Once again, Mr. Brown Snowflake has provided us with a guest column! With gratitude to him, and for our enjoyment, here it is. It originally ran on the Editorial pages of the Perry Chief on November 6, 2009.
Forty Years of Sunny Days on Sesame Street
One of the greatest gifts ever given to the children of America will be celebrating a birthday Tuesday.
A little experiment that was years in the making originally aired on New York Public Television on Nov. 10, 1969, sprightly singing “Sunny day/Sweepin’ the clouds away/On my way to where the air is sweet/Can you tell me how to get/How to get to Sesame Street?”
For four decades the geniuses at the Children’s Television Workshop (created to maintain artistic, non-commercial control over their productions) have taught untold millions their ABC’s and basic numbers, encouraged multi-ethnic friendships, offered assurance in times of trouble and provided a wholesome, safe haven where every day is a “sunny day.”
The seed that became Sesame Street first took serious root when driving force Joan Cooney first met Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Corporation. Morrisett happened to notice one day in 1965 that his three-year old daughter, Sarah, happily sang back commercial jingles from television.
Cooney, who had spent years working with Bob Keeshan on Captain Kangaroo took it from there (to cut it quite short) and Sesame Street was on its way.
It so happens that, born in the summer of 1966, I was the perfect age — the exact beginning audience — when Sesame Street survived its first season (the show was trashed by a majority of critics, though the educational establishment was largely ecstatic).
WILL-TV 12, the PBS affiliate operated by the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, was one of the first midwestern PBS stations to latch on. I do not recall whether it was mom, dad, the baby-sitter or fate, but something plunked little Jeffrey down in front of the big Zenith one day and, well, he was hooked.
At 43 I still am, though I must confess to not having much tolerance for Elmo.
Jim Henson’s genius, was, of course, hugely instrumental in the success of the program and the Muppets remain so today. Henson never wanted his creations tied to Sesame Street, and went on to launch The Muppet Show in the late 70′s. Naturally, I have that entire series — aimed very much at an adult audience — on DVD. You should, too.
The casting of Sesame Street has usually been perfect, too. Luis, Maria, Bob, Susan and Gordon, Mr. Hooper . . . all have been some of the more enduring characters ever created and several of the original cast are still there, helping Big Bird overcome various anxieties and still hoping to convert Oscar into a lovable lug.
That Oscar – irascible, bitter and negative – would immediately be a hit with children was one of the biggest surprises to early critics of the show. His inclusion, at Henson’s insistence, was a source of intense conflict in the early stages that ended up a gem, a pattern that has often been repeated (the baker who falls down a flight of steps while carrying a tray of various numbered items and the Snuffaluffagus are two other examples).
Anyone who spent a portion of their childhood watching Sesame Street is likely able to sing at least a considerable portion of at least a dozen of Joe Raposo’s brilliant musical creations. All someone needs to do is hum a bar of “The People That You Meet” or “Sing” or “Rubber Duckie” or “I Have Five” in a group of similar-aged adults and the fun begins all over again.
I still shed tears of laughter at the Yip-Yips looking in the Earth Book to figure out how to talk to a telephone or a grandfather clock. The manic energy of Cookie Monster is an undying hit, too, and who can forget looking skyward with Bob and Big Bird and some neighborhood children as Alphabet Bates uses his plane to spell a capital letter in the sky?
There is a wonderful kaleidoscope of programming on television for children now, but almost none of it would be there if we had not been asked for directions to Sesame Street.
While the idea may seem simple — puppets and people interact and sing songs to educate kids — take a moment to ponder what it must have been like to start from scratch, with no money and little support beyond encouragement from friends.
Sesame Street spent the better part of three years in labor, and it was not at all certain to live to be a toddler. Now CTW’s gem is 40 and shines as brightly as ever.
Sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away. . . .
Much of the information in this column is courtesy of Michael Davis’ magnificent 2008 book Street Gang: The Origins of Sesame Street. It is a detailed trip through the early years to the current day and comes with my highest recommendation. – JW.