Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sisterly History Pt. 1

This picture is one of my favorite taken in 2011. It marks one of the best weeks of the year; when my sisters and their families came to visit me and my family here in Kentucky. I love both of my sisters, dearly. They have influenced and blessed my life in so many ways I can never begin to mention them all.

My sister Peggy, has given me the gift of an interest and love of music from the 1960’s and 70s. Forty years ago she gave me the honor of become an uncle for the first time. I’ve always been pretty good at being, an uncle, if I must say so myself.

There’s a lot more I could tell you about my sister Peggy and I will in a future post.

Yesterday was my sister, Shari’s birthday. While I apologize for not posting this on her actual birthday; today I want to write about the first of two of the most significant ways Shari has blessed my life. I don’t think this is something I’ve ever shared with her before.

In November 1969, around Shari’s 4th birthday, a new and very different kind of children’s TV show premiered on public broadcasting television stations around the country. That show was called “Sesame Street.”

It came on in the mornings. I was 9 and in 4th grade. Just after I’d left for school, my four year old sister, usually still in her footy pajamas, would sit herself in front of the TV. For an hour she watched as Susan, Gordon, Bob, Mr. Hooper and a 6ft tall yellow bird puppet, called “Big Bird”, live and learn on a studio set that accurately represented an fictional intercity neighborhood.

Shari loved Sesame Street and talked about it, at the dinner table, all the time. Since it was on when I wasn’t home I paid no attention when she talked about two characters named “Ernie & Bert” who she thought were so funny. I wasn’t the least bit interested in; the kiddie TV show which had become a big part of my little sister’s pre-school world.

Then something changed. Sesame Street started airing a 2nd time each afternoon at 4PM; right before we ate supper. Since it was the only thing on (this was back in the days when only “rich people” had more than 1 TV set in their house) I was forced to watch. I discovered that “Ernie & Bert” were puppets.

Well, not just “Puppets” but Muppets. I LOVED the Muppets. I was initially introduced to them by my dad. He would make sure that whenever Jim Henson’s hilarious puppet troupe was on a TV variety show like Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, or the Hollywood Palace we were in our living room watching them together. But seeing the Muppets was relatively rare. They didn’t appear on any program on a regular basis; just occasionally on shows like I just mentioned.

The puppets on Sesame Street were not the characters, I’d seen on those prime time variety shows. With the exception of Kermit the Frog, these puppets were specially created for the ground breaking children’s show. But they were still the product of the mastermind behind the Muppets, Jim Henson. They were lifelike and funny.

I was hooked. I started watching Sesame Street with my sister so I could see the Muppets. I started imitating their voices as best as I could. I dreamed of somehow having my own puppets so I could make up my own jokes and perform my own little plays.

Soon after I started watching Sesame Street, toy departments of our local discount stores started selling toy versions of Ernie, Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch puppets. I started asking for them as gifts. I received them over several birthdays and Christmases. Then I began performing puppetry for my family and at my church.

Now there were other factors that went into my “puppet” journey and how I eventually turned down the road of ventriloquism. But it was the everyday exposure to the Sesame Street puppets while sitting on the floor in our living room TV with my little sister that really fueled what has turned out to be a lifelong passion for puppets.

There was also a short term obsession with everything that Sesame Street had to offer. Our parents got us the Sesame Street original cast album for a Valentine’s Day present in 1970. We played that record until it was worn out. Eventually we both out grew the curriculum of the Children’s Television Workshop’s first public television hit. I moved on to “The Electric Company.” Shari moved on to “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.”

I’m sure the 4 year old little girl who sat with me, mesmerized by the wonder of just how Ernie’s silliness was going to frustrate Bert next, watched Cookie Monster begging for his favorite snack, or tried to guess which “one of these things” was “not like the others” had no idea she was exposing me to an interest that would have an influence my life more than 40 years later.

She just liked having someone to watch her favorite show with her. By the way, our educational TV partnership abruptly ended when her new TV best friend became that guy in the cardigan sweater and sneakers.

That’s the story of one of ways my little sister blessed me in my early life. More recently she’s done something that has been not just a blessing but a powerful life changing influence on both Paula and me. I’ll give you the details of that story in my next post.

Until then, I’d like to give one more “Happy Birthday” to my little sister. I love you, Shari. While you may be getting older more importantly you really are getting better.

Come back for “part 2” of this special post.

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