HBO’s new documentary, Street Gang, is all about the greatest children’s television show ever made: Sesame Street. I’ve always had a soft spot for Jim Henson and the Muppets, so this grabbed my attention immediately. When I realized that the documentary is based on the titular book by Michael Davis, I picked it up and dove in. Here are seven things I learned about the most famous brownstone in the world.
Thank the Captain (Kangaroo)
Before the Children’s Television Workshop created Sesame Street, most TV shows for kids were pretty terrible. They were poorly written, full of violence, and existed almost entirely as advertising vehicles for toy and cereal companies. One of the few bright spots was Captain Kangaroo, a kinder and gentler show than the typical kiddies’ fare.
Many of the most important behind-the-scenes people at Sesame Street cut their teeth in television working for the Captain, a brilliant and sometimes terrifying actor/producer/writer named Bob Keeshan. Keeshan’s bullying and dictatorial approach to Captain Kangaroo were lessons in how not to run a children’s show, but his show’s mixture of education with entertainment was an early blueprint for the format Sesame Street would master.
A Three-Year-Old Named Sarah
Early one morning in December 1965, a three-year-old named Sarah accidentally woke her dad up. Sarah loved to sneak out of bed, turn on the family’s television, and wait for the test pattern to disappear at 7 AM. Her father, an experimental psychologist named Lloyd Morrissett, stumbled blearily into the living room to find Sarah spellbound by the numbing test tone. Morrissett was fascinated by the medium’s latent power.
The idea for what would become Sesame Street bloomed a couple of months later at a dinner party at the apartment of Joan Ganz Cooney, a New York City TV producer. Morrissett posed a question to the people at the party, “Do you think television could be used to teach young children?” Cooney, the only person to respond, replied, “I don’t know, but I’d like to try.”
A Noble Cause
Cooney, Morrissett, and many of Sesame Street’s founders came of age in the mid-1960s, an era of great promise and hope in the United States. Like millions of other young Americans, they were inspired by Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Great Society. TV could hold children captive for hours, but Cooney wanted to use it to educate, not to sell toys or cereal.
FCC Chairman Newton Minow issued a call to action with his scathing remarks to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961: “There are fine children’s shows, but they are drowned out in the massive doses of cartoons, violence, and more violence. Must these be your trademarks?” Sesame Street could harness the power of TV to actively teach young kids, particularly those from lower-income families and urban areas. With funding from the federal government and private endowments, the future for millions of kids could be brighter.
Reflection of Reality
The creators of Sesame Street were determined to reflect the reality of life for poor and inner-city children. The street’s famous brownstone, construction wall, and stoop are viscerally evocative for New Yorkers. The show’s human cast would be equally reflective of urban life, with a cast of Black and White (and eventually Hispanic American and Asian American) actors. The show’s creators were stirred by the civil rights movement and the progressivism of the 1960s. Sesame Street approached race relations naturally from very first episode in 1969: “There would be an integrated cast, but nothing would be done artificially to draw attention to their diversity and harmony. The actors would regard each other with kindness, respect, and tolerance.”
Research, Research, and More Research
Cooney, a smart, no-nonsense producer with a decade of experience and industry connections galore, was determined to “test the power and influence of the medium” of TV. Encouraged by Lloyd Morrissett’s academic background, Cooney set out on a three-month blitz of colleges, daycares, hospitals, and television studios to gather research in the summer of 1967. Her initial feasibility study led to three historic research seminars hosted by Gerry Lesser, a developmental psychologist from Harvard, in 1968.
The seminars were possible thanks to $8 million in funding from a mixture of public and private institutions ranging from the United States Office of Education to the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation. Their research consistently demonstrated what educators call an “achievement gap”: kids without access to preschool (who often come from lower-class families) arrive in kindergarten “ill prepared and miles behind their middle-class peers”. The conferences were the first sign of Sesame Street’s foundational bedrock: sound academic research and creative visual and audio content, all specifically geared to stimulate preschool-age children.
Jim Henson: Puppeteer, Artist…Terrorist?
All the research in the world wouldn’t make kids want to actually watch Sesame Street. That job fell to Jim Henson, the legendary creator of the Muppets. Henson’s work would entrance millions of children as they watched and learned from Grover, Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, and Oscar. But Joan Ganz Cooney’s first impression of Henson terrified her.
When he sidled into one of the research seminars and sat at the back with his long beard, sandals, and big leather jacket, she assumed he was a member of the Weather Underground. The Weathermen, as they called themselves, carried out several attacks and bombings on public buildings in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and were devoted to the destruction of the United States government. Cooney mistook Henson for one of the Weathermen and whispered to a friend, “How do we know that man back there isn’t going to throw a bomb up here or toss a hand grenade?” “Not likely,” the friend whispered back. “That’s Jim Henson.”
Toots & The Blues
One of Sesame Street’s biggest weapons is its music. “Sunny Day” (the instantly memorable theme song), “Rubber Duckie”, “Bein’ Green”, “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon”, the list of bonafide classics goes on ad infinitum. One of the most memorable parts of “Sunny Day”—that bluesy, strolling harmonica line—came courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidor “Toots” Thielemans, an honest-to-goodness multi-instrumental virtuoso. Thielemans would eventually become internationally famous and an ennobled baron of his native Belgium, but in 1969, Toots was a hustling jazzman in New York, thankful for the $37/hour rate he got for the 90-minute recording session. His soulful harmonica would give Sesame Street’s theme song an endearing quality that cemented in the American consciousness.
Now that you know more about that place where the air is sweet, give Street Gang a read and a look. You’ll be surprised!