Status: Bookseller Picks
It's hard to believe Sesame Street is now 40 years old. When the show had its debut on NET (a predecessor to PBS) in the fall of 1969, it was a bold new experiment no one was quite sure would work. Over a generation later, it's an indelible part of America's cultural landscape. Veteran TV Guide scribe Michael Davis takes readers not just behind the scenes of this children's TV mainstay, but back to the beginning. He traces the roots of the show's core creative team — Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Sam Gibbon, Dave Connell, and of course Jim Henson — as well as the evolution of educational children's TV, from Howdy Doody to Ding Dong School to Captain Kangaroo. The show's debut doesn't even occur until halfway through the book, but by taking this approach, the audience gets a clearer understanding of where Sesame Street came from, and the disparate paths that brought its creators together.
The show's early years are tumultuous, with numerous cast changes and character tweaks (in the first year, Big Bird was quite literally stupid, and Oscar was a sort of rusty orange color) as they fine-tune the format, not to mention behind-the-scenes battles to maintain the show's federal and corporate funding. Later years are marked by numerous departures, including the heartbreaking loss of Will Lee (Mr. Hooper), the painful downward spiral of Northern Calloway (David), and the untimely deaths of Jim Henson, songwriter Joe Raposo, and Muppet performer Richard Hunt. And then, there's Elmo. While I still can't stand the character, Street Gang certainly gave me a greater appreciation for his performer, Kevin Clash, who has taken up Henson's mantle as one of the guiding creative forces behind the show today.
Davis' love for his subject manages to seep from every page without the book coming across as fawning or a puff piece. He certainly doesn't shy away from things unpleasant (as his material on Northern Calloway clearly shows). Street Gang is a fast, entertaining read, and one that will deepen your appreciation for the show which made education fun.
(A chapter on actor Roscoe Orman, the third and longest-running Gordon, is available on the book's website, and will be included in the upcoming trade paperback edition of Street Gang.)
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