I love the classic Sesame Street special “Don’t Eat the Pictures.” And not just because I grew up with it. Or because it brilliantly credits the Metropolitan Museum of Art a “special guest star.” This TV movie, which celebrates its 40th anniversary today, November 16th, does it all. It teaches museum appreciation through fun and adventure. It has some beautiful songs and a great script. In essence, it makes Arts & Culture as accessible as the alphabet.
This weekend, Craig Shemin and I are presenting special screenings of “Don’t Eat the Pictures” at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. Attendees will enjoy some behind-the-scenes stories, guest panelists who worked on the film, recently uncovered photos and a lost Caroll Spinney song.
To prepare, I spent months (obsessively) researching “Don’t Eat the Pictures.” I dug into archives at Yale and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I acquired documents from Henson and Sesame Workshop. I read autobiographies and I interviewed two dozen of the folks involved, both from the Met and from Sesame Street. So of course, I learned a thing or two. And some of those things were surprising!
So here, fellow Muppet fans, are the top 10 surprising I things I learned about “Don’t Eat the Pictures.”
10) It was two people’s shared vision.
Sesame writer Tony Geiss had first pitched the idea to the show in 1978 as part of a 10th anniversary celebration. But concurrently, over at the Met, the head of special projects, Karl Katz, had been itching for years to do a kids show like this. By the way, it was Lewis Bernstein who bridged the gap. He was Sesame’s director of research, but he had taken a sabbatical to earn a PhD. His professor happened to be the brother of Karl Katz and suggested they meet. And after Bernstein met Karl Katz in 1980, he introduced Katz to Geiss. (Karl Katz may look familiar to those of you who’ve committed this special to memory… if so, skip to #4 below.)
9) It was expensive!
Karl Katz wrote that an hour of fine arts TV programming cost between $200,000 and $500,000. But “Don’t Eat the Pictures” cost $585,999. Roughly two-thirds of that came from the National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and one third from the Children’s Television Workshop. Besides the Sesame Street cast and crew, they also had to pay museum staff – security, technicians, and a curator – to be there for every hour of shooting, often outside regular working hours. Speaking of which …
8) Crazy schedule!
This is the real museum, not a set. So filming was restricted to when the Met was closed. On Mondays, the Met was closed all day, and filming went from 8am to 11pm. On an odd weekday morning filming went from 5:00 AM until opening hours. On various Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays, filming started at closing time and went until midnight. These nights were when seven-year-old Aram Chowdhury filmed his scenes as Prince Sahu. The poor kid was kept up way past his bedtime! Speaking of which …
7) Prince Sahu was played by two (almost three) kids.
The Sahu we see is Aram Chowdhury, whose father is from Bangladesh and whose mother is from Long Island. But his Long Island accent was reportedly so thick that he was overdubbed. So the Sahu that you hear is Andrew Cassese, a Broadway kid performer (and later “Wormser” from Revenge of the Nerds). And since Chowdhury was afraid of cats, and his character had a pet cat, Jon Stone almost put one of the other kid actors, Jason Janzer, in as a stunt double. (While the cat is conveniently invisible for most of the special – represented by a floating collar – when it becomes visible again, it’s either out of frame or in an extreme wide shot to hide that it’s a Muppet workshop facsimile.)
6) Paul Dooley!
Paul Dooley played the security guard as an impression of old-timey comedian Jimmy Finlayson. (This is the guy Dan Castellaneta based Homer Simpson’s “annoyed grunt” on.)
5) The unscripted bits.
Several improvised lines: After the gang exits the museum and the guard says that they just could not have been there all night, Big Bird yells off-screen, “Were too!”
… Also, when Ernie and Bert discuss “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” Jim and Frank veer tenuously off-book. Ernie asks Bert to repeat his emphatic “New Jersey;” Ernie points out the horses and how they are standing up in the boat. According to Tony Geiss himself, Bert’s apology to George Washington, “I’m sorry you had to hear that, Mr. President,” was not in the original script, either.
You might already know of Caroline Kennedy (coordinating producer)’s appearance. But there’s also a bunch of crew from Sesame Street. In the early shots of the museum closing we see Tony Geiss cross the camera, followed by other Sesame crew (Karen Specht, Grisha Mynova, Nat Mongoi, Frida Lipp, Cher Young, and Noel MacNeal). When the museum reopens, the extras walking up the steps are played by the kids’ parents. And the hot-dog vendor is played by the head of the Met’s Office of Film and Television, Karl Katz. (Remember him? From #10 at the top of this article!)
3) New Wave Rock.
As seen above, this is listed as the style of title song. Music connoisseurs, feel free to debate.
2) It was a good time for the museum.
The Met’s Egyptian wing was just finishing a seven-year renovation. The New American Wing and the Rockefeller wing were both recently completed. And the Temple of Dendur had only been installed in 1978, so it was still new by Metropolitan Museum standards.
1) Caroline Kennedy was super cool.
She wasn’t there in name only – she took a very active role in brokering meetings and providing Met specialists for each department seen on film. She wrote endorsements on behalf of the director of the museum. She gave Grover access to the real suit of armor, and located a misplaced Cezanne for Cookie Monster. During down time, she hung out with Caroll Spinney, who told her how he campaigned for her father’s Senate run. She gave gifts from the Museum gift shop to all the kids on set. She also invited her mom, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, when they were shooting on the exterior steps of the museum for the final scene. And after production, she fielded letters from concerned parents with grace and aplomb.
There you have it –– or actually, a part of it. There’s more to say about “Don’t Eat the Pictures,” and for that, I hope to see you this weekend at MOMI!
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