50 years of sunny days
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 first 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 defined 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- filled 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 filming, 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.”
From left, Cookie Monster, Prairie Dawn, Big Bird, Ernie, Elmo, Bert, Oscar the Grouch and Grover, pose for a photo in 1999.
Charlie ( Violet Tinnirello, left), Nina ( Suki Lopez) and Oscar visit places from Sesame Street’s past in a new episode.