There’s a great story out there; someone just needed to tell it. Well ok, it’s been told before, but why haven’t we gotten that story with all the sordid details?
That’s what we’ve been saying for years. Sure, we’ve gotten the general Sesame Street origin before: Joan Ganz Cooney wanted to use the previously bad-for-kids medium of television to teach kids, hired Jim Henson and company, and created 40 years worth of history. But not many people have bothered to get into the nitty and gritty of the story. Until now. When someone did. Get the nitty.
TV Guide‘s own Michael Davis did his homework (which consisted of over 200 interviews conducted over the last 5 years) and wrote the comprehensive history of Sesame Street in his new book, Street Gang.
But we don’t just get the history of Sesame Street, we get a thorough history of children’s television (including enough info on Captain Kangaroo to warrant its own book) and the stories of the most important people involved, including Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, John Stone, Jeff Moss, Joe Raposo, and some other people whose names start with the letter J.
The prologue starts the book on a surprisingly depressing note. Our tale starts with Joan Ganz Cooney attending Jim Henson’s funeral. It’s a fresh viewpoint on a story we’ve all heard many times before, and it successfully gets the reader emotionally involved before we read anything remotely related to television development and production. Davis shows us right away that for as many uplifting effects the story has, there is just as many upsetting. Street Gang is bookended with stories about death, as the end of the book deals with the inevitable passings of Jeff Moss, Jim Henson, Joe Raposo, Jon Stone, Northern Calloway, and Richard Hunt. As a Muppet fan, I’m sad to revisit this part of Sesame history, but I’m ecstatic to see their stories written with the brutal honesty they deserve.
If you have at least a passing interest in the history of children’s television, then the first half of the book will be like a triple malt sundae to you. It’s compelling, thorough, and it reads as if Michael Davis leaves no stone unturned. Even if he mentions someone mundane like the Kukla, Fran and Ollie cameraman, he’s going to give you a quick bio on him before moving on. Thankfully, Davis is able to do this without sounding like he’s meandering or losing the point of the story at large. I found this portion of the book to be very intriguing, but there’s just one small problem: You might not.
Although there’s more raw information in those first 150 pages than you can shake a stick at (assuming you’re one for stick-shaking), there isn’t much about Sesame Street or the Muppets. And let’s face it, you’re probably on this site in the first place because you’re a Muppet fan. Or because you’re my dad (Hi, Dad!).
There are some great bits in the first half of the book involving Jim Henson and Jon Stone, and lots more that set the stage for the premiere of Sesame Street, but if you bought this book because it’s got a big picture of Oscar on the cover, you might only really start to enjoy the book in the eleventh chapter.
Thankfully, that eleventh chapter starts with the preparation of the pilot episode, and that’s when the book gets a big shot of vitamin M. Throughout the second half of the book, we get interviews with just about every human cast member and puppeteer, we live through their glory years as the invincible children’s television machine, we get hit with the sudden competition of Barney and Sesame’s subsequent format changes, we witness the unfortunate downward spiral of Northern Calloway, and best of all, we see that after 40 years, Sesame Street remains the leader among children’s programming. It’s a wonderful rollercoaster ride, and my only complaint is that I wish there was more.
The book also contains a few pages of photos, most of which I haven’t seen before. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing pictures of Muppeteers with the puppets on their hands. My favorite by far is a picture of Bob McGrath in Japan, surrounded by Japanese teenagers waiting to get an autograph with “Bobu”.
Needless to say, I think Street Gang deserves to sit on every Muppet fan’s bookshelf, right between your copies of The Works and Sesame Street Unpaved. It will be the book we go back to regularly to confirm the details of the Sesame trivia we’ve memorized, and it will fit into the rotation of books we re-read every few years, along with Caroll Spinney and Kevin Clash’s autobiographies.
Street Gang will be released on December 26, and I recommend that everyone wait in line to get your copy at your local Barnes and Noble overnight as if this were the new Harry Potter book. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling way to spend your Boxing Day. Or click here to get a personalized bookplate for your book, signed my Michael Davis himself.
And don’t forget, Caroll Spinney’s reading of the audio book will also be available on December 26.
Click here to see a list of Street Gang tour dates, along with additional info.
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