Through Stories In Book And Film, Journalist Helps Show How To Get To 'Sesame Street'
In 2004, Michael Davis was a senior editor at TV Guide. His beat was one that often flew under the radar: children’s television. But it was a perfect focus for Davis, who studied psychology and teaching before his journalism career.
He was covering children's television because, frankly, no one else wanted to.
"I was in no position to say, 'No thank you.' But the truth is, I was very happy to take on children's television as a beat," Davis said recently, smiling.
He also got an assignment that would change his life. "Sesame Street" was turning 35 years old, and he was going to write the anniversary piece.
"I put a lot of energy and thought and heart into it; a lot of time into it," he said. "And when I was finishing it, I realized that I had gotten quite emotional writing this piece."
He was reminded while writing the piece about all the time he spent with his daughters when they were little. They would watch "Sesame Street" together. They'd be in the grocery story and he would start counting how many bananas he was holding like the famous Count von Count.
"We would take something from the show and we would apply it to a real-life situation as a teachable moment," Davis said.
His research didn't stop with the published piece.
"I was sort of driven and I would come home and I would talk to my wife, Deborah, about it," he said. "I would say 'I met this fantastic person today! One of the original writers of 'Sesame Street!'' And she'd say, 'You just got a fever for this. You know, what are you going to do with it?'"
The answer came roughly four years later when Davis published “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.” The book landed on The New Times Best Sellers list.
He always thought this book belonged on the screen. He had that in mind when he wrote what is a fairly cinematic opening scene to the book, which describes Muppets creator Jim Henson’s memorial service in 1990.
The remembrance took place in New York City and was open to the public. Wearing a big green ribbon, Big Bird sang "It's Not Easy Being Green" to a packed crowd. It was a nod to Kermit the Frog and his creator, Henson.
"There was an opportunity down the road for it to be adapted for the screen, but I didn't dwell on it," Davis said. "I just felt like if it's going to happen, it's going to happen probably without any effort from me. It's going to have to be someone reading the book and going, 'Oh, there's a real opportunity here.'"
That opportunity presented itself about eight years later when he got a call from Ellen and Trevor Crafts — a married production duo who wanted to buy the rights to "Street Gang" and turn it into a documentary. But they also wanted to keep Davis involved in the creative process; he’s listed as a co-executive producer in the film.
"Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street" is currently in select theaters and on demand. In the film, viewers hear from the people who worked to make "Sesame Street" — actors, writers, composers and cameramen. The children of the original creators speak on behalf of their parents who passed away — like Lisa and Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s children. Or Polly Stone, the daughter of director and writer Jon Stone, one of the creators of the show. Polly Stone had appearances on the show as a child.
"It was a wonderful way to grow up," Polly Stone says in the film. "I had all these friends who were blue and fuzzy.”
Davis turned over a treasure trove of research to the production team: recorded interviews, transcripts, books, materials he found in libraries. He wanted them to have as much access as possible.
"When you work on a book, I think what you want most of all is for someone to read and appreciate it, to understand it, to get that story out there in the world," Davis said. "And to me, there's not a darn bit of difference between whether the person gets it through scrolling through pages on a screen as an e-book or whether they see it in the documentary."
Some of his favorite moments of the documentary are parts that better translate through sound and visuals rather than the written page. The film contains footage that views like a home movie with behind-the-scenes outtakes.
There are exchanges between Jim Henson and Frank Oz — Kermit the Frog and Grover respectively — just having fun. Like, in an outtake when Grover knocks on Kermit’s door only to have his nose slammed as Kermit tries to shoo him away. Grover yelps to Kermit, "Open the damn door," and the production team immediately starts to cackle.
Both the film and the book highlight the importance of diversity in the "Sesame Street" cast and the guests who came on the show. There was intention behind every decision. Davis says the credit for that is someone often overlooked, Jon Stone.
"The idea that white kids and brown kids and Black kids should be playing together on the street and living together on the street — that came from him," Davis said. "Very dedicated to the civil rights movement, as were most of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the early days of 'Sesame Street.'"
Reaching a diverse audience was also on the mind Joan Ganz Cooney one of the founders of the Sesame Workshop (originally known as the Children's Television Workshop), the organization that helped create the show. Cooney is featured in both the book and the film.
In 1970, "Sesame Street" was pulled from the air in Mississippi (a decision that was later reversed). Cooney doesn’t skip a beat as she stands behind the show’s mission and commitment to diversity as she tells a reporter:
"There’s no question that we are integrated and we reflect to some degree inner city, I would say Black, inner city life, and we are very proud of that. I mean, if that’s our worst sin, I’m happy to be a sinner."
And that philosophy behind the program has stood the test of time. "Sesame Street," in some ways, has become bigger than the larger-than-life personalities who created it.
That was clear when Davis interviewed Caroll Spinney who narrates the audiobook and is the voice of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Spinney died in 2019.
"I just said, 'Caroll, do you want Big Bird to continue after you are no longer here to portray Big Bird?'" he saids. "And it really stopped him. His eyes filled with tears. He said, 'Well, yes, I want Big Bird to continue. Big Bird is like my child. Would you not want your child to live on after you're gone?'"
Davis has a similar answer when asked if he was ever worried that he might not be around by the time the right person discovered his book and turned it into a film. Yes, he worried. He wishes his mother who passed away at the age of 102 in February could have been here to see it.
But sitting in his home office surrounded by "Sesame Street" posters, books, and memorabilia, the 69-year-old leans back and smiles.
"People easily dismiss television," Davis said, "and I see the good in television."
How ever people find their way to his work — either through the book or the documentary — it’s all good by Davis.
It doesn’t matter how they arrive, he just wants them to get to Sesame Street.
Note: Michael Davis, is southern region manager for Solutions Journalism Network and led the the creation of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, made up of several local media outlets, including WFAE.