Sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away… as the educational children’s show turns 50, Donal O’Keeffe learns how to get to Sesame Street.
On Monday, November 10, 1969, a little girl called Sally arrives at her new neighbourhood on a grubby, pre-gentrification New York street.
Outside the steps of number 123, she meets local resident Gordon, a young teacher.
“Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street,” he tells her.Gordon is black. This seems no big deal, although it’s only a year since Martin Luther King was murdered.
Holding Sally’s hand in perhaps more innocent days, Gordon shows her around the street, meeting the people in the neighbourhood.
There’s Bob, a music teacher, Mr Hooper, a gruff but kind-hearted grocer, and Susan, Gordon’s wife.
Then, as Gordon introduces Sally to local kids Arianna and Ronald, a ridiculous, 8ft tall yellow-feathered creature comes crashing through the doors beside 123.
Big Bird’s head looks smaller, but watching now on YouTube, it’s striking how near to the finished product much of that first episode is. From the basement window of 123 comes a warbling, yodelling sound, and Gordon tells Sally that’s Ernie, who lives with his friend Bert, and Ernie always sings in the bath.
Cue a bath-time sketch featuring the two Muppets. Later, Gordon bangs on the lid of the trash-can outside 123, and introduces Sally to Oscar the Grouch. Oscar is golden-furred, rather than his familiar snot-green, but he’s immediately, endearingly obnoxious.
Live-action sections are interspersed with animated slots, and filmed educational sequences, and a public-service announcement by Kermit the Frog on the letter W is sabotaged when Cookie Monster eats the W. Kermit, a Sesame Street News roving reporter, gained early fame for fast-breaking news stories like ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘Pinocchio’s Nose’, and ‘Rapunzel’s Rescue’,before abandoning journalism for a showbiz career.
Who wouldn’t? Sesame Street was brought to you, that day, by the letters W, S, and E, and the numbers 2 and 3.
Sesame Street was a production of the Children’s Television Workshop (nowadays the Sesame Workshop) and was the creation of Joan Ganz Cooney, a visionary producer who wished to “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them”, and Carnegie Foundation vice-president Lloyd Morrisett.
Jim Henson’s Muppets (short for “marionette-puppets”) would become key to Sesame Street’s success, and a merchandising goldmine, but initial expert opinion advised that small children would be disturbed by Muppets interacting with humans.
A re-think saw Muppets become equal stars. Henson performed the jokey, upbeat Ernie, and Frank Oz the humourless, uptight Bert. A famous rumour is that Ernie and Bert are a couple.
Former Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman claimed he wrote Ernie and Bert’s interactions based on his relationship with partner Arnold Glassman.
The Sesame Workshop says the characters “do not have a sexual orientation” but always promote inclusion and acceptance. Regardless of romance, the important thing is surely that Ernie and Bert love each other despite their differences, a lesson from which children of all ages can benefit.
Sesame Street’s enlightened politics proved sometimes controversial, and in April 1970 a Mississippi state commission banned the show in the state.
One commission member, speaking anonymously to the New York Times, stated “Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children” and said the main objection was “mainly that we’re not ready for it yet”.
Joan Ganz Cooney called the ruling “a tragedy for both the white and black children of Mississippi”. Some 22 days later, the decision was overturned.
In 1982, Will Lee, Mr Hooper since the show began, passed away. Rather than re-cast, or explain away his absence, the producers decided to address his death.
The child-like,innocent Big Bird, who could never get Mr Hooper’s name right, became upset when the street’s adults attempted to explain, tearfully, why “Mr Looper” would never be coming back. Seeing the grown-ups embrace a heartbroken bird helped a generation of children understand loss.
A big part of Sesame Street’s charm has always been its top-notch musical guests. BB King, Ray Charles, and Feist rocked the street. R.E.M.’s ‘Furry Happy Monsters’ is a classic.
Repeat performer Johnny Cash relished duetting with kindred spirit Oscar the Grouch.
Stevie Wonder once spent an episode teaching Grover about music.
In 1994, Sesame Street narrowly escaped destruction at the hands of a creature too preposterous ever to exist in real life, billionaire tycoon Ronald Grump (Joe Pesci in aridiculous wig) who wanted to replace it with Grump Tower. To the fury of the improbable villain, the street was saved when Oscar refused to leave his trash-can.
An unhappier crisis hit the street in 2012 when Kevin Clash, performer of the wildly successful Elmo,became the subject of a swirl of sexual abuse allegations.
The accusations were unproven, but Clash resigned and was replaced.
A 2016 deal with HBO secured financing for a greater number of new episodes, but it controversially means subscription viewers see those episodes before public service viewers do.
Regardless of controversy, Sesame Street remains as decent and relevant as ever,recently introducing new Muppet character Karli — who is in foster care because her mom is ill — as a way of talking to kids about opioid addiction.
Sesame Street is not currently available in Ireland, but spin-offs Furchester Hotel, Elmo’s World, and Bert’s Experiments air on TG4.
The show’s YouTube channel is a good place to catch it.
On Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary, there are over 150 international versions of the show, produced in over 70 countries.
Of the original team that developed and produced Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney said:
“Collectively, we were a genius.” Half-a-century later, that spirit of genius is alive and well.