"Man! Those guys sure know how to get to the young minds."
--Sarah Biggins, Chicago Head Start Teacher
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Producing an hour-a-day, five-day-a-week, 26-week-a-season series is akin to squeezing five years of “Bonanza” filming into four short months. Worse—“Bonanza” doesn’t have to educate. Sesame Street, of course, does, and it takes organization to do its job well. If the same group of people were responsible for the entire production, Sesame would have drained them dry early in the game. The day the Muppets wound up last season’s taping, they were jubilant about dissociating themselves from the program for the summer. Because of the program’s highly pressured pace, the Muppets needed a breather to recoup their objectivity. The production of Sesame Street takes a big, diverse organization—a creative octopus—encompassing such atypicals as one of the country’s few Black animated cartoonists and one of suburbia’s few film-editing matrons.
Basically Sesame Street is made up of four categories of the show: There is the street portion done live and taped; the Muppet things, also taped; the animation portion, which is freelanced but remains under CTW’s aesthetic jurisdiction; and live-action filming, also freelanced out to independents. All four categories are mixed, spliced, integrated—backed by song-writer Joe Raposo’s “bubbly-gum” melodies—producing the jumping, lightening-paced medley the viewer sees.
The street sequences, at least during Sesame Street’s first year, depended largely on improvisation. There simply wasn’t time to flesh out an entire script. As a result Sesame Street burned out its first director, Neil Smith, who left after one season to return to soap operas. His one regret—not having enough time to rehearse the material. “Because of its schedule we had to turn out a lot of tape. Some things had to go in the can, not because they were the way we wanted them but because we had to produce a certain amount of tape each week.” A loose script could be beneficial when dealing with children, as some of the impromptu comments of the youngsters proved. But it also proved to be a bane in dealing with a situation that revealed more of Matt Robinson’s true feelings than he would have liked.
For example, many people felt that Susan’s role as dutiful wife to dynamic Gordon was a put-down to women. So they pushed to have Susan get a job outside the home. “Susan was just the little woman in the kitchen,” Mrs. Cooney, a feminist herself, explains. “We talked about making her a doctor, but it didn’t seem real, with them living where they live.” They chose instead public-health nursing. “The reason we chose this profession,” Mrs. Cooney says, “was that the medical services in this country are going to need more and more people. Then, too, we wanted a job with a uniform that little girls could identify.”
In that day’s script, Susan wants her husband to approve her intention to go down to the Public Health Department and renew her license. And Gordon does—grudgingly. Susan tells Gordon that she wants to discuss whether or not she should go back to work, but no discussion actually transpires. “After all,” she begins, “I’m a trained nurse and I just think they could use my services, and I was wondering what—how you felt about it, what you thought about it?” To this awkwardly phrased question, Gordon grumpily states, “If it bugs you that much, I’ll tell you what. Try it and see how it works out.”
Off screen Robinson stated how he actually felt toward the situation. He realized that feminists wanted to use the show to upgrade the female. Still, he maintained, many Black men consider the most important role for a Black woman at this time is to be an ego support for her husband. The problem with the scene as played is that it gave the impression that Gordon is capitulating to Susan’s desire to go back to work but doesn’t really approve—hardly a contribution to building a strong male image.
Building a story on which to hang a letter is the major problem cartoonists who do the alphabet commercials for Sesame Street must struggle with. One of the obvious success stories is the conversation of the letter W into the story of Wanda the Witch. This is the 60-second spot about “Wanda the Witch Who lives somewhere West of Washington, Wears around her Waist a Worm for a belt, and who Walked to the Well on Wednesday to Wash her Wig.” (If you insist on knowing, the Wig was whipped away by a wild Wind.) Moral: Witches Who Wash their Wigs on Windy Winter Wednesdays are Wacky.
Perhaps the best known of all the Sesame Street commercials, Wanda was designed and animated by Tee Collins, a native of Harlem and one of the few Black animation cartoonists in America. As a cartoonist, Lee spent 15 years popularizing Bert and Harry Piel and other television commercial characters. When he designed the animation for Wanda he began by repeating the letter W in his sketches as frequently as he does the name of a beer, toothpaste or other produce. He created Wanda by “thinking W’s and experimenting with the basic shape of the letter to form other objects until finally a character took shape!” “It was like working from the middle out, I suppose,” says Collins.
How does he like selling letters instead of products? “Great! Everything you do doesn’t have to come out at precisely 58 seconds as most TV commercials do. You have more latitude, much more freedom.”
Live-action filming gives the most latitude for producing a segment. It is a freedom the makers of live-action films exercise cautiously. To teach the concept of roundness, for example, a live-action film calls for the camera to show such round objects as a button, a coin, a pop-bottle top. The writer had written in the peace symbol,” says this film’s producer, Lutrelle Horne. “I deleted the peace symbol and substituted something else.” Horne, who is now an associate producer of Sesame Street, touched the peace symbol on his own coat: “I wear that button, but it’s not for the show. I couldn’t see it as part of Sesame Street.”
Part of the fun of putting together Sesame is never knowing who you’ll come up with to do a particular job. For instance who’d suspect that the attractive mother of three who guides the Maplewood, New Jersey Democratic Organization with a velvet glove is a film editor and independent film producer, Muriel Balash.
Mrs. Balash and Joan Hovarth, who is from New York City, formed their own film-producing company, Screenways, after they worked together on a Head Start movie, Jenny Is A Good Thing. Jenny won them an Academy Award consideration and a request from CTW to do live-action films for them.
So far Screenways has done three Sesame sequences: a farmyard capering, a locomotive puzzler, and a supermarket junket. Pulling together the supermarket sequence was an awesome task from start to finish. As Mrs. Balash recalls, “Sesame was interested in a film of children having fun experiencing a supermarket. They wanted more than, ‘Look, children here’s a banana you can buy.’ It was to be kids in a situation that allowed them to explore it spontaneously. The less control the better—which is hard to do and still have it come out looking right. We discussed format and found out specifics. They wanted the youngsters at some point to fill up the shopping cart with basic foods—milk, eggs, bread, meat—and an unrelated-to-food item. They wanted a family situation and the film to run between three to four minutes in length. That’s all they wanted. The rest was up to us.”
“First we scouted for a supermarket that would fit our needs. This proved difficult to find since most markets have narrow aisles and poor lighting. We wanted it somewhere in the New York area as a matter of economics. I happen to shop, from time to time, in a tremendous complex near my home which had a separate food market. Even though it has no large windows for exposure, the extremely large aisles and huge interesting meat department, where you could see everything the butcher was doing, and its mixed clientele, seemed right. Joan agreed and with an okay from the market’s vice president we were set. Now we went after the performers.
“Originally we had decided on a teenage girl and a younger brother and sister as our family unit. Because of the spontaneity, we preferred local children to professional actors. We contacted parents in the area with children in kindergarten and first grade. We were looking for a child with an alive looking face and body, who was outgoing, not shy, who was poised enough not to be thrown by a filming situation.
“We chose the little girl immediately. She was attractive and photographed well. She came in to be interviewed, sat down and immediately took over. She was in control but not prissy. Picking her was no problem.
“Picking a boy was something else. We saw several little boys and they were much more difficult to pick. By definition boys are less mature at kindergarten age; they are harder to control, squirmy. All the boys thought they were going to meet Big Bird. But after we informed them they wouldn’t, they tried to settle down. One of the boys we interviewed was beautiful and he was anxious to do it. But when he talked he didn’t look directly at us, only to the side. Perhaps we could have eventually overcome his shyness, but we simply didn’t have the time and had to eliminate him. Next, two little boys and their parents came in. The boys were in first grade and kindergarten. The youngest had a smile like a sunflower. They turned out to be perfect foils for each other.
“Then and there we decided our cast of shoppers would be a teen sister, a young sister, and two brothers. The teenager was picked rapidly, a stable girl, who incidentally acted as babysitter for the volatile youngsters.
“The youngsters missed two days of school—but it presented no major hardship on them. They were told to dress as though they were going to school (except the boys couldn’t wear white shirts, too glaring) and that they were going to be in a film about a supermarket. We didn’t want to get too involved with details so that their naturalness could come through.
“We planned a general script that combined two fantasy sequences with the reality of the supermarket. In one the youngsters would have an Indianapolis-type speedway race with the carts up and down the aisles. In the other they would have a candy fantasy—a give-me-one-of-these-and-one-of-those (pulling down objects from the shelves of goodies). For the candy feature we would speed up the film and jump cut to give the action a jerky motion.
“At the point of shooting, Joan and I split our responsibilities. She took charge of the filming while I repaired to my film cutting room.
“The film opens with a giant panoramic shot of the word SUPERMARKET on top of the store and a gradual tracking of the small figures as they enter the supermarket. As the cameras follow, the kids do their stuff—the buying, the candy department raid, the race up and down the aisles. Shooting was silent. After the action, I took a soundman back to the market and we recorded general store sounds such as loudspeaker noises, walking, chatter over the cash register. When all the film was shot, I cut it up into sequences and after it was placed incorporated the sound track, voice over and music. We started out by wanting something like the 1812 Overture as a musical score and discovered that there is nothing like that old war horse. So at the end of the film, as the children check out there is this “chick-chick” sound of maracas blending into the cash register suond which leads into another giant pan of the SUPERMARKET sign with the 1812 rising to a loud crescendo—da da da dada Boom!”