Sesame Street has released well over a hundred albums in its four-decade history. So here’s my brilliant idea for a Tough Pigs article series: I’m going to listen to Sesame Street albums, and then I’m going to write about them. It’s Sesame Needle Drop!
For this installment of Sesame Needle Drop, I’d like to talk about a Sesame Street album that’s a little bit different: It’s 1977’s The Sesame Street Fairy Tale Album, and it’s a concept album! Most Sesame albums are as based on a unifying theme (like love or jokes), but other than Bert & Ernie’s Sing-Along, this is the only one I can think of that essentially takes place in “real time.” The premise — and try to stay with me here — is that Grover and a bunch of other Sesame Muppets are hanging out telling fairy tales. Some of the stories are familiar, some of them less so, and some of them are character-appropriate variations. Let’s have a listen. Once upon a time…
“Hello there! I see you have put the record on the record player so your lovable, little, furry pal Grover can tell you a fairy tale.” Actually, Grover, I just pressed play in iTunes, but you’re addressing me from 1977, so I’ll overlook it.
Grover informs us he’s going to tell the story of “The Princess and the Pea,” but he doesn’t get very far before he’s interrupted by Herry, who asks if he can listen to the story too. Herry is immediately followed by Big Bird, Ernie, the Count, Bert, Oscar, Prairie Dawn, and Cookie Monster. The cover photo indicates that this album takes place on the stoop of 123 Sesame Street, which means all these people just happened to be walking past by at the exact moment Grover was beginning his story. I suppose I would find this more difficult to believe if there were more than four buildings on Sesame Street.
Anyway, Grover invites everyone to get comfy, and he starts his story.
The Princess and the Pea
“Once upon a time,” Grover tells us, “a sweet, lovable little princess was riding her horsey through the woods.” Herry stops him to ask what the horse’s name was, and Big Bird has a follow-up query: What was the princess’s name? Grover answers (Sherman and Shirley, respectively), but you can tell he’s starting to regret letting these silly kids muscle in on his fairy tale record. “Now may Grover continue?” he says. Grover refers to himself in the third person several times on this album, and I can’t help but wonder whether Elmo picked up that schtick from old-school Grover.
When a thunderstorm hits, Princess Shirley tells Horsey Sherman to take her home, but they get lost. They end up “raggled and bedraggled,” in search of a place to stay for the night. Incidentally, spell check tells me that “bedraggled” is a word, but not “raggled.”
Shirley finds a castle, but the queen who lives there hesitates to let her spend the night because the place is restricted. It’s a royalty-only castle, and the queen doesn’t believe for a second that Shirley is a princess. But she makes her a deal: She can stay there for the night, but in the morning she’ll have to scrub the floors, wash the dishes, rake the leaves, and change the newspaper in the birdcage. “Boy, I don’t like that old queen,” says Herry, and I agree. Queen Latifah never would have made Shirley do all that stuff.
You know the rest. The queen gives Shirley a bed with a single pea under the mattress, because if Shirley is a princess, she’ll have “such delicate skin” that she’ll feel the pea through the mattress and have trouble sleeping. And so she does, and so the queen is delighted, and tells her “you will marry my son, the handsome prince, and live happily ever after.” And that’s what happened, Grover tells us. The End.
All the Muppets applaud Grover’s story, although Cookie Monster notes that “it really hard to clap good when you all covered with fur.” Ha! That’s a great joke, and it inspires me to check for the first time who wrote the tracks on this album. It turns out the whole thing was scripted by David Korr, a Sesame writer for several years who also wrote various books and albums. I must confess that his name wasn’t familiar to me before I looked it up, but this album and his credits on Muppet Wiki prove that he had a great handle on the characters.
And speaking of characters, Shirley in “The Princess and the Pea” is a pretty typical fairy tale protagonist. She doesn’t really do much, but she’s rewarded simply for being a princess. She lives happily ever, and “happily ever after” equals “married to a handsome prince.” I’m sure Grover’s mommy told him the story the exact same way, so you can’t blame him for retelling it, but it’s a pretty outdated philosophy of storytelling, even in 1977.
But Prairie Dawn saves the day! “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” she speaks up. “Why would the princess marry the prince when she never even met him?! What if she didn’t like him? Why couldn’t she just go back to her castle, and ride her horse, or open a lemonade stand, or learn to read, instead of getting married?”
Grover insists that all fairy tales end with people getting married, but Prairie offers to prove him wrong, which leads to the new track on the album. You know, I listened to this album a lot when I was a kid, and I bet Prairie’s little speech there had a long-term effect on me, in a very positive way. It was like an addendum to the lessons I learned from Free to Be… You and Me, which means Prairie Dawn is like a tiny pink Marlo Thomas.
Prairie Dawn introduces her protagonist, a little girl named Annabelle, who likes to watch the clouds, and work in her vegetable garden, and read books about trains. But most of all she likes to sing, everywhere and all the time, which is why her fellow villagers called her “Silly Annabelle.”
One day a dragon comes to Annabelle’s village and goes on a rampage, chasing cows and eating the straw roofs off of houses (apparently the dragon is a vegetarian). “That sounds like Oscar!” Ernie chuckles, and Oscar responds, “Are you kidding? I never get to have fun like that!” So there you have it, folks: If Oscar had his way, he’d be chasing cows.
An old man in the village remembers a recipe for a powder that turns big dragons into little dragons. It doesn’t seem like a recipe you’d need very often, but you’d probably want to keep it handy just in case. So they combine mushrooms, turnip seeds, a feather from a swan, and dust from the northwest corner of the attic of the tallest house in the village, and grind it all into a powder. I question whether those particular ingredients would actually have the power to shrink a dragon, and yet I can’t prove that they couldn’t.
But wait! To make the powder work, you have to put it on the dragon’s nose. The villagers try various tactics, but nothing works, so Annabelle volunteers to have a go. Annabelle? As in “Silly Annabelle?” Yep. She sings a lovely song called “What Do Dreaming Dragons Dream Of?” and whaddya know, it works! Annabelle puts the powder on the dragon’s nose, he shrinks to dog-size, and she takes him home to be her pet. The villagers are so grateful they make her the mayor, and they never call her “Silly Annabelle” again, which is great, although I wonder how the previous mayor felt about being ousted by a little girl.
Grover is enlightened. Even after he verifies that it doesn’t end with Annabelle getting married, he decides that he likes the story just the way it is. Progress is made on Sesame Street!
The Brothers Who Always Complained
Bert and Ernie are up next, with a story about two brothers named Ned and Ted. Before they start the story, Ernie spits out his gum and sticks it next to him. Now that’s an interesting detail. I think we all remember the concept of Chekhov’s gum, don’t we?
Bert takes the part of Ned in the story, and Ernie is Ted. It seems Ned and Ted have a pretty good life, with plenty of books and firewood (and pigeons and oatmeal, as Bert reminds Ernie), but they’re never satisfied. They always complain that their neighbors have better stuff and more cows and horses and pigeons than they do. One night while they’re sitting in front of the fire complaining, there appears, as described by Ernie, “a magic little fairy-type person, wearing tennis shoes, and a pancake on her head!”
When I was a little kid listening to this record, that was the height of comedy to me. A PANCAKE. ON HER HEAD! But Bert balks. Fairies don’t wear tennis shoes and pancakes, they have wings and clothes that change colors! So they compromise: The fairy in the story has wings and a pancake. (A few decades later Sesame Street would get a permanent fairy resident, who definitely has wings and definitely doesn’t have a pancake on her head. Although to be fair, I don’t know if we’ve ever seen Abby’s feet so I can’t say if she ever wears tennis shoes.)
The fairy tells them she’s going to grant them three wishes. Ned gets to make one, Ted gets to make one, and they’ll make the third wish together. If you’ve ever heard a story before, you probably know where this is going. After they argue all night over what to wish for, Ned gets hungry and absent-mindedly wishes he had a bowl of oatmeal to eat. When the oatmeal magically appears, Ted shouts, “You nincompoop!” Would Sesame Street let a character insult another character like that today?
Ted continues, “I wish that bowl of oatmeal were stuck to your head!” And there’s wish number two. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get magic oatmeal out of your hair, but it just can’t be done, even with all the peanut butter in the world. So the two brothers have to use their third and last wish to undo the second wish. The fairy comes back and tells them the moral: “Don’t start making wishes until you really have something to wish for!” I’m not sure about that. Does that mean we shouldn’t want anything? Is it a message about the dangers of rampant materialism? Whatever it means, I’m not sure little kids can process it.
The Muppets applaud for Bert and Ernie’s story, but Bert’s not happy. “Oh no! Rats! I don’t believe it. Why does this always happen to me?” he groans. Ernie points out that the story is over and he can stop complaining, but Bert’s not acting. “I sat in your chewing gum!” he says. “Oh, that’s all right,” says Ernie. “I’ve got some more.”
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
This album does a great job of matching stories to Muppets, and this one is no exception. The Count has counted three — three! — wonderful fairy tales so far, and he wants to tell the next one. He announces his intention to tell the story of “The Seven Dwarfs and the Six Swans and the Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but when the rest of the gang tells him he has to decide on one story, he settles on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
The Count introduces the bears, and after an interruption to establish exactly what porridge is (it’s like oatmeal, according to Bert), he gets to the part where the bears go for a walk and Goldilocks breaks into their house. She eats the baby’s porridge, sits in his chair, sleeps in his bed, yada yada yada.
The bears come home and do the traditional “Who’s been eating my porridge?” bit, and in case you need a reminder of how great Jerry Nelson was, here it is. He’s doing the voice of the Count doing the voices of three other characters, and they all sound like different characters while simultaneously sounding like the Count. The effect is flawless.
When the bears enter the bedroom where Goldilocks is still sleeping, she jumps up and runs — one mile, two miles, three miles! She runs as if eight bears were chasing her — nine bears, ten bears, TWENTY BEARS! She runs ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SEVEN MILES! Telling the story leaves the Count exhausted, but Goldilocks runs all the way home, so that’s a happy ending.
“While the Count is resting, I think it would be a good time for you to turn the record over,” says Grover. I really do love that they left these record references in. Even if little kids are listening to these things via iTunes, I can’t imagine they’d be bothered by it.
Atilla the Hen
It’s Big Bird’s turn, and he’s going to sing “the song of a chicken, Atilla the Hen.” It’s basically the story of “The Little Red Hen.” None of the other animals want to help Atilla and her chicks with the harvesting and preparation of their corn, so when the corn is ready to eat, Atilla refuses to share it. So the moral of the story is: Hold a grudge!
Also, here’s a fun fact: Because of this song, I thought for years that Atilla the Hun was a woman.
Hansel and Gretel
Of course Cookie Monster would tell the story of “Hansel and Gretel.” He’s a little fuzzy on the details, so the other Muppets have to help him with a few details, like where Hansel and Gretel live and what they do every day. But he knows the part where they see a house made of gingerbread, and how they proceed to eat the whole thing before going home to live happily ever after. The End.
Wait, what? “That doesn’t sound like the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ story I know!” says Prairie. “In the one we know, they don’t eat the whole house, and there’s a mean old witch who tries to do real nasty things to Hansel and Gretel!” Cookie Monster understands her confusion. She’s thinking of Hansel and Gretel Hassenpfeffer from Whistleville, but he prefers the story of Hansel and Gretel Huckleberry from Yodeltown. That’s the one where they eat the chocolate door, and the strawberry chimney, and —
“Cookie, we understand!” says Prairie. “That was really swell, wasn’t it, everybody?” And they’re all like “Yeah, great story, yay!” in the most patronizing way possible. Yeah, Cookie Monster’s story is lame, but I can’t say the real version of the story is better. A witch trying to put two kids in the oven is pretty scary stuff. So maybe we should tell kids Cookie Monster’s version, but with an epilogue where they have to go to the dentist because all of their teeth have cavities.
“Uh, is it okay if I tell a story now?” asks Herry. Like “Silly Annabelle,” Herry’s story is not one that I’ve ever heard outside of this album, although whereas I’m pretty sure David Korr made up the Annabelle story, this one sounded to me like it could be an actual vintage bedtime story. Five seconds of internet research leads me to believe Korr may have been inspired by a Hans Christian Anderson story called “The Nightingale,” but Herry’s story diverges quite a bit from that one.
There’s a young prince named Prince Small One, who loves listening to the nightingale sing in the woods. When he trips and falls and injures his foot, he’s bedridden for a while, which makes him sad because he can’t hear the nightingale anymore. The king and queen have the nightingale captured and brought to the castle in a cage, but it doesn’t sing. No one in the kingdom knows why the caged bird doesn’t sing, and Maya Angelou isn’t around to ask. They try various things to get the nightingale, but nothing works.
Finally Prince Small One drops some wisdom on everyone, and tells them that the best thing to do is to let the nightingale out of the cage. Much to everyone’s surprise, the bird doesn’t fly away, but sits on the windowsill singing for the prince until his leg is healed. The king and queen are so happy they declare the nightingale to be the royal bird, but as Herry tells it, “the nightingale didn’t give two hoots about being the royal bird. It was just happy to be free, and to know that it had helped its friend, Prince Small One. The End.”
So that’s a really pretty story, and I don’t have anything snarky to say about it.
Big Bird has an inspiration: They should all tell a story together! They choose “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and everyone gets a part. The Count is the guy who buys Jack’s cow, Cookie Monster is the giant’s cook, Big Bird is the giant, Ernie is Jack, Prairie Dawn is Jack’s mother, Bert is the cow and the chicken, and Oscar is the giant’s singing harp. Herry is the foley artist, providing sound effects like the beanstalk falling.
And Grover is the narrator. He begins, “Imagine if you will that we have traveled far, far away to another time and place. A time when magic filled the air, and small children did foolish things. A place where giants walked, and singing harps were all the rage.”
It’s a pretty straightforward retelling of the “Jack” story, although I don’t think I’ve ever heard any other versions in which the giant’s personal chef plays such a large role. But it’s a great chance for Cookie Monster to stretch his acting muscles, as a man devoted to cooking delicious meals but conflicted over working for a mean ol’ giant.
Meanwhile, Oscar makes the most of his role as the harp. “Oh, I am the singing harp, tra la/Harp, tra la/Harp, tra la/I am the singing harp, tra la/There’s nothing I hate more than singing! Phooey!” And Bert’s chicken turns out to be the hen that lays golden eggs. Do you suppose she’s related to Atilla?
As I recall, the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” usually ends with Jack chopping down the beanstalk while the giant is on it, killing him, but because this is Sesame Street, Jack sneaks off while the giant is sleeping, and the giant never even makes it to the beanstalk. So the giant is okay, and Jack lives happily ever after with his mom and the harp and the hen and the cook and the thief and his wife and her lover.
Big Bird gets so far into his method acting as the giant that he falls asleep for real, and since no one wants to disturb him, they adjourn their meeting of the Midnight Society and disperse. Herry and Cookie are going to Hooper’s Store for a glass of milk, which is not significant to the narrative at all, but it’s a nice little detail. Grover tells me to take the record off the record player “very quietly, so you do not wake Big Bird,” and tells me he’s proud of me.
And that’s it. Listening to this album as an adult, I find it just as charming as I did as a kid, and I’m really happy (and a little relieved) to find that the Sesame folks deliberately chose stories that weren’t stereotypical, Disney-style fairy tale fare.
I can’t help but notice that Oscar didn’t get a story. Surely there’s a fairy tale out there somewhere involving dirt or mud or refuse that he could have told. But I guess a long-playing record only has room for so many stories.
I also find myself wondering what this production would be like if it was created now. Aside from the fact that the character lineup would be different — you’d have to have Elmo, Abby and Telly, at least — it would almost certainly be a DVD rather than an album. The fairy tales would most likely be acted out, with animated backgrounds. Which would be fine. But I really like the low-key execution of this album, and having my favorite Muppets taking a break from teaching letters and numbers to just hang out on the stoop and tell stories. And I love the idea that I can listen in.
And they all lived happily ever after!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com