Goodness and humor' celebrated as 'Sesame Street' turns 50
NEW YORK - AP
Fifty years ago, beloved entertainer Carol Burnett appeared on the very first broadcast of a quirky TV program that featured a bunch of furry puppets.
Blink and you might miss it, but Burnett followed a cartoon about a witch called Wanda, which was loaded with words beginning with the letter w.
"Wow, Wanda the Witch is weird," Burnett commented. And then - poof - she was gone.
That show was "Sesame Street" and Burnett, like a lot of kids, was instantly hooked. She would return to the show multiple times, including visits to demonstrate to pre-school viewers where her nose was and to smooch a rubber duckie.
"I was a big fan. I would have done anything they wanted me to do," she said. "I loved being exposed to all that goodness and humor."
This first episode of "Sesame Street," sponsored by the letters W, S and E and the numbers 2 and 3, aired in the fall of 1969. It was a turbulent time in America, rocked by the Vietnam War and raw from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King the year before. The media, like today, was going through disruption.
Enter "Sesame Street" creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, who worked with Harvard University developmental psychologist Gerald Lesser to build the show's unique approach to teaching that now reaches 120 million children. Legendary puppeteer Jim Henson supplied the critters.
The show was designed by education professionals and child psychologists with one goal: To help low-income and minority students aged 2-5 overcome some of the deficiencies they had when entering school. Social scientists had long noted white and higher income kids were often better prepared.
So, it wasn't an accident that the show was set on an urban street with a multicultural cast. Diversity and inclusion were baked into the show. Monsters, humans and animals all lived together peacefully.
Over the years, "Sesame Street" has welcomed many more. It became the first children's program to feature someone with Down syndrome. It's had puppets with HIV and in foster care, invited children in wheelchairs, dealt with topics like jailed parents, homelessness, women's rights, military families and even girls singing about loving their hair.
It introduced the bilingual Rosita - the first Latina Muppet - in 1991. Julia, a 4-year-old Muppet with autism came in 2017 and this year has offered help for kids whose parents are dealing with addiction and recovery. So important is the show that PETA recently asked for the creation of a vegan Muppet.
Not everyone has adored the show, especially those who grouse about federal funds going to a nonprofit that earns millions on licensing for everything from lunch boxes and toys to diapers and commercials for Farmers Insurance.
Big Bird in 2012 found himself unexpectedly in the presidential race when Mitt Romney said he would defund public broadcasting if elected. "I love Big Bird," then-President Barack Obama retorted. (On "Saturday Night Live," Big Bird insisted he didn't want to "ruffle any feathers.")
In 2015, the longtime PBS show inked a five-year pact with HBO that gave the premium cable channel the right to air new episodes nine months before they air on PBS. That prompted some criticism that Sesame Workshop favored viewers who could afford HBO over those who could not. But since the HBO deal, the show has not gotten any federal funding.
Before each season, educators and creators gather to align the curriculum with the latest thinking. In the past, for example, narrative stories were broken up into little chunks because the thinking at the time was that kids couldn't follow a long story. That turns out not to be true, and "Sesame Street" now delivers 10-minute narratives.
"Sesame Street" is shown in more than 150 countries, has won 193 Emmys, 10 Grammys and will get a 2019 Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime artistic achievement in December, the first time a television program will receive the award.
Music has always been a big part of the show and its song "Rubber Duckie" peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard charts in 1970. "Sing," which premiered on the show, went even higher, hitting No. 3 on Billboard in 1973 when the Carpenters recorded it.