Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review: Street Gang

Michael Davis' Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, is well constructed and thoroughly researched. Although we don't actually get to Sesame Street's premiere until page 199, more than halfway through the book, Davis' focus on how we got such a television show in the first place was entertaining, involved, and understandable. It is impossible for me to now think about how the book could have - or should have - been constructed. It seems obvious that the different key players' journeys to Sesame Street had to be highlighted and examined, how working on Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo helped form several of the key players responsible for Sesame Street's ultimate vision and aesthetics.

The book doesn't make any particular person out to be a saint or a sinner; each has strengths and weaknesses. Jon Stone didn't get along with David Connell, and he didn't like Carroll Spinney. But that doesn't say anything horrible about Stone, or Connell, or Spinney. Street Gang even examines how Sesame Street itself failed in some areas, how it at first ignored the Latino community, focusing instead on the African-American community and only recognizing its error and rectifying it by adding Maria and Luis after the Latino community protested. It (briefly) touches upon NOW's issues with Sesame Street's portrayal of women, though it does not really grant any of the feminists' basic concerns. It explores the demons present in some of the cast most affected by racism, like Matt Robinson, the original Gordon, whose sister died because several hospitals in the area would not treat her due to her skin color. And Northern Calloway, who abused cocaine, was bipolar, and who deeply resented his lack of success as being a product of his race.

What the book depicts is how a group of singularly talented people but radically diverse people came together for a common cause, that being to produce an entertaining and educational show. It details how these people, some of extraordinary ego, worked in tandem for years in order to achieve that goal, how they went about forming that goal, and how they developed and tested that goal. It examines the other child education programs of the time, and how Sesame Street deviated from the norm by not being set on a ship or in an idyllic place; how Sesame Street sought to help bridge the gap in education between the most disenfranchised populations of the inner cities and their middle-class, white suburban compatriots, and how it chose as its set a more realistic city setting. How it was integrated, how it had more than one primary host, and how the program was free from in show advertising of its tie-in products. And along the way, Davis closely examines the different important people who made Sesame Street what it was. Joan Ganz Cooney's familial history is assessed, her penchant for getting jobs she wasn't necessarily qualified for, how she was able to succeed in those jobs, her interest in public television, and her marriage to Tim Cooney and dissolution of that marriage, and her ability to be both the laissez-faire boss and the intrepid ring-leader of the Sesame Street project. The book starts with her walking up to Jim Henson's funeral, and appropriately so. Henson's Muppets were an integral part of the show's success, but the show itself was borne from a question asked at a dinner party of Ganz Cooney's, and it was her work - along with several of the other dinner guests - that both established the potentiality of a show like Sesame Street and Jim Henson's own involvement in Sesame Street (which adequately explains Count von Count's "Hi Mom" as Ganz Cooney's name scrolls by in "Follow That Bird").

Certain cast members are also described more fully than others; we are given quite a lot about Bob McGrath, who played "Bob", and his success as a singer in Japan - along with the fan clubs that sprung up there in his honor. Also highlighted were performers such as Carroll Spinney (Big Bird and Oscar), Sonia Manzano (Maria), and Loretta Long. And while quite a lot was written about the first true Gordon, the second and third Gordons got nada. Over all though, the book is an interesting read for anyone who is at all interested in Sesame Street, public television, children's programming, or even just the combined story of a few passionate individuals who succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations. For that alone, the success story and the genius and inquiry of those involved is worth the pages the book is printed on.

Read: √




John said...

Sesame Street was a very profound show. PVP was considering its greater ramifications here . I may have to request this book from my local library, but first I have to know: What letters was this review brought to us by?

petpluto said...

This post was brought to you by the letter "J", and the number 5 (the approximate amount of people who read this blog!).

I'd definitely rec the book; I'd be more than happy to lend it to you if we see each other in anything that could be considered the near future.