Jim Henson's Boulevard
by ALEX CARNEVALE
It was Group A streptoccocal pneumonia that killed Jim Henson in 1990, caught from a Mattel executive as Jim flew to Los Angeles to appear on Arsenio. By that time Henson had long since divorced the wife and mother of his children, bought out her half of his company, and taken up with model types like Daryl Hannah. (A friend said, "He loved beautiful things and beautiful women.") Henson, under the care of his Christian scientist mother, refused medical treatment until it was too late. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered outside his ranch in Santa Fe.
On September 26th, Sesame Street begins its 42nd season. It was the project that changed Jim Henson's life.
The original idea for Sesame Street was the brainchild of television executive Joan Ganz Cooney. Considered the mother of all children's television, Cooney's decision to use Henson's puppets changed what would become Sesame Street from a somewhat dour educational program to an entertainment show. Up until then, the absolute pinnacle of children's television was Bob Keeshan's Captain Kangaroo, and its rote instruction and low production values hardly comprised a breakthrough in the genre.
Henson's first attempt at children's television, Sam and Friends, was a dry run for his full cast of Muppets. The show's purpose was as much to hawk various products to the Washington D.C. area where it aired as to educate and entertain its audience. After the show signed off in 1961, the Muppets were already famous from Jack Paar's The Tonight Show and had appeared in a variety of commercials.
Henson and company wanted to shoot a Muppet Snow White as a pilot for CBS, but when ABC showed more interest, they demanded a different fairy-tale heroine. Jim's version of Cinderella would air years after Sesame Street was on the air, but it was actually a test-run for the show. The reason that it did not air was half ABC getting college football and half the fact that it wasn't very funny.
There was little movement to create educational television until Lyndon Johnson began pushing for noncommercial television as part of his Great Society program. Despite powerful people in the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation supporting the effort, all the major television networks passed on Sesame Street. Their fear, and eventually the fear of executives in public broadcasting, was that kids would just flip to cartoons instead of educational programming.
Academics involved with Sesame Street developed papers on how to integrate the educational aspects of the show with the entertainment ones. Focus groups were essential in their approach; it was how they could tell if the children were actually learning. The attitude of the male academics towards Joan Ganz Cooney was also problematic — they undercut her when they could, informing whoever was listening that they did not know if a woman could command such a program, questioning whether a woman from a non-academic background could really handle such an enterprise. The education and research director from the Ford Foundation, Marjorie Martus, opined that she "did not think a project headed by a woman could be taken seriously."
Despite these challenges, Cooney became the head of the Children's Television Workshop. A gruesome meeting of academics and creative types looking to siphon money from the show's appreciably large budget showed up to brainstorm ideas for the show. Maurice Sendak spent most of the time drawing pornographic cartoons of the participants. When a bearded, hippie-ish gentleman strolled into the back after they broke for lunch, Cooney initially thought he was a terrorist member of the Weathermen. Jim Henson introduced himself.
The first concepts for the visual look of Sesame Street involved an actual street with the familiar trashcans redolent of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. It was either too close to reality for a test audience of pre-schoolers, or too far from it. They kept the setting but used a brownstone instead.
The first title of Sesame Street was 123 Avenue B. Setting the show itself in a place much of its audience had never experienced was radical enough; but immersing it on a drug-ridden street corner betrayed the naivete of all involved. A child under the supervision of a CTW consultant at a daycare center on the West Side came up with the name Sesame Street, and at the last minute, it was used. As recalled in Michael Davis' marvelous history of the show, Street Gang, feedback came back from the affliated advertising agency: "Nobody is going to remember it. It has too many esses."
Once production began, the creative elements took over the show. The writers and actors drank constantly after-hours, fleshing out ideas for the next day. Henson worked harder than anyone, using entire weekends to film sequences.
Bert and Ernie, performed by Frank Oz and Henson respectively, became the show's centerpiece. Rather than a relationship between two homosexuals, the connection actually paralleled Frank and Jim's real life interactions, with Jim as the troublemaker egging on the more mercurial Oz. Another Frank puppet, Grover, represented a different direction from the same Bert and became one of the show's biggest attractions.
The first test screenings scored high marks for the puppets, but the long-mulled over choices for live actors were not as appealing, and passages featuring human actors generally bored the kids.
Encouraged by the early reaction, the academics began to see the potential in Henson's puppets. A Harvard professor suggested a fumbling figure who could make mistakes, and Henson created Big Bird to soften the proceedings, a puppet that stood over eight feet tall and required the puppeteer to enter it. Henson's walk wasn't birdlike enough so the part went to Henson recruit and talented puppeteer Caroll Spinney.
In the first episode, Bert and Ernie set up their traditional interplay:
ERNIE: Hey, Bert. Can I have a bar of soap?
ERNIE: Just toss it into Rosie here.
BERT: Who's Rosie?
ERNIE: My bathtub. I call my bathtub Rosie.
BERT: Ernie, why do you call your bathtub Rosie?
ERNIE: What's that?
BERT: I said, why do you call your bathtub Rosie?
ERNIE: Because every time I take a bath I leave a ring around Rosie.
Henson had set up shop at East 67th Street, living with his growing family in a place that could occupy both of his major creative projects. The first Henson workshop constituted a space where ideas arose constantly and could be encouraged. Characters like Oscar the Grouch, Prairie Dawn and Aloysius Snuffleupagus emerged out of this collaborative environment, and soon there was a menagerie of potential puppets for the show that far exceeded the cast of Sam and Friends.
To a child watching Sesame Street for the first time on November 10th, 1969, it must have been something of a shock to the system. The inner-city setting integrated with a range of somewhat frighteningly realistic animal characters was fortunately softened by Henson's short films, where he really showed off his ability to captivate children with his perspective.
From the moment it aired, Sesame Street was a tremendous success among its core audience of children and parents, as well as the television executives who the show depended on for its continued existence. Children's television had never done ratings like this; parents immediately saw the utility of using the show to watch their kids.
Time touted the show as "one of the best researched programs in history" and gave credit to the combination of public and private enterprise. In reality, it was largely Henson's creative genius that made the show such a phenomenon, but that did not stop reams of educators and academics from beaming with pride. Time wrote,
This week the National Educational Television network began to do something for that forgotten minority with the first segment of Sesame Street. A color series to run one hour every weekday for the next 6½ months, Sesame's 130 segments are dedicated to the proposition that children are people, involved in their own quest for enlightenment and entertainment via the video set.
What Sesame Street does, blatantly and unashamedly, is take full advantage of what children like best about TV. "Face it — kids love commercials," explains Joan Ganz Cooney, executive director of NET's Children's Television Workshop. "Their visual impact is way ahead of everything else seen on television; they are clever, and they tell a simple, self-contained story."
The show won every honor possible for children's television, and President Nixon wrote to Joan Ganz Cooney, telling her that "the many children and families now benefitting from Sesame Street are participants in one of the most promising experiments in the history of that medium. The Children's Television Workshop certainly deserves the high praise it has been getting from young and old alike in every corner of the nation. This administration is enthusiastically committed to opening up opportunities for every youngster, particularly during his first five years of life, and is pleased to be among the sponsors of your distinguished program."
Of course, there was backlash. Some educators resented having to share their job with a television program they felt was beneath them, and academics were still skeptical that a television program could be good for young ones.
The chief complaint about Sesame Street was the very thing that had captivated the attention of its target audience: the show's breakneck pace. It was impossible to be bored watching Sesame Street: if you did not like one particular segment, another was on its way. Taking its cues from the theater, including the considerable influence of vaudeville, Sesame Street endeavored never to be boring. To some, that was what made it dangerous to traditional learning — how could the classroom compare to an expensive television production?
Mississippi banned the show because of its integrated cast, and the National Organization for Women tore into the show for its depiction of Susan the homemaker, complaining that "the program has shown greater responsiveness to the needs of blacks than women." The Hispanic community was even more incensed — in the early years of the show, they had no representative on Sesame Street.
With the commercial success of Sesame Street, advertisers and toy companies wanted to cash in. Henson was extremely resistant to marketing the characters he had created, but once Cooney convinced him it would make his company financially profitable and therefore independent, he relented.
To fill the show's need for new characters and Henson's need for marketable muppets, more performers and writers were brought aboard. Sesame Street's then-head writer Norman Stiles came up with Count von Count, a dylslexic Dracula who poked gentle fun at Bela Lugosi. Writer/director Jon Stone and Henson reworked an old design into the fabulously popular Cookie Monster, originally created for an ad campaign. Producer Matt Robinson created a Roosevelt Franklin puppet that spoke in scat and was identifiably African-American. Black executives within the CTW were horrified, and the character was "killed off." In 1985, a little-used Muppet named Elmo became the show's mainstay.
By the time Sesame Street grew into itself, Henson already felt trapped. His ambitions lurked outside of children's television and had inspired his classic short Time Piece among other more adult-oriented projects. He did not want to work on Sesame Street for the rest of his life.
Cooney told him, "You are going to break out of this. Something is going to happen that will provide new opportunities for you. You need to have the patience and belief to see what I'm saying is true." Other projects, including the groundbreaking Muppet Show and several feature films lay in Jim's future, and Joan was right: all became possible because of what he had done for children.
His funeral is bizarre, even now. The notice in The New York Times read:
A memorial service for the puppeteer Jim Henson, who created Kermit the Frog and many other Muppet creatures, is to be held at noon on Monday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, at 112th Street. Written instructions left by Mr. Henson, who died of a bacterial infection at 53 years of age on Wednesday, requested that no one attending wear black.
CNN wanted to broadcast the services live, but the family would not allow it. Employees of the company distributed fabric butterflies on wands to the attendees. His children and his ex-wife aimed for something uplifting more than maudlin.
The end result is a moving synthesis of both extremes. Near the event's conclusion, Big Bird came out.
"Just One Person" - Bernadette Peters, Robin and the Muppets (mp3)
"Wishing Song" - Gonzo (mp3)
"New York State of Mind" - Floyd (mp3)
"An Editorial" - Sam the Eagle (mp3)
"Time in a Bottle" - The Muppets (mp3)
"Cuento Le Gusta" - Miss Piggy & the Pigs (mp3)