50 Years Of 'Sesame Street'

Nov 10, 2019
Originally published on November 10, 2019 7:25 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Happy birthday to one of the most famous streets in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU TELL ME HOW TO GET TO SESAME STREET?")

THE KIDS: (Singing) Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On this day in 1969, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Kermit and their Muppet friends welcomed viewers to "Sesame Street" for the first time. Millions of children have found their way to the show since then, either through their local public TV station or now on HBO and mobile devices. The Muppets face a lot more competition today, but producers say the show's mission hasn't changed - teach children about numbers and letters and also about some tough topics that they might have trouble understanding. NPR's Elizabeth Blair marks the milestone.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: By November 1969, tens of thousands of men had been killed in Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a year and a half earlier. Sonia Manzano, who played Maria on "Sesame Street" for 44 years, says it was a tumultuous time but also an idealistic time.

SONIA MANZANO: There was a moon landing. There was free love. There was Woodstock. But the - I think what really inspired the show was the civil rights movement.

BLAIR: The creators of "Sesame Street" wanted the show to be more relevant to families than, say, "Captain Kangaroo." As one producer put it, they wanted it to be funky and down to earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

JIM HENSON: (As Ernie, singing unintelligibly)

FRANK OZ: (As Bert) Ernie, get out of the tub.

BLAIR: In that very first episode, Ernie takes a bath, and Bert gets annoyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

OZ: (As Bert) I said, why do you call your bathtub Rosie?

HENSON: (As Ernie) Because every time I take a bath, I leave a ring around Rosie.

OZ: (As Bert, laughter).

BLAIR: Kermit the Frog tries to explain the letter W.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) And you need a W to make such words as wash and woman and...

BLAIR: While Cookie Monster chomps away at it turning it into an N.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog) Anyway, the N is not a bad letter.

BLAIR: Revolutionary for the time, "Sesame Street's" human cast was integrated. The children who appeared on the show were different races. Adults Bob and Mr. Hooper were white. Gordon and Sue were African-Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

ROSCOE ORMAN: (As Gordon) So I just brought Sally around. She's new to the neighborhood.

LORETTA MAE LONG: (As Susan) Oh, you just moved in, huh?

BLAIR: "Sesame Street" co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney told NPR in 2008 the city street setting was deliberate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOAN GANZ COONEY: We decided not to have it in some magic house. And, you know, the way most children's programs are set in a fantasy set in of kind or in the suburbs as "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was. And we were trying to reach all children. But the bullseye of the target, as we used to say, were inner city youngsters.

BLAIR: An integrated cast, Muppets, real life brought to you by the letters A-Z. There was nothing else like it on television. "Sesame Street" also addressed difficult or delicate topics other children's programming wouldn't touch at the time. In 1977, for example, the singer Buffy Sainte-Marie helped normalize breastfeeding by nursing her baby in front of Big Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) That's a funny way to feed a baby.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: (As Buffy) You know, lots of mothers feed their babies this way. Not all mothers, but lots of mothers do.

BLAIR: When Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, died suddenly in 1982, "Sesame Street" dealt openly with feelings of loss.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

LONG: (As Susan) Big Bird, when people die, they don't come back.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Ever?

LONG: (As Susan) No, never.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Why not?

BLAIR: Producers spend months researching and consulting with psychologists and other experts on how to talk about difficult themes to small children. But there have still been some missteps. In the 1980s, there had been a series of news reports about child abuse.

ROSEMARIE TRUGLIO: And kids telling their parents that something happened to them at daycare and parents not believing their children.

BLAIR: Dr. Rosemarie Truglio is senior vice president for curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop. She says producers realized one of the storylines on the show was being dismissive of children. The adults didn't believe Big Bird when he said his friend Snuffleupagus was real.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

WILL LEE: (Mr. Hooper) There's no such thing as a Snuffleupagus. It's in your imagination.

BLAIR: Children watching knew Snuffleupagus was real. He just disappeared whenever adults showed up.

TRUGLIO: And that's when I realized this humorous running line through our stories is a wrong thing to do to children because we always need to validate children. And we always need to listen to them and believe in them. And then that's when we decided that the adult cast needs to recognize that Big Bird was indeed telling the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

BOB MCGRATH: (As Bob) From now on, we'll believe you whenever you tell us something.

BLAIR: Telling the truth about the world has long been part of "Sesame Street's" DNA, whether it's homelessness, 9/11, AIDS, addiction. But that's not why children watch it or adults, for that matter, says former cast member Sonia Manzano.

MANZANO: I think probably the Muppets keep the show in everybody's eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C IS FOR COOKIE")

OZ: (As Cookie Monster, singing) Now, what starts with the letter C? Cookie starts with C. Let's think of other things that starts with C. Oh, who cares about other things?

BLAIR: Muppet creator Jim Henson once said he hoped to leave this world a little bit better than it was when I got here. For 50 years, his felt and furry monster friends have been doing just that. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C IS FOR COOKIE")

OZ: (As Cookie Monster, singing) Oh, C is for cookie, that's good enough for me. C is for cookie, that's good enough... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.