Can You Tell Me How to Get to . . . . Dude, is that Oscar?
I think that when I initially moved to New York City from Minneapolis there was some small part of my brain that felt that I wouldn’t have "made it" until I got on Sesame Street. This is inherently a ridiculous thing to tell yourself when you are not a performer or in the arts in any way, shape, or form. I don’t know if I thought that maybe one day Sesame Street writers, performers, and camera operators would waltz into the library where I was working and BAM! Instant public television stardom. I mean Linda on the show had a Masters in Library Science in real life, right?
Well, it hasn’t worked out that way so far. I still have some notion that in my new location maybe I can lure in Big Bird and Cookie Monster with my stone lions (that is not a euphemism), but so far no go. All the more reason for me to get up off me bum and go and see an actual honest-to-goodness Sesame Street performer or two.
You will recall that a month or so ago I reviewed a little something called Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. Well, in that review I happened to mention that on Monday, January 5th, Michael Davis, Christopher Cerf, Roscoe Orman, and Carroll Spinney would be speaking at the Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center. Well, what the hey? I didn’t own a real copy of the book (just an amusingly torn up ARC) so this would make for a good excuse to get one.
I had this vague sense that there would be a line for this event from 4:30 onward and if I didn’t get there before 5:30 I’d be out of luck seating-wise. So at 5:00 I merrily left home, got there by 5:30, and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Odd. I grabbed an iced chai, read my Little Rebels, and at 5:45 ran back down the stairs from the cafe to see how far the line stretched. Nobody there. However, at this point my sense of panic had been adequately awakened, so I found a pylon, leaned on it, and patiently read my Philip Nel while I waited. The minute those doors opened I bee-lined it for the front row and you will be proud of me when I tell you that I didn’t even run. Well . . . I didn’t walk exactly either. A brisk hop, skip, and a jump, let’s say.
Front row. Dead center. The seats around me began to fill up. Actually the seat to my right was somewhat emptyish for a while. And when a fellow inquired and sat down in it I didn’t think much about it. Not until I officially purchased my copy of the book and took my seat again. Politely he asked if he might take a look. He had been a writer on Sesame Street during its first few years and wondered if he was mentioned. I passed it over and he checked the Index, while the woman on his other side and I peppered him with questions. The fellow’s name was Robert Oksner, and he had worked in advertising prior to becoming a Sesame Street writer. In those days the idea had been to model portions of Sesame Street after the jingles advertisers would use in their commercials. If children could memorize a Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops ("Sugar Pops are tops!") song then why not songs about letters and numbers? So people like Mr. Oksner were brought in and he helped write the animated skits as well as some other portions of the show. He also happens to know Sy Montgomery, one of the greatest living non-fiction writers for kids out there, so we were able to discuss things like Search for the Golden Moon Bear right up until the show began.
Then onto the stage bounded Mr. Michael Davis. The man was a veritable source of boundless energy, he was. Prior to the release of this book Mr. Davis is perhaps best known for having edited TV Guide between 1998 and 2007 (I wonder if the collectible cover idea was his . . .). Without further ado he announced that he was convinced that, "Sesame Street ushered in the age of Obama." No objections from the audience there. Frankly, it was a pretty smart start. From there, Davis parlayed his discussion of the show into introductions of his fellow presenters. First up was Christopher Cerf. I had asked Mr. Oksner about him prior to his introduction and the man obliged me with an explanation. Cerf, it seems, has quite the illustrious children’s literary pedigree. His father was Bennett Cerf, cofounder of Random house and his mother was Phyllis Fraser, the editor of none other than Dr. Seuss. Street Gang describes Cerf as "infectiously high-spirited, abundantly talented, merrily mischievous" and "idiosyncratic." Well all right then. He was a young editor at Random House in the beginning with experience as a coeditor of the Harvard Lampoon, no less. Since his Sesame Street days he’s the co-creator and co-producer of Between the Lions. Oh. And he edited Free to Be You and Me. Little stuff like that.
Then there was Roscoe Orman whose character of Gordon was, according to Davis, "kind of a community organizer." Oh, a community organizer’s a person in your neighborhood . . .
Mr. Orman was followed directly by the one and only Caroll Spinney a.k.a Big Bird and Oscar. Mr. Spinney was tricked out in what, according to my sources, was his usual natty attire. Note the well-buttoned form fitting coat, the tasteful plaid tie, and the always perfectly coifed beard and moustache. He cut quite the figure. Note too how he and Mr. Orman appear to be staring at my omnipresent picture taking. I’m afraid that between my notes and my camera I must have looked as if I wasn’t paying a lick of attention. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Finally, check out the black bag Mr. Spinney brought up. It didn’t come to my attention at first.
From the start Mr. Spinney spoke about how Sesame Street is finally in its 40th year now. And here he is at age 75 and he is still. doing. it. Just let that sink in a little. At 75 the man spends his days with his right arm elevated over his head for long periods of time. He’s slowly being phased out (willingly) but it’s a testament to the longevity of some puppeteers (though others don’t have as strong a track record, I’ll admit). And right off the bat he got a dig in at Barney, which was brilliant. I’ve seen him take shots at Barney in the past, and this was fast and off the cuff so I’m sure some people missed it, but in this crowd it was well received.
One might wonder why these four performers in particular were present. Well, it probably didn’t hurt matters any that each one had a book to promote. From Michael Davis (who spent more time acting as a kind of m.c. and host than author) there was the book in question. From Mr. Orman there’s Sesame Street Dad: Evolution of an Actor (as well as a small self-illustrated picture book called Ricky & Mobo). From Mr. Spinney, The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch) (love the subtitle). And from Mr. Cerf, uh . . . well, in lieu of some of his past titles like 1968’s The World’s Largest Cheese (which I wouldn’t have minded taking a gander at) it looks as if the most recent thing B&N had in stock was his Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak (parody, duh). Like Mr. Orman he also has a children’s book that he co-wrote; Blackie, the Horse Who Stood Still.
And there was at least one other Sesame Street denizen present in the room. I had been hoping for some surprise showings (we do live in New York, after all) and sure as shooting at one point Mr. Davis mentioned that he saw Sonia Manzano (who plays Maria) sitting casually in the audience. It’s amazing that the poor woman didn’t get mobbed right then and there. At the very least she must have been blinded by the sudden influx of camera flashes, popping all about her head. I was a bit slow on the uptake so this was the best I got at the moment:
Of course Ms. Manzano has written several rather enjoyable picture books in her time as well. No Dogs Allowed and A Box Full of Kittens. This will come up later.
The talk on the stage took the form of a series of great reminiscences. Mr. Orman, a man who gets only a single solitary mention in Street Gang (page 281, in case you’re curious) spoke a little about his own path to the Street, thanks to some prompting on Mr. Davis’s part. Apparently he was a bit of a practitioner of revolutionary theater. His first audition for SS was actually with Oscar. It was an audition he basically figured he’d flunked since he couldn’t stop staring at Caroll down in the can. Mr. Spinney replied without the hesitation, "you seemed like the right guy right away." Apparently a lot of actors had to experience some kind of trial by fire with Spinney at their side. Later he would recall how the first time he acted with Ms. Manzano she was a little nervous and he told her there was nothing to be worried about. "Just look into that camera where hundreds of millions of people will be watching you . . ." As he said this the voice of Ms. Manzano burst from the audience, "I had forgotten all about that!"
The participants were asked about the hundreds of celebrities that had taken their turn on the street over the years. Davis mentioned that the celebrities essentially were the "coolest alumni association" in the history of man. When asked who their favorites were Mr. Orman said Lily Tomlin since "She was basically a Muppet herself." Christopher Cerf had a fondness for R.E.M., which I found intriguing. But of course, for the performers of the Street, having a celebrity on the show is an eerie experience. You’re so wowed by them that you hardly notice that they, at the same time, are wowed by you. Caroll Spinney recalled how Pete Seeger kept missing his cues in one particular scene because he was so stunned by Big Bird’s presence.
I see that in my notes I’ve recorded little pieces of ephemera that stood out from the conversation. Things like Jon Stone, the show’s executive producer, and his bag of tricks. Apparently our discussion was just down the street from where Sesame Street was created at 61st Street and Broadway. And back then, by the door was a little marquee with the various names of the people in the building. Every day Jon Stone would take the letters that made up "The Children’s Television Workshop" and rearrange them so that they read "The Children’s Television Porkshow". And every day someone would put them back, and around and around they’d go. Ms. Manzano countered with a story of her own when an irate parent wrote the show wondering why Cookie Monster talked that way. Mr. Stone’s answer? Everybody say this in your best Cookie Monster imitation: "We not know!"
So when was the only time Sesame Street was nearly sued for a parody? Parodies have always been the heart and soul of the show and apparently they’ve only recently reappeared. I credit YouTube. Remember that Feist video? Well, there was only one time in the past that someone took offense, and it involves the Letter B. Taking a risk, Chris Cerf created the idea that would become Letter B. You remember that song, right? Here’s a taste.
It all comes back. Well, in spite of the fact that the tune is NOT the same as Let It Be, the company that held the rights to the Beatles songs decided to sue for a whopping $5.5 million. Not the Beatles themselves. They got a kick out of it, but by that point they didn’t own the rights. So what saved Mr. Cerf from a nasty drawn out lawsuit? Would you believe Michael Jackson, who about that time swooped in, bought the company, and decided he didn’t feel like suing Sesame Street? They settled out of court for $50. Mr. Cerf has the endorsement to his check which, as he pointed out, is probably worth more than the original fifty right there.
Facts were cleared up. For instance, why is Oscar on the cover of Street Gang? Because "He prepared us for the real world". Now at some point here I saw Mr. Spinney give Mr. Orman a significant look, then indicated the bag near his feet. The bag. I hadn’t seen the bag before. So I took a quick shot.
Perfect. And sure as shooting, at just the right moment Mr. Spinney picked up that same bag and out of it came a lump of green matted fur.
Should you be wondering, Oscar is larger in real life than you might expect. He is also incredibly well articulated. His eyebrows move almost fluidly. It’s eerie.
Of course he eventually had to go back into the bag.
And there he remained for the rest of the evening. It is a good thing that grouches are not claustrophobic. They must be genetically predisposed towards dark dank spaces.
Rumors were then addressed. Cookie Monster is not and never will be the Vegetable Monster, in spite of his slight backing away from cookies at any and all times (though I felt that Stephen Colbert covered this territory fairly well on his own show). Frank Oz is a god. Second born children always relate more to Grover than the other kids in their family (wouldn’t know). Caroll Spinney has not seen Avenue Q, though everyone else had and enjoyed it. Quoth Cerf: "The only thing I didn’t love about it is that I didn’t think of it first."
And then, near the end, Michael Davis said significantly "it took us almost 45 minutes to say the E-word". Elmo. His name came up during a discussion about characters that don’t speak the Queen’s English. Cookie monster supplants "I" for "me". Grover doesn’t use contractions. And Elmo always speaks in the third person. Let the record show, however, that the minute his name was invoked it was then dropped and never again did anyone say it. Hm hm.
Signage. I got in line and all four of the performers sat down at a table to sign their books. And all of them were willing to sign Street Gang, which pleased me mightily. Of course this was essentially a receiving line and when I find myself in such a situation I need to find something ANYTHING to talk about. But I had an edge this time. A secret weapon to keep me afloat when face-to-face with cee-lebs. It was: My last name. Oh, Matt Bird. I’ve never been so grateful I took your name before.
First up was Mr. Davis, and my in with him was simple. Bring up the review of his book I wrote. And lucky thing, he remembered it (whoop!). One down. Next we come to Roscoe Orman. A little trickier. Mr. Orman and I haven’t much of any connection. Best to go with the old, anecdote route. I mentioned to him the time when he was arguing on the show with Oscar and the grouch insulted him by calling him "Roscoe". He remembered that but countered, "Oh, that was nothing. There was a time I was supposed to be talking with Forgetful Jones, only he kept forgetting my name and called me Roscoe. We had to do several takes," because he kept cracking up.
So far so good. Christopher Cerf was next. He noticed the "Bird" in my name right away, and it clearly amused him. Then I hit ’em with the old I-work-for-NYPL-in-the-library-with-the-lions jab. I mean, we’re talking about the guy behind Between the Lions. Worth a shot, right? He was nice about it, we talked, and he passed my book on to Caroll Spinney who set about very carefully drawing the image of Big Bird you saw at the beginning of this post. Here’s the full set of autographs at the end of the day:
There’s one extra because like a lot of people I waylaid Sonia Manzano on her way out the door. My mind raced when she approached. Should I,
A) Mention that when I was a child listening to the Godspell soundtrack I heard the song Turn Back O Man and recognized her voice, in spite of my mother’s protestations to the contrary? Or,
B) Mention that I know the fellow who did the illustrations for one of her picture books?
Matt Phelan, I owe you one, buddy. Sonia says hello. She wonders how the baby’s doing.
In the end, a successful evening. I will probably never make it onto Sesame Street. But with very little effort this night proved to be the next best thing.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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