Sweeping the clouds away

The children’s education series Sesame Street remains a singular program in television history. On the air since November 1969, it maintains the prestige of being the first, and possibly only, show for pre-schoolers that is as educational as it is entertaining. Former Baltimore resident and Jewish Times editor Michael Davis’ Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street is broad in scope yet exercises a meticulous attention to detail. This meticulousness turns out to be essential because of the number of story threads that are un-teased to paint Davis’ picture.

The book faithfully traces the lives of each person who made a contribution to Sesame Street while offering interesting observations about a show with its heart in the right place and the people who gave it that heart. Everything about Davis’ presentation is doggedly balanced. Although he often lavishes praise on the show, he doesn’t shy away from recounting public criticism and the personality flaws of the people behind it — such as composer Joe Raposo’s obnoxious namedropping, or producer Dave Connell’s workaholic lifestyle, which led to family estrangement.

Gang has its lulls, though, simply due to the number of people involved in the show. Granted, it’s important that certain contributors’ lives — such as founding Executive Director Joan Ganz Cooney and Muppet creator Jim Henson — be told in detail. After a few hundred pages of life histories, however, your attention span can wane. Apparently, Davis intends the subtitle’s “complete history” to be accurate.

Thankfully, the work overall is far from dull. Its revelation of behind-the-scenes practical jokes, binge-drinking sessions, and tensions add to its momentum. Even in the more tedious moments, Gang reads like a well-timed gift. Many of those responsible for Sesame Street’s success — Henson, Raposo, Jon Stone, actors Northern Calloway and Will Lee, puppeteer Richard Hunt — are dead. And the remaining members of the show’s original core group are elderly.

Gang’s release is timely for another reason: For the kids glued to the first season all the way through today’s Elmo lovers, it’s not readily apparent how novel the show was. There’s no basis for comparison because Sesame Street was always there. It’s good to know that nostalgia for rubber duckies stems from the first educational show that didn’t bore its audience to tears — Sesame Street’s celebrity helped teach educational fundamentals and social tolerance. Gang carefully describes how previous generations of Howdy Doody watchers didn’t have the benefit of television that was fun to watch, but also infused with positive social and educational lessons.

Even if personally immune to the charm of Muppets, its effect on both television and preschool education are undeniable. An ambitious project from the start, Sesame Street started with a precarious mix of public and private dollars in the hopes of gaining some freedom from commercial television’s ratings obsession. This freedom allowed show creators to delve into the area of preschool education that director Cooney claims “educators were virtually ignoring.

With the help of a team of educational researchers, the producers approached the problem of teaching while holding children’s attention with novel techniques like the integration of Muppets and an ethnically and socially diverse cast in realistic street scenes, a magazine format that parroted flashy then-hit Laugh-In, and songs that were slyly educational and amusing. Children’s programming prior to Sesame Street followed either an irritatingly loud, commercial model or the slightly more soothing Captain Kangaroo, neither of which were edifying for kids or interesting to adults.

Distilling the creative labor behind this innovation is the source of Gang’s most intriguing and evocative moments. These revelations include Sesame Street’s years of miraculous serendipity, staffing debt to Captain Kangaroo, fidelity to educational research that benefits underprivileged kids, and unlikely disputes with everyone from educators to Disney to feminists. It’s surprising to learn that feminists would criticize a program that purposefully cast actors from almost every minority group and walk of life. Sesame Street, though, consistently got heat from groups like NOW for its dearth of female Muppets and role models that were anything other than housewife types such as Loretta Long’s Susan.

Such background details about the show only enrich appreciation for people who loved Big Bird as tykes. Disillusionment is inevitable when something is dissected in this way, but somehow Davis manages to keep you engaged by sharing the little-known details and emphasizing that it was actually a series of fortuitous moments that made Sesame Street great.

Street Gang: the Complete History of Sesame Street
By Michael Davis
Viking Adult
$27.95, 384 pages (hardcover)