All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up

05 December 2009

Counting to 40-Big Bird at Mid-Life-Celebrating 4 Decades of Sunny Days on Sesame Street

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is nothing but wires and lights in a box."
Edward R. Murrow, speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Oct. 15, 1958.

Gordon Robinson: Sally, you've never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here. You're gonna love it!
The very first line spoken on the very first episode from November 1969

Although I am a few weeks late wishing Sesame Street a Happy 40th Birthday I don't think it is ever too late to celebrate the best!

Since 1969 a group of colorful puppets, lovingly known as The Muppets-created by Jim Henson, have been doing what very few other television programs have ever been able to do successfully. For forty years the fuzzy motley crew that resides on Sesame Street has been fulfilling the real potential of the "box with wires" that sits in all of our homes-to entertain and educate.

Gordon and Susan introduce Sally to Sesame Street on the First Episode

Sesame Street was considered an experiment when it began--could kids learn from TV? Would kids want to watch something that teaches them? Over 77 million kids have laughed and learned with the help of Gordon, Susan , Bob and Mr. Hooper along with the biggest 6 year old ever, Big Bird ,and Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover,Oscar, Elmo... The humour filled with popular culture parodies and references is often aimed as much at the adults to keep them involved as it is for the kids who come away each day with a new lesson and letter to carry with them. Coming out of the 60s the original format was often considered Laugh-In for kids and kids, and their parents,have been laughing and learning ever since.

In the late 1960s Sesame Street Founder Joan Ganz Cooney saw that children in disadvantaged areas did not have the resources to be ready to enter school. She joined with educators, researchers and television professionals to "... to create a successful television program that would make a difference in the lives of children, in particular, poor inner-city children, and help prepare them for school.”

Television can truly be the great equalizer. It can unite us as a society in moments of triumph and sadness, and it can reach nearly everyone no matter their background or economic status. Designed as a tool to help those kids who were, and are, often lost in the education system without proper preparedness, getting to the the under served, Sesame Street quickly became must viewing for every preschooler and their parents.

Sesame Street has been the kick start to the important basics of learning -not only ABCs and 123s, but also the critical growing lessons of life-friendship, tolerance and understanding,exploration, health and well being,creativity, caring and compassion. Delivering the teaching through entertainment ("this episode was brought to you by the letter H") with joy, humor and thoughtfulness.

The Sesame Street brand is entrenched in our popular culture and there has been criticism through the years for the commercialism of the characters and success of the many products that have spun from the show. Sesame Street,however, has become such an integral part of every preschoolers life, even in a world filled with so many other distractions for kids. The lessons taught have reached so many kids who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to be prepared for school, kids without the ability or the resources to be challenged at an early age. These children not only have learned their ABCs but have also learned about being a good friend and neighbor, respecting differences and exploring their imaginations.

There are now Sesame Streets in over 140 countries with programming specifically designed to meet the needs of the audience in that country-from Northern Ireland to South Africa, with the first HIV positive character, to Egypt, Alam Simsim, where a female character, Khokha, with the friendship of Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, encourages girls to read and learn and follow their dreams---Girl Power in the Middle East via Sesame Street!

I am not without bias when it comes to Sesame admiration for the program started early and I was fortunate to study with one of its founders while in graduate school. In a multi-media world filled with flash and noise Sesame Street remains a place where all are welcome to come and play and learn while bridging so many cultural and educational gaps, and it continues to set the bar as the gold standard for any new programming created for children.

In 40 years the Sesame Street has evolved and adapted to respond to a changing society with honesty and intuitively crafted, carefully created, segments about everything from healthy eating,unemployment and even death all occurring on the micro planet of one street among friends, family and neighbors.

The street has changed a bit over the years, street grey and graffiti are gone. The set is sunnier and less "street corner" than when the show started. The music is now mixed through with rap and hip hop and contemporary sounds. "Grown Up" characters have come and gone,new friends have been added that bring the program forward and represent lessons of tolerance and understanding. Big Bird is even brighter and bigger than he was in 1969, and famous special guests from Tony Bennett to Presidents sing and laugh with Elmo and his buds. Cookie Monster eats carrots now and the kids take Yoga lessons. Sesame Street is completely interactive, the animation is sophisticated and technology is alive and well on this street, and yes you can dance with and Tickle Elmo. At the end of the day,however,it is that time in front of that box, shared with friends, parents, grandparents, siblings... laughing and learning along with a group of fuzzy creatures that we all remember. We can count and we can read and hopefully we are better neighbors, friends and people because we all know how to get to Sesame Street! Let's count to Fifty,Sixty...