*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
That question was answered just a little over 50 years ago with the debut of the beloved television show, November 10, 1969. Sesame Street has now produced over 4,500 episodes seen in more than 150 countries and watched by millions of children (and parents, too). Perhaps you or your children grew up with it.
For all its adoring fans and instant name recognition, Sesame Street was never about entertainment, or at least, not solely about it. According to a Smithsonian article, “Sesame Street arose from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s Great Society agenda, a series of federal programs that carried the ambitious goal of eliminating poverty and racial injustice. As part of these aspirations, Johnson, who had taught poor Mexican American children while a student in college, created Head Start in 1965, seeking to disrupt the multi-generational cycle of poverty through early education programs for disadvantaged preschool children. Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street, said in a 1998 interview that a documentary she produced on the Harlem pre-school program that would become Head Start led her to “become absolutely involved intellectually and spiritually with the Civil Rights Movement and with the educational deficit that poverty created.” Soon thereafter, she teamed up with her friend, Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist and Carnegie Corporation executive, who was looking to back a pre-school education model that could reach a great number of inner-city children. Morrisett secured additional private sector and federal government support, and the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the entity that would produce Sesame Street among other beloved educational programming, was born.”
Television was clearly the medium of choice. By January 1969, 95% of American households had a TV, according to Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (1976 ed., p. R 98-156). Its impact on children was seen both in demands for advertised products and in the seeming normalization of more violent behaviors. If television could be used to have a more positive educational impact, it would certainly be far more cost effective than building many more brick and mortar schools. This was what Cooney was tasked to study. Her report noted that television was an excellent medium for “preschoolers who were already heavy viewers and whose intellectual slate was still relatively clean. But the report warned that the teaching approach would have to be new, different, and exciting. It had to keep this hard-to-please and fickle audience interested. No teacher in front of the blackboard for this group” (Feinstein, pgs. 25-26). Cooney warned that this would not be a cheap fix—kids wanted quality, and the only way to provide that was to be willing to expend large sums of money—to “be bold, be current, be now.” Funding was secured, so game on!
To design the best product possible, Cooney gathered a group of experts in education, advertising, psychology, medicine, the arts, child development, and the social sciences. One of these advisors, “Chester Pierce, an African-American psychiatrist and Harvard professor, helped design what he called the show’s “hidden curriculum” to build up the self-worth of black children through the presentation of positive black images. Pierce also insisted the show present an integrated, harmonious community to challenge the marginalization of African-Americans that children routinely saw on television and elsewhere in society.” Locations in Harlem, the Bronx, and the Upper West Side were scouted to design a brownstone with a stoop for what would become 123 Sesame Street. Originally the name was going to be 123 Avenue B, but that was too New Yorkish, plus, as it turns out, that was an actual address. It was designed to be so authentic that one of the early cast members, a Puerto Rican Bronx native, immediately recognized the set as her “own” street.
It was decided that short, humorous segments that involved puppets, animation, and live actors was the best combination. If the action lagged, or long dialogue ensued, children stopped watching. “From the show’s inception, one of its most-loved aspects has been a family of puppets known as Muppets. Joan Ganz Cooney hired puppeteer Jim Henson (1936-1990) to create a cast of characters that became Sesame Street institutions, including Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover and Big Bird.” Within a few years, efforts were made to diversify the cast, but the original live actors were mostly African-American, including the hosts, Gordon and Susan. Prominent guests included Jackie Robinson, Shirley Chisholm, Nina Simone, Luther Vandross, Mahalia Jackson, and Nat Adderley, Jr.
It must be noted that the show was not met with universal acclaim. In 1970, “Mississippi public television concluded that its viewers were not ready for the portrayal of multiracial harmony on city streets and wouldn’t air Sesame Street. Parents successfully petitioned the station to bring it back and invited the show’s cast to visit Jackson, Mississippi. When the show came to town, the local police showed up in riot gear. Describing the visit in a 1988 interview, Loretta Long recalled, “Little white kids would reach out to kiss me or ‘Gordon,’ the other black character, and you could see their mothers were uneasy. But they’d loosen up, because how can you hate someone who makes your child so happy?”“Ironically, Muppets founder and Sesame Street mainstay Jim Henson was born in Mississippi.
“In light of the show’s racially conscious casting, one cannot be faulted for wondering whether any of Jim Henson’s Muppet creations, more specifically the human-ish Ernie and Bert, have racial identities. No fewer than three interracial pairs appear in the first six minutes of the pilot, just before the two Muppets appear, and as tempting as one might be to believe “Sesame Street” is presenting children with another interracial pair, Henson once remarked, “The only kids who can identify along racial lines with the Muppets have to be either green or orange.” Yet, in its second year, “Sesame Street” did introduce a Muppet, named Roosevelt Franklin, whom the producers openly acknowledged as black. Created and voiced by Matt Robinson, the actor who played Gordon, Roosevelt speaks “Black English,” which Loretta Long outlined in her dissertation as a way to make him “much more believable to the target audience.” Roosevelt dances into his elementary-school classroom where he is recognized as the streetwise student teacher of a boisterous class. He employs the call-and-response of a black preacher when teaching his apparently black peers, prompting one student, Hardhead Henry Harris, to declare after one lesson, “My man, sure can teach!” Many viewers and African Americans at CTW believed that the Muppet reinforced negative stereotypes of black children. In a 1970 Newsweek interview, “Sesame Street” executive producer Dave Connell defended the portrayal, saying, “We do black humor, just like Irish humor and Jewish humor.” Cooney said in Street Gang, “I loved Roosevelt Franklin, but I understood the protests … I wasn’t wholly comfortable, but I was amused. You couldn’t help but laugh at him.” In her dissertation, Long stressed, “The most important thing about Roosevelt is that he always knows the correct answer, whether he talks in standard or nonstandard English.” African-American CTW executives and others Cooney describes as “upper-middle class” blacks put up the strongest objections, and Roosevelt Franklin was cut from the show.” See what you think about Roosevelt Franklin in the video below.
Another character that didn’t last long was Don Music. He was a pianist and lyricist and very amusing, but he “demonstrated his artistic frustration by banging his head on the piano, shouting, “I’ll never get it! Never, never!” Unfortunately, the kids at home found that so amusing, they began to imitate the act themselves.” You can see why parents might complain about that!
Although it is clearly a children’s show, Sesame Street never ignored the role of adults. “There is also a subtle sense of humor on the show that has appealed to older viewers since it first premiered, and was devised as a means to encourage parents and older siblings to watch the series with younger children, and thus become more involved in the learning process rather than letting Sesame Street act as a babysitter. A number of parodies of popular culture appear, even ones aimed at the Public Broadcasting Service, the network that broadcasts the show. For example, the recurring segment Monsterpiece Theater once ran a sketch called “Me Claudius.” Children viewing the show might enjoy watching Cookie Monster and the Muppets, while adults watching the same sequence may enjoy the spoof of the Masterpiece Theater production of I, Claudius on PBS. Several of the character names used on the program are puns or cultural references aimed at a slightly older audience, including Flo Bear (Flaubert), Sherlock Hemlock (a Sherlock Holmes parody), and H. Ross Parrot (a parody of Reform Party founder H. Ross Perot). Over 700 notable personalities have made guest appearances on the show, beginning with James Earl Jones, and ranging from performers like Stevie Wonder to political figures such as Kofi Annan. By making a show that not only educates and entertains kids, but also keeps parents entertained and involved in the educational process, the producers hope to inspire discussion about the concepts on the show.”
Note: The photographs above came from the following:
- James Earl Jones (https://muppet.fandom.com/wiki/James_Earl_Jones);
- Stevie Wonder (https://muppet.fandom.com/wiki/Stevie_Wonder);
- Kofi Annon (https://muppet.fandom.com/wiki/Kofi_Annan).
The show always strove to show viewers people who were not like themselves, to humanize “the other,” and to promote tolerance and compassion through understanding. From 1972 to 2004, a live human named Linda Bove “who is hearing impaired in real life … was Sesame’s resident librarian. In front of the cameras, Linda taught young children about the daily challenges for the hearing impaired, and behind the scenes, she worked hand-in-hand with writers to make sure the character was authentic and truly representative.” A bilingual puppet named Rosita introduced a Spanish word-of-the-day and helped children learn about Latin American life. A staff member’s son with Down syndrome “blended with the other kids on the set, appearing in fifty-five episodes as his charming, exuberant self; he not only counted to ten on Sesame, he did it English and Spanish.” (Davis, pg. 234) A young girl named Tarah with osteogenesis imperfecta was on the show 1993 to 2001. “Because of this genetic disorder, Tarah needed a wheelchair to get around, but didn’t let it slow her down. In her very first appearance she demonstrated for the other children (and some eager-to-learn-Muppets) how she did her wheelchair exercises, and even wowed them with a video tape of her winning a big race. In later episodes, she taught about accessibility ramps and performed in a wheelchair ballet.” The South African version of Sesame Street introduced a puppet that was HIV-positive. In 2011, the show debuted a version in Afghanistan. “In 2016, the company decided to tackle the issue of women’s rights the only way it knows how, with a colorful Muppet. Zari, whose name means ‘shimmering,’ is the first Muppet of Afghan descent, and was created to provide young Afghan girls with a powerful and positive role model.“ The puppet Julia joined the cast in 2017, operated by a puppeteer whose son has autism. Because of the width of the autism spectrum, Julia exhibits some common traits but is not intended to depict every autistic child. “In 2010, Joey Mazzarino, a puppeteer and head writer at Sesame Street, noticed that his daughter Segi, who is African American, was growing frustrated when playing with her Barbie dolls because they, unlike herself, had long, silky blonde hair. Unfortunately, Segi is definitely not alone in feeling this way, and even seven years later, diverse children’s toys are still not mainstream. Rather than just tell his daughter that her hair was beautiful, Mazzarino wrote a song called “I Love My Hair” and, with the help of the crew on the Street, created the now-series regular Muppet named Segi, to perform it. The song struck a chord with African American girls (and women) all over the world.” In 2006, the Israeli Sesame Street “introduced Mahboub, an Arab-Israeli Muppet who spoke both Arabic and Hebrew. He would often be the conduit between groups of children and Muppets from all sides, showing that differences in language and culture shouldn’t keep people from being friends.” The first main female character was Abby Cadabby. Most recently, Sesame Street introduced a muppet whose mother is struggling with addiction, a nod to the opioid crisis. To see videos of Tarah, Mahboub, and Segi, visit https://www.history.com/news/8-stereotype-shattering-sesame-street-characters.
Clearly, the gamble paid off. “Bert, Ernie, and the gang have won more Emmys—189—than any other TV series (and about as many Grammy’s as Taylor Swift). The show has spawned scads of spinoffs (The Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact), home video franchises and even a couple of feature films (including a new one in the works with Anne Hathaway).” In terms of its impact, economics professors Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine were able to exploit an anomaly in the way the show was broadcast in order to research its effect. “When Sesame Street aired in 1969, about two-thirds of US households with TVs had access to it, thanks to a higher-quality television signal, while one-third didn’t, because they had a lower-quality signal. The researchers mapped out which counties had access to the two signals and then, using US Census data from 1980, 1990, and 2000, assessed kids from those counties based on three factors: what proportion of children were enrolled in the appropriate grade for their age; whether they attended college, dropped out of college, or graduated from college; and their employment, hourly wage, and poverty status.” Kearney and Levine noted that when Sesame Street first aired, most children did not attend pre-school although the majority did go on to attend kindergarten, which was usually half-day. The primary factor they considered in assessing the show’s impact was whether students stayed at the appropriate grade for their age (i.e., they were not held back). “For cohorts who should have started school in 1968 and earlier, there is not a large difference in grade-for-age status between those in stronger versus weaker reception counties. For cohorts who should have started school in 1970 and later, there is a clear positive difference in rates of grade-for-age status between those in the two areas. As a whole, those in the strong reception counties are 1.5 to 2 percentage points more likely to be at the grade level appropriate for their age in 1980. Differences in grade-for-age status for the 1969 school start year cohort are positive, but smaller than those for subsequent cohorts, as expected. Overall, this figure provides evidence supportive of an effect on grade- for-age status brought about by exposure to Sesame Street” (pgs. 334-335). Furthermore, “for those cohorts that started school in 1970 and afterward, we see a statistically significant (at least at the 10 percent level) increase in grade-for-age status associated with greater Sesame Street coverage” (pg. 337). Attempts to measure the continuing impact of Sesame Street viewing on high school students’ academic and sociological development were less successful, and the authors concluded that such impact was not continual. Still, the show succeeded in terms of its stated purpose. “The positive effect of the show appears to have been particularly pronounced for boys and black, non-Hispanic children, along with those children who grew up in counties characterized by greater economic disadvantage. In that regard, Sesame Street satisfied its goal of preparing children for school entry, especially for black and disadvantaged children. Remarkably, the show accomplished that at a cost of around $5 per child per year (in today’s dollars)” (pg. 343).
Time marches on, and so does Sesame Street. The genius behind the Muppets, Jim Henson, died in 1990, but the Jim Henson Company continues, operated by his remaining four children. Muppet characters have come and gone, and original characters evolved. Did you know the Cookie Monster once had teeth? Grover was once green? Oscar the Grouch had only a head and neck? Ernie’s sweater had wide stripes? Since 2015 the show is broadcast on HBO, although PBS has the rights to air the episodes, with a 9-month delay. Kermit once said, “Yeah, well, I’ve got a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people to share it with.” Shared dreams—like Sesame Street in 1969 (and today)—are always the best.
Holiday on Ice brought some beloved Muppet characters to Evansville in 1979. Look at how fans adored Cookie Monster.
Both photographs are from the Gregory Smith collection at the University Archives and Special Collections at David L. Rice Library at the University of Southern Indiana.
- Cookie Monster carrying a female skater: MSS 034-2677.
- Cookie Monster interacting with the audience: MSS 034-2685
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Davis, Michael. Street gang: the complete history of Sesame Street. New York: Viking, 2008. General Collection PN1992.77.S43 D38 2008
Feinstein, Phyllis. All about Sesame Street. [New York, Tower Publications, 1971]. General Collection LB1044.7 .F4
Greene, Bryan. “The Unmistakable Black Roots of Sesame Street.” Smithsonianmag.com, November 7, 2019.
Guthrie, Marisa. “Where ‘Sesame Street’ Gets Its Funding — and How It Nearly Went Broke.” Hollywood Reporter, February 6, 2019.
Guthrie, Marisa. “50 Years of Sunny Days on ‘Sesame Street’: Behind the Scenes of TV’s Most Influential Show Ever.” Hollywood Reporter, February 6, 2019.
Hennes, Joe. “9 Muppets Kicked Off Sesame Street.” Mental Floss, November 10, 2009.
Jones, Brian Jay. Jim Henson: the biography. New York: Ballantine Books, . General Collection PN1982.H46 J66 2013
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Morrow, Robert W. Sesame Street and the reform of children’s television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c. 2006, 2008. General Collection, PN1992.77.S43 M67 2008
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Stezano, Martin. “8 Stereotype-Shattering Sesame Street Characters.” History.com website, November 7, 2019.
Timsit, Annabelle. “Economists Explain Why Kids Who Watched Sesame Street Did Better in School.” Quartz website, February 22, 2019.