(top) The gang is 50?? They don’t look a day over 5. (row two) Jim Henson and Bert & Ernie. (row three left) There’s no shortage of Sesame Street gear like this Sesame Street Bert Face T-Shirt HERE; (row three right) Cookie Monster Plush Interactive 13 Inch Cookie Monster, Says Silly Phrases & Belly Laughs HERE; Saw these cookie Monster slippers on Nordstrom’s site, lost the link. Sorry; (row four) Cool Sesame Street gang t-shirt HERE; Nursery Rhyme Elmo reading stories HERE; (row five) “K” is for Kowalski Heat Treating; And Make an Elmo birthday cake instructions HERE; (bottom) Okay, kids break out your red crayons and color Elmo!
Go ahead. Sing it. I know it’s a part of your memory bank. All of us can remember growing up with the main characters, episodes, songs and awesome music of our beloved Sesame Street – an American gem for sure – celebrating 50 years this week. I spent some time online finding some history on the early days and a few “tidbits” I hope you will enjoy – Hats off to the visionaries and creative efforts behind the show, its mission and those lovable characters Bert, Ernie, Elmo, The Grouch, Big Bird, Snuffy, the Count and of course my favorite Cookie Monster (we both love to eat) – what fun! Here’s to another 50 great years ahead. The history is fascinating! Enjoy the tidbits!
- The preschool educational television program Sesame Street was first aired on public broadcasting television stations November 10, 1969, and reaches its 50th season this year.
- The history of Sesame Street mirrors changing attitudes in developmental psychology, early childhood education, and cultural diversity. Featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets, animation, live shorts, humor and celebrity appearances, it was the first television program of its kind to base its content and production values on laboratory and formative research, and the first to include a curriculum “detailed or stated in terms of measurable outcomes”, a term not commonplace when all this began.
- Initial responses to the show included adulatory reviews, some controversy and high ratings. By its 40th anniversary in 2009, Sesame Street was broadcast in over 120 countries, and 20 independent international versions had been produced. To date, it’s won eleven Grammys and over 150 Emmys – more than any other children’s show.
- The show was conceived in 1966 during discussions between television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Corporation vice president Lloyd Morrisett. Their goal was to create a children’s television show that would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them”,such as helping young children prepare for school. After two years of research, the newly formed Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) received a combined grant of $8 million from the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation and the U.S. federal government to create and produce a new children’s television show.
- By the show’s tenth anniversary in 1979, nine million American children under the age of six were watching Sesame Street daily, and several studies showed it was having a positive educational impact. The cast and crew expanded during this time, including the hiring of women in the crew and additional minorities in the cast.
- Because of the popularity of the Muppet Elmo, the show incorporated a popular segment known as “Elmo’s World”. In late 2015, in response to “sweeping changes in the media business”, HBO began airing first-run episodes. Episodes became available on PBS stations and websites nine months after they aired on HBO.
- As of its 50th anniversary in 2019, Sesame Street has produced over 4,500 episodes, 35 TV specials, 200 home videos, and 180 albums. Its YouTube channel had almost 5 million subscribers, and the show had 24 million followers on social media.
Development Genius & The Early Days – A Real PIA (pain in the @%$) Job!
- In the late 1960s, 97% of American households owned a television set, and preschool children watched an average of 27 hours of television per week. Programs created for them were widely criticized for being too violent and for reflecting commercial values. Producer Joan Ganz Cooney called children’s programming a “wasteland” as many children’s television programs were produced by local stations, with little regard for educational goals, or cultural diversity.
- Early childhood educational research had shown that when children were prepared to succeed in school, they earned higher grades and learned more effectively. Children from low-income families had fewer resources than children from higher-income families to prepare them for school. These trends in education, along with the great societal changes occurring in the United States during this era, the time was ripe for the creation of a show like Sesame Street.
- Since 1962, Cooney had been producing talk shows and documentaries at educational television station WNDT, and in 1966 had won an Emmy for a documentary about poverty in America. In early 1966, Cooney and her husband Tim hosted a dinner party at their apartment in New York; experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, who has been called Sesame Street’s “financial godfather”, and his wife Mary were among the guests. Cooney’s boss, Lewis Freedman, whom Cooney called “the grandfather of Sesame Street“, also attended the party, as did their colleague Anne Bower. As a vice-president at the Carnegie Corporation, Morrisett had awarded several million dollars in grants to organizations that educated poor and minority preschool children.
- Morrisett and the other guests felt that even with limited resources, television could be an effective way to reach millions of children. Morrisett hired her to conduct research on childhood development, education and media, and she visited experts in these fields across the United States and Canada. She researched their ideas about the viewing habits of young children and wrote a report on her findings.
- Cooney’s study, titled “Television for Preschool Education”, spelled out how television could be used to help young children, especially from low-income families, prepare for school. The focus on the new show was on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but Cooney and the show’s creators recognized that in order to achieve the kind of success they wanted, it had to be equally accessible to children of all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.
- As a result of Cooney’s proposal, the Carnegie Corporation awarded her a $1 million grant in 1968 to establish the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) to provide support to the creative staff of the new show. Morrisett, who was responsible for fundraising, procured additional grants from the United States federal government, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Ford Foundation for the CTW’s initial budget, which totaled $8 million; obtaining funding from this combination of government agencies and private foundations protected the CTW from economic pressures experienced by commercial networks. Sesame Street was an expensive program to produce because the creators decided they needed to compete with other programs that invested in high quality professional production.
- After being named executive director of the CTW, Cooney began to assemble a team of producers: Jon Stone was responsible for writing, casting, and format; David Connell took over animation and volume; and Samuel Gibbon served as the show’s chief liaison between the production staff and the research team.
- The CTW hired Harvard University professor Gerald S. Lesser to design the show’s educational objectives and establish and lead a National Board of Advisers. Instead of providing what Lesser called “window dressing”, the Board actively participated in the construction of educational goals and creative methods. At the Board’s direction, Lesser conducted five three-day curriculum planning seminars in Boston and New York City in summer 1968. The purpose of the seminars was to ascertain which school-preparation skills to emphasize in the new show. The producers gathered professionals with diverse backgrounds to obtain ideas for educational content. They reported that the seminars were “widely successful”,and resulted in long and detailed lists of possible topics for inclusion in the Sesame Street curriculum.
- Instead of focusing on the social and emotional aspects of development, the producers decided to follow the suggestions of the seminar participants and emphasize cognitive skills, a decision they felt was warranted by the demands of school and the wishes of parents. The objectives developed during the seminars were condensed into key categories: symbolic representation, cognitive processes, and the physical and social environment. The seminars set forth the new show’s policy about race and social issuesand provided the show’s production and creative team with “a crash course” in psychology, child development, and early childhood education. They also marked the beginning of Jim Henson’s involvement in Sesame Street. Cooney met Henson at one of the seminars; Stone, who was familiar with Henson’s work, felt that if they could not bring him on board, they should “make do without puppets”.
- The producers and writers decided to build the new show around a brownstone or an inner-city street, a choice Davis called “unprecedented”. Stone was convinced that in order for inner-city children to relate to Sesame Street, it needed to be set in a familiar place. Despite its urban setting, the producers decided to avoid depicting more negativity than what was already present in the child’s environment. Lesser commented, “[despite] all its raucousness and slapstick humor, Sesame Street became a sweet show, and its staff maintains that there is nothing wrong in that”.
- The new show was called the “Preschool Educational Television Show” in promotional materials; the producers were unable to agree on a name they liked and waited until the last minute to make a decision. In a short, irreverent promotional film shown to public television executives, the producers parodied their “naming dilemma”. The producers were reportedly “frantic for a title”; they finally settled on the name that they least disliked: Sesame Street, inspired by Ali Baba’s magical phrase, although there were concerns that it would be too difficult for young children to pronounce. Stone was one of the producers who disliked the name, but, he said, “I was outvoted, for which I’m deeply grateful”.
- The responsibility of casting for Sesame Street fell to Jon Stone, who set out to form a cast where white actors were in the minority. He did not begin auditions until spring 1969, several weeks before five test shows were due to be produced. He filmed the auditions, and Palmer took them into the field to test children’s reactions. The actors who received the “most enthusiastic thumbs up” were cast. For example, Loretta Long was chosen to play Susan when the children who saw her audition stood up and sang along with her rendition of “I’m a Little Teapot”. Stone reported that casting was the only aspect that was “just completely haphazard”. Most of the cast and crew found jobs on Sesame Street through personal relationships with Stone and the other producers. Stone hired Bob McGrath (an actor and singer best known at the time for his appearances on Mitch Miller’s sing-along show on NBC) to play Bob, Will Lee to play Mr. Hooper, and Garrett Saunders to play Gordon.
- The producers of Sesame Street believed education through television was possible if they captured and sustained children’s attention; this meant the show needed a strong appeal. Edward Palmer, the CTW’s first Director of Research and the man Cooney credited with building the CTW’s foundation of research, was one of the few academics in the late 1960s researching children’s television. His research was so crucial to Sesame Street that Gladwell asserted, “… without Ed Palmer, the show would have never lasted through the first season”.
Bet you didn’t know …
1. THE IDEA FOR SESAME STREET CAME FROM ONE VERY SIMPLE QUESTION – According to The Hollywood Reporter, the original idea for Sesame Street came about during a 1966 dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, who was a producer at New York City’s Channel 13, a public television station. Lloyd Morrisett, an experimental educator at the Carnegie Corporation, was one of Cooney’s guests and asked her the question: “Do you think [television] can teach anything?” That query was all it took to get the ball rolling on what would become Sesame Street.
2. SESAME STREET ALMOST WASN’T SESAME STREET AT ALL – When the idea for Sesame Street was first being talked about, the original title being discussed was 123 Avenue B. Eventually, that title was nixed for both being a real location in New York City that would place the show right across from Tompkins Square Park, and also for being too specific to New York City.
3. KERMIT THE FROG WAS AN ORIGINAL CAST MEMBER – Before he became the star of The Muppet Show (and the various Muppet movies), Kermit the Frog got his start as a main character on Sesame Street.
4. KERMIT WAS VERY SIMILAR TO HIS CREATOR – Most people considered Kermit the Frog to be an alter ego of creator Jim Henson.
5. CAROL BURNETT APPEARED ON SESAME STREET’S FIRST EPISODE – Guest stars have always been a part of the Sesame Street recipe, beginning with the very first episode. “I didn’t know anything about [Sesame Street] when they asked me to be on,” Carol Burnett told The Hollywood Reporter. “All I knew was that Jim Henson was involved and I thought he was a genius—I’d have gone skydiving with him if he’d asked. But it was a marvelous show. I kept going back for more. I think one time I was an asparagus.”
6. OSCAR THE GROUCH USED TO BE ORANGE – Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two. How did the show explain the color change? Oscar said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.
7. COOKIE MONSTER ISN’T COOKIE MONSTER’S REAL NAME – During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.
8. C-3P0 AND R2-D2 PAID A MEMORABLE VISIT TO SESAME STREET – In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.
9. MR. SNUFFLEUPAGUS HAS A FIRST NAME – It’s Aloysius. Aloysius Snuffleupagus.
10. RALPH NADER APPEARED IN AN EPISODE – Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang “a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood.”
11. OSCAR THE GROUCH IS PARTLY MODELED AFTER A TAXI DRIVER – Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar’s voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.
12. IN 1970, ERNIE BECAME A MUSIC STAR – Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit “Rubber Duckie.”
13. COUNT VON COUNT ISN’T THE ONLY COUNT ON SESAME STREET – One of Count von Count’s lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who’s also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.
14. AFGHANISTAN HAS ITS OWN VERSION OF SESAME STREET – Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover, and Elmo are involved.
15. CULTURAL TABOOS PREVENTED OSCAR AND THE COUNT FROM BEING A MAJOR PART OF BAGHCH-E-SIMSIM – According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim “due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism.”
16. BREAKING BAD AND BETTER CALL SAUL’S GUS FRING PLAYED BIG BIRD’S CAMP COUNSELOR – Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad’s super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird’s camp counselor Mickey in 1982. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.
17. THE BIG IN BIRD BIRD’S NAME ISN’T A MISNOMER – How big is Big Bird? 8’2″.
18. BEING THAT BIG OF A BIRD REQUIRES A LOT OF FEATHERS – In order to craft Big Bird’s iconic yellow suit, approximately 4000 feathers are needed.
19. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN BRITISH COUSIN – His name, appropriately, is Biscuit Monster.
20. “GUY SMILEY” IS JUST A STAGE NAME – Sesame Street’s resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.
21. THE COUNT IS REALLY, REALLY OLD – The Count was born on October 9, 1,830,653 BCE—making him nearly 2 million years old. Try putting that many candles on a birthday cake!
22. SESAME STREET’S FIRST SEASON HAD A FEW SUPERHERO GUEST STARS – In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what to watch on TV. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.
23. TELLY WASN’T ALWAYS TELLY – Telly was originally “Television Monster,” a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.
24. SESAME STREET IS HOME TO THE ONLY NON-HUMAN WHO HAS TESTIFIED BEFORE CONGRESS – According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that “when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play.”
25. MOST MUPPETS ONLY HAVE FOUR FINGERS – According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street’s main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.
26. THERE WERE NEVER ANY PLANS TO TURN COOKIE MONSTER INTO VEGGIE MONSTER – In 2005, Sesame Street made healthy eating one of its main themes for the season—which led to some speculation that Cookie Monster might be trading in his cookies for something a bit more green and healthy. But these rumors were just that: rumors!
27. THERE ARE VERSIONS OF SESAME STREET ALL OVER THE WORLD – According to Sesame Workshop, there are currently more than 150 different version of Sesame Street—in 70 different languages—being produced around the world.
28. SESAME STREET IS ABOUT TO MAKE HISTORY AT THE KENNEDY CENTER HONORS – In December 2019, Sesame Street will receive a Kennedy Center Honor—making it the first TV show ever to earn the distinction.
29. SESAME STREET IS NOW A REAL STREET IN NEW YORK CITY – In early 2019, Sesame Street finally became a place in the real world. In honor of the show’s 50th anniversary, and its impact on New York City in particular, the intersection of West 63rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan was rechristened as “Sesame Street.”
30. WHAT ABOUT MISS PIGGY? – Despite misconceptions and rumors to the contrary, Miss Piggy has never appeared on Sesame Street. While Kermit the Frog is well-known for his many appearances on Sesame Street, Miss Piggy (and her Muppet Show co-stars Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Bunsen & Beaker, Animal, and others) have not appeared.