January 25, 2009




Just a few decades ago, early childhood education was given a big boost - and not by the school lobbyists or politicians you might expect - but instead by a giant bird, a trash-dwelling grouch and a cookie-gobbling monster.


The unorthodox pedagogy of "Sesame Street," launched 40 years ago by Joan Ganz Cooney and Jim Henson, revolutionized the role of childrens entertainment in education. And as a third generation becomes exposed to the odd faculty of Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster, the show continues to draw praise for its fun and functional programming.


Helping to kick off the year-long celebration, Michael Davis, author of the recent book "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street," will moderate a lecture Friday on the shows history at William Paterson University. The former TV Guide writer will be joined by such folks as Frank Oz (Bert, Grover and Cookie Monster), Kevin Clash (Elmo), Caroll Spinney (Big Bird and Oscar) and Bob McGrath (Bob).


"It should be fun," McGrath said recently at his Teaneck home. "Weve got a few Muppets and a couple cast members and some of the staff that have been around for a while. Usually those things lead to a really nice informal discussion."


McGrath, who's played Sesame Streets music teacher for the past 40 years, says he has lived "a second life" on the show, as have so many viewers.


"The show is sort of like a definitive reality show. Weve gone through the whole circle of life on the show from a baby with Maria and Luis and we did Mr. Hoopers death and Elmo was born somewhere in the middle of the whole thing."


Through it all the one constant was education even though it was disguised by the efforts of Jim Hensons memorable characters (Grover, the Count, Elmo), countless songs by Joe Raposo ("Bein Green," "Sing," "C Is for Cookie") and constant celebrity pop-ins (James Earl Jones and Carol Burnett in the first episodes, Buzz Aldrin, Johnny Cash and Hillary Clinton later on).


McGrath chalks up the shows longevity to careful study.


"Before the first show went on the air there was just under two years of solid, intense research, and that research is still just as intense now, 40 years later," he said. "[Originally] they tested everything to see what worked with children. They tested animation, film, Muppets. We were basically hired by 5-year-olds."


The 5-year-olds were meant to be mainly inner-city African-Americans who, in the 1960s, were affected by cuts in urban preschool programs. And so Cooney and company had the idea of giving such kids a head start at home. Instead of the "letter of the day" coming from stuffy teachers, it came from playful people, friendly monsters and, most recognizably, an 8-foot-tall bird.


"I loved watching [Big Bird] grow from this goofy bird to this almost real child we know," said Spinney, whos played Big Bird for the last 40 years. "Theres a search for understanding that I think children relate to." Both Spinney and McGrath have plenty of memorable moments to share. McGrath remembers one sketch in which he wore a full tuxedo on the beach before he and an orchestra ran into the ocean. He speaks fondly about meeting guest stars like Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Simon, Jeff Goldblum and Beyoncand about the shows "wild and crazy" wrap parties, during which Muppets would spout dialogue more reminiscent of "Avenue Q" than "Sesame Street."


Spinney likes to laugh at past costume woes, recounting when he fell off the stage as Big Bird, or the time he had to battle an aggressive crowd at Lincoln Center that literally grabbed his attention.


Most notable for both actors, however, is a 1983 show dealing with the death of Will Lee, who played storekeeper Mr. Hooper.


"At first [the writers] were going to write in that [Mr. Hooper] just went to visit his sister or retired, but finally they thought that thats a scam thats not truthful," said McGrath. "They had enough time to do research as to what children needed to know on death and dying and it came out so beautifully."


Spinney added, "We had an excellent script for that show, which you needed for a childrens show to approach such a bold theme as death." Big Bird, who didnt understand death, was the focus of the episode about the loss. "I remember taking off [the costume] and standing there next to Bob, and there were tears in almost everyones eyes."


For Roscoe Orman, formerly of Englewood, whos played Gordon since 1973, the child-focused show speaks to him as a parent. Some of his favorite scenes over the years involved his real-life son Miles, who joined the show in 1985 as the adoptive son of Gordon and wife Susan.


"The show had a very beneficial impact, not just on my kids, but on me as a father," said Orman, who now lives in Montclair. "It put me in touch with their early development years and their needs and made me more sensitive to who they were."


Ultimately, he said, the show offers lessons to parents as well as children, generation after generation.


McGrath still gets comments from fans of the show, current or otherwise. "The most touching reactions have been from older guys, usually African-American, whove hugged me and said, My father wasnt around when I was young and you were like my surrogate father, " he said, tearing up.


"I remember walking through Newark Airport this one time and heard, "Yo Bob," from a woman at the American Airlines counter," he added. "She grew up in the projects in Newark surrounded by crime and drugs. No one in her family had graduated from high school. She told me that when she was 4 or 5 she saw the show and said, I dont care what it takes, Im going to get out of here. Im going to live on Sesame Street."





How 'Street' changed television


When Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch and the human inhabitants of "Sesame Street" hit the airwaves on Nov. 10, 1969, they rocked the world of children's television. Here are five ways that the landmark PBS program revolutionized the genre and the larger TV landscape:


* Faster pace: Launched 12 years before MTV arrived on the scene, "Sesame Street" introduced quick vignettes, animation, "commercials" for letters and numbers, and, yes, even music videos.


* Multi-generational appeal: Never wanting the program to become an electronic babysitter for pre-schoolers, the creators aimed to also reel in older siblings and parents with high production values, sophisticated writing, song parodies, quality animation, hot celebrity guests and clever references to pop culture. Many later shows, including "The Simpsons," also engage at different levels.


* Multi-ethnic casting: "Sesame Street" debuted with two African-American and two Caucasian regular characters and has since broadened its diversity. Luis and Maria, both of whom came aboard in 1971, helped teach viewers about Hispanic culture and language.


* Spoonful of sugar approach: Combining extensive cognitive research with cutting-edge television-entertainment tools, "Sesame Street" was a program in which "learning seems almost a byproduct of fun," as Stefan Kanfer wrote in Time magazine in 1970.


* Merchandising: Sure, there were Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo products before Bert, Ernie and Big Bird came along. But, for better or worse, "Sesame Street" took product licensing and marketing to a whole new level — Tickle Me Elmo being the prime example. A portion of the proceeds from Sesame Workshop-licensed products helps fund the non-profit organization's educational products for children around the world. "Sesame Street" is now in 140 countries.




Big Bird, Oscar and the rest of the characters bring back memories.


We asked readers to send in their "Sesame Street" memories. Here's a sampling. To see them all, go to northjersey.com.


My daughter, who is now 33 years old, would run around our dining room table as soon as the ["Sesame Street"] song started. No matter where she was in the house she would come running.

— Patricia Alleman, Oradell


I am the mother of an almost-3-year-old girl, Natalie, who adores the lovable characters of "Sesame Street" and how her mommy reads her "The Monster at the End of This Book" in her best Grover voice. To this day, MY mom still recounts how "Sesame Street" was the one show that kept me mesmerized for hours as a child. She especially enjoyed how worked up I would get when no one but Big Bird or I could "see" Snuffleupagus!

— Maria Lavaia-Marzano, Wayne


Both our sons, now in their 30s, grew up with "Sesame Street."… The memory that stands out the most is when our [younger] son would go to the window and call "Oscar, Oscar," looking at our neighbor's house. We would be riding in the car and again, "Oscar, Oscar." It took the longest time before we realized he was seeing garbage cans and thought Oscar lived in them.

— Barbara and Charlie Carroll, Lyndhurst


Some 38 years ago, I sat engrossed in the best thing on TV. Thirty-two years later, I did it again with my little boy. … Being a happy, well-adjusted only child, I can honestly and warmly say that the "Sesame Street" characters were my first "friends."

— Lisa Canino-Tredici, Ramsey


My daughter, Allison Leigh Job, who is now 21, began watching "Sesame Street" as a young child. … One morning, she called out to me that she wanted to play beautiful music just like the nice man on the television. She was 3 years old, and the nice man on the TV was violinist Itzhak Perlman. [Violin lessons] led to flute, and later included double bass. Allison… was accepted into The Juilliard School as a double bass major, where that nice man on television teaches. She is now in her last year and auditioning for the Masters Program at Juilliard.

— Gail Job, Ridgewood


As a young mother, I purchased a "Sesame Street" cassette for my 2-year-old son. I often found myself listening to it when I was alone in the car. Nothing cheers me up more than a chorus of "Sing a Song."

— Therese Kearns, Saddle Brook


More often than not, my kids would toddle off to play and I would continue sitting to watch "Sesame Street." Even today (my kids are 23, 21 and 15), some mornings I find myself flipping channels, only to stop at "Sesame Street" to reminisce for a few minutes before I go off to work. (It helps that I'm a pre-K teacher and I never really grew up!)

— Sylvia Boussi, Fair Lawn


My older son, Philip, is deaf. When he was a toddler, he avidly watched "Sesame Street" and so did I. We were thrilled to see Linda Bove, who is also deaf, paving the way to sensitize the hearing community, because she introduced sign language to the show. We were even invited to meet her at the "Sesame Street" set.

— Naomi Miller, Wayne


One of my favorite memories of "Sesame Street" would be that of my mom and dad taking me to the Garden State Plaza back in November 1974 as Big Bird would be making an appearance there. … Big Bird was sitting in an antique, black convertible car and he circled the parking lot to acknowledge everyone there. I could have sworn he waved right at me. I was so happy. It was the greatest day in the life of a 3-year-old girl!

— Stacey Lynn Zegla, Park Ridge


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