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November 4, 2009

Sesame Street's 40th anniversary and "Street Gang"

sesame street 40th anniversary and street gangWith the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street upon us, it's a good time to look back at "Street Gang," which chronicles the humble beginnings of the show. Michael Davis, a former editor at The Baltimore Sun, has written an insightful and entertaining tale about the iconic kids' show. Here's an excerpt from a 2009 Sun review by Diane Scharper:

The show came about in a perfect storm of creativity, need, idealism, serendipity and technology. As Davis tells it, that convergence began at a dinner party in the 1960s. Lloyd Morrisette, a vice president at Carnegie Corp., was talking about his 3-year-old daughter, Sarah, and her interest in television when he attended Joan Ganz Cooney's dinner party. Sarah had been so mesmerized by television that she learned to recite cereal commercials - what goes snap, crackle and pop - by heart.

Cooney, a little-known television producer, listening to Morrisette, wondered whether underprivileged preschool kids could learn numbers, the alphabet and concepts like over, around, under and through by using a jingle. Soon Cooney, with money from the Carnegie Corp., conducted a study of children's television, which found that television could use its expertise, especially with regard to frequent repetition, clever visual presentation, brevity and clarity, to teach children the basics.

Although her report was overwhelmingly accepted, Cooney was not considered experienced enough to be offered the position of executive director. Davis also notes that several people thought Cooney's duties as a married woman would preclude her from giving the project its necessary time. But after much protest and string-pulling, Cooney was finally given the top job. She would become the person most responsible for the show's success, mainly because of her management style and her sense of inclusiveness.

Davis says Cooney is one of those rare individuals who hires extremely competent and talented people and allows them the freedom to do their jobs. If nothing else, Sesame Street showed that women could be successful high-level managers at a time (1960s) when most women were encouraged to pursue only careers in teaching and nursing.

Cooney also set the precedent of including an integrated cast of real-life characters: Hispanic, black and Asian actors, senior citizens and the disabled - men, women and children. Cooney hired the brilliant puppeteer Jim Henson (a University of Maryland graduate), whose Muppets became the icons of the program. Davis considers Henson the key to Sesame Street's success. His touch established the show's "delicate balance between fun and learning."

Henson attracted other extremely talented individuals. They include puppet-artist Caroll Spinney, who plays both the sunny Big Bird and his opposite, Oscar the Grouch; and Frank Oz (Bert) who was like a brother to Henson (Ernie). Henson's protege, Kevin Clash of Baltimore, brought life to Elmo, the Muppet who has become one of the show's most popular characters. After nearly 40 years of steady broadcasting, Sesame Street has received more Emmy Awards than any other television series. And with over 77 million American viewers, it's also one of the most watched.

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 7:00 PM | | Comments (5)


This indeed brings the nostalgia to a lot of people world wide, not sure if kids nowadays would appreciate the good ole sesame street gang if they are always tune to Youtube or facebook playing mafia wars. =)

I grew up with Sesame Street as did my whole generation. I still watch it from time to time, even as an adult. It's just good TV when there's so little of it. I hope the show lasts longer than the Magic Kingdom. Henson and his muppets were brilliant under the non-micro managing genious of Cooney. It highly influenced my RBP. I think it's the music combined with non-condescending characters that kids and adults can identify with that makes me keep loving it now as much as then. In fact, I probably like it even more now, because I can appreciate how well they appealed to adults and children. Godspeed to Sesame Street. PeAcE-Dave

hello i can't belive my eyes and ears 40 years!

I grew up watching Sesame Street in the 80's. My children watch Sesame Street now. They are so amazed when I know the some of the songs and sing along with them. I also have a bunch of the Sesame Street movies, Follow that bird is my favorite! Not only did Sesame Street bust out a new learning style they provided an opportunity to show that a woman could handle being in a man's world and be very successful at it (Cooney, I thank you)!

Sesame Street will always be apart of my childhood. I remember sitting on the floor with the colored lines going across the screen until the t.v.programming would start in the 70's. Just plain wonderful entertainment wholesome at heart. My daughter is 13 and loves Elmo. My favorite will always be cookie monster and Ernie. Rubber ducky your the one!!! You make bathtime lots of fun!!! HEE HEE all smiles!

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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