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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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I got a little carried away with the John John sketches yesterday. I'd intended to add a few from my other favorite human child/Muppet interactions: Kermit's conversations with Joey. These are all from '72 if I'm not mistaken. Again, what I find amazing is that she seems oblivious to the Muppeteer hiding behind the desk (in this case Henson himself) and is perfectly willing to interact with Kermit on a human level.

Counting to 20, with commentary on Kermit's eyes:



Another, in which we learn how ticklish Kermit is:




And, saving the best for last, Joey tries out her ABCs, with a little trick up her sleeve. This is one of the best Sesame Street sketches ever:




I just realized Joey's got the same shirt on for all three. Were these filmed on the same day?

On another occasion Joey helps Snuffy with his ABCs:




And I'm pretty sure this is her standing by the piano when Mary Lou Williams teaches the kids to scat.

Her Muppet Wiki page makes her out to be a little older than typical kids on the show or in the audience, which is why she seemed so smart. It doesn't tell us, though, where she is now. Unlike John John, she wasn't featured in the 20th anniversary special.
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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:

Google-doodle-Sesame-St-001.jpg

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

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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.


Welcome back

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School's almost back in session. Our students have begun to return to the city in droves, which terrifies -- perhaps even terrorizes? -- people in multiple neighborhoods. What those neighbors don't realize is that those of us (adults and families, that is) who live in student residence halls are utterly relieved to have our own students back and the "summer associates" -- the khaki-clad douchebags from everywhere else who are only here for the summer as interns, and who love to leave beer cans in the elevator on their way out for the night -- scurrying back to the Big Country. Seriously, I know NYU and New School students have a bum rap, and some of them deserve it. But many of the people I live among and teach are eager to be here and to engage with the city in a meaningful way. Maybe the nice ones self-select into the courses and buildings I inhabit.

Anyway, in a different context today I was musing about the phrase "welcome back," and how for me -- like many who grew up in the 70s -- it inevitably makes me want to break into the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song. The show's opening shots of a graffiti-covered F train in Brooklyn were among the most lasting images of New York that populated my imagination before I finally visited the city in my late teens.



Gotham City Birthday

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My younger son, Caleb, was born exactly five years ago. He's lived his entire life in Union Square and, like a good New Yorker, has adopted the Dark Knight as his superhero of choice.

For his birthday, Caleb requested that his mom bake him a "Batman cake." She obliged.

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Like many a tyke with a late summer birthday, Caleb will be having a party with his friends after Labor Day. "A Batman party, Daddy."

As Robin once said in the days of my youth, "Holy Guadalcanal, Batman!"

For you aficionados, that's season 2, episode 28, "The Bird's Last Jest," first broadcast on December 8, 1966. You can check it out below. Robin's remark comes at about the 3:02 mark.
 





Last night our old friends across the country at EOTAW posted a video of proto-Muppets, including an early version of Kermit, playing banjo and selling bacon (do you think Piggie knows about that dark past?). Just the other day, by coincidence, Flaming Pablum posted another proto-Muppet ad campaign, this one a rather violent enticement for consumers to purchase Wilkins Coffee.

After falling down a Muppet rabbit hole on YouTube and the Muppet Wiki, I came to learn that these early versions of familiar Muppet faces developed during the era of Sam and Friends, Jim Henson's first TV show -- a five-minute spot, really -- which ran on a DC-area local TV affiliate in the late 50s and early 60s. One of his early characters, I was pleased to discover, was a fellow named Harry the Hipster. To me he seems like an early version of both Rowlf the Dog and Zoot (the sax player from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem). Here's Harry with proto-Kermit in a 1959 sketch called "Visual Thinking":



Here's version #2, from a 1966 short on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Did you know Muppets had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show? I didn't.) This time Kermit's the hipster:



Finally, here's the sketch as it appeared on Sesame Street in 1971. Kermit's gone; the Muppets here are voiced by Frank Oz (doing his Sam the Eagle voice) and Northern Calloway, who played David on the show:



I'll leave it to readers to decide what to make of the hipster's reappropriation, here, by a decidedly urban Black voice. David was one of the coolest dudes on Sesame Street. How is it that John Leland left this magnificent material out of his history of hip?


xoxo -- Edith

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rachel-carr-photo.jpgI'm sure some of our students are wondering if I saw tonight's Gossip Girl/Age of Innocence crossover, and the answer's yes. (Of course it is! Didn't I already make my obsessions clear enough early in the semester?) I hope none of our students missed the crucial moment when an audience-watching scene (see still at right) allowed Dan to realize that Rachel was the bad guy. Too bad we didn't have a few of those clips earlier for lecture.

My quick response: Though it's long been known that the original GG novels took some inspiration from Wharton, I think the writer of tonight's episode must have been one of our students! Just kidding, but how many talking points re: Wharton, Scorsese, and Wyler seemed to be cribbed from Cyrus's lecture notes? That said, I understand why they had to cast Serena as May, even though that was all wrong. Blair's much more like May (and said as much in her opening lines in the episode) and Serena's much more the Countess. Dan should have been Beaufort, of course, but needed to be Archer in order for the star-crossed lovers subplot to work itself out. (Student sex in the costume closet? They should have stuck with the kiss on the wrist.)

All that having been said, the most awesome parts of the episode, as usual, were Derrota's moments -- trying on Blair's hairpiece, and then sizing up the catty "maids" dolled up for the play. I'm not sure Wharton would have known what to do with Derrota.


Back to the Old Hotel

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Channel 13's latest installment of the online video series The City Concealed ventures into one of my hands-down favorite places in New York: the old Fulton Ferry Hotel rooms hidden above the South Street Seaport Museum (and several tacky mall shops) on Schermerhorn Row, Fulton Street between Water and South.

scherm1.jpgThe row of warehouse buildings and countinghouses, which date from 1811 to 1849 (they were built in sections, one at a time, eventually extending 600 feet into the East River), were landmarked in the late 1970s and partially restored in the early 1980s, when the seaport area was redeveloped for commercial tourist purposes. At least on the ground floors: the upper rooms remained largely untouched, as they had been for much of the twentieth century.

The ground floor of the South Street end of the Row had long been home to a restaurant called Sloppy Louie's, which operated from 1930 to 1998. The restaurant, and the old hotel above, featured prominently in one of Joseph Mitchell's most famous New Yorker essays, "Up In the Old Hotel" (1952). According to Mitchell, Louie Moreno liked knowing that his restaurant occupied space built by the nineteenth-century merchant Peter Schermerhorn; it made him feel a tie to Old New York. Mitchell's piece starts out with a deliberate echo of Melville's Moby-Dick:

Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie's and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast--a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.
I won't spoil the essay; all you need to know is that its main event takes place when Mitchell and Sloppy Louie himself pull themselves up a dumbwaiter into the old, abandoned hotel Thumbnail image for sloppylouiematchbook.JPGrooms above -- several of which remain intact today, preserved ruins belonging to the South Street Seaport Museum but only rarely opened to the public.

One of my great regrets in life is that I moved to the seaport neighborhood three years too late for breakfast at Sloppy Louie's. I did get there in time, though, to witness the market in action. (It moved to Hunt's Point in the Bronx, after many delays and much foot-dragging, in 2005, after having inhabited its spot at the seaport since 1822.) I took a group of students there early one November morning in the fall of 2004, and it looked and smelled just like it had to Mitchell half a century earlier. Our tourguide was the Museum's historian, Jack Putnam, who can recite whole chapters of Moby-Dick from memory and who narrates the City Concealed segment in a dapper bowtie and some amazing fuchsia socks:



The City Concealed: Up in the Fulton Ferry Hotel from Thirteen.org on Vimeo.

I've also been lucky enough to take students on flashlight tours through the old hotel a handful of times in the last five or six years. Along with the small hotel rooms, some with wallpaper still peeling in multiple layers and dust caking in the corners, the space in the upper floors of Schermerhorn Row includes equipment used to sort and bag coffee beans coming off the ship and other evidence of the buildings' many functions in the nineteenth century. My favorite part of the whole experience, though -- and an aspect that didn't make it into the segment -- is the graffiti, much of it left by hotel residents, sailors, and workers in the countinghouses and coffee plant. A lot of it has Irish content, some of it complains of the bosses or pokes at the competition, but the best parts are the most juvenile: sailing vessels drawn onto the wall with someone's name alongside them, the way a middle-schooler today might doodle a fantasy hot-rod; or an enormous cock, also (if memory serves) with a name attached. Maybe it was too much for Channel 13; we can only hope the Museum decides to preserve it as part of the planned permanent exhibit.

Schermerhorn Row image from New York Architecture Images; Sloppy Louie's matchbook from Lost City.


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