Sesame Street recently came to Malaysia for a three-day live performance (3-5 Sept. 2010) at Stadium Putra, Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur. My family and I went for the Saturday night show (4 Sept, 8:30 pm), and I was surprised by the rather tepid turnout. The stadium was only about one-quarter filled, with the biggest crowd, surprisingly, packing the front (best) row seats.
I suppose this tepid turnout should not have been surprising considering the low key promotion about this show in Malaysia. There were some mentions about this show in the local newspapers but only when the show was about a few days away from starting. And, as far as I know, there were no mentions about this show at all on TV, be it terrestrial or satellite.
My wife and I only knew about Sesame Street’s live performance when we spotted their promotional leaflets tucked away at some inconspicuous corner at one of the MPH bookshop.
Who hasn’t heard about Sesame Street? I remember watching (and being captivated) by this show on TV when I was growing up. And I was still watching it when I was much older. My favourite puppet (or should it be monster?) was Oscar. I liked his sweet-and-sour disposition. Although he is always grouchy, he has a caring and soft heart, even if Oscar tries hard to convince you otherwise.
But what I also remember vividly was the gradual diminishing role for one of Sesame Street’s favourite characters, David, played by Northern Calloway. David is the young man who helps out at Mr. Hooper’s store. David was funny, hip, and jive-talking, and he could sing and dance very well. He also played the steady to Maria, another character at Sesame Street. What was distinguishable about their relationship was that David and Maria didn’t just act out their respective roles on TV, but their romance looked real. And there was, of course, Oscar, who playfully courts Maria and never fails to try to get in between David and Maria.
So imagine my surprise when David appeared increasingly less on Sesame Street and suddenly, one day, Maria marries someone else on one of the Sesame Street’s episode. Huh? What happened to David? Back then I was too young to comprehend, I suppose. But after reading Michael Davis’ book “Street gang: The complete history of Sesame Street”, I learned what happened to Northern Calloway who played the role of David.
Northern Calloway suffered from severe mood swings, and on Sept 20, 1980, Calloway went on a street rampage and even beating up a woman severely. That incident was the start of Calloway’s decline. Although he was later rehabilitated, he was never the same as before: he appeared dull and unreliable, remembering his script lines increasingly less. At one time, as detailed by Michael Davis’ book, Calloway appeared on set, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings and with potato chips around his mouth.
Eventually, Northern Calloway was released from Sesame Street show in 1989, and a year later, Calloway died, at age 41, of cardiac arrest.
Reading Michael Davis’ book brought back memories. It helped me recall one of the best Sesame Street’s episodes: explaining about Mr. Hooper’s death. Mr. Hooper was played by Will Lee, who died suddenly of heart attack on December 7, 1982. I was fortunate back then to have caught that particular episode on TV.
Below, I placed the actual script from that episode explaining about Mr. Hooper’s death to the kids. This script is taken from Michael Davis’ book:
Big Bird: Hey, it’s time for your presents. I’ve just drawn up pictures of all my grown-up friends on Sesame Street. And I’m going to give them to you. I’m going to be an artist when I grow up (The drawings are passed out and admired.) And last, but not least, ta-da. (He shows everyone a drawing of Mr. Hooper, in his half-glasses and bow tie.) Well I can’t wait till he sees it. (Awkward silence and glances all around.) Say, where is he? I want to give it to him. I know. He’s in the store.
Bob: Big Bird…he’s not in there.
Big Bird: Then…where is he?
Maria (looking around and then rising to talk directly to Big Bird): Big Bird, don’t you remember we told you? Mr. Hooper died…He’s dead.
Big Bird: Oh ya. I remember…Well, I’ll give it to him when he comes back.
Susan: Big Bird…Mr. Hooper is not coming back.
Big Bird: Why not?
Susan (standing now, stroking Big Bird’s feathers): Big Bird, when people die, they don’t come back.
Big Bird (sorrowfully): Ever?
Susan: No, never.
Big Bird: Well, why not?
Luis: Well, Big Bird…they’re dead. They can’t come back.
Big Bird (trying to comprehend): Well, he’s got to come back. Who’s going to take care of the store? Who’s going to make my birdseed milkshakes and tell me stories?
David: Big Bird, I’m going to take care of the store. Mr. Hooper…he left it to me. And I’ll make you your milkshakes and we’ll all tell you stories…and make sure you’re okay.
Susan: Sure, we’ll look after you.
Big Bird (shuffling away with his head down): Well…it won’t be the same.
Bob (choked with emotion): You’re right, Big Bird…It’s…It’s It’ll never be the same around here without him. But you know something? We can all be very happy that we had a chance to be with him…and to know him…and to love him a lot…when he was here.
Olivia: And Big Bird, we still have our memories of him.
Big Bird: Well, yah. Our memories…Memories, that’s how I drew this picture…from memory. And we can remember him and remember him and remember him as much as we want to…But I don’t like it. (On the verge of tears): It makes me sad.
David: We all feel sad, Big Bird.
Big Bird (asking once again): He’s never coming back?
Big Bird (a little angry): I don’t understand. You know, everything was just fine. Why does it have to be this way? Give me one good reason!
Gordon: Big Bird, it has to be this way…because.
Big Bird (quieting): Just because?
Gordon: Just because.
Big Bird (admiring his drawing): You know, I’m going to miss you, Mr. Looper.
Maria (smiling, as tears run from the corner of her eye): That’s Hooper, Big Bird. Hooper.
Big Bird (as the cast surrounds him): Right. (Fade to black.)
This script was for “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” episode No. 1839, which was aired on November 24, 1983. This episode was also selected by the Daytime Emmys as one of the ten most influential moments in daytime television history.
Reading Michael Davis’ book not only brought back memories from my childhood but also made me realize how special and unique Sesame Street is. Sesame Street is over 40 years old today, and how many television series do you know can last even half of that length?
Sesame Street is also the first children TV program which has a board comprising educators, psychologists, child development specialists, and pediatricians to help to guide the educational value of Sesame Street. It was the first of its kind to marry entertainment and science to produce an effective ‘edutainment’. Sesame Street was also the first where the government and private sector collaborated to produce a TV series.
Today, Sesame Street faces very stiff competition from more hip and energetic TV shows such as Barney. It is sad to read from Newsweek that Sesame Street now lies 15th place in the rank of popular TV children shows. From 130 episodes a year, Sesame Street now only produces 26 episodes a year. Moreover, in 2009, Sesame Street had to layoff 20% of its staff. Being a non-profit organization means Sesame Street faces additional challenges not faced by other TV shows. Sesame Street is duty bound to educate children but not to fall into the commercial frenzy of toys as their main revenue. Malaysia’s ubiquitous cable TV, Astro, doesn’t even show Sesame Street as a regular program.
So, with that background in mind, on the night of September 4, 2010, my family and I went to a live performance of Sesame Street: When Elmo grows Up. I am glad to report that we all had a blast. My son, Zachary, whom even before the show, was already a fan of Sesame Street (without requiring any encouragement from my wife or me), was super-charged during the show: running and dancing around during and after the show. My son’s favourite monster is not Oscar but Cookie Monster. He loves Cookie Monster’s never-ending obsession with cookies (or plates, cups, furniture, books, etc, etc should cookies be absent or insufficient) and his manic and frantic ways.
So this blog is my tribute to Sesame Street. Oh yes, this blog is brought to you by the letter S (for Sesame Street) and the number 41 (for being 41 years old).