History

The Origins of Sesame Street

Sesame Street is an American cultural institution. It started in 1969 and is produced to this day. Here, Douglas Reid looks at the origins of the show.

Then First Lady Barbara Bush on Sesame Street in October 1989.

Then First Lady Barbara Bush on Sesame Street in October 1989.

Do you recall these lines in a song from 1965? 

 

Counting flowers on the wall,

That don’t bother me at all.

Playing solitaire ‘til dawn,

With a deck of fifty one

Smokin’ cigarettes and

Watchin’ Captain Kangaroo

So don’t tell me I’ve nothing to do”

 

It is certainly the case that Captain Kangaroo held sway in 1965 but a little green frog was in the wings and he and his muppet gang were about to sweep the clouds away and with them Mr. Bob Keesham, a.k.a. Captain Kangaroo. The prime sweeper was Jim Henson. His early main assistant was Frank Oznowicz, forever after to be known as Frank O. Early additions included Joe Raposo and Caroll Edwin Spinney, who was a child-like man both on and off the set. It can be no surprise that he was Big Bird. Two other major muppets were Cookie Monster (my favorite) and Grover. And the key non-muppet in those early days was Lloyd Morrisette. The next item to be looked at was a name for the show and here is a tale to tell.

A cluster of eight people who made up the Friday afternoon meeting had only one name considered at the time but nobody but nobody liked it – Sesame Street. It was being used tentatively only. Every one hated it. One board member thought it had too many ‘esses.’ Another found it unimaginative. And so on. Then it was decided that until something was agreeable to all they would go with the interim name. No one did and that begs the question, where did the name come from in the first place? 

 

The name

Just one week earlier Virginia Schoen, a representative of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), asked the children to suggest names for the new show and they submitted seven names for her to consider. One of the choices was Sesame Street. And so it prevailed. Virginia never was able to identify the five-year old name-giver. The group had a name for the production. Now it needed a set.

Earlier In the year the CTW had decided that its home base would not be Los Angeles. The unanimous choice was New York. It was felt that the sorts of people needed for this enterprise were to be more easily found here. First a locum was needed.

The board, when first formed, had decided on a set that was a mirror image of contemporary Harlem. A suitable faux Brownstone was erected; complete with stoop and the address for the Brownstone would be 123 Sesame Street. By now it was time to call on good old Joe Reposo for Sesame’s new theme music.

 

Theme tune

Joe composed the theme music for Sesame Street. It is melodic and simple enough for a child to recognize and even to sing along to but still revealed a musical sophistication. It underscored the footage of joyful children running and the recurring chorus – “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” So do you ever wonder where the Children’s Television Workshop finds its stories, banter, plays, etc.? Here is a typical “Solve” achieved by the muppets themselves:

Muppets are sitting around a coffee table pretending they are suits (executives).

“Alright, all right. How about this for a title. ‘The two and two are five show.’”

Conference Leader Muppet, ‘Are you crazy? This is supposed to be an educational show. Two plus two don’t make five.’

First Muppet: they don’t? Then how about the two plus two ain’t five show? 

Second Muppet: This is a show for kids. Right? How’s about we call it the little Kiddie show?

All: Sounds all right! We like it!

Third Muppet: But we ought to say something about the show telling it like it is. Maybe the Nitty-Gritty, Little kiddie Show! 

All: Not bad! Yeah! We like that! 

Fourth Muppet: Yeah but “Little Kiddie” can mean any child up to the age of seven or eight. I think we should aim the show right at the preschooler. 

First Muppet: Well then, how about the Itty – Bitty, Nitty – Gritty, Little Kiddie Show? 

Fifth Muppet: But we shouldn’t aim at either just the city kids, or just the country kids, so we call it the Itty – Bitty, Farm and City, Witty – Ditty, Nitty –Gritty, Dog and Kitty, Pretty Little Kiddie Show. 

 

Judy Collins

By the mid-seventies the Muppets were in full stride. If there ever was a perfect guest on Sesame Street it was Judy Collins. On the day in 1975 that Judy Collins recorded “The Fisherman’s Song” for Sesame Street, a gaggle of Muppets formed an “old salt chorus, some bedecked in yellow oil-skin slickers. It was a scene right out of Gloucester harbor, with nets and lobster traps strewn about and a lighthouse in the distance. Strumming an autoharp at tempo that recalled a sea shanty, Collins poured out the melody clear and true as the Muppets harmonized and danced about. The puppeteers were Jane Henson, Frank Oz, Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson, invisible to the eye of the camera, but palpable in presence. 

It was an enchantment of a performance. There are other highlights of the visits of Judy Collins that I recall. There was the operatic-alphabetic duet she sang with Snuffleupagus. To a mock – Mozart score, Collins and Snuffy flowed around the street dancing a mini-minuet. 

Judy Collins credited Sesame Street for extending the depth and breadth of her fan base. “People would come up to me at concerts and tell me how much they loved the Yes and No song I did with Bert and Ernie. They were little children when it first aired. They grew up and started coming to my shows.” For them, during a critically important time in their childhood, Sesame Street was the best of all television. If there is, or has been, anything more in sync with a happy, wholesome, and funny childhood on television I have yet to meet it.

 

Conclusion

However, some teachers are not best pleased – not all by any means and seldom high school teachers. The perpetrators claim little kids come to them already familiar with basic arithmetic and quite at home with the alphabet. This is bad? Apparently they find it too difficult to blend with their own lesson plans. Neither am I a fan of “lesson plans” but that is for another essay on another day. They act the part of being at odds with something wondrous.

I loved Sesame Street as a little person and as a big person. Now that I have no choice but to always be thoughtful and acting like a serious big person I will attempt to leave this stage with all proper decorum:

Me Like Cookie

Me eat Cookie

UMM-UM-UM-UM-UM

 

 

What do you think of Sesame Street? Let us know below.

Now, you can read more from Douglas here, with an article on the man whose book may have led to the American Revolution.

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