"I knew that Joan Cooney has got the best possible staff to do the job—she stole them all from me."
--Bob Keeshan of Captain Kangaroo
THE NITTY GRITTY ITTY BITTY KIDDY SHOW
When the birth of Children’s Television Workshop was announced, Joan Cooney was the staff. She had been appointed by the heads of the funding organizations to be the executive director and overseer of CTW’s future. But she wasn’t alone for long. As she tells it: “With at day or two after the story broke, I got a letter from Michael Dann, senior vice president of CBS, whom I had never met. ‘You are faced with a very serious problem—whom are you going to select as your executive producer?’ he asked. ‘You are going to make a terrible mistake if you don’t go for a guy who has had some experience in volume producing.’”
Dann (who incidentally has very recently joined CTW’s staff as a vice president) recommended David D. Connell. Connell has been an executive producer for Robert Keeshan Associates, which produces Captain Kangaroo.
Joan took up the suggestion and Connell joined CTW as second-in-command. This was the first of a series of reunions of Kangaroo veterans. Following Connell were writers Jon Stone and Samuel Gibbon. Actually the heavy personnel input from Kangaroo to Sesame Street wasn’t all that surprising. “Bob Keeshan deserves all kinds of credit for Sesame Street,” says Joan Cooney of the man who is the Captain on Captain Kangaroo. “He built extraordinary talent and although his turnover rate is not high at all, most of the guys who have been very interested in high quality children’s television have passed through his show.”
Before Sesame Street was created, the big problem for these talented people was—after Captain Kangaroo, what? As Connell says, “I left Kangaroo because I’d been with the show for twelve years and producing it for nine, and I was at an age and a stage where I thought that if I was going to do something else, I’d better move. But I was discouraged enough about the direction of children’s television that I didn’t care if I ever did it again.”
At the time that Connell was asked to join CTW, he was a vice president with Ken Snyder Enterprises, a company that produces TV, industrial, and documentary films. Connell did not work on children’s shows.
Jon Stone was lured back from this freelancer’s hideout in Vermont, having long before disassociated himself from Keeshan Associates. In certain circles a lot has been made of what outwardly could be construed as a raid on Keeshan by the upstart CTW. But it must be pointed out that none of the people who formerly worked for Kangaroo were affiliated with the show at the time they crossed over to Sesame Street. Besides if the Captain felt his pouched had been picked, he certainly didn’t let on when he and Joan Cooney first came face to face.
Very early in Sesame Street’s history, Joan found herself sharing a platform at an educational conference in Washington with Bob Keeshan. At the time, Mrs. Cooney, new to public speaking, nervously answered questions from the group. Then Keeshan rose to speak. The big network veteran, who practically single-handedly had rescued children’s television from the depths of despair, could easily have played the wronged and hostile competitor. Instead he came to Joan’s support, asking the audience to “back her up one hundred percent.” Then he jokingly made reference to his own part in shaping Sesame, “And I know she’s got the best possible staff to do the job—she stole them all from me.”
Not all. From Channel 13 came Robert Davidson. Davidson had put in three active years with educucational TV in the cultural, history and international relations areas before becoming assistant director of CTW. Robert Hatch left his post as the Peace Corps’ director of public information to become CTW’s Information and Utilization Director. He started putting CTW’s public relations pieces together. Assistant Director of Information, Jason Levine, moved from a background of journalism and commercial television to public television. And Dr. Edward L. Palmer, one of the few social scientists in the nation to have studied the television habits of young children and the medium’s impact upon them was appointed Research Director.
As the rest of the staff began to flesh out it became an amalgam of educators, audience researchers, television professionals, psychologists and ex-advertising people. Strange hardfellows these, yet somehow they developed a flexible and relaxed way of working together.
The first task was naming the show. “One of our biggest problems,” Joan Cooney admits. Jon Stone had come up with the format of an inner-city street where people live and communicate with each other.
“It seemed to me that a street in an urban rundown area would give the children we were most interested in reaching a neighborhood to identify with,” says Stone. A brown-bearded man with a sense of comedy, Stone has an awareness of the possibilities and limitations of the electronic medium and a 38-year-old mind that digs 3-to-5-year-olds. “It would be a depressing color scheme, as these streets are,” he said, “but totally and happily integrated—a street in which the people who live there take tremendous pride.”
But what to call it? “We toyed with everything from The Video Classroom to The Nitty Gritty Itty Bitty Kiddy Show,” Connell grimaces. “When things really began to look nameless, a writer, Virginia Shoen, submitted a bunch of names that she had child-reaction tested in her neighborhood a weekend before. Among the prospectives was Sesame Street, a takeoff on the magic words in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, ‘Open Sesame.’ We were so desperate that I wrote a memo giving the choice and circulated it through the office. Anyone who wanted to change it by offering a better one had to do so by Monday. Although everyone was kind of lukewarm about Sesame Street, no one came up with a better alternative. So come Monday, Sesame won by default.”
By the time a month had rolled around, the staff had adjusted to the name and thought it fitting. The only fear was that youngsters would pronounce it See Same Street.
With both name and format set, it was time to roll up sleeves and settle in for a long year’s work. Children’s Television Workshop was determined to create a show that would make television and educational history—in that order.