Friday, February 23, 2024

Hot Hero Sandwich — Short Take on Northern Calloway, Creative Consultant

by G. Jack Urso


Northern Calloway, who played David on Sesame Street from 1971-1989, served as the creative consultant for Hot Hero Sandwich. Bruce and Carole Hart, who knew Calloway from their time with Sesame Street in the early years, tapped him to provide feedback on the scripts, according to series writer Sherry Coben. Calloway's extensive stage experience also gave the production team a working actor's perspective.

Northern Calloway.
Being of the first generation of children to watch Sesame Street, those early years of the show hold special memories for me. In fact, the show debuted the day before my fifth birthday, Nov. 10, 1969. By sheer coincidence, Hot Hero Sandwich debuted exactly ten years later, Nov. 10, 1979.

Calloway’s involvement with the writing staff on Hot Hero Sandwich was limited primarily in meetings at the start of production. While not very involved with the writing, Coben noted to me that Calloway’s approval was sought, particularly on matters regarding race, as in such sketches as “The N-Word Monologue,” written by Richard Camp, and the “The Black Family Epiphany,” written by Andy Breckman. Nevertheless, Coben did not recall Calloway asking for any script changes.

“It was very cool to have a Sesame Street veteran in the room,” Coben reflected. “He wasn't around much after the initial meetings as I recall, but none of us felt he hadn't earned his credit as part of the team.”

Calloway’s David on Sesame Street was a colorfully dressed character who inherited Mr. Hooper’s store following the death of actor Will Lee. His character was also the boyfriend of Maria Rodriquez (Sonia Manzano), making it an interracial relationship. Calloway also provided the voice for some Muppet characters. In the early years of Sesame Street, the few human characters on the show became very popular and it was hard not to be familiar with them even if you did not watch the show. They also appeared in spin-off films and specials and on records and in public service announcements and on all sorts of merchandise for the show.

Northern Calloway (David) and Sonia Manzano (Maria).
Before Sesame Street, Calloway graduated from New York City's vaunted High School of Performing Arts and joined the Lincoln Center Repertory Company and appeared in several productions on Broadway and in London in the late 1960s through 1980, including replacing Ben Vereen in Pippen. It was at that point that Calloway’s manic episodes stemming from his mental illness began to overtake his life.

During the time of Calloway’s involvement with Hot Hero Sandwich in the Spring/Summer of 1979, Coben reported, “Northern's struggles with mental health were not glaringly (or even slightly) apparent at the time we were all together.” Yet, it wouldn’t be long after the show that Calloway’s mental health took a dramatic turn for the worse.

In September 1980, I came across a NY Post article about one violent incident in Nashville (see below, courtesy of Hot Hero writer Marianne Meyer). I won’t rehash the details here, but the events were particularly disturbing, both for Calloway and the people he encountered. At 15, I hadn’t watched Sesame Street in a while, but I can remember how shocked I was. Nevertheless, the incident received relatively little attention after that first report. Afterwards, when I asked people if they remembered it, the usual reaction was they thought it was an urban myth or that I was making it up. In the years before the internet, fact-checking such news was a laborious task usually done in libraries and newspaper morgues. 

NY Post article from September 1980.
In the late 1980s, I worked in tape operations at the New York Network, the Albany-based PBS hub for rebroadcasting its shows to member stations throughout upstate New York. It was my job to load and monitor every PBS show we broadcast, including Sesame Street. We ran at least two episodes a day and over the course of the two summers I worked there, I must have seen hundreds of episodes. By that time, however, Calloway’s appearances on the show had been reduced due to his worsening mental health issues and manic episodes. The budding romance his character David had with Maria was ended and she married another character, Luis. Calloway’s last appearance on the show was May 13, 1989. After a violent manic incident in a psychiatric hospital on Jan. 12, 1990, he passed away at the age of 41.

Mr. Hooper’s death, brought about by the passing of the actor Will Lee, became a major cathartic event on the show. Despite occurring over 40 years ago, Lee’s memory is still preserved with Hooper’s Store on set. As for David, he was said to have gone off to help his grandmother on her farm. For 18 years David was a friendly face explaining the world to a couple generations of children — then he vanished and was never mentioned again.

Northern Calloway’s Obituary (AP).
Still, to this day, Sesame Street only tangentially acknowledges Calloway’s and David’s existence. The critically acclaimed 2021 documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, while covering all the major original cast members, reportedly didn’t even mention Calloway, though he was discussed in the book it was based on. It’s as if he never existed. Understandably, the reaction stems from not wanting to disrespect someone’s memory by discussing the negative, but not finding a way to honor the positive about them results in the disrespect they want to avoid.

In searching for something to honor Northern Calloway’s memory I found this delightful, joyful clip of him singing “It Feels Good When You Sing a Song” with Alaina Reed Hall as Olivia. This is the way I remember David. This is the way I want to remember Northern.

You should too.

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