How to get to Sesame Street
For 40 years, the characters of Sesame Street have taught us and our children, made us laugh, and acted as ambassadors around our neighborhoods and our world. When the show first appeared on television on November 10, 1969, it hatched a revolution in educational television that brought a lovable green frog, an eight-foot yellow canary and the giggling, fire-engine-red Elmo into our lives forever.
Michael Davis, author of the bestseller "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" and a former senior editor and columnist for TV Guide, offers a vivid, action-packed look at the genesis and success of Sesame Street - a wild departure from the "massive doses of cartoons, violence, and more violence" that made up children's television at the time.
On Tuesday, October 20, at 11:30 am, at the Old Whaling Church, the Martha's Vineyard Women's Network is presenting Mr. Davis at a luncheon event. He will be offering insights and firsthand observations. In addition to talking about his book, he will provide strategies and his own examples of how to use the Internet for social networking - something he did to take his book onto the bestseller list.
The book begins with the tragic death of Muppet creator Jim Henson from an untreated strep infection and then traces Sesame Street's roots all the way back to the day in 1965, when a New York psychologist found his daughter staring expectantly at the Indian-head television test pattern, then a regular beginning and ending of each day's limited programming.
Mr. Davis seems to step inside the complicated, synergistic world of Sesame Street with a spy's mentality for gathering facts and a writer's facility for telling a good story. He explores the creation of the show's most famous Muppets - including Elmo, who he declares to be "a character so ubiquitous and inescapable that newborns seem to emerge from the womb with an Elmo doll attached to their umbilical cord." And he makes the people behind the Muppets as fascinating and engaging as the characters they created. (Who knew that the voice for Oscar the Grouch, who's very first words as he popped out of his trash can were, "Get away from my trash can!" was inspired by a road-weary taxi cab driver?)
The story's backbone is, of course, Mr. Henson, a man Mr. Davis describes as a complicated genius. Henson, like his Muppets, often seemed to both mirror and push the boundaries of the world around him. Six-foot three, perpetually bearded to hide his acne scars, he grew up on a middle class family in Mississippi and suburban Maryland. His father, a biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his stay-at-home mother encouraged their second son - a shy, quietly inquisitive, and clever child - to explore the world around him. Mr. Davis says the people of the Mississippi town where Henson lived until he was in the fifth grade are convinced that summer nights spent spearing frogs at a nearby creek with a friend named Kermit helps explain why Henson's alter ego took the form of a frog.
"Street Gang" is as much a business tale as a creative-genius-at-work story. The creation of the Muppets and Sesame Street, and the overwhelming success of both, turned the sweet characters into celebrities, and Henson into a man battling to maintain control of his creations. The book describes bitter negotiations with the Disney Company, which continuously tried to control the Muppets (and who now own the classic Muppet characters), and others who realized that children's educational television had become a potential goldmine. That part of the book is as engaging as the descriptions of how the pieces of fluff and fabric that make up the Sesame Street characters took on the personalities that are imitated, adored, and admired even 40 years later.
Asked a few weeks ago why Sesame Street has survived, Mr. Davis noted, "The show has always reflected the times and fed back to us a picture of who and where we are as a people. With its urban set and multiracial, multiethnic cast, Sesame Street presaged the world of 2009 back in 1969, a world where a mixed-race child raised by a single mother could one day occupy a house on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. It is no small thing that Sesame Street influenced not only Barack and Michelle Obama but their daughters as well. The timeline of Sesame Street measures our progress as a nation."
Michael Davis will speak at a luncheon, Tuesday, Oct. 20, at 11:30 at the Baylies Room of the Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Presented by the Martha's Vineyard Women's Network; sponsored by Bunch of Grapes. $25 at the door; $15 for members and those who pre-register on mvwomensnetwork.org. 508-693-5437.
Jan Pogue, a board member of Martha's Vineyard Women's Network, is president of Vineyard Stories, an on-Island book publishing company.