Forty years, ah ah ah: 'Sesame Street' celebrates milestone birthday
Before Oscar the Grouch turned green, before Elmo referred to himself in the third person, and way before Abby became a CGI animated character, there was a friendly young man who lived on an urban street.
While showing a new neighbor around the place, he says: “You’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here. You’re gonna love it.”
That line, spoken by Matt Robinson (the first of three actors to play Gordon) was the world’s introduction to a place where kids can learn about letters and numbers, left and right, near and far, over, under and through, and why it’s good to keep a banana in your ear — right in the comfort of their living rooms.
“Sesame Street” debuted 40 years ago this week (the new season’s first episode, with first lady Michelle Obama, airs Thursday). The PBS program started as an educational experiment that aimed to marry basic educational concepts with television, and help disadvantaged kids enter school with the same preparation as middle-class kids.
Today, it’s not difficult to find educational programming on cable television. But in 1969, when many households had, at most, five channels, the idea of using comedy, songs and puppetry to “sell” kids on vowels, cooperation and counting was an unusual concept.
“Sesame Street” still refers to its lessons as a curriculum and its production company as a “workshop,” indicating things are still being invented. But it’s safe to say, now that a couple of generations of kids have seen “Sesame Street Live” productions, asked Santa Claus for Tickle Me Elmo dolls and sung “C is for Cookie” from memory, that the experiment has had results.
Brien Murphy can be reached email@example.com.
Show of a thousand stars
Some of the nation’s most famous people have done guest spots on “Sesame Street,” right from the beginning of the show’s 40-year run.
Just a few of those 440 celebrities are:
- Actors — James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Ellen DeGeneres, Ricky Gervais, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, Noah Wylie, Susan Sarandon
- Musicians — Martina McBride, REM, Destiny’s Child, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Itzhak Perlman, Billy Joel, Goo Goo Dolls
- Athletes — Jackie Robinson, Julius Erving, Chad Pennington, David Beckham
- First ladies — Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama (Thursday’s season premiere)
By the numbers:
- 122 — Emmy Awards for “Sesame Street.”
- 3 — actors who have played Gordon.
- 9 — current TV shows that have been on the air longer than “Sesame Street” (“Meet the Press” had a 22-year head start).
- 5,000-plus — Muppets built by the Jim Henson Co. for the show.
- 1 — Oscar the Grouch Muppet used since 1970 … fortunately, he lives in a trash can, so it’s OK if he looks dingy.
- 8 feet, 2 inches — height of Big Bird.
- 368 — bottle caps in Bert’s collection.
- 14 — years Big Bird couldn’t convince anyone Mr. Snuffleupagus was real until the rest of the cast FINALLY saw the elusive pachyderm.
- 2 — actors in the original cast who still appear on “Sesame Street”: Loretta Long (Susan) and Bob McGrath (Bob). (Puppeteer Carroll Spinney still performs as Big Bird and Oscar, the street’s first two Muppets).
- 123 — address of the apartment building Susan and Gordon, Bert and Ernie, and others live.
- 4,212 (and counting) — episodes of “Sesame Street.”
Major “Sesame Street” moments:
- Nov. 10, 1969: “Sesame Street” debuts as the first nationally distributed TV show aimed at using television as a teaching tool, particularly for disadvantaged children.
- 1970: Big Bird appears on the cover of Time.
- 1971: Deaf actress Linda Bove first appears as “Linda,” TV’s longest-running character with a disability.
- 1978: Big Bird hosts “The Tonight Show.”
- 1980: “Sesame Street Live” goes on tour.
- Thanksgiving Day, 1983: The “Sesame Street” characters mourn the death of shopkeeper Mr. Hooper (actor Will Lee died in 1982). “Sesame Street” aired the episode on a day producers knew parents would be home and could talk to their children about death.
- 1985: Susan and Gordon adopt a son, Miles.
- 1988: After years of being just friends, Maria and Luis date, fall in love and get married.
- 1993: “Sesame Street” goes “around the corner” for the first time with Gina’s Day Care, the Furry Arms Hotel and other establishments. Zoe joins the cast.
- 1999: Big Bird appears on a postage stamp.
- 2005: Cookie Monster (gulp) starts eating a healthier diet.
- 2007: “Sesame Street” begins podcasting.
— SOURCES: “Sesame Street Unpaved,” by David Borgenicht; www.sesameworkshop.org
Even a show as honored, respected and beloved as “Sesame Street” goofs.
- 1970s Muppet Don Music, who suffered from epic writer’s block while composing tunes, was discontinued after parents complained their kids imitated his trademark head-pounding on his piano keyboard.
- The 1970s Muppet Roosevelt Franklin was discontinued because viewers thought his inner-city school perpetuated negative stereotypes.
- Although he remains a popular character, some parents object to Count Von Count because he’s a vampire.
Memories of Sesame Street
We asked central Illinois residents for their favorite memories of ”Sesame Street.” Here are some of the best we received.
Even though I grew up on “Sesame Street” and have many fond memories of the show from my childhood, my favorite “Sesame Street” moment has been one I have seen with my own children: REM performing the song “Furry Happy Monsters” to the tune of “Shiny Happy People.” It is so cool to see musicians like REM, James Blunt and Feist perform on “Sesame Street.” It makes sitting and watching the show with my children just as entertaining for me as it is for them, even if it is for different reasons.
— Michelle O’Hara, Springfield
One morning when my son was about 11 months old, we snuggled on the couch and watched “Sesame Street” together. It was the same, but so very different — there were new characters (Elmo, etc.) and new skits and new songs to be sung. But then they showed an old clip of Big Bird singing “Sing.” It was the most amazing thing. It was as if time had opened up and had transported me back to a very happy and special period in my life — and I got to take my little guy, whom I loved and cherished so much, with me.
— Michelle Moler, Springfield
Here are my favorite two: the one where there would be a real guy dressed up like a baker dressed in white and he would be atop many white stairs and would announce, “Ten chocolate layer cakes!” and would proceed to fall down the stairs, getting chocolate cake all over the place. The other would be watching the Muppet Don Music struggle with songs and become so frustrated that he would pound his head on the piano, saying, “I’ll never get it. NEVER!”
— Jennifer (Spinner) Bloch, Springfield.
Here is a Top Ten List of my most memorable “Sesame Street” moments.
1. The “Near/Far” segment with Grover. The Barenaked Ladies even do a parody of this segment at their live shows.
2. “Letter B”, a cover of “Let It Be,” which mentioned several items that started with the letter “B.” I loved The Beetles, who sang the best Beatles covers ever.
3. Ernie’s song, “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon”
4. Bert’s dance, “Doin’ the Pigeon.”
5. Linda teaching me how to say the alphabet in sign language.
6. Maria teaching me to count to 10 in Spanish.
7. Susan was my favorite, and I had my picture taken with her at a “Sesame Street” concert in
8. I got my nickname, Tweedles, from my grandmother, who said that I used that term rather than “Twiddlebugs.”
9. Who didn’t want to go to the Ladybug Picnic?
10. One of my earliest memories was my parents taking me to see “Sesame Street Live” at the Prairie Capital Convention Center every year. I still have the souvenirs to prove it.
— Jodi Tabor, Springfield
When (my oldest son) was about 2 years old, we went to Champaign to the Assembly Hall to see “Sesame Street Live.” It was a tremendous show, and we all enjoyed it very much. After the show, we walked by the stage on our way out of the hall. On the stage was a yellow feather from Big Bird’s costume. My son picked up that feather — and I will never forget the look on his face. He had something from the real Big Bird! He treasured that feather more than anything else he had.
— Kathy Drea, Taylorville
My favorite “Sesame Street” moment is our Christmas Eve tradition of watching “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.” Before the time of DVRs and DVDs, we could only watch this once a year, during the end-of-the-year telethon to increase viewer sponsorship for PBS. So although we watched it each year interrupted with the ads begging for sponsorship, I fondly recall my two sisters and I, snuggled in PJs, with hot cocoa and singing along word for word. “If that isn’t a true, blue miracle, I don’t know what one is.” ... I have recently purchased the DVD and hope my children will love it as much as I do.
— Jennifer Keith, Lincoln
The seminal sketch for me can be summed up in six words: “Dance with me doing the Batty-Bat!” How could anyone be scared of vampires after the jolly number enthusiast Count von Count? And it only got better when he sang with his pet bats — the fact that one of them was upside down as he flapped his little wings never failed to crack up 6-year-old me.
— Lauren Whalen, Chicago (formerly of Springfield)