Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street
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Alaina Reed Hall Believed   She Named "Mr. Elmo"

In the summer of 2008 I did a 30-minute phone interview with Alaina Reed Hall, the actress and vocalist who played Olivia on “Sesame Street” for a dozen years.

To my regret, nothing from our conversation ended up in “Street Gang,” but just this week I transcribed the interview and wanted to share some of the highlights.

Sadly, Alaina passed before Christmas, dead at 63 after a year-long battle with breast cancer.

In addition to her delightful work playing Gordon’s photographer sister on “Sesame Street,” starting in the mid-1970s, she also played Rose Hollway on the sitcom “227″ and appeared onstage in a range of theater roles.

But it was during her days as a cabaret singer in New York — a period when she sang in the Greenwich Village bathhouses and had a loyal gay following, like Bette Midler — that Alaina caught the attention of two “Sesame Street” production assistants who had come to see her perform at a nightclub. Alaina recalled, “After hearing me  they want back to their friends at work and said, ‘You’ve got to hear this girl sing.’

“And so, the musical director. Sam Pottle, and a few producers came to the club, unbeknownst to me. I got a phone call from them, inviting me to come in and be a guest on the show.  I did three songs with the Muppets, and the producers seemed to like me. Onstage in the clubs I did a very theatrical act. I didn’t get up and just sing. I told stories, so “Sesame Street” was a hand-in-glove fit.  Plus, when I was growing up in Springfield, Ohio, my grandmother ran a nursery [school] from her home. I had always worked with children.”

What she did not have was experience in front of the camera. “I remember one day I was doing ‘Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood,’ and really stumbling. Frank Oz turned to me and said, ‘Let me tell you something. If you are in the middle of a piece and you don’t like the way it’s going, stop.’

“I looked at him and he said, ‘Just stop.’ It took a lot of pressure off knowing that I could do it all over again. In theater you have to keep going. But Frank told me, ‘Whatever is on that final  [videotape] is going to stay. You’re going to have to live with it for the rest of your life. You want it to be the best it can possibly be.’ I’m glad I took that advice.”

If you are unfamiliar with Alaina’s work on “Sesame Street,” treat yourself to some clips of her on YouTube. Like Sonia Manzano (Maria), Alaina could be totally in the moment with the Muppets. It takes a heightened ability to suspend one’s sense of disbelief well enough to work with what are, essentially, talking bathmats. Alaina had a perfect way to explain why it was possible for her: “The Muppets were so believable they were unbelivable!”

Though I have yet to confirm or substantiate this, Alaina believes she gave Elmo his quirky name. “My grandmother always taught me to put a ‘mister’ or ‘miss’ in front of an adult friend’s  first name. And when I was growing up, my best friend, Betty Jean, lived across the street. Betty’s  mother looked just like Sapphire (the actress Ernestine Wade, who played that character on TV’s “Amos ‘n Andy”). When I first saw Betty’s father, who I called Mr. Elmo,  I thought,  ‘Oh my God. He looks just like the Kingfish (Tim Moore).’ For a minute I really thought it was them!”

“I always loved my neighbor, Mr. Elmo, because he was so sweet. And so, one day, when Kevin Clash brought out this little red character, someone asked, ‘What are we going to call him?’ I said, “Why don’t we call him Mr. Elmo?”

Alaina participated in the now-classic segment in which Big Bird, always the surrogate child, came to terms with storekeeper Mr. Hooper’s death. “It was the first time that any of us had to deal with an actual death on the show, when Will Lee passed away. Naturally, we were all concerned how children [in the audience] would comprehend that. In the episode, we used constant repitition, saying things like ‘No, Mr. Hooper has not gone off to the store’ and ‘No, he hasn’t left  on vacation.’ It was like, ‘No, he really wasn’t coming back,’ making clear that when someone dies, they don’t come back.

“I remember mentioning to one of the producers that it sounded kind of rough. But I came to understand that that was the only way to get it across. Parents say a lot of things to children that aren’t true. They don’t realize it’s easier to tell the truth.”

Alaina Reed Hall accomplished a great deal during her earthly days.

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TV Guide marks Sesame's 40th with a news-making cover story

TV Guide   In an exclusive report for the November 9th TV Guide written by "Street Gang" author Michael Davis, British comedian Ricky Gervais says this of Sesame: "That little street is the American Dream. It's positive energy, what America thrives on."

Over four pages, Davis details the changes ahead for the 40th anniversary season -- including a new series within a series starring a CGI version of Abby Cadabby -- and reveals a new commitment at Sesame Workshop to feature segments that model healthy friendships between girls. "There's really nothing out there that teaches women how to be friends at a very young age," says executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente.

Through the season, producers will feature get-along segments involving Abby, Rosita and Zoe.

Michael and friends kick off

the Street Gang tour in Manhattan

Photo by Adrian Kinloch: Michael Davis, Sesame Street musical contributor Christopher Cerf, Roscoe Orman (who played Gordon) and Caroll Spinney (the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch)

There wasn't room enough at the Barnes & Noble in Manhattan's Lincoln Square on Monday, Jan. 5 to accommodate everyone who showed up for the Street Gang discussion and Q&A. It was a chance to hear from (above, from left) author Michael Davis, Sesame Street composer and writer Christopher Cerf, Roscoe Orman (Gordon) and Caroll Spinney (the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch).

Oscar himself (below) made a cameo appearance, to the audience's delight.

Photo by Adrian Kinloch: Oscar the Grouch and Caroll Spinney

For more tour dates see the Appearances page.

Caroll Spinney narrates
Street Gang audio book

Photo by Adrian Kinloch: Caroll Spinney recording the Street Gang audio book

Puppeteer and legendary television performer Caroll Spinney, who has been Big Bird and Oscar on Sesame Street since the debut season of 1969, provides the narration for the audio book version of  Street Gang.

Recording for the project took place in early November 2008 at a Manhattan studio. The audio book was released December 29, 2008, simultaneously with the hardcover release. It is available for purchase online now at Amazon.com and bn.com.

Caroll Spinney

Street Gang is Spinney’s first audio book narration. “I hope it leads to more,” he said recently from his home in Connecticut. “Maybe some day Random House will do an audio book version of my memoir, The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch).” That charming and inspirational book was published in 2003.

Street Gang contains never-before-disclosed details of Spinney’s upbringing and career, as well as insights and stories about Jim Henson, the man who hired him for Sesame Street.

 
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