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November 12, 2019

The ABC’s of Sesame Street’s First Fifty Years

A retrospective of the seminal children’s show, brought to you by all the letters.

Paula Hendrickson
  • Sesame Workshop
  • Sesame Workshop
  • Sesame Workshop
  • Sesame Workshop
  • Sesame Workshop
  • Sesame Workshop

Children's television changed forever on November 10, 1969, when a colorful community of Muppets and humans invited us to come and play on Sesame Street.

It might have seemed like just fun and games with songs, but the program's core mission has always been to help children grow smarter, stronger and kinder.

"We're making a show that has an impact on kids, helps them get ready for school, get ready for life and gives them a leg up — especially if they don't have a formal preschool education," executive producer Ben Lehmann says. He joined Sesame Street as a production assistant in 2001 and has gone on to direct and produce the show, winning two Primetime Emmys and 11 Daytime Emmys for his work there.

With a star-studded 50th-anniversary special planned for November (airing on HBO and PBS), Lehmann shares some of his favorite things about the show's first half-century, and he does so in classic Sesame Street fashion: alphabetically.

A – Abby Cadabby: It didn't take long for this perpetually four-year-old Muppet to make friends and win fans when her family moved to the neighborhood in 2006.

B – Big Bird: With a heart as big as his eight-foot, three-inch frame, Big Bird is among the most famous of the original Sesame Street characters. "Caroll Spinney, who performed Big Bird for over 50 years and retired this year, is an icon, a beloved performer and an amazing guy. Now Matt Vogel is performing as Big Bird — he's a huge talent and was identified by Caroll years ago and studied under him."

Lehmann says the number-one question people ask when they learn where he works is: "How tall is Big Bird?"

C – Cookie Monster: Lehmann has always had a soft spot for Cookie Monster. "He's so sweet and adorable, yet you always know he's going to go kind of bonkers at the end and eat a cookie — or a lamppost if there are no cookies around.

Sometimes emotions can get the better of you, especially when you're a kid and things can seem so big. Cookie Monster represented that for me as a kid, and to this day I love him."

D – Death of Mr. Hooper: When Will Lee, the actor who played store owner Mr. Hooper, died in 1983, the show's producers, writers and curricular experts decided the character should pass away as well, opening the door for a thoughtful and age-appropriate discussion about death. The Emmy-winning episode epitomizes the show's mission to educate young children.

E – Elmo's World: The ever-optimistic Elmo graduated from a scene-stealing background Muppet to a named character in 1984. By 1996, a shortage of Tickle Me Elmo dolls had parents fighting in toy stores. Lehmann says the 1998 introduction of the "Elmo's World" segment changed the way kids watch TV, thanks to its interactive components.

F – Foodie Truck: The food truck craze hit this street in season 48, when Cookie Monster's Foodie Truck pulled up.

Cookie Monster and the chef, Gonger, don't always have the right ingredients, so they take trips to farms or factories so kids can learn about food sources. Despite Cookie Monster's involvement, the segments focus on healthy eating habits.

G – Grover: This iconic Muppet "has a long history on the show of doing every single job, like being a waiter or a mail carrier," Lehmann says. "He does these segments with a character we call Mr. Johnson, who's a big, blue, round-headed guy."

H – Henson, Jim: Without the creative genius of Muppet master Jim Henson, Sesame Street would not be what it is. Not only did he create many of the show's most recognizable characters — including Bert & Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Elmo and Big Bird — he voiced a few, too, including Kermit and Ernie.

I – Inclusion: From the very beginning, Sesame Street has been a place where people of all ethnicities, walks of life and abilities — plus a wide array of Muppets — are free to ask questions and learn how our differences make us stronger.

J — Julia: In 2017, the show introduced this Muppet on the autism spectrum. "She has different verbal difficulties, but is included by the Sesame Street gang," Lehmann says. "She's touched a lot of people's lives." An estimated one of every 68 U.S. children is on the spectrum, and Julia is a visible part of Sesame Workshop's See Amazing in All Children Initiative.

K – Kermit the Frog: Perhaps Henson's most famous character, Kermit predates Sesame Street by more than a decade. Despite being one of the original Muppets, Kermit — busy with The Muppet Show and other projects, no doubt — eventually transitioned from a regular character to an occasional guest star.

L – Long, Loretta: This former schoolteacher — who holds a doctorate in education — first appeared on the show as Susan Robinson in season one and has been seen as recently as 2017. "She's a wonderful person and such a talent," Lehmann says. "She'll be making an appearance in our 50th-anniversary special."

M – Marriage of Luis and Maria: It was a big deal when the human characters Luis (Emilio Delgado) and Maria (Sonia Manzano) fell in love and subsequently got married on the show, on May 13, 1988. The following year, a pregnancy was written into their storyline, bringing with it questions about where babies come from. Baby Gabi arrived in 1989.

N – Noodles Family: In "Elmo's World" segments, the nonverbal Mr. Noodle (Bill Irwin) and the extended family of other Mr. and Ms. Noodles — including guest stars like Michael Jeter, Kristin Chenoweth, Daveed Diggs and Ilana Glazer — use gestures to communicate (and miscommunicate) with Elmo.

O – Oscar the Grouch: Undoubtedly the world's most lovable trash-loving curmudgeon, Oscar — in his battered can — has been part of Sesame Street since its earliest days.

P – Pilot: Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett developed the concept for Sesame Street during the height of the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty. Their mission was to create a TV show that could help prepare disadvantaged kids for school. In the diverse neighborhood they brought to life, humans of all ethnicities and abilities lived happily alongside "monsters," Lehmann says.

"The pilot was groundbreaking — it's one of the most important moments of the show's history."

Q — Questions: One of the things the show does best is give kids and characters permission to ask questions. Why? Because you can't learn without asking questions.

R – Road Trip: To celebrate the show's 50th anniversary, Big Bird and company took a summer road trip, entertaining kids in 10 cities across the country. At a June stop in Pittsburgh, Lehmann says, "We were conducting interviews with kids and Big Bird, and we were up on the rooftop of a building overlooking the city. People could see us from the street, so we gathered quite a crowd. People were saying, 'Look! Big Bird's up there!'"

S – Superstar Guests: Over the decades, Sesame Street has hosted many famous people. Some grew up as fans, and others wanted to be on their kids' favorite show.

"John Legend was on a couple years ago and sang 'Come Together Song,' and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, took a cellphone video," Lehmann recalls. Teigen posted the video on social media, and later shared the video of their young daughter, Luna, reacting to seeing her dad with the Muppets. Both videos went viral.

T – Teamwork: On-camera, characters often demonstrate the power of teamwork, but teamwork is vital off-camera, too. The show's writers and producers work with educational advisors, performers, puppeteers and the many artists who help bring Sesame Street and its characters to life.

U – Universal Appeal: "We do coproductions around the world, and the mission is for these shows to have their own curriculum and their own production teams," Lehmann says. "We help train them, then we let the producers on the ground make their shows." From Bangladesh to South Africa, versions of Sesame Street are made in 70 languages and watched in 150 countries.

V – Veggie Monster: Viewer reaction was swift when Cookie Monster appeared in a segment touting healthy eating habits — specifically, eating vegetables — and acknowledged that cookies are a "sometimes food."

"People freaked out," Lehmann remembers. "They were saying, 'Don't change Cookie Monster.' We all had a good laugh because we weren't really changing Cookie Monster — we were just making a three-minute segment saying, 'It's okay to eat veggies, too.'"

W – Writers: It takes special people to write a show for impressionable preschoolers. Over the years, Sesame Street has addressed difficult topics like racism, 9/11, disabilities, incarcerated parents and death in age-appropriate ways. "We have amazing writers on the show," Lehmann says, "and the ones who do the best are those who can see through a child's eyes."

X – "X Marks the Spot": Back in the show's third season, this catchy ditty sung by a Muppet named Sherlock Hemlock introduced kids to the letter X.

Y – YouTube: As of press time, the official Sesame Street YouTube channel was approaching 9 million subscribers.

Z – "My Name is Zoe": That's the theme song for Elmo's orange-hued, ballet-loving pal, who debuted in 1993. Her look has evolved over time: originally, she only wore jewelry, but now she wears clothes, too.


This article originallty appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 10, 2019

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