For years the preschool crowd had trod gently through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and played politely in Romper Room. But on Nov. 10, 1969, they tuned in to a rowdy new network reject on PBS called Sesame Street, set — of all places — around the grimy steps of a New York brownstone. A black man named Gordon introduced a white girl to his neighbors: Bob, Mr. Hooper, and Oscar the Grouch, whose fur was yellow at the time. Kermit the Frog tried to explain the letter W as Cookie Monster chewed the visual aid down to a V, and Carol Burnett showed up briefly to alliterate, ”Wow, Wanda the Witch is weird.”
Designed to reach inner-city children and narrow the gap between young haves and have-nots, Sesame Street now reaches, according to one survey, 92 percent of U.S. children in low-income households. More than 80 foreign versions tell preschoolers how to get to places like Germany’s Sesamstrasse and Israel’s Rechov Sum Sum.
Created by Joan Ganz Cooney in the staccato style of Laugh-In — that season’s No. 1 series — the show has been praised for giving kids a jump on first grade and denounced for abetting the amputation of America’s attention span. ”I can’t fault the content,” says Dorothy Singer, coauthor of The Parent’s Guide: Use TV to Your Child’s Advantage. ”I fault the presentation.”
Despite the complaints, the show hasn’t changed much over the years; two of its original regulars, Bob McGrath (Bob) and Loretta Long (Susan) are still there. Celebrities continue to appear — to keep the parents entertained. This season, which begins Nov. 12, Robin Williams, Bo Jackson, Tyne Daly, and Ray Charles will pay visits. Muppet master Jim Henson lives on as the voices of Kermit, Ernie, and Guy Smiley in segments that will continue to rerun. ”Right now we’re not planning to do new pieces with Jim’s characters,” says director Jon Stone, who wrote the first episode by himself. Today 17 writers compose 130 episodes a year, while freelancers do the animated segments.
Nonprofessional child actors from inner-city day-care centers still gather on the same stoop in a New York studio. ”The audience we wanted to reach was often trapped in an apartment and the action was out on the street,” says Stone, who came up with the idea for the set. The name, which evokes ”Open Sesame”— or the opening of a child’s mind — was settled on at the last minute. ”I thought it was a lousy word but couldn’t think of a decent alternative,” says Stone. ”It isn’t spelled like it sounds, so it’s really lousy if you’re trying to teach reading.”