Tish Rabe's postcards from Sesame Street

Tish Rabe with a young fan in a Corpus Christi, Tex., library in March.
Tish Rabe with a young fan in a Corpus Christi, Tex., library in March.

Maybe we should just let Tish Rabe's resume speak for itself:

She has penned more than 150 children's books over the past 15 years. She has her own "I Believe Bunny" series, but she has penned books for others, too.

She's done Cat in the Hat science books for The Cat in the Hat's Learning Library. She has written for Curious George and Blue's Clues.

She started her career at the venerable "Sesame Street," where wrote a book about Bert, sang backup for Oscar the Grouch, and took Big Bird to China.

Clearly, then, Rabe will have a lot to talk about when she discusses her writing career during a "Tea with Tish" program Saturday at the Mystic Congregational Church. The titular tea will be provided by the Women's Fellowship, with the event's profits going to charitable agencies and organizations.

Rabe, who divides her time between Mystic and New York City, will sing, too. She'll be accompanied by her husband, John Rabe, on bass and Joe Grieco, a founding member of The Cartells, on piano.

Her musical aptitude - and adoration - dates back to her early years.

"In high school, I wanted to just do two things: I loved to sing, and I loved to write. All through high school, it was, 'Well, am I going to be a singer, or am I going to be a writer? Writer, singer? Singer, writer?'"

She finally decided to pursue music and got a degree in applied vocal performance at Ithaca College School of Music. After graduating, she was determined to become a professional performer.

"I came to New York- this was in the '70s - and I did auditions for everybody. I was at Catch a Rising Star with Pat Benatar, and I just did the whole thing - every audition, every Broadway show," she says. "After about two years, I realized it was really, really tough."

She returned home to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving and learned that her high school music director had just been named assistant music director for "Sesame Street." Rabe's mother suggested she go see him and ask if he needed a secretary. Apparently, mother knows best.

"Within six months, I was answering phones for Joe Raposo, who wrote 'Bein' Green' and the 'Sesame Street' theme," Rabe says. "A couple months later, there was an opening at the music production department at 'Sesame Street.'

"The funny thing is, of course, all I wanted to do was sing, and I'm answering the phone, and I'm booking other singers. Heartbreak every day, right?

"So all I did all was sing - I sang when I typed, I sang when I filed, I sang when I answered the phone."

After about a year, a "Sesame Street" composer asked if she wanted to sing backup on an Oscar the Grouch tune. So on "Swamp Mushy Muddy," she recalls with a laugh, she crooned background lyrics like "Disgusting and cruddy."

"Sesame Street" provided huge opportunities in other ways, too. In 1982, Rabe was part of the production staff that went to China to shoot "Big Bird in China," which earned an Emmy for best children's special. They were the first crew allowed into a newly open country. And they made quite an impression. The Chinese people hadn't seen women wearing jeans at that point, Rabe says, and certainly hadn't run into Big Bird before.

"We were carrying around a 13-foot-high yellow bird. ... You have never seen such crowds (gather). And we had every possible production challenge in the book," she says. "They told me I couldn't let the bird (be filmed) in the rain because those are hand-dyed yellow feathers. And it poured the first 13 days of the shoot. We would literally push him out, and he would do two lines, and we'd pull him back. It was insane."

"Sesame Street" presented the chance, too, for Rabe to become an author. The show had a huge book department, with publications about, say, Grover and Cookie Monster. When Rabe was 26, she broached the idea of her writing a book based on something that happened to her as a child. Her kitten broke her mother's antique teapot. Young Tish thought her mom would be angry, but instead the maternal response was: "I love you more than any old antique teapot."

The "Sesame Street" folks asked her to recast the story for Bert. So Rabe's first book was "Bert and the Broken Teapot," published in 1985, followed by more for "Sesame Street."

That was just the start. She continued to sing as an avocation, but her focus by this point was on books and TV production. Rabe wrote scripts and all the song lyrics, for instance, when she was senior producer for PBS's "3-2-1 Contact," a 1980s science show for kids.

Then came her Seussian breakthrough. In 1995, Rabe submitted her proposed rhyming book about dinosaurs to Random House. It was fortuitous timing; the publishing house happened to be looking for someone to fulfill an idea that Theodor Seuss Geisel - better known as Dr. Seuss - had before his death in 1991. He wanted a line of Cat in the Hat rhyming books that taught kids about science.

Rabe nabbed the job. What was originally a two-book contract has turned into 16 publications, with the most recent being "If I Ran the Dog Show," which is out now, and "What Cat Is That," which will be released next year.

As you'd expect, it's a challenge writing in the classic Dr. Seuss rhyme and rhythm. And we're talking a lot of rhyming; Rabe did some counting and found she has 154 rhymes in every book.

"I'm very, very, very proud to be part of the Dr. Seuss books," she says. "I still kind of pinch myself that this happened and I'm a part of it. When the books come and your name is on the cover, it's a feeling unlike anything."

Rabe also created her own series, "I Believe Bunny," illustrated by British artist Frank Endersby and first published in 2009. She was motivated by her desire to offer gentle inspirational messages and by her love of the Beatrix Potter books she read as a child.

"What I wanted was a really beautiful book illustrated much like Beatrix Potter, in a kind of calm and pretty place in this world that is getting so chaotic," she says. "For the 10 minutes you hold a child and read an 'I Believe Bunny' book, the world is slower and calmer and prettier and nice."

Asked if she's ever wished she could have had the major singing career she had originally hoped for, Rabe says with a laugh, "I was sorry that I couldn't push Barbra Streisand out of her career - that was my plan. But what I love about what I do is that it's so varied. It's so interesting. Every day, every project is something different."


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