50 years of sunny days

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - VIC­TO­RIA WILL/ AP; TODD PLITT/ USA TO­DAY

The “Sesame Street” gang cel­e­brates a tele­vi­sion mile­stone, so let’s get this block party started.

NEW YORK – TV’s most fa­mous block is turn­ing the big 5- 0. ❚ This Sun­day marks half a cen­tury since “Sesame Street” aired its first episode on pub­lic tele­vi­sion on Nov. 10, 1969. The land­mark ed­u­ca­tional chil­dren’s series in­tro­duced the world to beloved Mup­pet char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing Big Bird and Os­car the Grouch, and helped pave the way for in­clu­sion, di­ver­sity and learn­ing on­screen.

“‘ Sesame Street’ is proof that the show with top rat­ings or sen­sa­tionof- the- mo­ment sta­tus is not nec­es­sar­ily the one that has the most last­ing im­pact,” says TV his­to­rian Tim Brooks. “Be­cause of its bril­liant de­sign and clearly defined au­di­ence of chil­dren in their for­ma­tive years, it has prob­a­bly had a greater pos­i­tive im­pact on gen­er­a­tions of young view­ers than any show on tele­vi­sion over the last 50 years.”

“Sesame” cel­e­brates the mile­stone Sat­ur­day with “Sesame Street’s 50th An­niver­sary Cel­e­bra­tion” on HBO ( 7 EST/ PST), its home since 2015. Hosted by Joseph Gor­don- Le­vitt, the celebrity- and mu­sic- filled event fea­tures ap­pear­ances by Whoopi Gold­berg, Ster­ling K. Brown and Patti LaBelle, as well as leg­endary pup­peteers Caroll

Spin­ney ( the orig­i­nal Big Bird) and Fran Brill ( the since- re­tired voice and per­former be­hind Zoe and Prairie Dawn).

For the spe­cial, which airs on PBS sta­tions Nov. 17, it “was im­por­tant to nod to our his­tory with just the right amount of nostal­gia, but rec­og­nize that we’re a cur­rent show with some­thing mod­ern and dy­namic,” says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Ben Lehmann. “The ‘ 50th’ spe­cial is the per­fect en­cap­su­la­tion of that.”

Hon­or­ing the past is also cen­tral to a “Sesame” episode air­ing later this sea­son, which starts Nov. 16 on HBO ( 9 a. m. EST/ PST). Shot last win­ter on the series’ homey sound­stage in Queens, “The Trea­sure of Yucky Mama” fol­lows cud­dly red mon­ster Elmo and his fairy com­pan­ion Abby Cad­abby as they team up with the garbage can- dwelling Os­car, who searches for decades- old relics be­long­ing to his great grandma, the sim­i­larly grouchy Yucky Mama.

“Fifty? That is so old,” Elmo ex­claims, let­ting out his sig­na­ture laugh be­fore hud­dling over a weath­ered map of Sesame Street, dated 1969. Fol­low­ing clues as they hunt for trea­sure, the furry trio vis­its sites of for­mer neigh­bor­hood haunts such as the Fix- It Shop, which was re­placed by the Laun­dro­mat in 2008.

“Boy, I re­mem­ber how Yucky Mama used to love to come here to stare at all the busted junk in the win­dow,” Os­car be­moans. “Now look at it: Peo­ple come here to make dirty clothes clean!”

As the char­ac­ters scurry from lo­ca­tion to lo­ca­tion, pup­peteers glide be­low them on small rolling plat­forms just out of cam­era’s view: hoist­ing the pup­pets high above their heads, and try­ing not to bump into each other as they ex­cit­edly speak in the Mup­pets’ high- pitched voices.

Even when they’re not film­ing, the pup­peteers stay in char­ac­ter. Abby, per­formed by Les­lie Car­rara- Ru­dolph, “walks” over to two young vis­i­tors be­tween takes and greets them with hugs, cheer­fully ask­ing their names and ages. Elmo, played by Ryan Dil­lon since 2013, mimes lift­ing weights as he waits for cam­eras to roll, quip­ping, “We’re work­ing on our core to­day.”

“It looks de­cep­tively easy to do what we do, but we’re re­ally do­ing half a doz

“It looks de­cep­tively easy to do what we do, but we’re re­ally do­ing half a dozen things at once.”

Matt Vo­gel pup­peteer

en things at once,” says long­time pup­peteer Matt Vo­gel, who plays both Big Bird and Count von Count. “We have to make that pup­pet look and feel real to the au­di­ence, whether they are adults or chil­dren. And that means that we are ac­tors from the el­bow up. We em­body th­ese lit­tle pieces of foam and felt with real hu­man char­ac­ter­is­tics.”

The char­ac­ters’ zany per­son­al­i­ties and lov­abil­ity are part of why Vo­gel be­lieves the series has en­dured.

“It’s this unique blend of char­ac­ters, sen­si­bil­ity, mu­sic, hu­mor and hu­man­ity,” Vo­gel says. “All of those things rolled up to­gether in this lit­tle pack­age – this lit­tle street, this com­mu­nity – is what is so im­por­tant about ‘ Sesame Street’ and keeps view­ers con­nected with the show.”

The series, which moves to Warn­erMe­dia’s HBO Max stream­ing ser­vice next year ( episodes will con­tinue to air later on PBS) has also bro­ken new ground for kids’ TV. In re­cent years, it’s in­tro­duced hu­man and pup­pet char­ac­ters deal­ing with home­less­ness, fos­ter care and autism. It fur­thers a mis­sion of in­clu­sive­ness started by pro­duc­ers Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Mor­risett, who cre­ated the pro­gram with the help of Mup­pets vi­sion­ary Jim Hen­son.

So­nia Man­zano, who re­tired in 2015 af­ter play­ing Fix- It Shop owner Maria for 44 years, says she rarely saw peo­ple of color on TV be­fore the show pre­miered in 1969.

“At that time, when you saw a Latin per­son on tele­vi­sion, you al­ways waited for the taco joke,” Man­zano says. “But not on ‘ Sesame Street’: We were wor­ried about child care and ed­u­ca­tion, just like any other Amer­i­can fam­ily.”

“We still teach num­bers and let­ters, but our pri­mary fo­cus is on the emo­tional and so­cial de­vel­op­ment of the child,” Vo­gel adds. “The au­di­ence sees them­selves in th­ese char­ac­ters, and ‘ Sesame Street’ can ad­dress th­ese re­ally im­por­tant is­sues.”

RICHARD TERMINE/ CTW

From left, Cookie Mon­ster, Prairie Dawn, Big Bird, Ernie, Elmo, Bert, Os­car the Grouch and Grover, pose for a photo in 1999.

COUR­TESY OF SESAME WORK­SHOP

Char­lie ( Vi­o­let Tin­nirello, left), Nina ( Suki Lopez) and Os­car visit places from Sesame Street’s past in a new episode.

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