Sunday, January 17, 2010

On my way to where the air is sweet...

I've been filling up my unemployed days with a mix of activities, ranging from job hunting to errands to sleeping late to listless empty staring at the walls. I received sound advice early on into this experience to set up a pile of books and set to work on it. Having a TBR pile that could roughly fill up a five shelf bookcase, that pile of time-consuming reading has been waiting for an opportunity like this.

What I was reading around the same time of my redundancy - I prefer the British term to "laid off" as I feel it is a closer approximation of an employer's perspective, therefore being just a tad less bullshit than other sugar-coated terms, such as "let go" - was Street Gang by Michael Davis, a really wonderful little history of Sesame Street. In the mid-60s, intellectual chatter at a social dinner gathering laid the foundation for the program that would become an absolute staple not only of children's television, but also of public television and the very idea of educational programming and family-friendly entertainment.

Forty years! Forty years this program has been on air. Davis not only follows the program from its social engagement conversational conception to the formation of the core team and through the high-profile, bumpy, but largely successful first two years, he also goes back to the first stirrings of children's television, examining in intriguing and often hilarious detail the career backgrounds of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Sam Gibbon, and, of course, Jim Henson and the many colorful members of what would become the Henson Muppet brands.

I tend to sink into these kind of histories. A couple of months ago, I fell head over heels in love with Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris, a similarly engrossing (if perhaps a bit more expansive) look at the 1968 Academy Award nominees for Best Picture and how they represented the division ranks and turning point for Hollywood. Street Gang makes its own fair share of larger points. The Sesame Street phenomenon was more than a calculated risk at proving television a viable option for providing a reaching education to kids (and specifically urban youth). It was a small revolution, or rather, a revolution for the small - a new vision of children's entertainment that blended a modern realism with brightly colored surreal fantasy. The use of the commercial form for teaching basic lessons, something that really did find its potential with the SS writers. The use of actors portraying fictional but realistic neighborhood characters interacting with different versions of children in the form of Henson's sometimes motley, sometimes outlandish, but always lovable Muppets. The songs and the sounds, the sights, the scene.

The people behind Sesame Street were a varied lot of entertainers, creatives, behind-the-scenes veterans, a few academics, and one woman with an extensive, but varied communications resume and little early childhood education. I finished this book in awe of everyone - and even with a renewed respect for Henson, one of my longtime heroes - but Davis made me fall in love with Joan Ganz Cooney a bit. Her ability to keep in line the varied creative forces that made the program the powerhouse that it became (and mostly remains), not to mention the fact that by showing how invaluable she was to the project from the start, she was able to secure her leadership position. Imagining the show spearheaded by anyone else is to imagine a failure in place of the success.

One more thought about Street Gang: I'm in constant envy when I read tales of any cultural entity's beginnings. How I wish I could go back forty years and find a place in the ground floor of Sesame Street and the Children's Television Workshop. I would happily write banter for Bert and Ernie, irritated monologues for Oscar, and wide-eyed expressions of wonder for Big Bird. If I had been in my twenties around the time of the creation of CTW, there would have been nothing stopping me from desperately trying to be a part of this promising new beginning for children's television.

Despite my envy, Street Gang was a very pleasurable way to spend my reading time and a nice way to melt away my real-life sorrows in exchange for the tale of a bunch of smart schemers and dreamers, and the plan that has blossomed from dinner talk to a forty-year-strong symbol of all that can be when creativity and intelligence marry the perspective and imagination of children.

1 comment:

Reenie said...

I have not yet read Street Gang, but it is on my agenda. I'd like to weigh in, however, on author Michael Davis.

Before the time of my own redundancy from the bookstore, I began working with Davis on an in-store event. Let me tell you, he is lovely. It was such a pleasure to speak with him on the few occasions I was able and I could tell that he was incredibly appreciative of my enthusiasm of the book.

His kindness and willingness to work with me on an event was what made my work at the store worthwhile. Michael Davis is a rare gem in the world of publishing, authoring books because of his desire to inform and reach people about things he loves. He appreciates the fans of his work, placing him (in my mind) in the same category as the likes of David Sedaris and Michael Chabon.

It's nice to know when an author possesses these qualities. I feel it adds a new level of experience to his/her book. And I just wanted everyone to know. :)