Pop Culture

A friend to everyone

As ‘Sesame Street’ turns 50 and accepts the Kennedy Center Honors, its lessons in niceness are still as easy as 1-2-3
From left, “Sesame Street” characters Oscar the Grouch, Ernie, Bert, Big Bird, Julia, Rosita, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Abby Cadabby, Grover and the Count. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

1 Like any grown-ups, then or now, they worried about the power that television had over children. The full-volume blare, the raucously random chaos, the cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs — ka-bam! Pow! Sproiiinng! HEY KIDS!!

The origin story of “Sesame Street,” which has become a permanent piece of cultural history and TV lore, begins at a Manhattan dinner party in the “Mad Men” years. Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer in public-affairs programming, listened to her friend Lloyd Morrisett, a vice president at the Carnegie Corp., describe the way his preschool-aged daughter soaked up everything she saw on TV.

Television is often the problem, but sometimes it’s the answer, too. That dinner party in 1966 started a lasting conversation: What if there was a show that was just as mesmerizing as Saturday cartoons, but instead of breakfast-cereal commercials, the jingles would sell letters and numbers? Or shapes and similarities? And introduce concepts like in, on and under? Could it help kids learn? Could it, in some measurable way, prepare the nation’s less advantaged children for school?

Cooney and Morrisett looked to Harvard University and other institutions, convening curriculum experts, cognitive psychologists and early-childhood researchers to compare notes. There were meetings, seminars and serious arguments about methodology and outcomes.

The experts might have turned the project into a steaming plate of lima beans that no child would ever eat. As described in Michael Davis’s 2008 book “Street Gang: The Complete History of ‘Sesame Street,’ ” some of those meetings grew so tedious that the children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, an invited participant, began doodling pointed cartoons while the academics droned. One drawing was of a child attacking a TV, first with a hatchet, then worse.

“Sesame Street's” Oscar the Grouch. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

2 It’s an ongoing miracle, “Sesame Street” — in the way you remember it, yes, but also as the global humanitarian operation it has become, 50 years after the show premiered in November 1969.

“The way we do [“Sesame Street”] has changed,” says Sesame Workshop President and CEO Jeffrey D. Dunn, who took over five years ago and is credited with bringing the Workshop out of a financial slump, partly by striking a first-run deal in 2015 with HBO, which now foots the bill for “Sesame Street” while still making it available (free) to public-TV viewers.

“But we have stayed relentlessly true to the mission of helping kids grow stronger, smarter and kinder,” he says. “I’m a huge believer in the idea that society is the result of kids growing up. We’re playing a very long game here, looking 30 years ahead at any point in time. . . . Your kids are going to grow up and be the adults of tomorrow.”

“Sesame Street” can feel deeply personal to just about anyone under the age of 55. It taught us to read and count, but it also taught us about kindness and acceptance. It was jazzy and groovy; it had a loose and wild feeling, even with all that PhD scrutiny on every frame.

Today the show is brighter, faster and somehow zippier, set on a cleaner, spiffier Sesame Street (shot on a set in Astoria, Queens) with a community garden and a recycling bin next to Oscar the Grouch’s trash can. Hooper’s Store serves birdseed smoothies and has bistro seating.

Yet the sense of belonging remains. “Sesame Street” was inclusive before anyone really knew what that meant, the first safe space. It is a friend to everyone, which has a lot to do with why it’s the first TV show to receive Kennedy Center Honors.

Cast and crew of “Sesame Street” in 1970. (Robert Fuhring)

Some of its original viewers (Generation X, those lifelong beta-testers) grew up to be some of its most passionate advocates and caretakers, filling key positions today as executives, creators, writers, artists and puppeteers at the Sesame Workshop, formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop.

At the nonprofit corporation’s headquarters across Broadway from Lincoln Center, where more than 500 employees work, every cubicle is festooned with “Sesame” toys of all shapes and sizes — even more as you turn a corner toward the creative wing, where all heck is encouraged to break loose. Everyone here has a story about how the show affected them. When they meet you, they’re eager to hear yours.

“When people talk to us [about ‘Sesame Street’], frequently it is about the literacy. They’ll say, ‘I learned to read because of it,’ ” Dunn says.

“But the second thing is that everyone sees themselves as somewhat unique, and what they saw was some friend that spoke to them, that let them know, ‘I’m a good person, I’m okay,’ and that there are people who are different, and that’s okay, too. The idea that everybody is deserving of respect.”

You can sense where this is going.

Look around, America. Have you forgotten how to get to “Sesame Street?”

“We’ve never been needed more,” Dunn says.

From left, “Sesame Street” characters Rosita, Elmo and Cookie Monster. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

3 Nothing in Cooney’s original 45-page report to the Carnegie Foundation predicts “Sesame Street’s” luckiest break, when the nascent production hired a wildly imaginative young puppeteer (and 1960 University of Maryland grad) named Jim Henson, who immediately understood the concept and assembled a team of puppeteers, including Frank Oz and Caroll Spinney. Together they gave personalities to a group of new friends. In concept, these creatures represented emotional archetypes: a cranky, antisocial monster who lives in a trash can. A furry maniac obsessed with cookies. A thoughtfully empathetic frog.

And more: a scrawny-armed, hapless-yet-optimistic monster; a pair of companionable roommates whose opposite moods adhere to old vaudeville routines; and a sweetly naive canary who stands eight feet tall and keeps a nest in the alley. (“I’m a very nervous bird — I nearly laid an egg right here on Sesame Street.”) In test runs, they clearly were the star attractions.

This raised even more concerns from the experts: How would children, who can be so literal, reconcile the commingling of puppets with the show’s human world, the backdrop of which would resemble a busy block of working-class apartments and retail shops on a shabby (yet cheerful) New York street? Would it make sense?

“Sesame Street's” Ernie, left, and Bert. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

4 “This is near,” says Grover, our old friend with the red nose and matted blue fur, standing close to the camera. Then he runs off in the distance and turns back around.

“And this is FAR!” he screams.

To watch just one old “Sesame Street” clip is to fall giddily down a never-ending YouTube spiral of classic sketches, songs and moments. You remember the feeling of being 3 or 4, when you started to realize you’re you, which is no small thing. It’s an addictive form of time-travel for adults, a flicker of joy with a trace of the melancholy. It’s Proust, covered in felt and feathers. It is near, and it is far.

On a recent afternoon’s binge, I watched one “Sesame” musical number from 1975 called “The Subway!” several times in a row. It’s funny and impressively clever — edgy, even, when compared with the show’s present-day tone. “You could lose your purse; or you might lose something worse, on the subway,” sang an old-lady Muppet, squeezed into a subway car with a trenchcoated Kermit the Frog, a testy Bert and too many others.

During one of my visits to the headquarters this fall, Sesame Workshop archivist Conrad Lochner indulged me by bringing out some ancient treasures, dating to the first financially savvy decision by the Children’s Television Workshop and Henson to license the Muppet characters for books, toys, clothing, record players, you name it. Through generations — including the Tickle Me Elmo frenzy of Christmas 1996 — the merchandise helped “Sesame Street” thrive.

Lochner, who grew up in Las Vegas, likes the way children could absorb an idea of New York from the show. “There was something about the way they showed the sort of grittiness of Sesame Street in a positive way that said [to children], ‘Hey, you know, there’s more out there in the world than just your street, and not all streets are the same,’ ” he says. “It’s that sense of worldliness in your own neighborhood.”

As the show’s 50th anniversary neared, the present-day keepers of “Sesame Street” took time to consider its evolution — where it had been, where it might yet go. Sesame Workshop typically steers clear of nostalgia, focusing on the needs of its present viewers who are just discovering it, usually on smartphones and tablets.

The Muppets themselves are perpetually 3 to 6 years old; some of them may recall that they once met Lena Horne or Johnny Cash and more than 600 other guest stars, but their institutional memory is spotty by design.

Quite happily, however, they remember the words to their entire songbook. At a weekend of anniversary concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center in late October, the puppeteers who play Grover (Eric Jacobson), Ernie (Peter Linz), Big Bird (Matt Vogel), Elmo (Ryan Dillon), Abby Cadabby (Leslie Carrara-Rudolph) and others performed some of “Sesame’s” most beloved oldies, including “Ladybugs’ Picnic,” “People in Your Neighborhood” and “Put Down the Duckie.”

The concert audiences included children and sentimental adults, who got the somewhat rare chance to see the usually off-camera “Sesame” puppeteers at their labor-intensive best as they operated the Muppets, which they hold above their heads, while moving on and off the stage on rolling seats.

What’s most striking is the intimacy of this work (person and puppet), which often requires two puppeteers if a character is using both hands. In ensemble, the Muppets come fully alive because of the tangle of human limbs and bodies and voices below.

Carmen Osbahr, who was recruited by Henson not long before he died suddenly in 1990 at age 53, originated and still plays the character of Rosita, a turquoise Spanish-speaking Muppet who plays guitar.

Puppeteer Jim Henson, holding Bert, amuses a baby during rehearsal for an episode of “Sesame Street” at Reeves TeleTape Studio in 1970 in New York City. (David Attie/Getty Images)

At a point in the concert where the gang performed their 1971 song “Sing” (“Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear”), Osbahr rolled out toward the audience, her hands and arms busy with Rosita, and saw an older man fighting back tears.

“Of course, Rosita had to stop and say, ‘I hope you’re not crying because of my singing,’ ” Osbahr says, “and he said no, and he touched his heart. There’s just so much love for it.”

Christine Ferraro, a longtime “Sesame Street” writer who was tasked with conceiving the show’s 50th anniversary special (which aired on HBO and PBS in November), says she was glad to bring back some seldom-seen old-school characters, such as Roosevelt Franklin and Guy Smiley. But she thought better of just relying on a parade of old clips.

Instead they used “Forrest Gump”-style tricks to insert the host of the special, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, into vintage moments, as if he’d been part of it all along — a way of indicating that all of us, no matter our age, always felt as if we belonged there.

In another scene, pop singer Solange re-creates one of the show’s oldest animated shorts, in which a mother sends her daughter to the store for “a loaf of bread, a container of milk and a stick of butter.” In 2019, it becomes a catchy, modern R&B groove about self-assurance — a sublime merging of past and present.

“What show would still be around like this if it hadn’t changed in 50 years?” Ferraro says. “If ['Sesame Street'] hadn’t changed, it wouldn’t appeal to today’s kids. . . . Every year we’ve called it our ‘experimental season,’ constantly trying to find ways to keep it fresh.”

Elmo of “Sesame Street." (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

5 “When people die, they don’t come back,” one of “Sesame Street’s” adults, Susan (played by Loretta Long), explained to Big Bird in 1983, as the show mourned the death of its friendly shopkeeper, Mr. Hooper (played by the late actor Will Lee). Filmed in one take, it was a profound but basic lesson in processing grief.

It reaffirmed a belief at the Workshop that “Sesame” can take on all kinds of crises its young viewers might be facing. It can be addressed on the air or through specially created content that is made easily available to parents and teachers.

There are studies (there are always studies) that show the learning gap is as dire as it was back when Cooney and company first pitched their concept, especially wherever there is poverty, inequality or other barriers to learning. But there is also proof, says Sherrie Westin, the Workshop’s president of social impact and philanthropy, that “Sesame Street” can help enormously when it gets to the children who need it.

Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) with Bert, left, and Ernie. (Sesame Workshop)
The cast of “Sesame Street” during a celebration of their 50th season of the popular children's TV show. The first episode of “Sesame Street” aired in the fall of 1969. (Richard Termine/AP)
LEFT: Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) with Bert, left, and Ernie. (Sesame Workshop) RIGHT: The cast of “Sesame Street” during a celebration of their 50th season of the popular children's TV show. The first episode of “Sesame Street” aired in the fall of 1969. (Richard Termine/AP)

“Sesame” has helped its viewers cope with divorce, the incarceration of a parent and the deployment of family members in the military. Julia, a Muppet with autism, made her 2017 debut on the TV show to wide acclaim and gratitude from parents. The Workshop reaches children affected by war or hurricanes and other disasters. In Afghanistan, it showed that girls can and should go to school. In South Africa, an HIV-positive Muppet, Kami, helped lessen the stigma of getting tested for the virus.

But there remains, between Muppets and us, something beyond research data; it even transcends the boundaries of performing arts. It’s an ineffable, lasting and mutual love. Children rush toward the Muppets wherever they appear to hold their hands, ask them questions and listen raptly.

While I interview Osbahr on a recent afternoon, Rosita makes a cheerful and talkative appearance, rising from the table to meet me. Her Henson eyes lock with mine and we immediately become friends. One can hardly describe it as anything but life itself.

The work can be isolating, says puppet captain Matt Vogel, best known for playing Big Bird. (He took over the role after years of study with Caroll Spinney, who was Big Bird for more than 40 years.) When he’s fully encased in the feathered costume, Vogel stretches his right arm up high inside the head to control the beak and eyes, while his viewpoint is restricted to a video monitor strapped to his chest. Still, when Big Bird meets and interacts with a child, the mechanics give way to a soulful connection.

On a Make-A-Wish trip to visit a child in California, Vogel says he will never forget the way “her eyes lit up” — as well as the faces of her relatives — when Big Bird stooped low and entered the family’s home. “Who this character was and what this character meant to them — and how valuable this one little moment was that we had with this child.”

Vogel pauses to consider all the people Big Bird has known and all the people who feel like they know, truly know, Big Bird. “You can’t do that with something like a cartoon,” he says.

From left, “Sesame Street's” Julia, Rosita, Elmo, Cookie Monster and Grover. (Mark Mann for The Washington Post)

Story by Hank Stuever. Portraits by Mark Mann. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Design by Eddie Alvarez.

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