Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March is Mostly Mets Reading Month: 'Street Gang' and the glories of Dancing Bear

Today we're stepping away from baseball and politics for the story of one of television's most enduring shows -- and the show that influenced it. 

“Street Gang, the Complete History of Sesame Street” by Michael Davis
Published in 2008

True fact: The first episode of Sesame Street aired Nov. 10, 1969, mere weeks after the Mets won their first world championship.

The fact that “Sesame Street” continues to air nearly 50 years is a testament to the enduring characters and producers’ belief that television can be used for teaching.

“Street Gang” is a fascinating look behind the scenes at the show, which began with the radical concept of using the medium of television as an educational tool for preschoolers.

What I found even more fascinating was that “Sesame Street” sprung from people who were earlier involved with, and were profoundly influenced by, my favorite show at that age – “Captain Kangaroo.”

The Captain was played by Bob Keeshan – a good Long Islander – who presided over the Treasure House with gentle companions like Mr. Greenjeans, played by Lumpy Brannum.

Keeshan famously had some prior experiences with children’s television, and didn’t like what he saw. He created a show that took a different approach.
Dancing Bear, Mr. Moose, Mr. Greenjeans, Bunny Rabbit and Captain Kangaroo.

“Naturals before the camera, Keeshan and Brannum spoke to the 'boys and girls' (never kids) with nary a hint of condescension, and they never lost sight of the vulnerability of their young audience,” Davis writes. “Captain Kangaroo thus became an especially valuable antidote to the commercial onslaught that was children’s television in the 1950s and ‘60s…” 

Keeshan was passionate, even limiting the kinds of advertising that would be allowed during the show. 

The Captain endured some gentle pranks at the hands of friends who might have been puppets, such as the silent Bunny Rabbit who managed to somehow make off with the Captain’s carrots, and the playful Mr. Moose, who repeatedly showered the host with ping pong balls. Both, of course, were a laugh riot to preschoolers in the late 1960s.

But I was always drawn to another character: The magical Dancing Bear.

It’s tough today to pinpoint why I liked Dancing Bear. He was a man-sized bear who wore a baseball cap and vest with a floppy tie. 

Mom covered the holes on my own well-worn stuffed bear by fashioning the patches on my own bear to resemble Dancing Bear’s outfit. My bear – “T-Bear” or “Ted” -- was a constant companion and suffered greatly for it. He ended up being covered mostly with patches and his fur entirely worn off.

Dancing Bear never spoke. He never pulled pranks or stole carrots. His fixed expression was permanently cheerful. Dude could dance, though. He’d waltz in, then make his corner of the world a better place, then exit cheerfully, knowing that good was done that day.

And, when all is said and done, that’s not a bad way to approach life. Maybe there needs to be a little bit of Dancing Bear in all of us.

Your reading list, so far:

March 5: "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century" by Marc Okkenon
March 4: "Clemente! The Enduring Legacy" by Kal Wagenheim 
March 3: "Mets by the Numbers" by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman
March 2: "Faith and Fear in Flushing" by Greg W. Prince

1 comment:

Warren Zvon said...

Mr.Moose was my favorite.

The Captain was a big part of my formative years. I didn't know who played Mr. Greenjeans until I read this.
I remember when I watched Captain Kangeroo I would get dressed before I sat in front of the TV because I thought he could see me.

The same for Romper Room, where I learned how to make a car out of a cardboard box. Drove my folks crazy, lol.