An Excerpt from “Life on the Street”

by Paul Feldman

J. Alphonse Gary served as Bert from Sesame Street’s personal assistant from 1968 to 1988. Below is an excerpt from his memoir, Life on the Street: 20 Years Behind the Scenes at Sesame Street:

What later became known around the set as “The Bowie Knife Incident” was really the culmination of two solid years of Bert’s unchecked and fomenting rage. It was also his wake-up call that he had to clean up or face serious jail time, death, or both.

I was eating lunch in the commissary with Luis when the screaming started. I recognized it as Bert right away. Pissed off that yet again the pointy yellow bastard wouldn’t give me a moment’s fucking peace, I threw down my sandwich and went down to his dressing room to see what the problem was.

“YOU THIEVING GOOGLY EYED FUCKWIT!” Bert was shirtless and hysterical. With one hand he held Cookie Monster’s forearm on his dressing room vanity. The other brandished the Bowie Knife that had been a Christmas gift from Marlon Brando two years prior.

Cookie Monster was the palest shade of blue I have ever seen him.  “Bert, Cookie Monster sorry. Please let go of hand”

“Do you know what the Aztec priests did to those who stole the Flesh of the Gods?!”

“Cookie Monster no want to find out. Cookie Monster put back Cookie, please put down knife. Me scared”

Bert’s long, unbroken eyebrow lowered. “I’m gonna cut your goddamn hand off, Cookie Monster”

There was a flash of yellow in the corner of my eye. Then a muted thud when the Bowie Knife hit the carpet, shortly followed by Bert. Big Bird had put him in a sleeper hold and resolved the crisis. I’ll say this for Big Bird; he may have come across as a bit of a simpleton on the show, but off camera you remembered right away that he’d once been a bouncer at the Aching Nut, a brutal dive bar out on Long Island.

The cookie that got Cookie Monster in so much trouble deserves some explanation, as in retrospect, those “special” cookies themselves were really symbolic of the Dark Night of the Soul poor Bert went through during that time. I think he really hit his nadir when he threatened to take Cookie’s paw off.

Right before we went on hiatus in ’74, Bert wanted to organize a trip to New Mexico. A friend of his from school named Howard Connolly moved out there several years prior and dropped out. And by dropped out, I mean the guy was subsisting on a diet of Kellogg’s Product 19, watermelon juice and peyote buttons. Howard legally changed his name to Honey Smack! and took people on vision quests. Bert wanted us all to go. He was really into New Age Shamanism at this point. He always had a dog-eared copy of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan on him.

“Think about it, Alphonse”, he said to me late one night at the Stage Deli, “The TV gig’s great, we’re all making cash hand over fist and Lord knows I’m getting more action than a phone bank during membership week. But what’s any of this mean, man? Who are we?”

I tried to humor him, but at the same time I knew there was no way in hell I (or anyone else in the cast or crew) was going to join Bert for a drug fueled vision quest in the desert led by a “shaman” who three years prior was selling beads to kids in the Village.

Of course, Bert did go out and see Honey Smack! to find himself. When he returned, Bert claimed to be the reincarnation of a High Priest of Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god of Night and War.  His constant state of irritation morphed into outright fury. He was pissed about McGovern in ’72, he was pissed Ernie couldn’t stay up all night to write like they used to (Ernie was in a serious relationship with a young woman studying law at Columbia at the time, so he’d pretty much given up all the drugs except for the occasional joint before seeing a film). Bert was pissed at the counterculture for selling out, and he was pissed at me for not wanting to go to New Mexico. In short, he was always pissed.

The crowd he ran with changed at this point too. For a while, Bert, the Swedish Chef and Doctor Teeth all shared a fabulous loft apartment in Chelsea. It was really a magical place. Located at the top of a twenty-story building, there was a terrace that offered a breathtaking view of that end of town. We all called it “Happiness Hotel” (astute readers will recognize the name from The Great Muppet Caper). More and more, Bert was absent from the big, happy parties at the loft, preferring instead to go down to CBGB to see bands like Television and the Ramones play. One night Bert came back with Dee Dee Ramone and they set the drapes on fire. Ernie witnessed the event. In the course of writing this book I had a chance to sit down with Ernie at his home in Great Neck to ask him about what happened (I was off the night in question, and as such was not present).

“By then I felt like I was working with a total stranger. It was a weirdly sad time because on the one hand, the show was blowing up, all we heard was how everybody loved Bert and Ernie and that we just needed to keep doing what we were doing. Yet at the same time, it felt like the Bodysnatchers had grabbed my friend and replaced him with a total asshole.”

I pressed Ernie to tell me what he remembered from that night. He was reluctant; it’s a painful memory for him. He and Bert of course have since buried the hatchet and enjoy a healthy and productive working relationship today.

“I guess it must have been about two or three in the morning when Bert and Dee Dee showed up” Ernie said. “I went over to him and said, ‘Hey, Bert!’, just like I always did. He asked me if I had my lighter (Ernie carries a Zippo emblazoned with the 1st Air Cavalry emblem as a memento of his tour in Vietnam). I said ‘Yeah, I got it, why?’, and Bert said, ‘I wanna show it to Dee Dee’ Now, I was really into the Ramones myself and was excited to meet Dee Dee. So I took out my Zippo, and Bert grabbed it out of my hands. He jumped up on Teeth’s piano and told us we all deserved to burn alive for selling out the “Movement”. Then he lit the Zippo, threw it at the drapes and stormed out. To his credit, Dee Dee apologized for Bert before grabbing a beer and leaving. The drapes were still on fire”

Back to the cookies.  Bert comes back from his vision quest with three Hefty garbage bags full of peyote buttons. Only Bert doesn’t want to have to eat them in their natural state. So he had the Swedish Chef cook up some “Magic Cookies”. He kept them in a cookie jar in his dressing room, a special treat for when we wrapped at the end of the day. Or sometimes as a third-eye opener right when he got on set in the morning. (If you’re familiar with the “Doing the Pigeon” segment, Bert is tripping his balls off there).

Hence Bert’s hysterical state upon finding Cookie Monster literally with his hand in the cookie jar. He thought Cookie was bogarting his stash, when in fact the poor guy was just doing what he always did: trying to eat away his own personal vortex of hurt, sorrow and dysfunction (we’ll get to Cookie Monster later on).

Later, when Bert finally came to from Big Bird’s sleeper hold, the entire cast and crew, all of us, stood around him. We basically had an impromptu intervention on the spot. Henson told Bert to get his ass on the next plane to California and check in to Betty Ford or he was off the show. To everyone’s surprise, Bert agreed. He apologized to Cookie Monster, gave Ernie a fast hug and was out the door. We didn’t see him for three months after that, but everyone had a feeling the nightmare was over.

Then this guy Elmo showed up.

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