Half a century ago, the considerable societal and cultural changes wrought during the “turbulent Sixties” still struck many middle-of-the-road types as upsetting. Even beyond the political sphere, they were alarmed by music that no longer soothed (an uncle of mine once pompously announced that there had been “no real music since World War II”), and entertainment that, with previously high censorship barriers now much-reduced, now seemed rife with sex and violence.
But not all the new trends and talents were so abrasive to those not identifying with the era’s youth. Two engaging new documentaries examine two pop cultural phenomenon that couldn’t possibly have happened in an earlier era (even a few years prior), yet fast found wide approval—one for a still-running longterm, the other for a brief popular vogue.
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street opens in theaters (including the Embarcadero, Shattuck and Rafael Film Center) this Fri/23, then becomes available On Demand May 7. It is not the first feature about the public broadcasting institution that—in a rather dismal sign of the times—has recently moved to premium commercial platform HBO. (Reruns are still seen on PBS.) But those earlier films tended to focus on Muppet mastermind Jim Henson, or other star puppeteers. Marilyn Agrelo’s movie is about the genesis and early years of the whole project, whose goals and format were unprecedented at the time.
Children’s Television Workshop founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett were both very motivated by 60s political activism, noting among the many issues it raised, the great inequality of education between middle-class white kids and inner-city ones. The latter were already “behind” before they even started kindergarten, and typically lagged further in national scoring with each grade. What if the TVs that they were often parked in front of for inordinate amounts of each day actually helped prepare them for school, rather than just providing brainless entertainment designed to sell cereal and toys?
Ergo “Sesame Street” took shape as a preschool primer, teaching the alphabet, numbers, and other basics in a fun mix of live action, cartoons, and puppetry. (Initially the Muppets were intended to “exist” only in their own stand-alone segments, but early testing made it clear they needed to be all over the show—because they were what kids overwhelmingly wanted to watch.) More, this “street” would itself be an inner-city one, inhabited by a racially and otherwise diverse cast of adults and children. That social integration kept “Sesame Street” (which premiered at the end of 1969) off some PBS stations in Deep South states, until its sheer popularity forced their hand.
There had been nothing remotely like it on many fronts, from its very hip, playful animations to the astonishing range of music that somehow still managed to be kid-friendly. (Early guests included Odetta and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the non-musical Rev. Jesse Jackson.) Hispanic characters were included, and Spanish included in dialogue. Of course the Muppets got the majority of attention, but they too could serve sophisticated agendas: Oscar the Grouch was intended to teach kids how to understand and deal with “not-nice” people, while an elderly core cast member’s demise provided the occasion for Big Bird to grapple with grief and death. All this reflected the fact that the show’s content was influenced as much by child psychologists and educational experts as creative staff.
Street Gang only briefly touches on a few controversies that inevitably arose in the face of the program’s enormous popularity. The most notable one addressed is the brief screen life of Roosevelt Franklin, an early ’70s Muppet whose streetwise manner and funky musicality were intended to fondly reflect Black culture. But enough African-American parents objected to what they saw as stereotyping that the character got phased out, to the dismay of his creator/performer Matt Robinson (who left, eventually joining The Cosby Show as a writer-producer.)
The documentary doesn’t spend much time on later decades, but then its focus is how “Sesame Street” came to be itself, not how it remained a slightly greying titan for years and years to come. It’s a very satisfying overview that will give you renewed appreciation of the show even if you never watched it (or had kids who watched it) yourself.
Bursting into public consciousness at just about the same time was the subject of Johan von Sydow’s Tiny Tim: King for a Day, which opens this Friday at the Rafael Film Center. A self-described “freak,” the man who began life in 1932 Manhattan as Herbert Butros Khaury was born to parents who were Russian-Jewish and Lebanese-Christian, respectively. But if their marriage defied social boundaries at the time, they did not extend the same open-mindedness to their musically precocious son, who was so bullied at home and elsewhere that when he discovered his rather miraculous falsetto, so pure that even he called it singing “the sissy way.” Eventually kicked out, he busked on the streets before finding a first steady gig (as “Larry Love, The Human Canary”) at Herbert’s Museum and Live Flea Circus. That somehow led to getting booked into hip Village clubs, attracting Bob Dylan as a patron, opening for rock acts, and getting a contract with Reprise Records.
Now called Tiny Tim, his act was definitely a novelty: A long-haired, buck-toothed, big-schnozzed eccentric with a ukulele and perpetual shopping bag, he sang hits associated with everyone from Shirley Temple to The Doors in his eerily high vibrato. He recalled pre-WWII crooners (like Russ Colombo and Rudy Valle) while seeming to parody them, offering a mix of nostalgia and camp at just the right cultural moment. In 1968, he made a first appearance on “Laugh-In,” and was suddenly a national sensation, appearing on every variety and talk show. His wedding to Miss Vicki on “The Tonight Show” the following year was actually the most-watched broadcast event ever at that point—second only to the Apollo 11 moon landing a few months prior.
Many assumed Tiny Tim was a gay man and that this marriage was a sham. Yet problematic as the relationships were, he had three wives, and one observer here says, “He was passionate about his music, but he was more passionate about girls.” Yet one of those spouses is heard saying “He never really related to other people or had the capacity to love,” being too oddball and damaged—his bizarro persona wasn’t so much an act as a shield. He had no backup plan once the novelty wore off, the gigs growing smaller and fewer. Much of King for a Day is a rather sad story. Described as being like “a turtle without its shell,” Tiny Tim haplessly fell into being “managed” by mob figures at his career height. On the downslide, he was able to do no better than a grade-Z slasher film (Blood Harvest) and low-rent circus stint among his various attempts at a “comeback.”
Still, he remains a singular phenomenon, one that arguably opened doors to other genre-blurring stars (such as Bowie or Boy George), yet was never to be repeated or even imitated. Short and sweet, this feature leaves his enigma intact. At the same time, the wealth of archival footage suggests that his dismissive reputation as a mere novelty act is overdue for re-evaluation.
Another popular success no one could have predicted arrived in late 1968. That was Switched-On Bach, the first album by Wendy Carlos, who was then (at the beginning of a long gender transition process) credited as Walter. Its performance of J.S. Bach pieces on Moog synthesizer unexpectedly caught on, even more so after numerous tracks (plus new compositions by Carlos) were used on the soundtrack of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange three years later. It was, indeed, a sort of one-shot novelty success, but one that nonetheless greatly expanded public awareness of electronic music, influencing countless other musicians in the rock world and beyond.
Lisa Rovner’s Sisters With Transistors: Electronic Music’s Unsung Heroines provides an eye- and ear-opening survey of prominent women before and after Carlos in a field where (as one puts it) “You didn’t have to be accepted by any of the male-dominated” institutions as a musician. “You were the composer, the performer, the sole arbiter of your creation … Technology is a tremendous liberator. It blows up power structures.” Yet a seldom-articulated undercurrent here is that while women were often pioneers and innovators in that field, the fame (as well as jobs) more often went to men, as evidenced by the fact that these heroines remain largely “unsung.”
Narrated by Laurie Anderson, the documentary is entirely assembled (some audio-only latter-day interviews aside) from archival materials, and they are fascinating. The principal subjects profiled, some of whom are still living, include concert violinist turned theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore; Delia Derbyshire, a mathematician best known for composing the “Dr. Who” theme; fellow Brit Daphne Oram, who helped start the hugely influential BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958; plus avant-gardists Elaine Radigue, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros (cofounder of the San Francisco Tape Music Center), Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Spiegel, and Suzanna Ciani. When the latter was asked to score Lily Tomlin vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman in 1981, she was, appallingly, the first of her gender to get that job on a major Hollywood feature.
These creatives weren’t “just” composers, they were also experimenters, theorists, tech geeks, multimedia collaborators, seeking to expand not just music but the very concepts of listening and participation, among other things. Much of their work was never destined for a wide audience, yet there is considerable range and appeal to it as presented here. Sisters With Transistors ends with something of special note to local viewers: Under its closing credits we hear none other than beloved former SF street-performance staple the Space Lady singing her cosmic come-on “Synthesize Me.” The documentary is available for streaming through Metrograph Pictures, go to www.metrograph.com for info.