A New Book Maps the History of 'Sesame Street'

By Moore, Frazier | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 27, 2008 | Go to article overview
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A New Book Maps the History of 'Sesame Street'


Moore, Frazier, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


NEW YORK -- How to get to "Sesame Street" is child's play, as the chirpy theme song has assured kids daily for 39 years.

But first it had to be created. In the new book "Street Gang: The Complete History of 'Sesame Street,'" journalist Michael Davis takes us on the journey with thoroughness and obvious affection.

While this history travels some familiar ground, the story in its fullness should cause readers to marvel at what a charmed alignment "Sesame Street" represents: Here, an era of social activism coincided with a strategy for channeling TV to help underprivileged youngsters, which all led to this newfangled show, along with an institution (now called Sesame Workshop) to cradle it.

An early outline for the show had already identified the essentials: It would be a daily hourlong program for 3- to 5-year- olds, shot on tape, with music, puppets and stories. The goal: to help kids learn their ABCs and count from one to 10.

Other details weren't so quickly nailed down, like who might air it. According to "Street Gang," both CBS and NBC had a chance, but each rejected the project.

"All the applause, all the gratitude from parents, all the awards and recognition," plus millions from licensing and merchandising -- this was for the taking by either network. As Davis writes, "Turning down 'Sesame Street' was a billion-dollar blunder."

It debuted, instead, on PBS on Nov. 10, 1969, and from its first day, the show made everything look easy -- including itself.

But the four years before that had been jammed with brainstorming, fundraising, meticulous research and remarkable invention. One major "aha" moment: the decision to teach numbers and letters with parody commercials. It was a revolutionary idea then and an educational hallmark ever since.

A few decisions were made on the fly. Casting of actors was somehow put off until shortly before its test shows had to be taped.

Then came another vexing issue.

"We were just frantic for a title," recalled series mastermind Joan Ganz Cooney. No one much liked the word "sesame," which seemed to imply opening something up, but also seemed cutesy and doomed to be mispronounced by the audience as "see-same.

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