Happy Sesame Street Day! I can count the number of remaining Doodles on one hand: 1, 2, 3! You know, like 123 Sesame Street?! The program which has been linked to increased prosperity in children with access to the program as opposed to those who didn't. The show wrapped up it's 51st season this year, making it one of the longest running programs in TV history. Pretty impressive... and here I am patting myself on the back for a year!
On the tenth anniversary of the debut of “Sesame Street,” the New York Times offered an appraisal of the revolutionary children’s television program, reminding readers that the show with universal appeal initially declared its target audience, “the four-year old inner-city black youngster.” The show commemorates its 51st anniversary this year, and is broadcast in more than 150 countries.
“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.
The CTW, which was renamed Sesame Workshop in 2000, was not simply a production company of writers, directors and producers. A board of experts from the diverse fields of education, child development, psychology, medicine, the social sciences, the arts, and advertising advised Cooney and her team on its work, which placed a premium on the inclusion of black perspectives. A January 1970 Ebony profile of “Sesame Street” included a photo of Cooney flanked by a team of African-American women, including the head of Seattle Head Start and the headmistress of a New York preschool. 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.
“Sesame Street” cast member Loretta Long, who played Susan from the show’s first episode through today, devoted a full chapter of her doctoral dissertation to Pierce’s curriculum, which included “locating the show in an inner city neighborhood with old brownstones and lots of trashcans.” Such a setting, the producers concluded, would help “the inner city child relate more to us [cast members] as his neighbors.”
Producer Jon Stone said the show’s set design was inspired by a 1968 public-service announcement campaign calling on New York City residents to “Give a Damn” about children living in blighted areas of Harlem. In an interview for journalist Michael Davis’ definitive book on the history of the show, Street Gang, Stone stated, “For a preschool child in Harlem, the street is where the action is…Our set had to be an inner-city street, and more particularly it had to be a brownstone so the cast and kids could ‘stoop’ in the age-old New York tradition...”
Stone enlisted set designer Charles Rosen to scout locations in Harlem, the Upper West Side and the Bronx as models for the brownstone that would become 123 Sesame Street. Sonia Manzano, a Puerto Rican Bronx native who joined the show in 1971 as the character Maria, recalled that when she first saw the program on television as a college student, she said, “‘Hey! That’s my street!” That urban sensibility inspired her to join the show.
Just as advertisers appeal to people’s identification with celebrities to sell products, Sesame Street enlisted African-American guest stars to help teach the alphabet and numbers. James Earl Jones, just off his Tony-Award-winning performance on Broadway in The Great White Hope, taped a segment for the “Sesame Street” pilot, which was broadcast November 10, 1969. Jones slowly and authoritatively recited the alphabet. Just before Christmas 1969, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson appeared on the program and led children in a singalong of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand.”
That same month, a host of notables recorded promotional spots, including baseball player Jackie Robinson, Shirley Chisholm (the first black U.S. congresswoman), and Ethel Kennedy, human rights activist and widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, whose 1968 campaign for president centered around civil rights. If the roster of celebrity support these early months and years sent too subtle a message, Nina Simone made the show’s “hidden curriculum” explicit, when she joined four black children on the stoop in 1972 and sang, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”
While the cast of Sesame Street today is diverse in almost every respect (even by 1971, “Sesame Street” took steps to hire more Hispanic performers and talent and later would cast actors with physical disabilities), the on-air talent for the pilot episode was overwhelmingly black, including the principal hosts, Gordon and Susan. Most of the African-American cast and crew came up through the interconnected black entertainment world of New York in the late 1960s. Long had been the co-host of “Soul!”, an unapologetic Black Power showcase of politics and culture on New York public television, and heard about “Sesame Street” from Rosen, the set designer, who was also on the crew for “Soul!” Rosen knew Long was a teacher and told her, according to Street Gang, “This show is going to be about teaching preschoolers. You need to know about it.”
Susan’s husband, Peter, who worked at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, provided the musical talent, a 16-member youth ensemble named Listen My Brother, for the “Sesame Street” pilot. Fronting the group, which would make appearances throughout the first season, were three vocalists who would each achieve a measure of fame: Luther Vandross, who would go on to win eight Grammys; Robin Clark, who would sing with David Bowie and Simple Minds; and Fonzi Thornton, who would form Chic with Nile Rodgers (a later member of Sesame Street’s touring band). On guitar was Clark’s future husband, Carlos Alomar, a Puerto Rican native of Harlem who would write “Fame” with David Bowie and John Lennon and collaborate with Bowie for decades. Jazz legend Nat Adderley, Jr., played piano. In the first episode, the musicians wore African dashikis, the Black Power fashion of the time, popularized by the Harlem fashion boutique, New Breed.
Back when the show was less entrenched in popular culture, “Sesame Street” had its critics. A Boston Globe columnist took a swipe at the show in 1970 for striving not only to teach literacy but “to inculcate the Golden Rule, the Beatitudes and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the television screen.” That same year, 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?”
While the main goal of “Sesame Street,” as it was for the Head Start program, was to level the early-education playing field for disadvantaged, inner-city children, the show has endured because it has been wildly successful at educating preschoolers of all backgrounds. More than a thousand research papers into the educational value of “Sesame Street” have been published; a 2015 study published in the American Economic Journal “quantifies just how big a difference the show made, comparing the educational and professional achievements of children who had access to the show compared to those who didn’t.” According to the study, “Sesame Street” cost $5 per child per year, in today’s dollars, versus the estimated $7,600 per child per year that Head Start costs taxpayers. For its impact on education and television, the word educators and cultural critics most commonly use to describe “Sesame Street” is revolutionary.
After decades of congressional budget hearings where Big Bird was cited as the paragon of the virtuous entertainment that only taxpayer-supported public television could provide, the Sesame Workshop moved the show to HBO in 2015. The DVD market that had long sustained the show evaporated, and PBS could no longer afford “Sesame Street”’s real estate. While the show’s move to cable suggests, to some, a diminished commitment to public television as the great equalizer in America society, it also demonstrates the show’s capacity to remain viable amidst dramatic changes in the media landscape. Remaining true to the show’s founding principles, the HBO deal provided for all episodes to be rerun later on PBS.