How We Got to Sesame Street

Posted on May 11, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyright Simon and Schuster 2020

There’s a terrific history of Sesame Street by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, based in part on a terrific new book called Sunny Days: the Children’s Television Revolution that Changed America by David Kamp. I appreciated the mention of my dad, who, as Kamp’s book reveals, played a critical role in obtaining the first funding for the show. I remember his telling us about it at family dinners, and I was lucky enough to watch the very first episode, which I loved instantly.

Half a century ago, before “Sesame Street,” and long before the age of quarantine, kids under the age of six spent a crazy amount of time indoors, watching television, a bleary-eyed average of fifty-four hours a week. In 1965, the year the Johnson Administration founded Head Start, Lloyd Morrisett, a vice-president of the Carnegie Corporation with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Yale, got up one Sunday morning, at about six-thirty, a half hour before the networks began their day’s programming, to find his three-year-old daughter, Sarah, lying on the living-room floor in her pink footie pajamas, watching the test pattern. She’d have watched anything, even “The Itty-Bitty, Farm and City, Witty-Ditty, Nitty-Gritty, Dog and Kitty, Pretty Little Kiddie Show.”

Not much later, Morrisett fell into a dinner-party conversation with Joan Ganz Cooney, a public-affairs producer at New York’s Channel 13. The first time Cooney had seen a television set was in 1952, when she watched Adlai Stevenson accept the Democratic nomination. She’d gone on to champion Democratic causes and had moved from Phoenix to New York to work at Channel 13, where her documentary projects included “A Chance at a Beginning,” about a preschool program in Harlem. As David Kamp reports in “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America” (Simon & Schuster), both Cooney and Morrisett were caught up in Lyndon Johnson’s vision of a Great Society, his War on Poverty, and the promise of the civil-rights movement, and they’d both been stirred by a speech delivered in 1961 by Newton Minow, President Kennedy’s F.C.C. chairman, which called television a “vast wasteland.” Minow, a former law partner of Stevenson’s, had gone on to rescue Channel 13’s public-broadcast mandate during a takeover bid. At that dinner party, Cooney and Morrisett got to talking about whether public-minded television might be able to educate young kids.

Educational television for preschoolers seemed to solve two problems at once: the scarcity of preschools and the abundance of televisions. At the time, half of the nation’s school districts didn’t have kindergartens. To address an achievement gap that had persisted long after Brown v. Board of Education, it would have been better to have universal kindergarten, and universal preschool, but, in the meantime, there was universal television. “More households have televisions than bathtubs, telephones, vacuum cleaners, toasters, or a regular daily newspaper,” Cooney noted in a Carnegie-funded feasibility study, “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education.” With that report in hand, Morrisett arranged for a million-dollar grant that allowed Cooney to begin development of a show with no other title than “Early Childhood Television Program.” In a fifty-five-page 1968 proposal, “Television for Preschool Children,” Cooney reported the results of a national study of the increasingly sophisticated scholarship on child development: she’d travelled the country, interviewing scholars and visiting preschools to find out about what was called, at the time, the “sandbox-to-classroom revolution”—the pressing case for intellectual stimulation for three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

That proposal brought in the eight million dollars in foundation and government funding that made possible the founding of the nonprofit Children’s Television Workshop and the production of the first season of the still unnamed “Early Childhood Television Program.” “Nothing comparable to such a program now exists on television,” Cooney observed. “Captain Kangaroo,” broadcast on CBS beginning in 1955, had educational bits, but it was mainly goofy. (Bob Keeshan, who played the captain, had started out as a Sideshow Bob clown named Clarabell on “Howdy Doody” and then starred as Corny the Clown on ABC’s “Time for Fun.”) “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a half-hour show produced by WQED, in black-and-white, had gone national in 1968, but reached mainly a middle-class audience. The new show would be broadcast nationally, every weekday, for an hour, in color; it would be aimed at all children, from all socioeconomic backgrounds; it would be explicitly educational, with eight specific learning objectives drawn from a list devised by experts; and its format would be that of a “magazine” made up of “one- to fifteen-minute segments in different styles”—animation, puppetry, games, stories. The “Early Childhood Television Program” would also be an experiment: its outcome would be measured.

Cooney put together a board of academic advisers, chaired by the developmental psychologist Gerald Lesser, and in 1968 she began a series of seminars loosely affiliated with the Harvard School of Education, where Lesser was a professor. To one of those seminars, she later recalled, “this bearded, prophetic figure in sandals walks in and sits way at the back, ram-rod straight, staring ahead with no expression on his face.” She thought that he might be a member of the Weather Underground. She whispered to a colleague, “How do we know that man back there isn’t going to throw a bomb up here or toss a hand grenade?”

“Not likely,” he said. “That’s Jim Henson.”

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Free This Week for 2019 Mother’s Day — 50 Must-See Movies: Mothers

Posted on May 6, 2019 at 7:00 am

Copyright Columbia Pictures 1994

 

In honor of Mother’s Day, my ebook 50 Must-See Movies: Mothers will be free on Amazon from Monday, May 6 to Friday, May 10, 2019.Image

No relationship is more primal, more fraught, more influential, more worried over, more nourishing when good and more devastating when bad that our connection to our mothers. Mom inspires a lot of movies in every possible category, from comedy to romance to drama to crime to animation to horror, from the lowest-budget indie to the biggest-budget prestige film. A lot of women have been nominated for Oscars for playing mothers and just about every actress over age 20 has appeared as a mother in at least one movie. From beloved Marmee in “Little Women” (three great movie versions, a modern-day adaptation, and a PBS miniseries, and a forthcoming film directed by Greta Gerwig) and Mrs. Brown in “National Velvet” to mean moms in “Now Voyager” and “Mommie Dearest.”  Oscar winning classics and neglected gems, based on real-life like Sally Fields in “Places in the Heart” or fantasy like Dumbo’s lullaby-singing elephant mom, these are all must-see movies.

 

 

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Jon Hamm in “Stinker Lets Loose!”

Posted on January 9, 2018 at 3:58 pm

It almost seems like there really was a movie back in 1977 called “Stinker Lets Loose,” part of those affectionately remembered cornpone road films like “Every Which Way But Loose,” “Cannonball Run,” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” There should have been, anyway. And now there sort of is, with the novel and audiobook (exclusively from Audible) starring Jon Hamm.

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Author Mike Sacks and director Eric Martin have created a fully immersive cinematic audio experience with an all-star cast. Stinker teams up with old pals Boner and Jumbo, plus new friends Buck and Rascal the Chimp, for a crazy ride across the highways and byways of Bicentennial America and meets scores of beautiful Southern gals, reams of treacherous villains, and even the Big Man!
Jon Hamm as Stinker
Rhea Seehorn as Gwyneth
Andy Daly as Boner
John DiMaggio as Jumbo and Sheriff Sledge
Paul F. Tompkins as Clarence Macleod and Mr. Walsh
Jessica McKenna as Buck
Kimmy Gatewood as Betty
Mark Gagliardi as Big Red
Justin Michael as Pip
With James Urbaniak as President Jimmy Carter and Jeremiah King
Guest starring Andy Richter as Orville Max and Phillip Baker Hall as the Big Man!
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Interview: Ron Hall of “Same Kind of Different As Me”

Posted on September 12, 2017 at 1:01 am

Copyright 2012 Ron Hall

On the Huffington Post, I interviewed Ron Hall, whose wife inspired him to befriend a homeless man named Denver Moore. Their book, Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together inspired a film starring Greg Kinnear, Djimon Hounsou, and Renee Zellweger. It will be in theaters this fall.

He wasn’t really looking for any friends. He considered himself like the lion in the jungle. He had this very angry persona that was his protection and his self-preservation. I wasn’t looking for any friends like him either, truthfully, I was only doing this to repay Debbie for the forgiveness that she had shown me after my infidelity. At her insistence I pursued him for about five months until I finally got him in my car. I took him to breakfast and he thought I was in the CIA. He said, “Why would some rich white man be trying to follow me around?” We ordered breakfast and I found out a lot more about him. He came from a plantation and he had never been to school in his life. He said “Well, so what is it you all want from me?” I said, “Well, I just want to be your friend. Straight up, that’s all I’m looking for.” That in a way was kind of a lie. I was wanting to be more friendly, I wasn’t really wanting to be his friend in the real sense.

That’s how arrogant I was. I didn’t think he had anything to offer me in a friendship. In my mind if he cleaned himself up a little bit, behaved himself I would let him hang out with me for lunch and things like that, and take him around and show him a few nice things and try to make him feel bad about making all the bad decisions in his life that keep him from being like me. I didn’t have any respect for homeless people at the time because I felt most of them laid their own bed and they will have to lay in it.

Anyway after a couple of weeks I saw him taking trash out of the dumpster so I stopped by and I said, “Hey, you want to go get some coffee?” So we were sitting there at Starbucks and I’m trying to explain to him what an art dealer does and he was totally uninterested in that so after a few minutes of me talking he said, “Are you through talking? Tell you the truth there’s something I heard about white folks that really bothers me and it has to do with fishing.” He said, “I heard when white folks go fishing they do this thing they call catch and release.” I said, “Yeah, Denver, they sure do because it’s a sport, don’t you get it?” He said “No, no man I don’t get that at all. Back on the plantation where I grew up we’d go out in the morning, we’d get the cane poles, dig us a can full of worms, we’d go sit on the riverbank all day long and when we got something on the line we were really proud of what we caught and we’ll share it with our folk. It occurred to me that if you are a white man that’s fishing for a friend to catch and release, I ain’t got no desire to be your friend.” My mind flashed back to Debbie’s dream of a poor man who was wise. If I ever heard from God in my life it was at that moment and I knew that I had to accept that friendship and I had to catch and not release. I said, “Okay Denver, if you will be my friend I will not catch and release,” and he said to me “You have a friend for life;” and I said, “Okay, you do too.” The fear I had of him or becoming his friend evaporated.

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