November 5th, 2007

Bruce, Caroline

LJ Idol, Week 1: Sesame Street Sense

Growing up on a farm in rural Manitoba, you might think that not too many particularly exciting things happened. You might think that ruts were easy to get into, that routine usually reigned supreme, and that monotony was often the order of the day. You might think these things ... and you'd be right. Rural Manitoba isn't exactly what one would call a happening kind of a setting in which to grow up. Safe, yes; secure, certainly; wholesome, most definitely; but it wasn't a Mecca of thrills and hilarity. Which isn't, though, to say that we didn't have our moments.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC, produced the Canadian manifestation of Sesame Street. It was a lot like its American counterpart: the basic characters and themes were identical, they just had French instead of Spanish and some Canadian general-interest features thrown in. One day, around 1979, they got it into their heads that it might be neat to do a feature about a blind kid living on a farm. I happened to be a kid who met these criteria, so I was selected for this honor.

The filming was scheduled for sometime in March of 1980. I was all excited, my teacher was not, because half of the feature was going to happen at school and she was nervous about being on TV. Conveniently calling in sick that day, my actual teach was not in the actual filming: we got a substitute instead, but one with whom we were familiar.

The morning of that day was supposed to be just an ordinary school day. Yeah right. The Sesame Street crew wasn't due until the lunch hour. I was nervous, I was scared, I don't know if I got any actual work done. But finally the lunch hour arrived, and my three minutes of fame were about to be put on film.

The first thing they had me do was to lope out of the school building and toward the playground. Kenton - a friend, true, but someone who, to my knowledge, never actually did anything with me during lunch hours - led me. then I was supposed to do ordinary things and show the discriminating viewing audience that a blind kid was just like them. So I swung on the swings, I played on those oh-so-fun splinter-giving wooden horses (I really did like those, splinters or not), and I did some death-defying easy stuff on the monkey bars.

This is where I ran into my first problem, in the form of someone else (whom I shall not name) who apparently wanted to be on TV too. While I was on the monkey bars doing nothing special, this kid had positioned himself on the ladder where I was scheduled to make my descent. I approached this ladder, totally oblivious to this other kid's presence. I got onto the ladder and tried to reach over to the left vertical bar for balance. With a kid in the way, I didn't grab the bar in time, but instead swung off the ladder to my right and flipped onto the shale beneath the monkey bars, flat on my back. Whose idea was it to put shale in a place like that, anyway?

So, with a very sore back indeed, I continued on. The playground shooting was over anyway, so we proceeded to the classroom, for some real-life drauma. They filmed me reading short stories with my classmates, doing basic math on my abacus, and just generally trying to make things as realistic as possible. Luckily I was sitting so my back didn't protest too much.

After school, I always took the bus home to our farm. My brother would get off the bus with me, but he did not consider it dignified being on Sesame Street, so he got dropped off behind some trees and the bus dropped me off accompanied by my cousin. We had to shoot this scene three times due to a combination of people waving at the camera and technical problems. But we finally got that scene done.

Next came the cute-cuddly-animal scene that is a staple in all children's shows. Luckily I had just the ticket: some cute, cuddly rabbits. So they filmed me feeding my rabbits (or raBITS as I said on the show, for reasons unknown), playing with my dog, and feeding a lamb which we borrowed from my cousin and who no doubt was wondering what the heck he was doing on this strange yard.

Finally they showed me playing the organ in our living room: a dreamy little number of my own composition.

I was wondering how the whole thing was to come together. Was it going to be a totally visual series about a blind person? Didn't seem fair. But what they did was really quite ingenious. After the filming was over, they sat me down in my room and just asked me to speak into the microphone and tell them what I had done that day. They asked a few questions for clarification, and in the final mix, put my answers in the appropriate places so it sounded as though I was giving a running commentary of the proceedings.

All in all, it was a very positive experience. True, in the short term it won me no popularity contests with my peers, but they eventually forgave me for being "famous". The clip was shown both in Canada and internationally many times over, and a lot of people I meet even now remember seeing it when they were young. Most certainly a rewarding experience, and one I will not soon forget.
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