Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sesame Street Turns 40

It was on this date in 1969 that the longest running children's show in American history debuted. Sesame Street wasn't the first educational children's show, but it was revolutionary. Unlike previous children's shows, Sesame Street relied on twelve to twenty second spots in a fast moving, distinct visual style to educate children. It was also revolutionary in that each episode had its own structure, dedicated to a particular letter and a number of the day. In many ways it was different from anything that had come before.

The beginnings of Sesame Street go back to 1966, at a dinner party given by television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, then working at WDNT (an educational television station in New Jersey), with Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Institute in attendance. The Carnegie Institute having donated millions of dollars in grants to organisations dedicated to children's education, discussion soon turned to the use of television as an educational tool for children. It was then a few days later that Cooney, her boss at WDNT Lewis Freedman, and Morrisett met at his office to discuss the use of television to educate children. Ultimately, the Carnegie Institute financed a study conducted by Joan Ganz Cooney that was entitled "Television for Preschool Education." The study outlined how television could be used as a tool for educating inner city preschool children. The focus was made upon inner city children from low income families as it had been learned that they are generally prepared for school. Cooney thought that public television could fill the gap in getting such children prepared for school. She also thought that through high production values and the latest in television production, they could reach the widest audience possible. Part and parcel of her concept was the idea of a show that could be appreciated by parents as well as their children. She suggested the use of some humour to appeal to adults and the appearance of celebrities to accomplish this end.

Because of Cooney's study, the Carnegie Institute awarded her an $8 million grant with which she founded the Children's Television Workshop in 1968 with the goal of creating a new children's show. Lloyd Morriesett and Joan Ganz Cooney were also able to procure more funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Ford Foundation, and the federal government. A production team was formed, headed by David Connell (a veteran of Captain Kangaroo) and including Jon Stone (another veteran of Captain Kangaroo), and Samuel Gibbon (another veteran of Captain Kangaroo). In preparation for the show, seminars were held, involving professionals in education and child development, to determine which educational content should be emphasised on the show. It would by way of these seminars that Jim Henson and his Muppets would become involved with Sesame Street. Stone, who had previously worked with Henson, thought that if the show was to have puppets, it would have to be using Henson's talents.

Ultimately, the show would centre on an inner city street, in keeping with the producers' goals of educating inner city children. Several titles were considered, and in the end the production team settled on the one they disliked the least--Sesame Street. Even then there was concern that it would be too difficult for children to pronounce.

The producers created five test episodes, not intended for broadcast, to gauge if the show could be easily understood by children. These episodes were shown to children in 60 households throughout Philadelphia in July 1969. It was largely through the results of these test episodes, in which it was learned the children paid more attention to the Muppets than the scenes on the street itself, that characters who would interact with the human on the street were created, such as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Sesame Street would simply not be unique among children's shows in 1969 in its urban setting or the fast paced means with which it presented educational concepts, but also in that it may have been the first public show promoted by a commercial network. On November 8, 1969, two days before its debut, a special financed by Xerox promoting the series aired on NBC. Entitled The Way to Sesame Street, the thirty minute preview was taped only a day before it aired. On Nobemeber 10, 1969 Sesame Street debuted with exceedingly high ratings for a public show. It earned a 3.3 Nielsen rating. It also received some sterling reviews. This is not to say the show did not have its detractors. At the time there were those who were critical of the show's rapid fire pace. The show was also criticised in some quarters for its integrated cast and featuring strong, single women as characters.

Sesame Street has changed over the years, particularly with regards to its cast. While Jim Henson created Muppet characters specifically for the show (Grover, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar Grouch), early in the show established Muppets such as Kermit the Frog, Rowf, and a few others appeared. They were gradually phased out. Over the years other Muppet characters have come and gone from Sesame Street. It must be stressed that contrary to popular belief, one of these is not Grover. He never "died" nor did he ever leave the show. One of the most popular, and perhaps controversial Muppet characters on the show is Elmo. Elmo was not one of the original characters on the show, but he is not exactly as recent a creation as many believe. The characters dates back to around 1972, appearing as "Baby Monster." Essentially an extra Muppet, nothing special emerged from the character until 1985 when puppeteer Kevin Clash turned Baby Monster into Elmo. The character has since become one of the most popular characters with the younger set. As to adults, while many of them worry that Grover is dead, they sometimes wish Elmo was dead.

Over the years many puppeteers have worked on Sesame Street. Indeed, it might come as a surprise to some that the chief architects behind The Muppets, Jim Henson and Frank Oz, actually worked on the show for literally years. That having been said,  the puppeteer most closely associated with the show is probably Carol Spinney, who has played Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Bruno nearly since the show's beginning (indeed, he is still working on the show).

As might be expected, the human cast of Sesame Street has changed over the years, although there has been a good deal of consistently as well. Mr. Hooper (played by Will Lee) ran Hooper's Store, the candy store on the street. He was with the show from the beginning until his death in 1982. It was because of his death that Sesame Street aired a landmark episode which dealt with the passing of Mr. Hooper as a means of educating children about death and dying. Music teacher Bob Johnson (played by Bob McGrath) has been with the show from its inception and has remained with the show ever since. Susan Robinson (played by Loretta Long) has also remained with the show from the beginning, although she has appeared less frequently since the Nineties. Other human characters have included the librarian Linda (played by Linda Bove from 1972 to 2003), teenager and later partner in The Fix-It Shop Maria (played by Sonia Manzano from 1972 to the present), and Mr. Hooper's successor David (played by Northern Calloway from 1972 to 1989).

Sesame Street has changed over the years. One change has been the amount of merchandising for the show. In its earliest years there was virtually no merchandising. This changed primarily due to a need to finance the series. Dependent on the Federal government for much of its money, in 1978 CTW found itself in the uncomfortable situation of having to wait on a cheque from the Department of Education until the last day CTW's fiscal year. As mentioned above, there have been changes in its cast (at one point Native composer and singer Buffy Sainte-Marie was part of the cast) and Muppets have come and gone. Spanish words and phrases were occasionally used on the show as early as the Seventies. By 1991 a new segment was introduced called "the Spanish Word of the Day." With the introduction of Linda (who was deaf) sign language started to be included on the show as well. It was very early in its history that Sesame Street went international, with co-productions now existing in 140 countries. Nineteen eighty saw the debut of Sesame Street Live, a touring, live, stage production of the show.

Sesame Street would have a huge impact on pop culture over the years, even in its early years. Big Bird appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, on The Flip Wilson Show in 1970, and in movies ranging from The Muppet Movie to his own movie (Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird from 1985). Oscar the Grouch has appeared on shows from The Simpsons to Scrubs. The show has actually produced hit songs. Ernie's song "Rubber Duckie" actually reached the top 40 for many weeks in 1971. "Bein' Green," sang by Kermit the Frog on the show, has been recorded many times by many artists, including Van Morrison and Ray Charles. The key phrase from the song, "it's not easy being green," has entered the pop culture vocabulary. Sesame Street has been parodied numerous times, in everything from The Simpsons to the supernatural horror series Angel (in the episode "Smile Time").

Such was the popularity of Sesame Street in its early years that, at a time when PBS stations were a rarity, commercial stations would actually air the show without commercial interruption. This was the case with KRCG in Jefferson City, who aired it for many years following Captain Kangaroo. This is how I first watched Sesame Street. Airing at 9:00 AM, I could not watch it when school was in session, but I watched it loyally in the summer. Like most kids I had my favourite characters: Grover, Ernie, and Bert (here I must stress I don't count Kermit and Rowlf as Sesame Street characters).  I can't say that I learned a great deal from the show, but I have seen its impact on generations following my own. My nephews,  my nieces, all learned their ABC's and 123's from the show. My best friend's daughter has even learned a few words of Spanish from it!

Sesame Street is currently the longest running children's show in American television history, a record that will probably never be broken. Its debut forty years ago marked a pivotal point in American broadcast television. Prior to Sesame Street educational shows (such as Captain Kangaroo,  a bit of a forerunner to the show) were few and far between. The success of Sesame Street insured that there would be more educational shows not only on public television, but on commercial television. Even shows from other nations, ranging from the UK's Rainbow to Australia's Bananas in Pyjamas largely owe their existence to Sesame Street. In its forty years of existence, Sesame Street has changed television forever.


Tom said...

Fascinating. I grew up watching Sesame Street in the early-mid 80s. For the first time recently I watched some of the earliest episodes that have been released on DVD not long ago, including the test episodes with Kermit and Rowlf. Wonderful! From the very beginning, the shows had a certain appeal to adults as well.

Tommy Salami said...

I watched Sesame Street in the mid-70's, and it was very influential on my childhood. I still remember the Tom Lehrer songs like "L-Y" and "Silent E," and how they actually put suspense in the show, something completely avoided nowadays.
As kids, we were genuinely worried if Big Bird was lost, or if Oscar was teasing him. But it was resolved, and we were okay. I was too old to watch when Mr. Hooper died, but I remember watching clips anyway.
Sesame Street will always be a place in my memory- not a TV show. They made it that real.

Holte Ender said...

Shows like Sesame Street are so important for kids in many ways. As a kid I listened to radio shows aimed at my age group due to a lack of a TV. I have fond memories being 6 inches from the radio listening to my favorites.