Friday, November 25, 2016

Street Gang by Michael Davis

Don't ask me why I read this book. I was looking for something to read on a recent business trip, and grabbed the now-not-all-that-new translation of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which I really do expect to read one of these days. But I never want to have only one book for a trip -- what if I'm not in the right mood? -- so I also grabbed a battered nonfiction paperback for contrast. And that's the one I picked up on that plane flight, and ended up reading over the next two weeks.

The book was Street Gang, a history of the TV show Sesame Street by longtime writer-about-TV Michael Davis, which I found in a library sale for a quarter sometime last year. It's meat-and-potatoes nonfiction, with a chapter about the life of each of the major people who launched Sesame and potted bios of a number of other people who aren't quite as important. Davis doesn't transcend his material here, but he does give a good account of early TV for kids -- Beany & Cecil, Captain Kangaroo, and so forth -- as he gets to the launch of Sesame in 1969 at about the halfway point of the book.

From there it gets vaguer and looser: Davis mostly follows the major players forward, or at least does so when they (like Northern Calloway) had a tragic ending. He doesn't attempt to chronicle the show season-by-season, or even divide it into eras any more specific than decades. So each decade -- '70s, '80s, and '90s/aughts -- gets a scattershot chapter covering some of the many things that were happening then. (And somewhere along the lines I realized I really wanted to read a book about Jim Henson, who isn't actually in this book all that much -- the prologue is set at his 1990 funeral, though, and I think that's what dragged me in.)

Street Gang came out in 2008, just shy of Sesame's fortieth anniversary. That's a lot of ground to cover, particularly in a book that wants to explain the industry as it existed pre-Sesame and show where the major figures of Children's Television Workshop came from. (The answer, more often than not, was Captain Kangaroo.) It suffers somewhat from wanting to tell and show everything about everything -- everyone's lives before Sesame, all of the conflicts as the show went on, the professional lives of all of the main cast, and how Sesame affected the world as well -- because it really doesn't have enough space, nor any reader enough patience, to do all of that. Readers more attuned to the world of TV than me will probably enjoy this more, but Street Gang is honestly a pretty good book about a great show that really did change the world for the better.

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