Monday, November 23, 2009

A Special Day In Brooklyn

This weekend was pretty great [editorial note, this was written just after the weekend of November 21, 2009]. Friday had been my sister Kristy's birthday, and she and her boyfriend Nick went out that night while my husband Naveen and I went to a movie night with my SpeakeasyFX friends (featuring Star Trek, this summer's blockbuster). But on Saturday, we had a very special day out - in Brooklyn.

We started out just about on time - we had put together a pretty decent itinerary last week, starting out from South Brunswick around 10am (allowing ample time to sleep in after a night out), stopping at an ATM, picking Kris & Nick up in Woodbridge (leaving there by around 11 or so), and crossing the Geothals and Verrazano-Narrows bridges into Brooklyn by just around noon. These days, the trip is $8 eastbound and $11 to return, which isn't much considering we'd each be spending $10-20 on train tickets otherwise. This way we saved money and could keep our own schedule. I gave Kristy a birthday card with a face on it that looked just like hers (ha-ha), a Boyds "Sisters" bear, and Oreo cake for later to share with Nick. But today (Saturday) - the whole day was on me.

Upon arrival, we set out to find street parking for our lunch, beers, and chocolate goodness at a place called Bierkraft. No reservations were needed - it looks like a liquor store as you walk in (which it very much is) - but the sandwiches and chocolate came highly recommended to me by my Raritan train conductor Joe last week, and I'm so glad we went. We were highly skeptical at first, and as it turned out, no one really felt like having a beer at noon on a Saturday. Once we stepped further inside and around the corner, we found the sandwich selection and literally a handful of picnic tables wedged into the narrow shop, and I was really wondering if we should find a nicer place for lunch. But I'm so glad we stayed. The sandwiches were amazing. I ordered a Serrano sandwich which was out of this world - Serrano ham, manchego, fig spread, arugula, EVOO & Sherry vinegar on a baguette. Amazing. I mistakenly thought Nick asked for the same thing, but he seemed happy with the sandwich as well. I think he meant to say "make that two" when a moment earlier I had ordered the Pastrami Spiced Brisket sandwich for Naveen - a homemade brisket & Leyden with homemade sauerkraut, arugula, tomato, onion, and grainy mustard. Kristy was the most creative, with her self-created sandwich, including salt & pepper turkey, honey chevre, and apple-ginger chutney. I treated everyone to lunch and got to try a bite of each, but I must say I liked mine the best. Finally, we walked up a few blocks for some tasty Gorilla Coffee to keep us going on our eventful day.

We had thoughts about going up to the Flea Market, but we thought perhaps there wouldn't be enough time to fully appreciate it since parking anywhere takes a while on a Saturday in Brooklyn. Similarly, I had made a note about possibly going into the museum if the library presentation was a bust - I had made the unfortunate mistake of relying on my handwritten reminder about the presentation, which conveyed the date and time but not the fact that reservations were required for the event. I knew it would be memorable, led by Louise Gikow who I met weeks ago through Sally Anne Syberg at the Kids Media Salon gathering in Manhattan. I've only gotten about a third of the way through the sizeable 300-page work, Sesame Street: A Celebration---40 Years of Life on the Street, which I've posted about before. I desparately wanted to see the panel discussion, and on Friday I had spent quite a bit of time on the phone and in emails to library staff and even poor Louise, who offered whatever help she could and probably ended up with half a dozen notes from me in her inbox that night. Luckily for me, the gracious Meredith Walters, adult programs manager at the Brooklyn Public Library, called me back at the end of the day offering a chance to squeeze not only myself but my three guests as well into the presentation. I was ecstatic. I later spoke with her colleague who put us onto a waiting list Saturday morning, and so after lunch we excitedly headed to the library.

Staying on schedule, we were at the library at Grand Army Plaza by around 2:30 to check out some of the wonderful exhibitions on display in the lobby, foyer, and youth wing. On display in the lobby were several pieces of original Sesame Street book art from Sesame Workshop's Publishing Archive, featuring a range of illustrators' works in a variety of styles from the 1970s to the present. Foyer cases held the story of Sesame Street, from its inception to its present and future, told through photographs, scripts, original sheet music, celluloid animation and show props, as well as a special collection of Sesame Street Muppets, built by The Jim Henson Company over the show's 40 years. As you walk into the building, the foyer case on the left held a small model of a laptop computer with the famous press release image of Abby's Flying Fairy School, which was wonderful to see as well. Unless I'm mistaken, I don't think we made it to the youth wing, where there were supposedly more items, but we were thrilled to see Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie, among other characters and monster friends. Curated by Sesame Workshop, these are on display through February 21, 2010, and were a delight to see.

Around 3:15 I was too excited to wait any longer - I led the group downstairs to the Dweck Center to see if tickets had become available. I spoke with a woman who got the impression that I was one of the presenters, since I had mentioned speaking to Louise and Meredith, and she was ready to lead me into the Green Room where presenters relax - however I caught on to what was happening and admitted that I was only a waitlisted guest with her family hoping for tickets. As luck would have it, at that very moment Louise walked through the door and greeted me with a warm hug, and I recognized Meredith from a photo I had seen and introduced myself. In a rush, I think it was Meredith who went up to the desk and pointed back towards us, saying, "And that's Laura and her family - she gets in." We were thrilled.

We still had to wait of course - the 40th Anniversary Book Panel Presentation was not to start until 4pm, but it wasn't long before the line began to form, so we stood in the waiting area, books in hand - myself in particular starting to look a lot like an excited puppy dog. Finally the crowd started to roll in, and while everyone was being seated, a "Cool Reel" of Sesame Street footage was being run to the tune of Coldplay's "Life In Technicolor," which I love, and made it all the more dreamlike for me since I'm such a fan of their music. Meredith then went onstage to introduce Louise and begin the panel discussion with Chris Serf (lyricist and songwriter for memorable ditties like "Put Down the Ducky"), Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer of Sesame Street), Rollie Krewson (designer and builder of Abby Cadabby among other female muppets), Bob McGrath (Bob, the ever-present, heartwarming, longstanding Sesame Street resident and singer), and Fran Brill (the advent of females-playing-female-characters on the show, including Zoe, and also known for her role in the film What About Bob). They each spent some time speaking about how they became involved in Sesame Street, what it was like working with each other at a sometimes very strange but always very rewarding job, and other fantastic tales of trivia.

Many people who have worked with Jim Henson commonly share the story that he brought a very low-key attitude within his studio. Some people didn't even exactly realize they were hired until they showed up at the studio, thinking it to be a visit, and overhearing Jim or someone mention their name as the "newest puppeteer."

Bob talked about when he was hired, essentially chosen by a test audience of five year olds. He spoke about how some actors don't know how to interact with puppets, and in his case, was sometimes strange and very unpredictable working with children. In the beginning, he was very concerned about who he should be, or who he should try to emulate - but clearly the best solution was to simply be himself.

Like some other puppeteers in the early years of Sesame Street, it seemed that Fran had been an actress but had never touched a puppet before, but since she had both acting and vocal performance talent, she was given the chance to play around with some "Anything Muppets" lying around in the Sesame Workshop. Prior to Fran's arrival on the scene, various members of the all-male cast would puppeteer the girl characters using falsetto voices. When Fran was asked to develop Zoe, it was the first time a woman played a girl puppet; soon whenever the script called for it, Fran was asked to play "the girl."

Rollie addressed the topic of building puppets, and despite her role in crafting monsters and muppets and fairies like Abby, she described the process as being very much a group effort. Carol-Lynn spoke about where Sesame Street is going, and how it deals with the many issues that they feel children are facing today. Chris unfortunately lost his voice, but he sang for us anyway with Bob's help, and played the piano, and everyone watching and singing along became five again. It was wonderful. I heard someone compare watching Sesame Street as an adult to the moment of climax in Pixar's 'Ratatouille' when the critic zooms back into his own childhood and reminisces within his own very fond memories - and that was exactly our experience.

I was overjoyed to find that Leslie Carrara-Rudolph was sitting in the audience just a row away from me, and after the presentation I scrambled forward to see if she would autograph my book, which she so kindly did - both as herself and of course as miss Abby Cadabby, which was wonderful of her. She also introduced me to John Kennedy, (who I didn't know) is a right-hander for several muppets and is featured on page 138-9. He as well as the entire panel signed my book, and the panel also signed the three other books I had purchased - one for Kristy's birthday, and one each for my mother and grandmother, who enjoyed seeing us grow up with Sesame Street and (even vicariously from the midwest) are just as excited about its 40th year as we are. Thankfully the boys helped us lug the books around all afternoon so we each had one in hand, so a special thanks to Naveen and Nick for their help there.

On our way out, I phoned the place where I had made our dinner reservation, a place called Char No. #4, a whiskey bar and barbeque that Kristy had recommended as she used to live nearby. When I made it on Friday, I knew we would be cutting it close, but they only had a 6:45 open, so I had taken it. It was nearly 6:45 when we got to our van, however, and when I got through to them on the phone, they weren't sure if they could hold the reservation if we were later than 7:15. I knew that with street parking we would just be arriving then, but we took the chance. As we walked in, the restaurant maitre d' thanked us for calling because he found a chance to move things around and was able to seat us right away.

It was an incredible dinner, I must say. Kristy had a delicious beef brisket sandwich and tasty potato salad, Nick had some pork sausage with peppers, Naveen had some fantastic melt-in-your-mouth ribs, and I had a delightfully tender smoked chicken with kale and walnuts in a dressing. Everyone had drinks - Kristy got a Wild Turkey Honey, Nick got a Bourbon Insider, Naveen got a Porkslap Pale Ale and Peak Maple Oat, and later I even sipped on a Henrique Madeira from Portugal. A delectable evening, and I treated again as it was in part a present to Kristy and in part simply a celebration of the amazing day.

I had thought about ending the evening with a comedy night at Vox Pop, but we already had such a full day that we agreed it might be too late into the evening to attend since we had a long drive home. Still, stuffed as we were, Kristy wanted to treat us to desserts on our way back to the van. She hoped to take us to Po for some affogato ice cream, but as they were booked for at least another hour, we wandered over to Provence en Boite and enjoyed some chocolate mousse domes (dark chocolate for Kristy and I, and a milk chocolate one for Naveen) and an apple tart (for Nick). Then we truly were stuffed! We happily made our way back across the bridges and back to New Jersey, getting to Nick's around 11:30 and then home a little after midnight. A truly full and joyous day.

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