Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Around the World (and Up the Street) With Bob McGrath

It's hard to summarize a 50-year career in one article.

It's even harder when that career has taken some pretty novel twists and turns over the years. But that's been par for the course, according to Sesame Street's Bob McGrath. I decided to check in with Bob as the 44th season of Sesame Street looms on Monday, September 16.

Bob McGrath
A classically-trained Music major, Bob went from being a boy soloist in church to a featured tenor on "Sing Along With Mitch Miller" to a popular crooner for thousands of Japanese teenagers. After moving to the New York area with his wife, Ann, Bob did session work and studied acting until...well, hang on.

A self-described "cracker from Ottawa, Illinois," Bob joined the University of Michigan's Men's Glee Club and became the first freshman soloist in the group's history. His vocal abilities ultimately brought him to Mitch Miller's popular weekly TV show, where Bob spent five years as the featured male soloist. During that tenure, Miller and his ensemble were invited to tour Japan and perform 30 shows in 30 cities.

"Mitch Miller's audience in the States was mostly older people," Bob recalled. "But in Japan, we attracted teenagers and young professionals." Every show concluded with a singalong, with the lyrics projected on a screen. "People came because they wanted to be entertained but they also wanted to learn English," he added.

Another singer's absence provided an unexpected big break.

"Leslie Uggams did not make the trip so I received the opportunity to sing three or four solos," Bob recalled. "People would chant 'Bobu, Bobu' when I finished my solos." Before there was an Internet, word of mouth created a sensation and "Bobu Magurasu" (aka Bob McGrath) Fan Clubs sprung up around the country.

Bob returned to Japan nine times for headlining engagements (at clubs called the Latin Quarter and Copacobana). He was a sensation, with Japanese native language recordings, concerts, television, and live appearances. Prime Minister Eisaku Sato's daughter was a fan and Sato invited Bob to perform at a high-level function. "How odd for an Irish tenor and Illinois farm boy to be singing Japanese folk songs at a private show for the Prime Minister," he said.

American audiences got a chance to witness Bob's prowess when he appeared on a 1966 episode of TO TELL THE TRUTH:

Back in the States, the Mitch Miller show had been cancelled and Bob began taking acting classes to prepare for new career challenges. "I still did club dates and session work," he said. "I also performed symphonic choral work with Leonard Bernstein."

A chance encounter one afternoon outside Carnegie Hall changed his life. "I bumped into an old college fraternity brother who mentioned he was working on a new children's television show," Bob said. "He suggested that I audition, but I thought about the quality of most programming for kids and said I wasn't interested in the least."

His friend persisted and invited Bob to watch some test footage. "Prior to that I had never seen or even heard of Jim Henson or any of his Muppets," Bob said. "After watching five minutes I told them yes, I'll audition." With his foot in the door, Bob shot the pilot episode. Then a second one. He survived five pilot episodes, while others fell by the wayside.

Getting Sesame Street on the air was an arduous process that included two years of testing (of which yours truly was a participant). Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney wanted to create a children's television show to help young children prepare for school. "The focus was especially for disadvantaged, inner-city kids who did not test as well as upper-class children," Bob said. From those origins came the genesis of Sesame Street, of which Bob was among the four "human" cast members. The others were Matt Robinson (Gordon), Loretta Long (Susan), and Will Lee (Mr. Hooper).

"We started doing 130 episodes a season," Bob remarked. Over the years, that total got cut down more and more. In 1998, the show produced 65 episodes. By 2002, it was down to 50. In 2004, Sesame head writer Lou Berger stood firm for several days and would not agree to anything less than 26 episodes. "The bean counters asked what was so important, why not 25 episodes," Bob added. "Lou asked, 'Okay, which letter of the alphabet am I supposed to fire?'" The show has continued to produce 26 episodes every season since that encounter.

Sesame Street cast at Thanksgiving parade, circa early 2000s.
Bob and the other cast members knew their show was different, but didn't see the immediate impact until a summer tour of parks in cities with large, urban populations. "Thousands of kids came out to see us in Watts, in Chicago, in Jacksonville," Bob said. "They loved us and went nuts for Big Bird. It was like Woodstock for toddlers."

Off the street, Bob began to perform children's concerts, often with symphony orchestras. Even though it was an expensive proposition to have all the music written and scored for a symphony, it was a great investment. "It's thrilling to perform with a symphony and wonderful for kids and their families to hear professional live, acoustic musicians," Bob said. "It provides an alternative to recorded, and often synthesized music. Hopefully, it might induce kids to become active music makers."

Although Sesame's producers had cast an urban mix of performers, their musical skills varied wildly. "Will Lee was a fantastic actor but had no musicality," Bob laughed. The cast performed Hayden's Toy Symphony with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. "We each had an instrument but Will could never remember his cue," he added. "Composer Joe Raposo finally sat in the front row with a flashlight and signaled Will when to play and when to stop." Bob laughed, "The rest of us frantically followed along with the score while Will just waited with a big Mr. Hooper smile for Joe to shine the flashlight."

At the first rehearsal with the Boston Pops, no one recognized muppet maven Jim Henson with his long hair and beard. "Jim's croaky voice stunned Fiedler and the orchestra," Bob recalled. At the concerts, Jim stayed out of sight and manipulated Kermit, who sang "Bein' Green" and brought down the house. "People were amazed to learn what the man behind Kermit the Frog really looked like."

Bob (and the rest of the cast) could not predict that Sesame Street's legacy and impact would stretch into a sixth decade. "Joan Ganz Cooney called the show an experiment in children's television," Bob said. "Every season when the writers set their goals, the scripts still reflect that. This year, it will read '45th Experimental Season'."

At home in the early years, Bob saw first hand how kids reacted to him. "My three-year-old daughter Cathlin was watching Sesame Street one day when I came home," Bob said. "She did a triple-take between me and the TV and jumped into my arms, beating me on the chest, yelling, 'That's my daddy!'"

Producing so many hours of television eventually required more human cast members. In season 3, Maria (Sonia Manzano) and Louis (Emilio Delgado) signed onto Sesame Street. Like with any neighborhood, people would move in over time. For instance, Roscoe Orman took over as Gordon in season four. Alison Bartlett (Gina) joined the cast in 1987. Alan Muraoka (Alan) has been behind the counter of Hooper's Store since 1997.

To celebrate the 25th season, a new director brought in a vision to remake "The Street." He doubled the human cast and added a new, second set. "By introducing so many new elements, we lost the sense of the Street," Bob said. "When it was the four of us (Matt, Loretta, Will, and I) we were in every episode. Now there were so many members of the cast that we rarely crossed paths during the season." That phase was short-lived. Five years later, the new cast and set were eliminated. "For the past 20 years, we've had a wonderful core cast, some new additions, and a few of us dinosaurs," he laughed.

Music education remains meaningful to Bob. In addition to symphony concerts, he delivers keynotes and workshops for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association for Music Merchants (NAMM).

He recently remastered songs from two older CDs into a new collection, BOB'S FAVORITE SING ALONG SONGS. In addition to the 15 tracks, the CD has instrumental versions of every song. "I had many requests from teachers who wanted audio tracks for performances and assemblies," Bob said. "As much fun as it is to hear performers sing, it's important for children to hear their parents singing as well as hearing their own voices. Learning that everyone has a voice that should be heard encourages them to become active music makers."

Bob has tremendous respect for professional musicians. "I've always hired as many top people as the budget allowed, such as Dick Hyman and Bob Becker and " he said. "The dedication to their craft contributed a great deal to the longevity and success of all my recordings, both in CDs as well as new media streams, such as digital downloads."

Sesame Street memories are special to the viewers and they love to share with Bob. "It's become generational," Bob said. "Kids do recognize me, but more often it's their parents and even grandparents." If it's the shared memories that turn a performer into an icon, then Bob McGrath has earned the moniker.

Forty-four years after its inception, Sesame Street could have become a burden. But Bob doesn't see it that way. "It's not an ego trip for me," he said. "I'm not Fred Rogers and the show isn't about me. It's all about Sesame Street and what it represents." Bob talked about meeting grownups working in hotels and airports who greeted him with bear hugs. "One man told me I'd been like a father to him while he grew up," he said. "So we are fulfilling our original mission. And that's why Sesame Street is still necessary, here and around the world."

SESAME STREET starts its 44th season on Monday, September 16 on PBS stations around the country. Visit Bob at his website or purchase BOB'S FAVORITE SING-ALONG SONGS.
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