|All interviews were taped and documented. They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library. The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.|
Audio recording of the interview with Bob McGrath
|INTERVIEWER:||Clifton B. Cox|
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||May 9, 1985|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (9/1985)|
This is Clifton Cox, a member of the Teaneck Historical Project. I will be interviewing Mr.Bob McGrath, a famous TV personality.
(I) Bob, being a famous TV personality, why did you come to Teaneck?
(N) We had a friend that lived in an adjoining town nearby here and he liked it, he said it was a fairly easy commute, and we wanted to get out of New York City because we had already had two children and we were in an apartment at that point and we decided we wanted to get out of the city as I said so the two choices seemed to be either to go towards Long Island or towards New Jersey and that commute on the Long Island Expressway and those things didn't appeal to me very much. That was one reason. And then I knew several musicians from the New York Philharmonic and other places and I had known that they were in this Teaneck area. We looked in several adjoining towns and after we started sort of zeroing in on this general area, we discovered that the school systems were considered very, very good here for one thing. The commute was not bad and probably most importantly, that there was a really good cross-balance of everything going in this town in terms of racial balance which my wife and I both felt quite strongly about. So that was, and the bottom line, we found a house that fit our price range at that point. It was an old house that needed a lot of work.
(I) So you were aware of Teaneck's being a model city for the integration procedures that were taking place at that time?
(N) Yes, very much so. I think we were very aware that certain towns were not very open at all and that Teaneck had a good reputation. I discovered that from some of my musician friends and so forth. . And we felt that would be a much healthier environment for our children to grow up in and
(I) So you did some research?
(N) Very much so.
(I) And it certainly bore itself to be true.
(I) What is the makeup of your family?
(N) We have five children, three girls and two boys. The two boys are the oldest and then the three girls at this point in time, in 1985, they run from 15 to 26 years old. Three of them were born right here in Holy Name Hospital.
(I) Give us something about your business or association with Sesame Street which has made you so famous.
(N) Well, I've been one of the original hosts on that show. There were four of us when we started and we've just completed our sixteenth season of Sesame Street and will begin our seventeenth year in September of 1985. They chose four characters, two black, two white, Gordon and Susan were the married black couple, and Mr. Hooper who was Will Lee was an elderly shop keeper and myself and I play myself, I play the part of Bob on the show. And as I say, we've been on sixteen years; we've made over 2,200/2,300 shows and it is now all over the world in about 60 or 70 countries.
(I) How does it feel being such a famous personality to the young people?
(N) It is very exciting. It is, in a sense I don't consider myself famous in the same way that one would normally think of a famous "movie star" Hollywood movie star or a famous rock star that causes riots and that kind of thing. It is a different kind of being famous and I think it is one probably which I would prefer because generally it is just like having really a lot of friends, both the children that recognize me and come to my concerts which is primarily what I do outside of Sesame Street and also from the parents point of view and we get a tremendous. amount of wonderful feedback from parents. Just a couple of days ago, a lady with a Downs Syndrome child came up and said how much her child with Downs Syndrome had learned from watching the show. So we get tremendous feedback from that kind of response.
(I) Because you're taking a great part in the basic formulation of children when they are young and this is so important.
(N) It really is and especially the whole concept of the show is that it was geared for inner city children whether they be Hispanic, white or black, and that is still the focus of the show. Obviously, it was meant to and has spread to all social economic levels and so forth.
(I) It reaches all across lines.
(N) Everywhere. Absolutely. And it has actually really raised the basic skills of the children prior to hitting first grade and that was what the prime purpose of the show was to bring particularly inner city kids up to the level of middle or upper income kids so that when they got into that first week or month or first year of school, they weren't already way behind the eight ball. Which is a terrible way to start life.
(I) My newest grandson, he just turned one April 17th, and do you know he, whenever I go over there and he is looking at the Sasame4 Street, I have to stop and take a part. So this makes me feel good.
(N) For parents, it is the best way if they can watch the show with their children, their child will get much more out of it. We are very proud of the show and it has made tremendous changes over the years. It has become much more complex and still remains very simple, some of the same basic kinds of skills, but we expanded much more into dealing with children's feelings and emotions and helping them deal with loss and separation because of all the high divorce rate and single parents and the whole structure of families being so much different than what they were ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. So we've gotten into many, many areas like that in addition to the basic cognitive skills of numbers and letters and shapes and all those obvious things. There is a whole lot of subtle teaching.
(I) I was going to say, what would be a legacy that you would like to leave in regards to this particular work?
(N) With Sesame Street?
(I) With Sesame Street or any other product that you might have in mind.
(N) Well, in Sesame Street, I think there are some obvious things that it is a good feeling to know that children are feeling better about themselves in the early years of education and that it might have some impact in raising the overall education, particularly of inner city children and the other thing, and it is impossible to test because there are so many other influences in a child's life, but in addition to the 60 or 70 separate goals that the show has, that are included in at least the course of one year's program, if there is any sort of long term impact in effect in terms of human relations between white/black/Hispanic because of the positive role models that I think they see and the fact that so many different kinds of people on Sesame Street are able to co-exist quite peacefully and as good friends and if that were to make some sort of a change in their basic attitudes, it might carry over into their teenage and their adult years, that would be more than enough. That would be worth all the effort that everyone has put in for the last sixteen years. Even if they didn't learn to count to ten until they reached first grade.
(I) That is marvelous.
(N) And I think that is one of the strongest sort of hidden goals if you will in the show is that whole feeling.
(I) Yes, of course. You worked with the Muppets. Give us something about them in relationship to your work and
(N) Well obviously it is thrilling to work with and very exciting to work with people as talented as a Jim Hensen and a Frank Oz and all the people involved with Hensen Associates. We see a little less of some of those people now because of all of their work all over the world in making movies and making the Muppet Shows and so forth in Canada but we still have a large staff of muppeteers who work for Jim on the show regularly including Carol Spinney as Big Bird and he also plays Oscar the Grouch and on a one-to-one personal basis, it is, we have wonderful friends working there and they are very talented so from a straight artistic point of view, it is a very nice working relationship. The one nice part about having a muppet character on the show to work with sometimes is that you can get into areas that if I were dealing with a child or an adult, it might be difficult. It might get to be a little too cutesy or sticky. A little too saccharine if you are talking about a feeling or emotion with a child who may not be as verbal as you may want to have and it also might get a little too precious if you are doing that with an adult. You can do those kinds of things with a little muppet character who might be able to spill out his feeling and emotions better than a child and so through the medium of a muppet, you can cover a lot of areas that you can't necessarily cover. I can get yelling and screaming back at Oscar and display all different kinds of feelings and emotions and yet somehow children get a little disturbed if we do that with human beings on the show. It is a mixed message that we are getting along. We do a lot of that kind of thing when we say you can still argue and get mad and still be friends. You can have your own feelings and emotions. But muppets serve a very special need in the show. Besides being very clever and entertaining.
(I) Right. I know you went to Canada just recently. What was the purpose of that trip?
(N) .Well I've been working in Canada a great deal for the last fifteen years. In fact, I just two or three months ago, I just completed my fifteenth consecutive participation in the Vancouver Variety Club. I am quite active in doing telethons allover Canada. I do about five or six of them a year. The Variety Club is an international organization to raise money for children in need and I've helped raise probably $25/30,000,000 over the last fifteen years for that organization, Associated Canadian Travelers, Lions Club, a few others, so I do about six a year for the last, probably I've done seventy or eighty telethons over the last fifteen years up there. I also do a lot of concerts with symphony orchestras all over the United States and Canada so we've played for instance in the Vancouver Symphony maybe seven or eight times and almost every other major orchestra up there and recently I was on a tour up there and also I've been doing a lot of recording for kids records. I've just made three albums and we are going back to do a fourth one in another month.
(I) What was the inspiration that started you in this particular work? What spark or what thought. .
(N) Basically when I was about five years old, my, we inherited my grandmother's piano who moved from a larger to a smaller house. There was a great deal of music in my mother's side of the family. All her brothers and sisters which she had nine or ten were all quite musical, they played violins and pianos and so forth. They didn't have a lot of money but my grandmother always felt it was necessary or important that they have music in their life so they all took lessons and so forth. My mother played piano quite well by ear, not a classical pianist but popular with a good ear and she was playing the piano one day and I walked in and started singing along with her IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMER TIME I think it was and she decided that I had some talent and that was the beginning of the end.
(I) A star was born.
(N) Well something happened and I've been literally singing ever since. I mean I sang all through grade in high school. Being from a small town, I grew up on a farm in Ottawa, Illinois, and south of Chicago about a hundred miles, and there was a great opportunity for free entertainers to perform all the time so I did that all through grade in high school and had quartets in high school. There was one other major change. I was going to go into engineering school at the University of Illinois in the footsteps of my older brother. I won a two or three week scholarship at a music camp outside of Chicago after my high school, during my high school summer vacation and some people from Northwestern and Conservatory influenced me that I should give music a try and so I decided to try that for a while and went to the University of Michigan and liked it. I thought I'd give it a one year try and graduated from there and then. .
(I) So you play the piano?
(I) And what other instruments?
(N) I don't play any instrument proficiently. I really have very little natural talent towards instruments. I play a little bit of flute when they need it on the show, a little bit of piano when they need it, a little bit of guitar but I wouldn't consider myself a player of any of those things. I play the slot machines with my mother once in a while. That's about my best playing.
(I) How was your family received when you moved to Teaneck?
(N) Very, very warmly I would say and I think we feel very partial to living on Frances street. I think this is, I don't know, probably a little bias but we feel that this is a vary unique street, particularly when we first moved here almost twenty five years ago. There was a tremendous diversification of nationalities on this particular block and quite soon, we were welcomed very warmly right from the very, very beginning and one or two of our neighbors, Eleanor Simon and two or three others that lived on the block at that time, and my wife got together and we had block parties almost every year for quite a number of years. They've fallen off in the last few years. In fact I was just saying to my wife two or three days ago, we should try and have one in the fall because we now have quite a turnover on this block. But it was quite nice because everyone brought food from their own particular nationality and you had, we have first generation or originals from Armenia and Greece and Spain and Puerto Rico and everything possible, Chinese, and so it is just an incredible block and it remains that way now. Even with all of the turnover.
(I) That's great. That sounds like our church.
(N) I sort of consider this street an extension of Sesame Street because it is such a cross section of people, it is really nice.
(I) Your street is really an asset to the township of Teaneck.
(N) I think it is because we've talked to some people in other parts of the town and they say, gee, that's really nice. We don't have quite that sort of mixing. I mean some streets do I am sure but we have some wonderful people on this street. Maybe it's the hill, it makes people roll up and down.
(I) Do you have any special projects in mind for the near future that you might be working on?
(N) Well two things. Professionally I will continue to do the things I have been doing. I will continue Sesame Street; I will continue all of my symphony concerts for young people. I have about three or four different programs that I do; straight pops concerts; we just finished yesterday a series of concerts with the Hartford Symphony. Those are more like the Leonard Bernstein Young People's Concerts where they will bus thousands of young people in to the concert and we present all different kinds of music and we did three separate concerts for the younger and the middle school and yesterday we did seventh and eighth grade. Next season I'll be touring with the New Jersey Symphony again for about twelve or thirteen concerts all over the state. We will probably hit twenty to twenty five thousand children. We did that about two or three seasons ago and we are repeating it.
(I) Do you appear in the schools or ...
(N) No, not in the schools.
(I) Like the art center or some place?
(N) Well we go to wherever the concert hall, the symphony concert hall, would be. At Newark, it was the Symphony Hall down there. In this area, we went up to the John Harms in Englewood. But they will pick wherever the New Jersey Symphony performs when they go out on the road. They don't really have a real home base. It is a real gypsy traveling kind of orchestra. So we will travel all over the state to about six or seven different locations with the entire symphony in some places that can hold 2/3,000 people and then it is an enormous busing in project but it is quite worth while. Johnson and Johnson has made very generous donations in the last two or three years to make these concerts possible. And I will continue touring all over the United States. We've hit now I think close to 60 or 65 different symphony orchestras. That's the bulk of my work. I will continue the telethons in Canada and I'll continue recording up there and I have two or three special projects I am working on. Trying to put a television show together, a half hour special show. That's the outside things. The Teaneck things, are you interested in some of the things that I've gotten involved in over the years?
(I) Sure, we'd love to hear that. Of course.
(N) These aren't really in any particular order because I sort of track of when things happened but a number of years ago, there was a move to eliminate all of the, a lot of the music teachers in town and just hire one specialist to go around and teach the individual classroom teachers how to teach music to the children. A number of professional, musicians in town from the Philharmonic and other musical groups felt very strongly against that and we quickly formed Concerned Teaneck Artists Group. I think it was called something like that. It was a group of maybe fifteen or twenty people. And we lobbied and worked very hard against that idea. There was some discussion as where they needed the monies and so forth, that they didn't have the monies. It turned out that they wanted it to go to some other project but anyway we worked very, very hard and we prevented that and we all felt very good about it because I think losing any form of the arts - music, arts, dance, - if we lose specialists in those areas dealing with children, we are missing something very, very special. It is very easy to knock those things out first in a school budget and I for one feel very strongly that if a child has access to those kinds of things, it is going to make, not that we are trying to turn out professional artists and musicians, that's quite beside the point. It has a tremendously strong impact on a child's life if he can be proficient in anyone of those areas and that in turn spins off very strongly with his own personal feelings in life and it also spins over into his other academic areas of his work. If he feels good about himself, doing a play, I don't know if you were around. They just finished BARNUM at the high school and my daughter was heavily involved so I feel strongly about that but we've seen all those productions. Those kids come out of there just feeling so good about themselves and sometimes that's the only way a child is really able to express himself is through one of those arts and so. .
(I) It helps build confidence. .
(N) Very much so and it gives them a lot of special times and ways to spend their time. We hear a lot about the negative things that are happening with teenagers and we don't hear nearly enough about the terrific things that are happening and this is one very specific way of keeping the negative things from happening if they are heavily involved as I am sure anyone would agree there. So we did, it got down to a vote at the board of education and it was balanced. I think the board was seven members, I guess it still is. I don't remember who the chairman of the board was. I want to say Zelke or something like that. It was something like that. And it was three and three and it was hanging whether they were all, in fact, going to be released and it got down to the last person and he said, well I had some piano lessons when I was younger and some music but I gave it up and he said I think if I had kept it up, I'd be better than I am right now. Anyway, he kept everybody hanging on the wire and finally he voted for it and so it passed and we still have some wonderful music people and art people involved in town and I think it would have been a tremendous loss if we had lost those. That was one group, it was a short time, but I kept involved in.
(I) Worth while.
(N) Very much so. Another project, I don't really get that much time because I am on the road so much, to get very involved in long term projects. It is usually for a short term. The Group Care Home was another project that I got involved in and Frank Hall and Dory Quarles and Paula Rosenbloom were very instrumental in putting that together and I think Frank was the first one that contacted me on that. We spent several months or the better part of a year I guess, over a year, a year and a half, working with committee meetings there. I helped choose the house, the physical part, and made recommendations there since I had done a lot of work on my own house, I felt some confidence there. That was interesting because everybody thought it was a great idea and nobody wanted it next door to them. And they finally did find a location with difficulty and I think, I haven't kept up with it recently, I know it is still operating and I think it is still operating quite successfully. I think it has been and it has worked out quite well as far as I know in terms of the neighbors accepting it. I heard wonderful stories of neighbors bringing down cookies and cakes and so forth to the girls and so I think that was a tremendously necessary thing to have in this community for girls who were having troubles at home. It gave them an option instead of running in to New York and hanging out on the streets and trying to find someplace there, someplace to go and work out those problems.
(I) That was an excellent project.