Happy Birthday, 'Sesame Street'

"Sesame Street," the iconic children's television program, is celebrating its 40th birthday. And the PBS program, which has brought non-human characters such as Elmo, Big Bird and Cookie Monster to millions of households shows no signs of slowing down. Roscoe Orman, who has played the character of Gordon since the 1970s, talks about the success of the show. Orman is joined by Dr. Mita Sheth, a Mom of two and a Sesame Street fan, and Tell Me More parenting contributor Jolene Ivey.

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(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.

And today we're wishing a Happy Birthday to a television icon.

(Soundbite of "Sesame Street" theme song)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Sunny days sweeping the clouds away, on my way to where the air is sweet can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.

MARTIN: Who doesnt know that song? Since 1969 "Sesame Street" has brought laughter, joy and comfort to millions of homes. Big Bird, Elmo and many other Muppets and humans have made "Sesame Street" a place where kids can learn their letters, and numbers, and also about issues like healthy eating and what its like to have a parent come home from war.

Now "Sesame Street" is turning 40 and it's kicking off this milestone in a big way with a visit by First Lady Michelle Obama. But no matter who visits "Sesame Street," its core mission remains to teach kids to learn and prepare for school.

We wanted to talk to one of Sesame Street's human icons, Roscoe Orman. Roscoe has played the character of Gordon since 1973. And I also liked to welcome Dr. Mita Sheth. She grew up as a fan of "Sesame Street" and now her children are fans of "Sesame Street," and our regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributor Jolene Ivey. She's the co-founder - one of the co-founders of the parenting support group the Mocha Moms and she's the mom of five, who no doubt enjoyed "Sesame Street" at some point along the way.

Welcome to you all. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. IVEY: Hey, Michel.

Dr. SHETH: Thank you.

Mr. ROSCOE ORMAN (Actor, "Sesame Street"): Oh, thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So Roscoe, what kept you on "Sesame Street" for 37 years? And I really want to know, how did you get that job to begin with? What a cool job.

Mr. ORMAN: Well, Michel, I tell you, this has been a journey that no one could have planned. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined. First of all, I hadn't really done any children's shows or performances for kids up until I was asked to join the cast. I had been doing mostly theater and some film work in L.A. And a friend of mine came to see me in a play in New York - off-Broadway - and mentioned that they were looking for an actor to replace the character of Gordon. Actually, the actor I was replacing was the second Gordon.

The show was in it's fifth year and Matt Robinson had played the part for the first few years and then another actor came in and didnt quite work out so they were looking for another Gordon. And it turned out that I was also expecting my first child, my wife and I. And when I was offered the role, it was such a welcome opportunity, first of all, to have a job for more than a few months. I was hoping it might last a year or two, which would've been...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: A year or two.

Mr. ORMAN: A year or two. For an actor that's a long time.

MARTIN: I can imagine. Jolene, how did you start noticing "Sesame Street," I know with your five? I know youre not a huge fan of television per se, but who doesnt love "Sesame Street?"

Ms. IVEY: Well, you know, my kids, I try to be the really good mother and never let my kids watch television. But thats not realistic. And sometimes, you just need them to sit down, be quiet and watch television. And for those times, a show like Sesame Street is really ideal.

MARTIN: What is it that your kids enjoyed about it? Do you remember? With five boys, you have all kinds of personalities there. What is it that they like?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I think the songs were really cool. The Rubber Ducky song was one that my first child particularly loved. In fact, I used to sing it to him at night and change the words when I was giving him his bath, so to make it Alex Ivey instead of rubber ducky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: So it really was a part of our lives when we had small children.

MARTIN: Mita, what about you? When did you start watching Sesame Street?

Dr. SHETH: I started when my five-and-a-half-year-old was two. I said, well, when hes two, Im going to allow him to watch a little bit TV. And I said what better show than Sesame Street? And it comes on in Atlanta at 9 a.m. And I would put him down to watch it. And then in the beginning, he watched 10 minutes. And then just over the weeks and the years, he sits down and watches the whole show. And he just absolutely loves it. And so does my two-year-old. And whats nice is they can both sit down and watch it together.

MARTIN: One of the things I think people have always noticed about the program is the diversity of the characters. I mean, Roscoe, Im sure this is something thats very real for you. When you first started on the program, there were not a huge number of people of color on television.

Mr. ORMAN: Absolutely, absolutely.

MARTIN: And the show has always been diverse. Why is that?

Mr. ORMAN: Well, that was one of the primary components when Joan Cooney began this project, that she wanted to reflect the true diversity of this country, of America, and particularly to have the show set in an inner city area of New York City and to show the multicultural aspect of New York City, and to then have that broadcast.

Ive traveled all over the country and in other parts of the world where there arent people as diverse as there are in this city, but who by watching Sesame Street, have been exposed to, you know, people of all colors and cultures and, you know, nationalities and backgrounds. And we are their frame of reference for that.

MARTIN: Mita, Im sure youve noticed that theres now a character of Indian descent on the program.

Dr. SHETH: Yes.

Mr. ORMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: And I just wondered does that make it easier and more fun to have, you know, a character who is of the same ethnic background?

Dr. SHETH: Well, Ill tell you, when we first saw her come on, Ishaan(ph) said, oh, wow. Thats an Indian lady, mom. And I believe she has a nose ring, which he signified Indian being with. And then the next day, they had Alicia Keys on. So, he was over the moon. He got to see an Indian woman on Sesame Street, and he got to see Alicia Keys singing The Alphabet Song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ORMAN: Yeah.

Dr. SHETH: And it goes back to the point of seeing that diversity and ethnicity that allows a child to identify doing something educational like A, B, C with someone who kind of looks like their mom.

MARTIN: And, you know, I bet you, Dr. Sheth, as a doctor, you also appreciate a lot of the health messages that have always been a part of Sesame Street content. I just want to play a short clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show, Sesame Street)

Mr. KEVIN CLASH (Actor): (As Elmo) Its time to practice staying healthy on Sesame Street.

Mr. ORMAN (Actor): (As Gordon) Yes. And the first thing you have to do to stay healthy is always wash your hands.

Mr. CLASH (Actor): (As Elmo) Come on, wash your hands with Elmo. Wash, wash, wash.

Mr. ORMAN (Actor): (As Gordon) Next, try to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

MARTIN: So, of course, that was Gordon. Here you are, teaching Elmo flu-prevention techniques.

Mr. ORMAN: Flu prevention, yes.

MARTIN: But now, you know, we have to get the inside scoop, Roscoe. We have to ask. Is there ever any tension between you and Elmo over whos getting more screen time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ORMAN: Oh, no. Theres no way that any of us - human adults, especially -can compete with Elmo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ORMAN: We dont even try. The best we can do is just try to be in the same space and the same spirit.

MARTIN: Mita, do the health messages on Sesame Street help you? Do you think that they are helpful for parents, helpful for kids or helpful for doctors trying to kind of reinforce a certain message?

Dr. SHETH: Absolutely, absolutely. Before - Im a general dentist, and before I had my son come to me to have his teeth cleaned, I had him watch the episode of Sesame Street where Elmo goes to the dentist, where Elmo has his toothbrush and has his teeth cleaned. And it really helps, through behavior-modification and tell-show technique, to have the child become very comfortable with whatevers going to happen in their doctor or dentist office.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? Were there any episodes that stood out for you, that were helpful to you?

Ms. IVEY: Well, there was a little boy who used to be on. His name was John-John. He was adorable. I mean, he was the cutest thing youve ever seen. And he helped learn words like, you know, whats the difference between loud and quiet and happy and sad? And there was one show - I think there was actually a little girl on it - where instead of a simple explanation like that, the complex term was what is love?

And, wow, to have Sesame Street take on what is love? I mean, Shakespeares taken that one on, you know what I mean? But who could do better?

MARTIN: True.

Mr. ORMAN: John-John, little John-John Williams, at the age of five, was responsible, really, for me getting the job of Gordon.

MARTIN: How come?

Ms. IVEY: Wow.

Mr. ORMAN: Because he was a part of my audition for the show after I had done a scene with Oscar the Grouch and the trash can. And now, you have to understand Id never worked with puppets before. So the, just the idea of talking to and acting as if this green grungy rag coming out of the trash can was a real person was something I didnt think even possible. And I really felt that I had blown the audition.

The second part of the test was for me to do a scene, an improvisational scene with John-John. And I had so much fun with this kid, who by then was a veteran. He was five years old. He had been on the show for probably two or three years. And he and I just had the greatest time, just improvising about the concept of up and down. And I have no doubt to this day that it was because of that ability to interact with this wonderful kid in such a natural and fun way and to actually teach something through it was what landed me the role of Gordon.

MARTIN: Let me ask each of you for a final thought about what your - either your favorite Sesame Street episode was or what youd like Sesame Street to do next. So Mita, Im going to ask you. Is there anything - any ground that Sesame Street has not plowed that you would love to see them take on before your children get too old to watch?

Dr. SHETH: You know what? I dont think that they havent taken on anything yet.

MARTIN: Theyve got it covered, huh?

Dr. SHETH: I think they just it covered. And I actually pulled out one of my Elmo videos for my two-year-old that I used for my five-and-a-half-year-old, the potty training video, because were going to start potty training. And Im having him watch that. So I actually have a bunch of videos that I use as a reference, and Im just happy to go back and be able to reference what has worked for me before.

I pulled it out this weekend, and Im hoping that hell be able to sit down and watch one. Thats how I potty trained my five-and-a-half-year-old. So I hope it works for the two-year-old.

MARTIN: You can call Gordon if it doesnt work.

Mr. ORMAN: That was a wonderful video to produce, as a matter of fact.

Dr. SHETH: Yeah, that was a great - that is a great resource for potty training.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? Any favorite episode you want to mention, or is there something youd love for Sesame Street to take on?

Ms. IVEY: Its hard to say what that would be, because Sesame Street is such a product of the times. So back when it started, the big thing was teaching tolerance, which was very important then. Its still important now. Its not like its outdated, but it was more needed then. And you know, its kind of funny, too, because back then, they had characters who would, like, smoke, you know, as part of - as their character. And theyd never do that now.

Mr. ORMAN: No, never, never.

Ms. IVEY: Also, I think, Gordon, wasnt it you took a little girl by the hand and went inside for cookies or something? Thats something that you never do today. So the things that the really old shows, theyre packaged now with labels that say intended for adults, not for children anymore.

Mr. ORMAN: Yes. Yes.

Ms. IVEY: Because we know what we need to do today and what we need to teach children. So its hard to say what I would like them to teach in the future, because we dont know where were going to be in the future.

Mr. ORMAN: Yeah. One of the themes from the early years of the show that we had to adjust because of the times that we were in at that particular moment was the notion of Snuffleupagus being a character that only Big Bird could see. And every time that one of the adults would be around, Snuffy would either just kind of disappear or walk away. Or vice-versa, when he came in and one of us -whoever was there with Big Bird - had left.

So we never believed that Big Bird - we thought that was just an imaginary friend of his. And then the producers realized that we were kind of setting the example of grown ups not believing in children. So - and we thought that was the wrong message. And that was adjusted so that in one episode, all of a sudden, all of the grownups could see Snuffy in that one episode.

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. ORMAN: I kind of missed the fun we had with that kind of hide-and-seek. But

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well

Mr. ORMAN: But it was kind of an important move for the show to kind of adjust to that need.

MARTIN: Well. Thats great. Thats really interesting. Its interesting. Well, youve done so many things - hard to even - as Mita was pointing out, theres just so many things that youve already done and taken on, I mean, teaching kids about how kids who use wheelchairs and how to relate to parents. A program that you did recently and a DVD series for members of the services on how to welcome parents back home

Mr. ORMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: who may have suffered a visible injury or an invisible injury. And so - so many things that Sesame Street has taken over the years. So Gordon, what is left to do? What is there next, for the next 40 years?

Mr. ORMAN: There are two other examples Id like to mention. One was the show that won an Emmy Award for its own - on its own, as an episode, the one we talked about the death of Mr. Hooper many, many years ago. The actor who played Mr. Hooper, Will Lee, had passed away between seasons, and the producers bravely took on the challenge of talking about the death of Mr. Hooper among the cast members and Big Bird and the other characters.

And it was a very, very well written show that approached the subject. It was aired on Thanksgiving that year so that families could watch it together and there would be a sense of reinforcement of, you know, the delicate topic of death in the family. So that was really, I think, one of the high points of Sesame Streets bravery and courage in that regard.

Another similar kind of experiment or attempt - it didnt quite work out, and it dealt with the divorce of Snuffleupagus parents. And so we taped one episode and tested it among children, particularly among children who were in homes affected by divorce, and it was still very upsetting for them. And we decided not to air that episode

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. ORMAN: or to pursue it. It was just a little more than the kids

MARTIN: So youve never done it? Theyve never done an episode about divorce?

Mr. ORMAN: No, weve never gone back to that subject.

MARTIN: Wow, thats interesting. So what else would you like to do?

Mr. ORMAN: Well, I mean, as the others said, there are so many things that we have done, that its hard to even think of other issues, you know, that we havent at least attempted to cover. Of course, weve done falling in love and getting married and even giving birth when Maria gave birth to her daughter Gabi, many years ago. So many just incredible and, you know, the show is a family in many ways, and the children of some of the characters - which in the case of Marias Gabi, it was actually her own daughter for the first few years who played the role of herself, just as my son, Miles played himself, until he got to a point where it didnt seem like he was having fun anymore, you know, having to go to work with dad, you know, and so forth. And so we replaced him with a professional actor. And now at the age of 25, he asked me why did you ever take me off the show? You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: You cant win.

Mr. ORMAN: You cant win, anyway. Yeah.

MARTIN: You cant win. You cant win. You cant win. Roscoe Orman plays Gordon on Sesame Street, a role he has had since 1973. He was kind enough to join us from New York. Dr. Mita Sheth is a dentist and a mom of two and a fan of Sesame Street. She joined us from Atlanta and regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributor, Jolene Ivey. Shes a Maryland state delegate and a mother of five, joined us from our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much for joining us, and congratulations to you, Roscoe, also known as Gordon.

Mr. ORMAN: Thank you. Thank you so much, Michel.

Dr. SHETH: Thank you so much, Michel.

Ms. IVEY: Happy birthday, Sesame Street.

(Soundbite of Sesame Street theme song)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Sunny day, sweepin the clouds away, on my way to where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get

MARTIN: And thats our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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