When staffers at the Health Adventure wanted to lure a more mature audience to its family-friendly halls, they decided to host a traveling exhibit steeped in 1970s nostalgia. After all, a museum can’t just tap a keg and blare loud music to win adults’ attention.
Or can it? For “Retro Night,” a 21-and-over party at the Health Adventure Aug. 20, the museum is warming up its fondue pot and hanging a disco ball to celebrate the traveling exhibit Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street?
While the exhibit, produced by the Strong Museum in collaboration with Sesame Workshop, is ostensibly intended to appeal to children, much of it is literally over their heads, with pictures and labels affixed far above a preschooler’s sightline. The exhibit showcases plenty of video clips, popular culture artifacts from the show’s early years, and a portrait gallery of characters accompanied by labels detailing their purpose and personality traits in a deadpan style reminiscent of a Chinese Zodiac placemat: “Telly helps kids see the value of poise,” and “Cookie Monster helps kids learn about nutrition and patience in finding solutions.”
Adults are mesmerized. “This is fantastic,” says 37-year-old museum visitor Renee Rodriguez, who has settled in to watch the entire first episode of Sesame Street, featuring seemingly endless footage of cows grazing in a field and a primitive Bert prototype with an oversized nose. Between sophisticated commentary on Sesame Street‘s innovative design and evolving mission, she sings along with the show’s learn-to-count songs. “I feel like such a goofball, but it’s really groovy music.
“This whole thing just brings back memories,” adds Rodriguez. “Every time I turn the show on now it’s all Elmo, and Elmo’s really annoying.”
Sesame Street entered the modern Elmo era in 1985, but the little red monster has found few fans among those who remember when Snuffleupagus was still imaginary and Cookie Monster didn’t apologize for his sweet tooth. Still, he’s a certified public-broadcasting matinee idol whose voice and image garners the most interest from young visitors on this weekday afternoon. Elmo is one of the few familiar figures for Rodriguez’s stepson Chris, 12, who wanders somewhat aimlessly through the exhibit, understandably unexcited by pictures of Buffy Saint-Marie and a hirsute Gordon.
“I watched Teletubbies, PB and J Otter [and] Out of the Box,” Chris offers.
Although television is now saturated with children’s programs, Sesame Street is still seen by more than 8 million viewers a week. And, now in its 36th season, it manages to stay topical with parodies like “Grouch Eye for the Nice Guy” and “Desperate Houseplants,” a story about houseplants not getting what they need: water and sunlight.
But then, Sesame Street has a long tradition of balancing the silly with the serious, tackling such topics as divorce, diversity and death. The episode in which the cast explains the death of Mr. Hooper to Big Bird is available at the touch of a button on a far wall of the exhibit, seemingly positioned to avoid any accidental viewings of a loss that still resonates with many visitors.
“I watched it the other day, and it was a tearjerker,” says Public Relations Coordinator Julie Moser. “A lot of us here [at the Health Adventure] are in our 30s, and we are all in love with Sesame Street.”
Moser is banking on other members of her generation feeling the same way. “Retro Night” was organized to attract grown Sesame Street fans — possibly now with children of their own — who might not be familiar with the Health Adventure, a nonprofit health-and-science education center that has existed in various incarnations since 1968. “This is so people can get to know us better,” says Moser.
Partygoers will have the chance to mingle at the Discotheque Cafe, where they might argue with fellow fans over whether Maria should have married David instead of Luis, or whether the construction duo of Biff and Sully should be resurrected. For those who have downed enough mixed Tab drinks, Star 104.3 is hosting karaoke. And, Moser says, there will be a ’70s costume contest. While many of Sesame Street‘s first viewers were probably wearing playsuits, not leisure suits, in the early 1970s, Moser anticipates many of those fans’ parents will join the festivities.
“It seems like Sesame Street allows everyone to be a kid again,” she says.
[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]
The Health Adventure at Pack Place (2 Pack Square) hosts “Retro Night” on Saturday, Aug. 20 from 7 to 11 p.m. Partygoers must be 21 or over. Tickets are $20/advance, $30/door, to benefit the Health Adventure. For tickets or more information, call 254-6373 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.