Life with the Street Gang

If given the opportunity to speak with Joan Cooney and the other surviving Sesame Street founders, the first question I would ask them is “Do you think it worked?”

Did Sesame Street help the audience of economically disadvantaged kids whose plight was the inspiration for the show? Even though Sesame Street and its characters are known worldwide, in the US economically disadvantaged kids still struggle academically. In fact, the current national cry is that US students have fallen behind their international peers in academic performance.

I don’t remember the first time I watched Sesame Street and there’s not an episode that I can honestly say left a lasting impression. I can say, however, that Sesame Street was a pervasive presence in my childhood, tween years, and adulthood. And it will probably accompany me into my geezer years and final days.

The show’s impact may have become muted due to the current mass of pre-school, early elementary educational programming available through cable and satelliteTV and the internet, but it’s Sesame Street that I sought out decades ago on my parents 12″ black-and-white TV set. Sesame Street was the first educational TV show that I watched loyally as a child.

Begun as an experiment to help economically disadvantaged students succeed academically, Sesame Street has evolved into an iconic American brand. According to Michael Davis, its creators were the first to successfully apply commercial television approaches to an educational public television show. I would have never made the Laugh In connection. But once it was pointed out — the pacing, the contemporary comedy, the slapstick — I wondered why I didn’t make the connection myself? It now seems so obvious.

Michael Davis’ Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street reminds me a lot of Jean Stein’s Edie: An American Biography because of the depth of the information both authors chose to include about their subjects. Jean dedicates much of her volume to the older roots of Edie’s family tree (her grandfather, great grandfather, and maybe even her great great grandfather). The depth of information Street Gang provides helps us appreciate the “luck” and coincidences that worked together to bring the program’s founders together.

Michael expertly seasons the facts with just enough of prosy drama to keep you reading. Like its subject, Street Gang is great edutainment. After a prologue that has us following Joan Cooney through a dense crowd of mourners at Jim Henson’s funeral, he officially begins his Sesame Street story with a description of Lloyd Morrissett’s daughter climbing out of bed at 8AM to wait out the test pattern on the family television set.

“Sarah (Morrissett’s daughter) understood that if she waited patiently, the Indian (test pattern graphic) would soon vanish. An announcer would then begin the broadcast day with a recitation of FCC-mandated station identification drone, followed by the National Anthem, played over a film that panned Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and, depending on whether you owned a color or a black-and-white set, either amber waves of grain or amorphous waves of gray.”

His Sarah tale is demonstrative of the prose he uses throughout Street Gang. Its tone reminded me of my own childhood in Queens. Saturday mornings. My sister and I in our pajamas parked in front of the family television waiting for the cartoons to start. It’s these instances — the shared anticipation among children of “my programs” coming on the air — that provide the narrative with additional depth and appeal.

In addition to the personal connection, the portrayal of the Children’s Television Workshop as a “real job” drew me. Watching the sensible ways the citizens of Sesame Street solve their problems (external and with each other) is inspiring but unrealistic (and unacceptable as we get older and “wiser”). The revelation that Sesame Street might not have happened, that it didn’t always enjoy the broad acceptance it does now, and that it is very much a business that needs to continue to innovate in order to survive help to ground the book and make it a more believable story.

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