Sesame Street

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How is it that Cookie Monster wasn’t asked to do this years ago?

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Am I the only one who hears the resemblance between these two songs?

Previously.

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This morning, while watching some old school Sesame Street with my kid, we came across a sketch I’d completely forgotten about — but one I absolutely loved growing up. It’s something like a blend of Encyclopedia Brown and Fat Albert, with a soundtrack reminiscent of Shaft. The segments were part of Sesame Street‘s long and laudable tradition of urban-positive programming and also, probably, one of the reasons the old school Sesame Street DVDs come with a warning that the content “may not be suitable to the needs of today’s children,” or something like that. (The assumption is that black kids in the city don’t need to see positive images of themselves?) Personally, I think the sketch still rocks. I also like Roosevelt Franklin, though, so I may not be an impartial judge.

According to the Muppet Wiki,

[t]he characters of Billy Jo and Smart Susie originated in a series of children’s books by [African American writer] John Shearer, with illustrations by his father Ted Shearer. The series debuted with Billy Jo Jive, Super Private Eye: The Case of the Missing Ten Speed Bike in 1976. When the sequel The Case of the Sneaker Snatcher was published in 1977, the cover boldly advertised “Don’t miss Billy Jo Jive and Susie Sunset on Sesame Street!”

Muppet Wiki also has a rundown on individual episodes, airing between 1978 and the early 90s. Here’s “The Case of the Missing Wig,” which is what we watched this morning:

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Just saw the news that the incomparable Lena Horne died yesterday. She was 92. Born in Brooklyn, she joined the chorus at Harlem’s Cotton Club as a teenager. She made her Broadway debut in 1934 at age 17, but didn’t fully establish herself as a nightclub performer, recording artist, and film star until the early 1940s. Much of her early work required tricky negotiations with mainstream American racism: her numbers were sometimes dropped from films when they were shown in the south; when she married an MGM composer/arranger in 1947 they had to elope to Paris because interracial marriage was illegal in California. After making the leap from racially segregated audiences and venues to mainstream stardom, a trajectory complicated further by her being blacklisted from Hollywood film work during the McCarthy era, she participated in major civil rights protests, including the March on Washington. There’s a nice overview of the remainder of her career here.

Here are three of my favorite Lena Horne performances, two more obscure than the third. The first is my initial memory of Lena Horne, in a guest appearance on The Cosby Show. Claire takes Cliff and the kids to see Lena Horne at a swank Manhattan dinner club as part of an elaborate surprise. What I remember about watching this as a teenager is how awesome it would be to have the kind of urban sophistication (and money!) to go see someone famous like that perform for your birthday. It’s an idealized notion of urbanity I cling to and have yet to realize:

I probably had already seen this 1973 appearance on another New York-based show I was fond of as a younger viewer:

And there used to be a great clip available of my favorite Lena Horne song of all, her version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” which was part of Words and Music, a 1948 film tribute to the songwriting team. The video’s been pulled from YouTube for proprietary reasons, but you can hear her standard recording of the same song from 1941 in this clip. It just may be my favorite performance of any Rodgers and Hart song, which is saying quite a bit. Has there ever been a more romantic recording?

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This one goes out to anyone missing New York right now. It’s a rerun. So sue me.

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Continuing Bryan’s stream of Sesame Street posts last month, we present for your edification a priceless video featuring bass Samuel Ramey, a fan favorite at the Metropolitan Opera. Here Ramey sings about his love for the letter L.

Ramey appeared earlier this season in the Met’s production of Puccini’s Turandot and can be seen this spring as Don Basilio in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviliglia (on February 26, March 1, or March 4).

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THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

On 10 November 1969, on PBS, the first episode of Sesame Street aired, sponsored by the letters W, S, and E and the numbers 2 and 3.

ssCast.jpgThe cheeky parody of the advertising industry — and corporate sponsorship of television programs — was only one of the things that tied the show to New York, though the attempt to “sell” educational content using the methods of television commercials was one of the series’ originating concepts. It also drew — like sketch-based variety television more broadly — on vaudeville traditions long linked to New York’s popular entertainment culture, preserved in Muppet slapstick and satire, including Bert and Ernie’s comic partnership. The show’s creators lived in New York, too, and they came together much as any urban literary or artistic scene had in earlier periods: over conversation, food, and drink. (The idea for the show came, like the decision to move the national capital from New York to the swamplands of what would become DC, out of a Manhattan dinner party.) The set of collaborations born in the late ’60s grounded the show in New York and ensured it would be filmed here for the next 40 years. Perhaps more than anything, the Sesame Street set — a brownstone, weather-beaten storefronts, a pushcart vendor, and a tire swing, for instance — was clearly drawn from the visual iconography of New York’s neighborhoods. “There would be no Treasure House, no toymaker’s workshop, no enchanted castle, no dude ranch, no circus,” writes the show’s most recent biographer, Michael Davis. “To the underprivileged, the target audience, these settings seemed as foreign as the dark side of the moon.”

Original sketches for the set were drawn in Harlem, Davis explains, but one early possible name for the show set it more specifically on the Lower East Side: 123 Avenue B was eventually discarded as too New York-centric, and the creators hoped for urban preschool audiences across the country. And so a bit of fantasy slipped into the mix after all, a sort of Jane Jacobsean dream: the show would feature life in a slightly magical neighborhood, where adults of mixed races looked out for kids who were even more diverse. (The show’s emphasis on ethnic diversity was aggressive from the start — so much so that I was shocked to learn, as a young adult, that at least one of my childhood friends in rural Arizona had been forbidden by her parents from watching it, out of a fear that it would promote inter-racial marriage. I was more conscious of its nifty packaging of Spanish vocabulary.)

Magical or not, what Sesame Street offered in its city street scene was a space that felt lived in, worn, repurposed, ordinary. (At least, it started out that way.) And yet it housed something extraordinary: the accommodation, the cosmopolitan celebration, even, of difference. Some sketches, to be sure, established universals: everyone eats, everyone sleeps, even though “everybody” in both cases is shown in the end to be made up of a bunch of differences. (Thanks again goes to Joe Raposo for the score to those daily activities.) The late-breaking, treacly classic “We Are All Earthlings” would also seem to preach a universalist gospel, but even that song begins by articulating difference. The show foregrounded not simply diversity but the experience of being different — being the one thing that wasn’t just like the others — in language, color, and economic class, even in lifeform. And it made it plain that difference was not simply a fact of life, but that it was okay, maybe even fun. Humans interacted with Muppets. Mr. Hooper represented a generation older than the principal adults on the cast. The humans on set, adult and children, were surrogates for an audience of diverse ages. The show aimed to please children and adults — including grandparental care-givers — alike. Only over time did they broaden their focus to include us country kids (see below), though it should be understood that where I lived we already knew where milk came from without Lorne Greene telling us. The differences encountered by watching the show — even when it rendered me an outsider — were part of what made it so interesting.

Such differences also tend to make genuine neighborhoods interesting,
though some people, of course, will always see neighborhoods as
exclusive rather than inclusive. Sesame Street‘s neighborhood is distinctively urban, as the various “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” sketches make clear, operating as they do from the assumption that neighborhoods are relatively self-contained in terms of basic public services rather than suburban. (They also assume not everyone in your neighborhood is pleasant.) The neighborhoods I saw on Sesame Street were quite different from my own. I don’t remember this sketch from the mid-70s, but it seems like something that would have drawn me, in my imagination, away from the cow patches I was surrounded by:

Come to think of it, I’ve looked a lot like that city kid for most of my adult life. It’s only the last few years I’ve had my hair cut short. I wonder if this guy has been burrowed in my subconscious all that time.

The sketch puts a primary difference up front, both to value that difference and to affirm one’s identity — and also, I would argue, to allow one to imagine other identities than the ones you were born into.

Sesame Street didn’t have to wax metaphysical to make New York seem enticing. All it took was a Raposo melody and some seemingly random footage of the city in winter. Can you identify places pictured here? Things that remain the same? Things that have vanished?

Against the grain of 1970s images of the subway as a scary place, Sesame Street offered this Sam Pottle and Grace Hawthorne song from 1974, which the MTA should really consider picking up as part of an official campaign. It begins with urban rudeness and accounts for all sorts of frustration — missed stops, the heat, crowds — but somehow still affirms the democratic joy of it all:

On the first episode of Sesame Street (which you can get on the Old School Vol. 1 DVD set or with this book, but which I can’t seem to find on YouTube), Gordon escorts a little girl named Sally — clearly a proxy for child viewers — around the neighborhood, introducing her to human and Muppet characters. “Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street,” he tells her. “Everything happens here. You’re going to love it.” Michael Davis responds to this line: “everything and anything can happen on Sesame Street — except bad stuff.” Not necessarily so — at least not mildly bad stuff. One of the show’s genius strokes was to let characters — usually Muppets or characters in animated segments, but sometimes the humans, too — feel all kinds of unpleasant emotions, from frustration, to the isolation of difference (even if it’s a difference that makes you feel ordinary), to embarrassment over mistakes, to annoyance at your friends, to miscommunication. In some cases, but not all, these issues are worked through. But things work out for  different people in different ways. What’s remained constant for 40 years is the affirmation that no matter how isolated or different you may feel, someone else somewhere — maybe just a ten-ton Muppet no one else can see — cares enough to make the loneliness go away, that someone who’s different from you may be able to care about you nonetheless.

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A while back I wrote here that, like the American Songbook guru Jonathan Schwartz, I feel pretty confident saying that my musical unconscious was more shaped by Richard Rodgers than any other composer or musician. The Sound of Music alone probably sealed that deal, but Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific are right up there as well, especially the latter two, for which I played in the orchestra for high school or community productions.

The other contender for the title, though, would be Sesame Street‘s Joe Raposo. Over the last week or so I’ve been floored to realize how many of my favorite Sesame Street sketches feature his songs. Not all of my favorites below are Raposo songs, but enough are that I’m giving the guy a big fat shout out. I think my early encounter with his music for Sesame Street (and for The Muppet Show, too) primed my brain for a certain strain of rock and roll that stretches from David Bowie to Destroyer, what I lovingly refer to as Muppet Rock. (More often than not bands with animal names fall in this category.) One of my grand unfinished schemes is to curate a Muppet indie rock opera, starring Gonzo, for WFMU’s listener hour.

But enough of that. For your Monday afternoon music needs, here’s a playlist of my fifteen (well, sixteen) favorite songs from Sesame Street, the ones so deeply burned into my brain there’s no hope of ever shaking them. Most are from 1969-74; I may have picked up some later ones from a 25th anniversary VHS collection I watched with my daughters a decade ago.

In descending order:

15. Grover and Madeline Khan sing “Sing After Me (The Echo Song),” after she rebuffs Grover’s advances. This is a Sam Pottle tune, first aired in 1977:
 

14. The Count, “Doing the Batty Bat.” I remember this song a little better than the other famous song by the Count, and unfortunately this one doesn’t have such a brilliant parody to go along with it. (Please click that link. You will not regret it.)

Raposo wrote this song in 1985:

13. “Would You Like to Buy an O?” This shady character reminds me of my friend Scotty G out in the LBC. Raposo wrote this; first aired in 1971:
 

12. “What’s the Name of That Song?” Another Sam Pottle tune (1974):
 

11. Bert and Ernie sing “I Dance Myself to Sleep.” This is from ’81, which means I probably watched it with younger siblings. I know I watched this with my daughters when they were little but I’m pretty sure I knew it in the 80s too. Classic Bert and Ernie, this one written by Christopher Cerf:
 

10. “Mah-Na Mah-Na.” I don’t actually remember this version (1969), but it was later a staple on the Muppet Show with different characters. According to Muppet Wiki, it was “written by composer Piero Umiliani for an Italian documentary about life in Sweden, titled Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden, Heaven and Hell).” This was Henson’s first pass at it:
 

9. “Martian Beauty” (1972) was designed to teach the number 9, so I’ll let it clock in here. Written, sung, and animated by Bud Luckey, who would go on to work for Pixar. Lyrics by Don Hadley:
 

8. Ernie sings “Rubber Duckie.” I don’t know if I love or hate this song. When I was a kid we had a Sesame Street songbook for the piano, so I also grew up playing and singing this and a few of the others on my list. Written by Jeff Moss, performed by Jim Henson. I was in my mother’s womb when this first aired:

7. “The Alligator King” (1971). Another Bud Luckey song and cartoon w/ Don Hadley lyrics. I’m putting it, appropriately, at number 7, but this was one of my favorite sketches of all as a kid. Still is:

6. “C Is for Cookie” (1971), by Joe Raposo. My best friend had this on a Sesame Street LP. His older
brother called us babies for listening to is and then put “Love Is Like Oxygen” on the record player. At least that’s how I remember it. The brother also had one of those big Farrah posters but his mom made him cut it off at the waist.

5. “Sing” (1970). Another one that’s as old as I am. Raposo wrote it. It’s been performed any number of ways. I liked the Carpenters’ version when I was a kid. I remember a filmstrip at church when I was a kid that held this up as the “right” kind of music. This version, the bilingual one, is from ’71. Luis was always trying to squeeze Spanish in there.

4. Bert and Ernie, “The Imagination Song” (1972), by Joe Raposo. I love how Bert wakes up:
 

3. Oscar sings “I Love Trash” (1969). This was my favorite to play on the piano, and I loved the lyrics, too. They gave me license never to throw anything away. Here’s the original version from the first season, when Oscar was still orange:

2. (tie) Two songs about 12: “The Pinball Number Count” and “Ladybug Picnic.” I couldn’t dispense with these all the way back at #12, though. These rank so high simply because once you hear them you can’t shake them for days. Probably the most memorable of all those animated sketches. The first one’s by the Pointer Sisters. Written in ’72 but debuted on SS, apparently, in ’76:

And the other is another Bud Luckey/Don Hadley number (1971):
 

1. And, finally, Kermit singing “Bein’ Green,” also from the year I was born, and perhaps Raposo’s best song. They were lefties at Sesame Street in the early days, those wacky kids.
 

You have seen the version Big Bird sang at Jim Henson’s memorial, haven’t you?

What would be on your Best Of list?

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Next week Sesame Street celebrates its 40th anniversary. If you’ve used Google today, you may have been tipped off to the fact:

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I’ve written about the show here before — even recently — but I’m planning a longer post for Tuesday, the actual anniversary of the first episode’s airing in 1969, not quite a year before I was born. In the meantime I wanted to create some playlists of favorite sketches from my own childhood.

For this installment, I wanted to offer a set of clips with kids interacting with Muppets. One of the things New York Magazine pointed out this week in its nod toward the 40th anniversary — along with the fun fact that the original name of the show was to be 123 Avenue B — is that initial audience tests for the show, without Muppets, flopped with kids. Henson’s arrival on the scene clearly was key. (I’ve purchased Street Gang to help me out with posts this week, but like an idiot I left it in my office. I’ll fact check later.)

Given that I’m the oldest of 7 children, my encounter with Sesame Street was a long one. And I never really outgrew it. I loved to watch it with younger siblings and I’ve loved revisiting it with my own kids, though I strongly prefer the show pre-Elmo. I have very clear memories, dating as far back as I can remember television, of one human child who was a perpetual favorite in our household. In fact, if one of his sketches came on, whoever was watching would yell throughout the house: “John John’s on!” and people would come running.

Was there ever a Sesame Street kid as adorable as John John?
 
Clearly, his gift was to be able to interact with the Muppets as if they were human. He seems not to notice there’s a human being attached below and to the back. The genius of the directors was that they only loosely scripted these encounters and let the actors improvise.

Take Bert’s reaction to John John’s questions in this one:

Like many Sesame Street sketches, the ones with John John tend to turn on the idea of difference. I’m toying with the idea that the show’s foregrounding of this idea is a key to its cosmopolitan vision. More on that later. For now, easy differences to digest, like the difference between up and down:

And between loud and soft:

Here’s some more counting for good measure. JJ’s mess up (below) bears an uncanny similarity to this classic Bert and Ernie clip from the first season.

And finally, he makes it to 20, in what was, perhaps, John John’s best appearance of all time:

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Old School

The other day I was dancing with my kid to a couple DVDs of Sesame Street’s first few seasons. Yes, I realize it’s a little early to introduce the kid to TV, but the music is perfect, and in the end I plan to skip the last 25 years of children’s programming and go back to Henson for building blocks of literacy, morality, and imagination. Goodbye, SpongeBob … hello, Kermit.

So in the midst of picnicking ladybugs and alligator kings and such, up comes a segment featuring none other than a young Jesse Jackson. I was stunned. And moved. I watched it two or three times in a row:

What exactly would prevent this segment from airing today? That medallion? (Just kidding.) Actually, I think it would be the W word. What a shame. It’s a reminder that the show’s creators aggressively aimed, in the beginning, to foster self-esteem among kids living in urban poverty. I didn’t recognize this agenda as a child, of course, living in the rural southern reaches of the Rocky Mountatins. To me, Sesame Street was my key representation of a far-off place called The City, where people of all races lived and got along and played on tire swings at the termination of dead end streets.

Here’s another clip that shows where the Sesame Street version came from. Turns out it was already a little softened:

Is it good or bad that these seem like relics from a distant past?

Previously.

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