love the detail and exuberance of this book. --Booklist
Davis spins an evocative, insidery tale out of the wildly creative personalities and political ups and downs of the cozily delivered show. --The Washington Post
“Davis tracks down every Sesame anecdote and every Sesame personality in his book…Finally, we get to touch Big Bird’s feathers.”—James Panero, New York Times Book Review
“Davis culls insights from the show’s creators and cast to serve up this painstakingly detailed history of television’s most famous address.”—Time.com
“The author’s swift narrative—the product of hundreds of interviews—is essentially a Dumpster dive into Oscar’s trash can of cast stories…a sensitive, honest account that could jog fond memories even from the amnesiac Street denizen Forgetful Jones.”—Drew Toal, Time Out New York
“Well-researched details and an unflinching eye make Davis’s book continuously fascinating.”—Publishers Weekly
“Anyone who has ever seen Sesame Street as parent or child – or both – will love the detail and exuberance of this book.”—Booklist
“[Michael] Davis’s chronicle is as joyfully compelling as Sesame Street itself.”—People Magazine, Caroline Leavitt
“Davis is a sensitive and subtly brilliant writer who conveys the soul of the program that has earned more Emmys than any other in history while managing to stay true to its founders' idealistic vision: ‘All children deserve a chance to learn and grow. To be prepared for school. To better understand the world and each other. To think, dream and discover. To reach their highest potential.’”—The Philadelphia Inquirer, Judith Fitzgerald
Meet the Author
Michael Davis was a Senior Editor and family TV Columnist for TV Guide from 1998-2007. A Neiman fellow, he has also worked for the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Sun-Times.
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Reading this new book from former TV Guide editor Michael Davis is a good first step.
In a breezy and engaging style, Davis takes Sesame Street not only back to its beginnings, but back to the disparate roots of the core creative team who brought it to life. From Joan Ganz Cooney's childhood in Arizona and early experiences working for NYC's Channel 13, to the early genius displayed by Jim Henson on "Sam and Friends," to kiddie classic "Captain Kangaroo" where Jon Stone, Sam Gibbon, and Dave Connell all got their start, Davis spends so much of the book covering how these people *got* to Sesame Street that by the time the show actually begins airing on Nov. 11th, 1969, you're about halfway through the book.
Not that this is a bad thing; for many of this book's readers, "Sesame Street" has simply been a fact of life, and kiddie TV forerunners like "Howdy Doody," "Ding Dong School," and "Captain Kangaroo" are novelties to be dredged up in random clips on YouTube. It's kind of like looking at one of those charts where they show the evolution from apes to humans.
There's plenty of juicy behind-the-scenes stuff, and Davis manages to strike a tone where he's neither writing a fluff piece (though his love of the show is very evident) nor trying to tear down an American pop culture icon. (The truth behind the slow decline and death of actor Northern Calloway, who played David in the '70s and '80s, is finally revealed here, and it's incredibly tragic.) The hurdles required to get the show off the ground, and keep it going in its early years are immense and well-documented. As "Sesame Street" prepares to enter its 40th season on the air, it's hard to imagine that there was a time where they weren't even sure if there'd be a second year.
There's probably more detailed books about the history of "Sesame Street" and the Children's Television (now Sesame) Workshop out there, but "Street Gang" is really accessible, and a quick read. A must-read for anyone who's waxing nostalgic about that part of their childhood. If anything, it'll deepen your appreciation of a show many of us grew up on.
Listen,the book is called street gangs because the author is telling how it would be like if your were part of the gang of the sesame street people,HES NOT TALKING ABOUT STREET GANGS LITERALLY!thank you.
Uh oh does not sound too good( blahhh)
First of all, the book is talking about Sesame Street not street gangs. Second of all, not all minorities are involved with gangs. America was built on imigrants. That is why we're called "The Great American Meltingpot". I'm sorry to spout off like this, but it's comments like that that make my blood boil. P.S Linda Bove inspired me to learn ASL.
Great book by Mr. Davis it explains the truestory of why sesame street anyone who grew up in the 70s will love this book i highly reccomend it to anyone who loves sesame street and gets the theme song stuck in your head will like it Angelina
ITS ABOUT SESAME STREET, NOT GANGS!!!
This is a wonderful book that brings back many memories of watching Sesame Street as a child. No one can duplicate the amount of thought research and love that went into the making of this book.
Street Gang, by Michael Davis, is filled with great information and is good for anyone wanting to take a trip down memory lane. I read it for a history paper and the information and details inside were phenomenal. The book is also great for leisurely reading. Even if I weren't writing the paper, I would still read the book. I'm giving it to my English teacher tomorrow to read! I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to go down memory lane.
I can't think of a better Christmas gift for your booklover than a copy of Street Gang, and just in time for Sesame Street's 40th anniversary! Any fan of Sesame Street will love this trip behind the scenes. Street Gang details Jim Henson's friendships, brilliance and imagination. Melissa
I have read just about every book that is out there about Jim Henson, Sesame Street, and the Muppets and I learned more from reading this book than I did from reading all of the others. I loved reading how all the business deals went and everything that goes into securing funding for Sesame Street. There is so much work that goes on behind the great specials and amazing television and reading in-depth about it was wonderful. There were so many things I didn't realize that happened or was going on to make everything work! This is absolutely a must-have for any Jim Henson, Muppet, or Sesame Street fan.
Michael Davis lovingly takes the time to give each family member his due tribute. He has painstakingly researched an amazing amount of information and relayed it in a very enjoyable form. I devoured this book like it was a double chocolate cookie and I was, well, you know who. I have to admit that the first thing I did was turn to the photo pages mid book. I wondered who the heck Lloyd Morrisett and those cute babies were. Why was Captain Kangaroo in the book? And good grief, I couldn't decide if Jim Henson looked wiser as a serious teenager or as a bearded adult. My favourite pictures are of the cast and puppeteers sitting around that famous stoop in front of the brownstone. There is a warmth that radiates in particular from a photo of a young boy giving Oscar the Grouch a kiss, believing in the muppet while a girl on the top step giggles from her vantage point of the puppeteer doing his magic to bring Oscar alive. This for me pretty much summarizes the feel of this book. As a kid I totally believed there was Sesame Street somewhere. As an adult I have no problem marveling at the effort and artistry it took to make Sesame a reality. With the telling of its story Michael Davis does not destroy the illusion. He just adds another dimension to our enjoyment of Sesame Street. There are not too many things in this world that get better in the explaining. Thank you Michael Davis for this wonderful book. This review was brought to you by the letters M and D and by the number 10 out of 10.
I really enjoyed Street Gang and found it well written, thorough, and vividly descriptive. It was funny, touching and, clearly, exhaustively well-researched. I loved all the juicy details about the many players involved in bringing this ground-breaking series to the screen. Sesame Street was social engineering at its finest - not just for teaching ABC's and 123's but for the way it portrayed people of different backgrounds living, working and playing together. The book does a great job setting the show in the context of the children's shows that came before and bringing to life the many people involved in its inception.
This book provided fascinating information about Sesame Street for the ones of us who still adore the program. There were times when I felt that there were more details than needed. Thus, it periodically seemed to "bog down" a bit. It was worth the purchase and reading of the book to experience the scene of Big Bird's dealing with [or not] the death of Mr. Hooper. As a grief counselor, I will be quoting this to my classes.
Detailed history of the development of the much loved TV show provides insights not only into its growth but also delightful memories of the characters we grew to love over the years. I found myself humming the theme song every time I picked up the book.
As someone who grew up in the late 80s and 90s in love with Sesame Street and everything Henson, this book served as the perfect history book and road map to a time and story I didn't know much about. Michael Davis does a great job in setting up how the idea of "educational programming" came about, and how that grew into into Sesame Street, and the Children's Television Worshop. He sets up the history of all the key players in the storyline, charting how they made it to New York and the street. It's a great way to learn about a show that has impacted so many.
Anyone who grew up in the 70s until now is familiar with the question raised in the Sesame Street theme song - "Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?" Michael Davis answers this question by telling us how we GOT to Sesame Street!
This book explores how Joan Ganz Cooney, the unsung 'parent' of the show, had to fight tooth and nails to get this great show on the air. Not only are her efforts detailed but those producers, directors, actors and Muppeteers who also used their talents in a collaborative effort that has won a multitude of awards and accolades and opened up a world as familiar to us our own homes.
But do not be fooled by the subject matter. This book is definitely for adults as it explores even the darker sides of some involved, particularly that of Northern Calloway (David) and his slow descent into madness and drugs. There are also quoted F-words and such that would not be for sensitive readers, which is my only complaint with the book.
No Sesame Street fan should be without this book. It will bring you a whole new appreciation for the show.
THE STREET GANG BROUGHT BACK A LOT OF MEMORIES FOR ME. I GRADUATED HIGHT SCHOOL IN 1969 AND GOT MY TEACHING CERTIFICATE IN 1973. THE EDUCATIONAL VALUE OF SESAME STREET HIGHLIGHTED WHY I CHOSE THIS PROFESSION. OUR THREE CHILDREN LIKED THE PUPPETS BUT THEY ALSO LEARNED THE VALUE OF FRIENDSHIPS AND COMMUNITY THAT SEEMED TO FORM THE BASIS OF THIS SHOW. I LEARNED AS MUCH AS THEY DID AND WITH SIX GRANDCHILDREN I CURRENTLY WATCH EPISODES WITH THEM AND THIS BOOK BROUGHT IT ALL BACK AND REFRESHED THESE VALUABLE MEMORIES -- WELL DONE MICHAEL DAVIS!!!
A definite must read and own. It's amazing how much Sesame Street has touched our lives and stayed with us throughout our childhood into adulthood. I can't imagine a life without Ernie or Oscar and you know what, I don't want to either. Thanks for everything. Lisa
Street Gang by Michael Davis is a great resource for all fans of the Jim Henson work or Sesame Street's great influence on a number of generations. The book chronicles the challenges the CTW team went through along the way and eventually how an iconic program was created. I was expecially interested in how Sesame Street had direct ties to Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo. Overall a very interesting read and quite informative.
Thank you, Michael Davis, for penning the ULTIMATE Sesame Street book! Though I was already almost a teenager when Sesame Street aired, I've always been a big fan of the show as I used to watch it as I babysat my sisters and brothers. How satisfying to read a book that goes behind and beyond one of the most enduring and endearing television shows of all time. BRAVO and congratulations, Michael! A fan forever, Patti
I was blown away by Street Gang. Michael Davis writes a fascinating, well-researched tale that made me understand just how groundbreaking this show really was. The portraits of its creators and their times are full of you-are-there detail, and the many anecdotes about the creation of the show are priceless for anyone who ever loved it. Davis brings a monumental passion to the subject and I think anyone who is passionate about Sesame Street will love this book as much as I did.
What a great book ! This is the story of the "perfect storm" that resulted in the creation of Sesame Street, the uniquely wonderful show for pre-schoolers. We rarely think of the "behind the scenes" aspects of things we see every day and take for granted. But often there is a story, and a facinating one at that. Sesame Street was a revolutionary show and it required the collaboration of many unique and talented personalities. As with any monumental group effort involving mutiple talents, there are stories of intrigue, love and heartache. And who better to tell this tale than the author, Michael Davis, who has an extensive history as a journalist and human interest writer. Read this book ! You will love it and will be lending it to your friends and relatives so they can share the experience with you !
As a Sesame Street fan I had expectations for this book, but I did not expect to be blown away. The author writes with exceptional detail and drama about a behind-the-scenes world that heretofore was unknown to those of us who love the show. The narrative thread through the book asks a basic question: when high creatives collide is it a matter of fate or good fortune, providence or dumb luck. Be prepared to laugh and cry. And if you loved Jim Henson, this is a book for you.
First of all your reply shows YOUR ignorance and demonstrates the fact that everyone has flaws no matter your race! Also, if you would've taken time to pay attention to the title you would've seen that the author was talking about sesame street characters!
As a fan lof Sesame Street, it's rare for a book on the subject teach me things I don't know. Very comprehensive story of Sesame Street. Couldn't put it down.