The Tale of How We Got to 'Sesame Street'

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Sunny days these are not, and everything is definitely not A-OK. What a perfect time then to ask that age-old question: "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?"

And how fortunate that veteran journalist Michael Davis has come along just in time to provide the answer with Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, published last week by Viking Press (www.streetgangthebook.com).

In Street Gang, Davis tells the story of how a simple question posed at a dinner party in 1965—"Do you think television could be used to teach small children?"—spawned a revolutionary effort to educate children by entertaining them with songs, vaudevillian skits and a cast of furry, feathery and shaggy puppets.

The book recounts the events that brought Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson and the other Sesame principals together to form the Children’s Television Workshop. And it’s filled with wonderful birth moments leading up to the show’s 1969 launch, such as the New York cab driver whose raspy "where to, Mac?" inspired the voice that puppeteer Caroll Spinney gave to Oscar the Grouch, or a scene in the rehearsal room where Henson and Frank Oz first pick up their respective alter egos, Ernie and Bert, and begin one of the most affectionate and enduring friendships on television.

Street Gang grew out of a 35th-anniversary profile Davis had written for TV Guide, where he was the family television columnist. "I kept hearing these incredible stories about the show and the people who made it," he tells B&C. "I realized that no one had really done the full book on Sesame."

Davis was particularly intrigued by Jon Stone, the show’s writer, director and producer, and one of several Sesame Streeters who had previously worked on CBSCaptain Kangaroo.

"Jon Stone was the Orson Welles of Sesame Street," Davis says. "A big guy, big personality. It was his taste, his ideas and his vision that gave [the show] its soul."

Indeed, it was Stone who proposed the show’s urban setting with its brownstone stoops and trash cans after seeing a 1968 PSA urging support for inner-city kids.

Stone died of ALS in 1997, but he had written an unpublished memoir that Davis got his hands on and quoted from at length with the blessing of Stone’s family (including former wife Beverly Owens, who played Marilyn on the first season of The Munsters).

For Davis, the magic of the show and Stone’s role in creating it were most evident in the 1978 holiday special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, in which Oscar mocks Big Bird’s belief in Santa Claus as only Oscar can. ("How’s a guy like Santa Claus–who’s built like a dumptruck–how’s he gonna fit down all those skinny chimneys?")

Unlike the usual holiday special, says Davis, "there’s nothing treacle-y or saccharine about it." It exemplifies "what made the Muppets what they are," he adds: "a marriage of writing and performance" that manages to convey the sense that these puppets have an interior life.

"Oscar is basically a piece of shag carpet and ping pong balls for eyes," Davis laughs. But when Maria (Sonia Manzano) scolds him for teasing Big Bird, "Caroll Spinney makes him look chagrined, embarrassed and stunned."

And Davis confesses to tearing up during Ernie and Bert’s duet on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," knowing that Henson’s death in 1990 from a respiratory infection means that "there will never be another [perfect pair like] Frank and Jim again." (Watch the clip below.)

Although he says it was hard to let go of the project, having grown so attached to all the people involved, Davis believes the timing couldn’t be better to tell the tale of how we got to Sesame Street.

"I really believe Sesame Street ushered in the age of Obama," he says, noting the way it showcased diversity and tolerance, and grew out of an idealistic sense of social justice. And after all, he adds, "Gordon [a pillar of the Sesame neighborhood] is, in a way, a community organizer."

Asked if he has a favorite Sesame character, Davis cites his characteristic "second-born child" eagerness to please—along with his own failed stint as a waiter—as evidence of his affinity for the blue, lanky and lovable Grover.

Who’s your favorite Sesame Street resident? Scroll down to add a comment and let us know.

And if you’re in New York on Monday, Jan. 5, check out Davis’ appearance at the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble on Broadway and W. 66th St.

VIDEO: Ernie and Burt duet on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas":

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