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August 14, 2015

Sesame Place Week: Q&A With the Author

Filed under: Feature,Interviews — Tags: , , — Joe Hennes @ 9:00 am

Welcome to Sesame Place Week – Celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Sesame Street-themed amusement park!  We’re bringing to you a week full of articles with the cooperation of Guy Hutchinson, the co-author of the new book chronicling the history of Sesame Place.

As a bonus, ToughPigs readers can receive $2 off the cover price of the book, which comes with a signed copy of the book, a current park map, and a vintage Sesame Place token! Click here to place your order and enter the code TOUGHPIGS at checkout for your discount!

guycountIt’s been great spending this week focusing on the Sesame Place theme park, which we’ve spent exactly zero attention to before.  With the park’s anniversary and the new book about the park’s history now available, it’s been a treat to have a reason to finally give it the spotlight it deserves.

We’re extremely grateful to the book’s co-author Guy Hutchinson for joining us in providing three articles for Sesame Place Week, and we’re concluding the series with a Q&A with Guy.  Enjoy, gang!

ToughPigs: Let’s start at the beginning: What’s your relationship with Sesame Street?

Guy Hutchinson: I was a big Sesame Street fan. I watched the show and had lots of Sesame Street records. I remember listening to the records more because back then we didn’t have a VCR so the show was on once a day. The records on the other hand, I would listen to them over and over. I can still recite every track from My Name Is Roosevelt Franklin and Big Bird Leads the Band which has Big Bird singing “Turn Over The Record” ad nauseam as side one comes to a close.

My Dad wasn’t necessarily a fan of Sesame Street or The Muppets, but he seemed to really admire Jim Henson’s life story and would always talk to me about him. I remember Dad yelling my name after bedtime one night. I came running down to the TV room, assuming I was in some kind of trouble. Instead my Dad showed me that Henson was being interviewed on the nightly news.

As I grew out of the “content” of Sesame Street, I was still interested in it because I was fascinated with the puppetry. I remember spending lots of time trying to figure out how Big Bird worked.

spelmorideTP: What was your inspiration to write a book about Sesame Place?

GH: I went there a couple times as a kid and I loved it. Then as I grew older it became this fascinating mystery to me. It was the closest theme park to me, yet I couldn’t go there. Sesame Place is unique because you actually grow out of it. I’m a big theme park buff so it was odd to have one so close to me that I didn’t go to anymore.

I would see commercials on TV, articles in the paper, and I would even drive by it several times a year. It was something I grew more and more curious about every year.

Then when my son was born I started going back and I couldn’t believe the changes. I went online and looked for info about the park history and I didn’t find much. I started looking for information by watching other people’s home movies on YouTube, sifting through Flickr photos, eBay auctions, and digging through old newspapers on Google.

The amazing thing was that there was so much change that every discovery led to more questions. I decided to take the info I found and start a blog about Sesame Place history (bigbirdbridge.blogspot.com) and that’s where I met (Sesame Place co-author) Chris Mercaldo. Chris is an expert in theme park design and has a great mind for historical context. He asked me if I wanted to pitch Sesame Place and Sesame Workshop on the idea of doing the book

I agreed, but I didn’t think there was any chance that it would ever happen. To my delight, everyone was really receptive to the idea and I am so happy that it’s out now for everyone to see.

sptwiddlebugsTP: Tell us a bit about the research you had to do for the book.

GH: We had so much support from Sesame Place. Jenn Martin, Vice President of Marketing, worked with us and gave us access to anything we needed. We searched through every closet, every desk, and every corner of the park’s corporate offices and warehouse. There were some framed pictures on the wall that we thought would look good in the book. Before we finished asking they were off the wall and in the trunk of my car.

They also let us in the park when it wasn’t open to take pictures of signage and ride vehicles. Everyone at Sesame Place was very helpful and answered every single question we asked, and believe me, I asked. For a theme park geek like me this was a dream job.

We tried to over-research and over-write the book. Then we trimmed everything down to be the most concise but comprehensive book possible.

We really wanted it to be a book that if you wanted you could simply look at the pictures, in the order we presented them, and get the full story.

TP: What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

GH: Expo ’90! Prior to doing the book I knew of three Sesame Place parks. There is the original (and now only) one in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, one in Texas (which closed in 1984), and one in Tokyo Japan (which closed in 2006).

What I did not know was that “The International Garden and Greenery Exposition” in Osaka, Japan had a large Sesame Place pavilion. Greg Hartley was a Sesame Place employee who worked as Ernie for the Expo and showed us a fascinating picture that we included in the book. It was an amazing pavilion, it was a scaled down, but still very large, version of the park. Everything was the same right down to the shape and color of the railings!

guymurrayTP: How many times do you think you’ve visited Sesame Place, both as a child and as an adult?

GH: As a kid, I think I went twice. I went for a trip in the early to mid-1980s and then I went back when my youngest sister was born.

As a parent, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Even Count Von Count couldn’t add ‘em up! My son and I go most weekends and once the ‘Very Furry Christmas’ event starts we usually go every single night they are open.

TP: What is your favorite classic attraction at Sesame Place?

GH: The Computer Gallery was my favorite as a kid and it still fascinates me the most. It was 56 computers running specially designed games. It was the first place I ever used a computer. I remember just being fascinated that the graphics were in color.

TP: When you visit the park as an adult, what’s the attraction or display you find yourself most drawn to?

GH: The parade is my favorite. It’s really a great parade. The music is stellar, the floats are really beautiful, and the characters do such great interaction with the crowds. It’s choreographed perfectly. I am really in awe every time I watch it. It’s worth the price of admission by itself.

TP: Do you have any favorite pieces of merchandise that you’ve taken home from the park?

sppirateGH: I saved a Computer Gallery token from my first visit. It has Big Bird on one side and Sesame Place printed on the other side. It’s pretty worn out because I used to keep it my wallet when I was younger.

I have gotten a bucket of tokens since then, but of course, there is a sentimental attachment to that first token.

TP: You’re also the co-host of the “Drunk On Disney” podcast. Do these two worlds cross over much?

GH: They certainly do. On that show we always try out some of the special cocktails that they sell at EPCOT and the Disney hotels, but the title of that show refers to our obsession with Disney theme parks as kids. We were “drunk” on Disney before we had ever tried booze. I think there is a special euphoria that theme parks provide people with. It’s not just the rides, it’s the immersive experience, the feeling that you have left all the stress and baggage of the world outside the gate and now you are in this magical place.

There is something about theme parks that provides an experience that the rides alone can’t accomplish. For example, Sesame Place has a ride called Oscar’s Rotten Rusty Rockets. It would still be fun if it wasn’t themed, but add the fact that you are getting into a rocket that looks like a trash can (with spaghetti cans for thrusters) to help Slimey on a mission, and it’s a blast.

TP: If you had to choose one classic character to introduce (or re-introduce) into a Sesame Place attraction, who would it be?

spstage2GH: Sherlock Hemlock would be great. They do an event every year called The Count’s Halloween Spooktacular. What if The Count went missing and Sherlock Hemlock was looking for him? That would be a fun ad campaign, or stage show, or it could be themed where you spent the whole day following clues at the park to find The Count.

TP: If you got hired to work at Sesame Place, what would be your ideal job?

GH: That’s interesting to think about. I can imagine it would be impossible not to smile if Elmo was your co-worker. The stage performers always look like they are having fun, so I’d love to do that… but I’d have to work on my dancing… a whole lot.

TP: Did you uncover any interesting stories or photographs that didn’t make it into the book?

GH: We had access to hundreds and hundreds of photos and they couldn’t all fit in the book, but we made an Excel sheet of each photo that we had and what attractions appeared in it. Then we would sit there and go back and forth with each photo to find the perfect set of pictures. A photo with three attractions, for example, was better than a photo of one. The photos I wanted to feature most were photos that no one else would have ever seen. There are views of the construction of the Sesame Neighborhood that nobody would have ever seen unless they were allowed there in the off season with a hard hat. I’m really glad we were able to show people photos like that.

We also searched extensively for a photo of Jim Henson at the park but were not able to find. Jim only visited the park a couple of times to my knowledge, but I thought a photo of the creator of the Sesame Street characters at Sesame Place would be very interesting to see.

guyprairieTP: Now that the book is completed and in stores, what’s next for you?

GH: I have a few first drafts of fiction and non-fiction books I need to get back to eventually, but I still focused on getting all of the stories and information about Sesame Place recorded for future generations. Since the book has been released I have spoken to several former and current employees and I have been trying to create a complete timeline of what happened over the years. I am also very interested in recording the names of all the people that helped create the different attractions at Sesame Place.

A good theme park really feels like a good movie, but unlike a movie there are no “closing credits.” I want to make a list so those names can be on file at Sesame Place forever.

TP: And now the all-important question: Favorite Sesame Street character?

GH: Oscar the Grouch. No question.

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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com



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