Saturday, January 20, 2007

Maximum Bob

We were pretty star struck by an interviewee in the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters yesterday. There aren't too many faces - save for family members - whom one can say they've seen on a semi-regular basis since practically the day they were born.

I wasn't watching too much television in the first few months of my life, in 1969. My parents tell me they woke me up to watch the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, but I'm not sure Neil Armstrong's visage was absorbed into my young psyche. But an addition to PBS's programming lineup in November of that year had a greater - or at least more immediate - impact.

If you mention the name "Bob" to someone younger than, roughly, 40 years old, they'll wait for a modifier. (In my life, there have been plenty of noteworthy Bobs - Radio Bob, Uncle Bob, Shish-ka-bob, Captain Kangaroo, etc.) If no modifier is forthcoming, it can only imply one person: Bob from Sesame Street. His real name is Bob McGrath.

Bob is in Milwaukee this weekend for an appearance accompanying the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra during one of its "Kinderkonzerts" (gee, can you tell this is a city with a German heritage?). And part of the interview was about his commitment to music education. His character on the show is a music teacher, and the real-life Bob worries that school budget cutbacks that eliminate music programs are creating a "cultural wasteland" in our inner cities, while the well-heeled can still afford to send their kids to private music lessons.

But mostly, I wanted to know about Sesame Street. I watched it through my childhood, watched it through my brother's childhood, and then it mainly disappeared for a few years from my consciousness. But one fateful night in college, a few of us ("odd ducks", you might call us) were perusing the comprehensive selection offered at the one video store in Mount Vernon, Iowa, when we skipped over "Diehard 2", and our eyes came to rest on: "Monster Hits". And, "Sing Yourself Silly". Which we, naturally, rented and watched that evening (though not, it should be noted, without an alcoholic beverage or perhaps two on hand). But before the night was out, we were singing along with classics like "C is for Cookie" and "Fuzzy and Blue", and newer classics like "Healthy Food", Cookie Monster's highly entertaining if half-hearted rapping effort to get kids to add things like tuna and trout to their diets, in addition to cookies. I wound up owning second-hand copies of both of those video tapes, along with a copy of the seminal history, "Sesame Street Unpaved" - all well before actually having a child. And I'll probably still be watching them well after my daughter has moved on to reruns of "Grey's Anatomy".

Sesame Street's Bob has outlasted all my other childhood icons - Walter Cronkite, Hawkeye Pierce, Dwight Evans, Cheech and Chong. So, yeah, it was an uncommon opportunity.

And Bob, thank goodness, was terrific, spinning yarns about Ralph Nader's appearance on the show (he asked to change a lyric in "The People in Your Neighborhood" to make it grammatically correct) and doing imitations of Elmo. He was also amazingly candid about the direction the show has taken in the past 10 years or so - which has been a nagging thought in the minds of almost everyone who grew up with Sesame Street. Bob, diplomatically, didn't put a value judgement on the changes (less exposure for the neighborhood, more computer animation, targeting a younger audience), but he did say - a little wistfully - that part of him misses the fun they had producing the show in its early years.

The other side effect he noted is that although the current generation of kids is still watching Sesame Street, the time has probably passed in which four- and five-year olds recognize him coming out of a store.

37-year olds are another story.

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