Skip to content
'Street Gang' by Michael Davis
Big Bird snorts cocaine. Mr. Hooper uses his store as a front for stolen goods. Oscar the Grouch keeps pornography in his trash can.
If these are the stories you are looking for, too bad. "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" is not a Hollywood tell-all. No puppeteer hung himself by his own strings; Cookie Monster was not discovered on a casting couch. It is not even set in Hollywood. "Sesame Street" was inspired, imagined, sold and created out of the civil rights movement in New York City. And seemingly everyone involved with it was as altruistic and munificent as the theme song:
Sweeping the clouds away,
On my way
to where the air is sweet.
Can you tell me how to get,
how to get to Sesame Street?
Yes, we get a little past-tense womanizing, a lot of drinking and a psychotic breakdown later in the book, but it all seems sad, not salacious, and not germane to the basic story. "Street Gang" is journalist Michael Davis' tale of a woman, Joan Ganz Cooney, who had an idea at a dinner party and, despite plenty of opposition, fought her way to creating a show for preschoolers that would change television as we know it.
Cooney, a producer of documentaries and public service programs, recognized that there was a disparity in children entering kindergarten, between those from middle-class homes and those born in poverty. Lloyd Morrisett, the host of that fateful dinner party, was a psychologist and vice president of the Carnegie Corp. with a mandate to close the learning gap between rich and poor. He also had a 4-year-old daughter who loved television and could sing a variety of commercial jingles. Morrisett talked about his daughter and wondered if television could be used to really teach children. "If cartoons and westerns were ice cream, educational TV was spinach," Davis writes. "What . . . Cooney hoped for would be more like raspberry yogurt, TV that was both tangy and nutritious."
The implications were amazing, both in what the children could learn and how many could be reached. Education would be sold as entertainment, in the same 30 seconds as commercials, with bright colors, funny characters and lots of music. It seems a no-brainer now, but it was a hard sell in the 1960s. It took four years from the dinner party to the airing of the first "Sesame Street" in November 1969.
Davis was a senior editor and family television columnist for TV Guide. It is obvious he loves his subject and has done extensive research, but he chooses his focus oddly. Pages are spent describing the licensing and merchandising agreements of the Muppets, but Mississippi's 1970 ban of the show (because of its integrated cast) gets barely a paragraph. The black, white and Latino cast was selected precisely to promote integration. It was part of "Sesame Street's" mandate. That Mississippi refused to air it seems highly significant to the show's history, but the brief section ends unsatisfactorily: "The Mississippi commission ultimately reversed its decision, but only after the initial ban had made national news." Later, Davis starts a section with an incendiary line: "The 18-point headline in the New York Times Magazine of February 6, 1994 asked, 'Are Bert and Ernie Gay?' " This is the second time Bert and Ernie's sexuality comes up in the text, but neither instance is given any serious consideration in comparison, say, to a lengthy section about producer Sam Gibbon's absentee parenting style.
One criticism of "Sesame Street" is that it is too episodic; another is that the segments are too short. "Street Gang" has the same problem. Davis is everywhere, from 1958 to 2008 and back again. He expounds on topics such as Woodstock and children of divorce. The book begins with "Captain Kangaroo," the show on which many of "Sesame Street's" original staff got their start. Davis devotes too much time to Bob Keeshan and his creation. Each of the principals on "Sesame Street" are given lengthy personal histories going back generations and written in minute detail. The book fails to maintain the same clear purpose and focus so important to the show it tries to describe.
And yet within each of his sections, peripatetic as they are, Davis clearly shows us the love and respect Cooney and her "Sesame Street" gang had for one another. When Northern Calloway, who played Mr. Hooper's assistant, David, was arrested for aggravated assault and found to be mentally ill, the show took him back, lithium and all. The scene at Jim Henson's funeral is heartbreaking. And Davis does a great job of portraying the optimism that pervaded "Sesame Street's" early years. Cooney was not embarrassed to be trying to do something both educational and important. Henson, Frank Oz, Jon Stone and others wanted to work on this new idea because it was a good thing, because it was the right thing to do and they wanted to make a difference. They did.
"Street Gang" may be a little dry to anyone but an ardent student of television; still, television programming today is like watching a filmed version of the tabloids. It was a pleasure to spend some time back where "everything's A-OK."
Wagman, a Cal State Long Beach professor, is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."