The broadcasting industry has always been aware of its educational potential and is often idealistic about its service to children. In the 1946 book “Here Is Television” author Thomas Hutchinson states, “Educational or informative programs on television open vistas that virtually stagger the imagination… No longer will low paid educators teach the three R’s to small boys and girls in isolated rural districts. Instead every country school in the world will have a large screen television receiver, in each classroom.”
Hutchinson believed that “there is nothing in the world that cannot be taught by television,” but as the visual medium took over the nation’s living rooms it seemed that the real potential of TV to instruct both children and adults remained undeveloped while children, as is their nature, were absorbing all manner of new knowledge from programs and commercials.
There were some good kidshows during those early days of television. “The Small Fry Club” on the short-lived DuMont Network featured an avuncular Big Brother Bob Emery with a human cast of animal characters who taught about nature, music, health and shared daily delights (it was the first TV program to be aired five days a week). It even draw an appreciative adult audience — orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini was one of its big fans. Over on NBC-TV, Howdy Doody premiered in 1947 with Buffalo Bob Smith and a cast of marionettes. There was also a crazy clown named Clarabelle, played by actor Bob Keeshan, who left to create Captain Kangaroo. Many of these programs had well-designed educational content — Captain Kangaroo and Ding Dong School with Dr. Frances Horwich (“Miss Frances”) on NBC were highly regarded by educators and parents. But it took a whole new system of broadcasting, Public Television, to bring the nation’s pre-schoolers a TV show that would systematically prepare them for further education, teaching letters, numbers and relationships while they were having a wonderful time.
“Sesame Street” premiered on PBS on November 10, 1969 and is the longest-running children’s program on American television.* At age forty it is now being watched by some of the grandchildren of those who learned their ABCs and 1-2-3s from “Sesame Street”. WSKG is joining in the Sesame 40 Festival with art contests, an open house birthday party at our studios and a special OFF THE PAGE broadcast with Michael Davis, author of the new book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”
Sesame Street began as a flash of brilliance that struck like a bolt from the gods. [Producer Joan Ganz] Cooney was its mother of invention, while Lloyd N. Morrisett, a well-connected vice president at the Carnegie Corporation, was its financial godfather. Sesame’s moment of conception occurred at a dinner party at Cooney’s apartment, when Morrissett and his wife were discussing how their three-year-old daughter, Sarah, had become transfixed by television. She would sit in front of a test pattern at 6:30 a.m., waiting for the cartoons to appear at 7:00. It was the same thing millions of kids were doing all across the country that confounded Cooney.
— from “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street”
Several veterans of Captain Kangaroo were in the “street gang” and Davis traces the lineage of the program as well as the institutional development of Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) and the planning and research that ensued. “Sesame Street” was deliberately designed to be meaningful and recognizable to inner-city children, its content easily blended with Head Start and similar efforts for minority and underprivileged youngsters. But Davis’s book is primarily a story of people working together for a TV show that could teach and entertain and be accessible at many levels. They are as rich a cast of characters as any novel and their fates are triumphant and tragic. “Street Gang” opens with the scene at the funeral of brilliant puppeteer Jim Henson, as untimely a death as any. His Muppets were and are the heart of “Sesame Street”. There was also the loss of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, the candy store owner. His passing was noted (and his life celebrated) in a tearful “Sesame Street” episode that broached the meaning of death in terms that small children could comprehend. “Street Gang” prints the entire script of that moving scene.
Michael Davis is a former editor of TV Guide magazine and worked as a teacher in the Head Start program in Tompkins County and was a reporter for the Ithaca Journal. He will be joined on OFF THE PAGE by Lonna McKeon Pierce, a professional storyteller, teacher/librarian at the MacArthur School in Binghamton and the mother of five children (now grown, but all who learned their ABCs watching channel 46).
To add to the conversation about “Sesame Street” with host Bill Jaker and his guests post a message here to OffThePage@WSKG.ORG.
* “Andy Pandy” on British television dates to 1950 but has been on and off BBC-TV intermittently, in limited production. There have been over 4,000 “Sesame Street” programs.