Familiar surroundings, welcoming pals, and fuzzy friends make Sesame Street a staple among children's television programming. Sesame Street puppeteers bring well-known characters like Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, and Cookie Monster to life, all while incorporating educational content and socially relevant information. The Sesame Street set is a neighborhood that millions of children and adults continue to visit regularly.
Since the first episode of Sesame Street in 1969, the program has gone international - now aired in 120 countries worldwide. Going behind the scenes of Sesame Street offers insight into how the program came to fruition. It's also helpful to understanding how Sesame Street has maintained its educational importance and cultural relevance for more than 50 years. Guest stars, musicians, Muppets, and actors show up in front of the camera, but Sesame Street behind the scenes is about so much more than what you see on a screen.
The Show Was Originally Pitched As An Alternative To Preschool
As like-minded individuals inspired by social change during the 1960s, Lloyd Morrisett and Joan Ganz Cooney joined forces. Intrigued by the possibility that television could help reconcile the education gap between disadvantaged youngsters and their middle-class counterparts, Morrisett and Cooney decided to take a closer look.
Morrisett, a psychologist and an executive at the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York, sponsored Cooney, a television producer in New York, to carry out a feasibility study on the topic. Cooney found that "[m]ore households have televisions than bathtubs, telephones, vacuum cleaners, toasters, or a regular daily newspaper," indicating there was no limit to where child-centered television could reach. She also determined children pick up music and short sayings from television, both of which could be incorporated into educational programming.
Cooney used her study as the backbone of her proposal, "Television for Preschool Children." She proposed a show "to promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers." Alongside teaching, "a certain amount of specific information (letters, numbers, language tools, etc.)," such a show could also "teach the children how to think, not what to think."
Morrisett secured $1 million in funding from the Carnegie Corporation for the project. Additional fundraising efforts brought the total to about $8 million - money that would be used to found the Children's Television Workshop.
Jim Henson Struck A Savvy Deal To Maintain A Degree Of Creative Control
Producer Joan Ganz Cooney enlisted Harvard professor and developmental psychologist Gerald Lesser as the show's chief adviser. With additional academics, Lesser and Cooney put on seminars to discuss concepts, curricula, and creative aspects of the show. Cooney also enlisted television professionals who'd worked on other children's shows to get their input.
Former Captain Kangaroo producer and director Jon Stone invited puppeteer Jim Henson to one of the seminars. When the bearded, expressionless figure walked in and sat near the back, Cooney asked someone nearby, "How do we know that man back there isn’t going to throw a bomb up here or toss a hand grenade?" She was assured it was a peaceful observer - Henson.
Henson was already making a name for himself as an artist and innovator. He had worked one Sam and Friends, a live-action and puppet show, where he debuted his Muppets like Kermit the Frog. Henson's skills were essential, according to Stone. He made it clear, "If we can't get Henson... then we just won't have puppets."
Henson was interested in the show that would become Sesame Street. He wanted to maintain the integrity of his characters and the content before he signed on, so he secured the rights to the creations and negotiated for half of merchandise profits. With the popularity of Sesame Street in years to come, Henson earned roughly $10 million from his merchandising royalties by the mid-1970s.
'Sesame Street' Responded To Early Criticism By Making Its Cast More Diverse
Sesame Street debuted on November 10, 1969, wildly popular and well received by critics. The New York Daily News called it "an experimental series... [that] should be a must for small fry." Variety television reporter Les Brown praised Sesame Street as "the apotheosis of education through show business... the show moves, seduces, diverts, dazzles, amuses, and infects."
As ratings rose and educational benefits became tangible, observers pointed to a lack of diversity among the human actors. In response, co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney convened a group of advisers to address criticisms that the show "reflected the racist attitude of [the Children's Television Workshop (CTW)]... and the nation towards its Spanish-speaking people."
Cooney and the CTW, acknowledging Sesame Street's lack of bilingual and bicultural elements, soon hired Hispanic actors, staff, and content creators. Maria, played by Sonia Manzano, joined the show in 1971 and stayed on Sesame Street - where she appeared as "the first leading Latina woman on television... a role model for young girls and women for generations" - for 44 years.
During the early 1970s, feminists found the presentation of the few females on Sesame Street to be problematic. For example, characters like Alice Braithwaite Goodyshoes gave the impression that being a smart girl is somehow negative. Sesame Street addressed these concerns by adding women writers and making Susan, played by Loretta Long, a nurse.
Some Attempts At Representation Caused Controversy
Diversification on Sesame Street prompted dramatic reactions in parts of the United States. In Mississippi in 1970, Sesame Street was banned because the State Commission for Educational Programming said "some of the members... were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children." Apparently members of the commission "felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it."
Sesame Street didn't pull back from its efforts to represent cultural differences, however. According to producer Jon Stone, to reach "[a] preschool child in Harlem, 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." This, at least in part, led to the introduction of Roosevelt Franklin in 1970.
Franklin, designed to "represent Black kids, not just by having Black cast members, but also in the Muppet-sphere," spoke "Black English... much more believable to the target audience." He used slang like "Be Cool" and "Right On," oversaw a rowdy classroom of children, and offered education and entertainment alike. Voiced by Matt Robinson (who also played Gordon), Franklin even released an album, The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, in 1971.
Franklin's presence on Sesame Street brought out critics who said he perpetuated African American stereotypes. Joan Ganz Cooney "loved Roosevelt Franklin, but... understood the protests." She found him amusing, but, as Stone explained, cries from an increasingly vocal "conservative faction prevailed, and Roosevelt Franklin bit the dust" by the mid-1970s.