“Sesame Street” is the most popular kid’s show in television history. Did you grow up with it? Here’s a little info on how it got into your life.
In the Beginning
In 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney was the publicity director of a New Jersey television station. One evening, she and a psychologist friend were sitting around in her apartment after dinner, discussing TV. A recent report had showed that preschool children watched an average of 27 hours of television a week; Cooney and her friend agreed that if toddlers were going to spend so much time in front of the tube, it made sense to try to educate them while they were there. But how?
Shortly afterward, Cooney took a leave of absence from her job to found the Children’s Television Workshop. She began researching the idea of an entertaining, fast-paced educational show for preschoolers – modeled after beer commercials and the hit show “Laugh-In.” “We decided to co-opt what we called ‘the Devil’s tunes,’ Cooney remembers. “Back then, kids were singing beer commercials. We decided to use the idea of commercials to teach.”
A Rough Start
Building a kid’s show around teaching numbers and letters may not seem like such a big deal today, but back then hardly anyone believed it would work. “The teaching profession assumed preschoolers weren’t ready to read,” remembers Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird on the show, “so we seemed crazy, proposing to sell kids the ABCs, like other shows hustled sugar-coated breakfast cereals.”
NBC, CBS, and ABC thought the show was too risky – particularly when Cooney told them it would cost $8 million a year – making it the most expensive (and most heavily researched) show on television. So Cooney turned to other sources for money. She was in luck: the federal government saw the show as a valuable addition to its Headstart program and chipped in $4 million. Once the government was committed, Cooney raised the rest from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Carnegie Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.
Cooney and producer Jon Stone knew that they wanted to set that would seem familiar to their target audience: middle- and lower-income children ages one to five. “We wanted it to be more than just another escapist show set in a tree house or a badger den,” Stone remembers, “but the only models we had were educational TV’s desks and blackboards and the fairy castles of children’s shows. Yet the consensus was that kids learn best in a setting similar to their daily lives.” No one had any idea how to translate that idea into a set for the show . . . until Stone saw a commercial recruiting college students to work at an inner-city tutoring project. The TV ad, filmed on a city street with brownstones and front stops in the background, was the direct inspiration for the urban residential setting of “Sesame Street.”
Naming The Show
Finding a name for the set’s street proved a much more daunting task. Various staff writers suggested “104th Street,” “Columbus Avenue,” and several other names . . . including “Sesame Street,” but Stone hated them all – especially Sesame Street, which reminded him of the corny “Open Sesame!” expression used by the third-rate magicians of his childhood. (“Besides,” he argued at one meeting, “Sesame Street will be too hard for little kids to pronounce.”) The decision dragged out until literally one-half hour before the national press announcement for the show. When Cooney finally showed up at the meeting and asked the writers what name they had come up with, they hadn’t come up with any. “I guess we’ll have to go with Sesame Street,” Stone sighed. “Ironically,” he recalls, “Virginia Schone, the writer who suggested the name, left the show soon afterward, and we haven’t heard from her in twenty years. Yet she named the landscape of a whole generation’s fantasy life.”
Enter The Muppets
Perhaps Cooney’s most important stroke was hiring Jim Henson, a brilliant young puppeteer whose “muppets” (part marionette, part puppet) starred in Washington, D.C., TV show called “Sam and Friends,” had appeared in commercial, and had made several appearances on “The Tonight Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and “The Jimmy Dean Show.”
“Sesame Street” hit the airwaves on November 9, 1969, earning mixed reviews from both parents and the media. Critics complained that the show’s fast pace would make kids skittish and give them short attention spans. But studies showed that preschool kids who watched “Sesame Street” were better prepared to make the transition from home to classroom than kids who didn’t. Within a year, “Sesame Street” had more than 7 million regular viewers.
Kermit the Frog. The very first muppet, Kermit was created in 1956 when Henson, a college freshman studying art at the University of Maryland, cut up his mother’s old green coat, dewed it into a puppet and added the halves of a Ping-Pong ball for eyes.
Cookie Monster. Cookie was just another anonymous monster when he ate the letter W in a 1969 sketch with Kermit the Frog . . . but that changed a few episodes later, when he appeared in a game show sketch in which he had to choose between a trip to Hawaii and some cookies. He took the cookies. In 1992, his trademark “Me want cookie!” made it into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Big Bird. Because all of the muppets were smaller than the humans on the show, Jim Henson suggested adding a larger-than-life character, “say a big bird for example.” But nobody had any idea what kind of personality an eight-foot-tall yellow canary creature should have . . . until Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird, saw a youngster having a temper tantrum. “I thought, ‘ I bet other kids can relate to that.’ So when the script called for big Bird to not get his way, I acted just like that child and threw an all-out screaming fit. It clicked and thus immediately fixed the character: an 8-foot bird with the emotional responses of a wide-eyed 4-year-old.”
Oscar the Grouch. Caroll Spinney also plays Oscar, who was one of the most difficult characters to develop. Making him grouchy and putting him a trash can were easy . . . but no one could figure out what he should sound like. Then, one day, as Spinney got into a cab, the driver asked him in a thick New York accent, “Where to, Mac?” Oscar’s voice was born.
Today “Sesame Street” is a worldwide phenomenon. The English language version airs in more than 80 countries, and there are more than a dozen international coproductions. German kids watch “Sesamestrasse,” Tunisan kids watch “Iftah Ya SimSim,” Israeli kids watch “Rechov SumSum,” and Latin American kids watch “Plaza Sesamo.”
However, the international reaction to “Sesame Street” wasn’t always positive. In 1973, for example, the BBC snubbed it as “authoritarian.” And a few months later, a Russian youth publication attacked it as “cultural imperialism.” Their complaint: it spread “American concepts of private enterprise and the importance of money.”
Are the kid actors thrown off when they see the muppets being operated by the “muppeteer?” Not really. “It’s great to see kids who are in the studio,” one staffer says. “The man who’s playing the part is right there wearing the puppet on his arm, but the child completely disregards the person and talks to that puppet.” That isn’t always the case: One child was stunned when he saw Caroll climbing out of the Big Bird costume. “Mom,” the stunned toddler yelled, “Do you think Big Bird knows he has a man inside him?”
How do Big Bird, Snuffleupagus, and the other giant-sized muppets move about so realistically when the operators inside can barely see out? By watching themselves on miniature TVs mounted inside the costumes, an innovation Henson himself cooked up in 1969.
“Sesame Street” was one of the first shows on television to feature an ethnically diverse cast. Segregationists pressured a Mississippi TV station to cancel the show in 1969, but a local parents group led a successful campaign to get it back on the air. A year later, the cast (protected by police wearing riot gear) visited Jackson, Mississippi, to promote the show. “Little white kids would reach out to kiss me or ‘Gordon,’ the other black character,” Loretta Long, the black actress who plasy Susan, remembers. “You could see their mothers were uneasy. But they’d loosen up, because how can you hate someone who makes your child so happy?”
Fresh from the success of “Sesame Street,” Henson, in the mid-70s, tried to interest the TV networks in a muppet-based variety show for adults. But they wouldn’t buy it, so Henson sold it to an English company. “The Muppet Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1981, quickly became the most widely viewed television in the world, with 235 million viewers in more than 100 different countries.