NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Monday marked 45 years since the debut episode of the New York institution of “Sesame Street.”
Created by children’s television innovator Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Corporation President Lloyd Morrisett, “Sesame Street” debuted on Nov. 10, 1969.READ MORE: Blackwood Blanks Reeling Flyers As Devils End 4-Game Skid
In the words of the Sesame Workshop, formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop, “the series was designed to use television to teach preschoolers, and give them skills that would ensure a successful transition from home to school. The show gave children a head start, and aimed to provide them with the confidence to learn the alphabet, numbers, and social skills.”
The earliest days of “Sesame Street” may not look so familiar to children of the 21st century. In the first few years of episodes, Caroll Spinney’s Big Bird character was portrayed as a dopey hayseed rather than an inquisitive 6-year-old, his Oscar the Grouch character was orange, and Gordon – synonymous with actor Roscoe Orman to anyone 40 or under – was portrayed by a different man altogether – the late actor and writer Matt Robinson.
But the Muppet characters created by Jim Henson, the brownstone at 123 Sesame St., and two of the original actors – Bob McGrath as Bob and Loretta Long as Susan – have been around since the very first show.
Sonia Manzano has played Maria on “Sesame Street” since 1972. In a CBSN original on Monday, she said the program’s idealism has always been part of its charm.
“When I started ‘Sesame Street,’ I was 21, 22,” said Manzano, now 64. “And it was – the civil rights movement was at its fervor, and the idealistic show was going to close the education gap. It was geared towards inner city kids in the hopes that they would learn basic cognitive skills, and then they would start school on an even level with their middle-class peers, and we were going to save the world, and we were going to eradicate racism, and that was the spirit of the show in that time.”
Manzano said she was struck by the originality and social forwardness of “Sesame Street” well before she joined the cast.
“I saw the zany animation, and then I saw Susan and Gordon in this inner-city set, and I was shocked, because I had never seen people of color on television, and that was like, ‘Whoa, this show is really in your face and outrageous,’” said Manzano, who noted that she was one of the first Hispanics in a television role.
The program has also been known for dealing with difficult subjects. A year after actor Will Lee died in 1982, the other adult characters told a distraught Big Bird that Lee’s character, Mr. Hooper, had died and would not be coming back.
In its 45 years on the air, “Sesame Street” has changed with technology and contemporary values. Cookie Monster has grown to exercise self-control, and has for many years balanced his diet with fruits and vegetables.
And those whose childhoods have passed will remember “Sesame Street” as a single storyline in front of the gritty streetscape – broken up by a rapid-fire succession that might take a viewer from a surreal piece of animation set to Philip Glass music, to a parody of a contemporary game show hosted by a manic Muppet host named Guy Smiley, to a video of wild animals set to a dreamy musical score by the late Joe Raposo – all within a matter of a few minutes.READ MORE: Duarte, Turner Lead Pacers Over Knicks
But today, the iconic Dracula-like Count von Count character uses a disco beat to teach a daily lesson about the number nine in his “Number of the Day” segment every day. And every episode ends with “Elmo the Musical,” with Broadway-style songs and a velvet curtain.
And the medium of delivery has evolved too. Millions of kids watch the show on phones and computers instead of TV.
Options include SesameStreet.org, PBSKids.org, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and some 50 apps. A “Sesame Street” YouTube channel has a million subscribers and 1.5 billion views. And touchscreens have been “a magic wand for us in terms of engagement,” says “Sesame Street” senior vice president Scott Chambers. Kids can trace letters or point to colors or shapes, and the app provides positive reinforcement.
Newer seasons also feature less of the actual street with human characters, and more Muppet characters in skits with animation or other technical wizardry. Executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente said the Muppet characters “have a madcap energy to them” that helps “Sesame Street” compete with the many other kids shows that are animated.
Not all of today’s parents love “Sesame Street.” Some say it simply doesn’t keep their kids’ attention. Daphne Mallory, a mother of four in Twin Falls, Idaho, grew up watching “Sesame Street” but says her four children don’t. “It lost its relevance,” she said. “It’s geared toward engaging the parents watching the program with their children, rather than truly educating the children. While I appreciate celebrity appearances, I find it distracting more than adding to the experience.”
But Lori Chajet of Brooklyn said her daughters, now 7 and 10, loved it — including old episodes they got on tape — while she and her husband appreciated the emphasis on multiculturalism and the pop culture references for adults.
“Little kids learn from it,” said her 7-year-old daughter Sasha, “but they really have a really fun time watching it.”
“Sesame Street” has been filmed in New York from the beginning. Its first studio was the Reeves Teletape facility at 81st Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side. The building has been demolished, although the façade of the front lobby remains as home to a Starbucks Coffee and a Staples store.
In 1982, “Sesame Street” moved to the former Dick Cavett studio building at Ninth Avenue and 55th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, which was demolished in 2002 to make way for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. Since 1992, “Sesame Street” has been recorded at the Kaufman Astoria Studios complex in Astoria, Queens.
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