1 9 6 9 – Current (USA)
“This show is brought to you by the letter D and the number 8,” said Sesame Street, cleverly framing its lessons in the zippy style of TV commercials (which kids loved to watch because they were quick and catchy).
A variety show for the kindergarten set, with a mix of skits, songs, puppetry and animation. Sesame Street made learning the alphabet as much fun for Mum and Dad as it was for Junior.
Sesame Street began its run on National Educational Television/ PBS on 10 November 1969 and has been blending skits, songs, puppetry and animation to teach letters, numbers and concepts of grammar ever since.
In the first years after the show debuted, kindergartens across the US reported that most Sesame Street viewers arrived already knowing the alphabet and numbers.
The programme was the brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney of the Children’s Television Workshop and was set on a city street as it was designed originally to appeal to inner-city preschoolers.
The show has featured some human characters, but the most popular characters were the Jim Henson created Muppets, including Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Kermit the Frog and, best-loved of all, Big Bird, a sweetly shy, 8-foot-tall canary (who is not really a puppet at all, but a life-size figure played first by Frank Oz and later by Carroll Spinney).
The Sesame Street songs became a cultural phenomenon of their own, with over fifty compilation albums recorded.
Some taught letters (“Letter B” to the Beatles’ Let It Be), others numbers (“Born to Add” to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run), others taught social lessons on everything from recycling (“Keep On Truckin’”) to cleanliness (“I Gotta Be Clean”) to self-acceptance (“Everyone Makes Mistakes”).
Still other songs may have had dubious educational value (did anyone really learn anything from Rubber Duckie or Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco?) but were undeniably fun.
Sesame Street’s human performers have included Loretta Long (Susan), Matt Robinson and Roscoe Orman (Gordon), Bob McGrath (Bob), Will Lee (Mr Hooper), Northern J Calloway (David), Emilio Delgado (Luis) and Sonia Manzano (Maria).
Though the mood was usually light, Sesame Street didn’t shy away from serious topics. When Will Lee (the actor who played Mr Hooper) passed away, a special episode dealt with the death, as Big Bird learned how to cope with the loss of his dear friend.
Sesame Street was offered to the BBC for screening on British TV, but the BBC turned it down. There were a number of reasons: Firstly, the BBC had its own pre-school programme in Play School, which catered specifically to its own audience, and it was felt there was no need for another.
Secondly, there was a strong feeling that there were educational dangers in the constant use of repetition and fast pace. Thirdly, it was felt that British children would be confused by the language: ‘trash can’ for instance, for dustbin.
The BBC would have been prepared, and indeed wanted, to buy segments, but the Children’s Television Workshop would not agree to this.
The BBC was heavily criticised for not buying the programme, and the American press accused them of ‘banning’ Sesame Street. It was one of the few times that children’s television programmes made international headlines.
Sesame Street was eventually brought to the UK by London Weekend Television.
Jim Henson’s Muppets
Paul B. Brice
Northern J. Calloway