Getting to Sesame Street : Throughline In American history, schools have not just been places to learn the ABCs – they're places where socialization happens and cultural norms are developed. Arguments over how and what those norms are and how they're communicated tend to flare up during moments of cultural anxiety. Sesame Street was part of a larger movement in the late 1960s to reach lower income, less privileged and more "urban" audiences. It was part of LBJ's Great Society agenda. But Sesame Street is a TV show - not a classroom. And it was funded in part by taxpayer dollars. This story is about how a television show made to represent New York City neighborhoods – like Harlem and the Bronx – has sustained its mark in educating children in a divided country.

Getting to Sesame Street

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away...

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

It's the late afternoon on a Monday. I'm 4 years old, sitting crisscross applesauce on the floor of my parent's apartment. The carpet is shaggy, ugly and brown. I have a cherubic face and bowl haircut - you know, like the one Jim Carrey has in the film "Dumb And Dumber." In front of me is a TV with an antenna and dial. It's the late 1980s. And on the screen is my daily companion, "Sesame Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MARTIN P ROBINSON: (As Mr. Aloysius Snuffleupagus) Today is a very special day because today's the day when my little sister, Alice, meets my best friend, Bird.

JUDY SLADKY: (As Alice Snuffleupagus) Ah, Bird.

ARABLOUEI: My family had only recently moved to the U.S. from Iran, and I was lonely. I couldn't speak English. I couldn't make sense of where we were or what had brought us here. In that moment, where I needed a lifeline, "Sesame Street," with its weird cast of characters, was there - the giant animals, monsters, Muppets, the kind adults and children everywhere on the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

FRANK OZ: (As Bert) It's a puppy. Oh, Ernie.

JIM HENSON: (As Ernie) You're right, Bert.

OZ: (As Bert) Oh, look at him.

HENSON: (As Ernie) See, isn't he cute?

ARABLOUEI: I learned English watching "Sesame Street." I learned how to deal with loss, anger, sadness, loneliness. When my parents, who were dealing with their own trauma and working constantly to make rent, weren't there, I learned from Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Susan and Gordon. It was a window into a whole new world - a safe, accepting, beautiful American world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

EMILIO DELGADO: (As Luis Rodriguez) Here it goes. (Singing in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Singing) I wake up in my house. It's called a...

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing) A, B, C, D, E, F...

STEVE WHITMIRE: (As Kermit the Frog) The name's Kermit.

OZ: (As Grover) Whatever you say, froggy. It is your night...

JERRY NELSON: (As Simon the Sound Man) I just open my mouth and...

(SOUNDBITE OF TUBA PLAYING)

OZ: (As Bert) What the - that's amazing.

ARABLOUEI: But I wasn't alone. In millions of other homes, millions of other young children like me were sitting in front of their TVs watching the same show I was. And some of those children grew up to work right here on THROUGHLINE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I watched "Sesame Street" in the early 90s, when I was a kid.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: From the early 1970s, so right - you know, right when "Sesame Street" started.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I always joked that it was created just for me because it was made about a year after I was born.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: My sister and I actually weren't allowed to watch a lot of TV, but "Sesame Street" was one of the very few shows that we were allowed to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I would watch from the couch of my family's apartment in the Bronx.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was in Wichita, Kan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: On the floor in our living room, way too close to the TV.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And actually, my earliest memory of "Sesame Street" is actually my earliest memory.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think it made me feel like I could be on the show - like, I could be on "Sesame Street."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Only child being raised by a single dad, so I spent a lot of time in front of the TV.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think a big part of this was because there were kids on the show who looked like me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) I came to show you the moon, Maria.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: My favorite character was Big Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Look up in the sky.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My favorite, favorite character was Roosevelt Franklin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MATT ROBINSON: (As Roosevelt Franklin) I have a letter. It is here with me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm in my 50s. And even now I find myself walking around and randomly hearing, (singing) Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) One of these things is not like the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) And I saw the beautiful moon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It just kind of felt like friends. It just felt like a place I wanted to spend time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I learned everything on "Sesame Street" - things that taught you how to, you know, navigate the world. And I feel like, in a way, I'm still learning from "Sesame Street."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I don't know. I think it really, really has played a major role in my worldview. So yeah, "Sesame Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Sunny day...

ARABLOUEI: For many of us, "Sesame Street" was our first taste of education. It taught us how to read and count and be nice people in this society. But the road to creating this show and sustaining it decade after decade has come with its own struggle - a struggle that can tell us so much about the role of education in socializing children and developing cultural norms and shared values.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Arguments over what those are and how they're communicated tend to flare up during moments of cultural anxiety like the one we're in now.

ARABLOUEI: This is a story about how a TV show made to represent a block in Harlem, N.Y., has sustained its mark in educating children around the world. And it's a story about the questions we're still asking about who the people are in our neighborhood.

ABDELFATAH: In this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, the story of "Sesame Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Sesame Street...

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) How to get to Sesame Street...

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird, singing) La, la, la, la.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) How to get to Sesame Street...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Roosevelt Franklin...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Imitating gong).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) ...Elementary School (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Part 1 - a symphony orchestra of brain power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Today, it may be easy to think of "Sesame Street" as a show that was created by some massive government program, carefully concocted in some laboratory to teach kids how to read and write. But the reality is, "Sesame Street" began at a dinner party at the Manhattan apartment of a local TV producer named Joan Ganz Cooney.

MICHAEL DAVIS: She and her husband hosted, you know, a classic 1960s dinner party, and she prepared beef bourguignon from Julia Child's cookbook for some of her colleagues and friends.

ARABLOUEI: I have never actually had beef bourguignon, but I figured I would tell you that just as an excuse for me to say the word. But anyway, this group of people at this party were basically just Joan Ganz Cooney's friends and colleagues, except there was one hotshot there.

DAVIS: A fellow named Lloyd Morrisett...

ARABLOUEI: Lloyd Morrisett.

DAVIS: ...Who worked in the philanthropic world, working on projects devoted to children.

ARABLOUEI: By the way, this is Michael Davis.

DAVIS: Author of "Street Gang: The Complete History Of Sesame Street."

ARABLOUEI: OK, so back at the dinner, all the guests gobbled down the beef bourguignon, and then the conversation turned to kids and education - something Joan had been thinking about in a television special she'd made.

DAVIS: That investigated a program in Harlem where they were enriching the lives of preschool children with educational materials and instruction and essentially giving young kids in Harlem who were younger than school age the opportunities and influences that kids who - in more privileged homes were getting - books and records and being read to and those kinds of things.

ARABLOUEI: And that program ends up becoming the model for what we now know as the National Head Start program, a federally funded education program designed to prepare children for kindergarten.

DAVIS: And there came a moment in the after-dinner conversation when somebody said, you know, I wonder if television could provide the same thing.

ARABLOUEI: Because, by the 1960s, basically everyone had a TV. And this electric picture box was like a direct pipeline into living rooms all across the country. Joan saw this as an opportunity.

DAVIS: Could television teach?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: And Joan, at that very moment, said, well, I don't know that it can, but I'd sure like to be the person who would try.

ARABLOUEI: And then.

DAVIS: Boom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: Just like that - at that moment, in her head, an idea came into clear focus - that some of the things that she saw in Harlem could very well be translated to the screen. Let's see if we could do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Lloyd Morrisett, a vice president at the Carnegie Foundation, decided to give her a grant to conduct research on whether a TV show to educate kids was even possible. At the time, this idea was sort of novel because most children's programming on television was not educational at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DAWS BUTLER: (As Huckleberry Hound) And a hound-dog howdy to you. This is detective Huckleberry Hound back in town.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The Flintstones, brought to you by Miles Products, a division of Miles Laboratories, makers of...

BUTLER: (As Fred Flintstone) Wilma? Where's the Alka-Seltzer?

JEAN VANDER PYL: (As Wilma Flintstone) Where it always is - next to the One A Day multiple vitamins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: What was the hole that they were trying to fill?

DAVIS: Well, the hole was a gaping, wide gap. I mean, the world of children's television...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL JULIAN: (As Road Runner) Meep meep (ph).

DAVIS: ...Circa 1968 was sort of a cavalcade of mayhem...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

DAVIS: ...Cartoons that really weren't all that worthy - afternoon shows in local markets that were, you know, just put on the air to sell products and...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIAN: (As Road Runner) Meep meep.

DAVIS: It was a minefield of junk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPEN MIND")

JOAN GANZ COONEY: At the time, the only show on the air for preschoolers that was quality was "Captain Kangaroo."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CAPTAIN KANGAROO")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Then one day some hunters came hunting along...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPEN MIND")

GANZ COONEY: And it wasn't educational. It was a nice show for kids.

ABDELFATAH: This is Joan Ganz Cooney from a television interview on a show called "The Open Mind" back in 2009, talking about that question from the dinner party - could TV teach?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPEN MIND")

GANZ COONEY: So I did a report saying, yes. The answer is yes, and here's how it might proceed.

ABDELFATAH: That report was called "The Potential Uses Of Television For Preschool Education."

DAVIS: And she felt that - famously, that, you know, kids could sing beer commercials - beer jingles. If television had the power to teach that to children, maybe it could teach something a little more pro-social - like, you know, some basic rudimentary concepts of learning.

ABDELFATAH: It went all the way back to what she saw in Harlem, making that TV special about the project that was part of the foundation for Head Start.

DAVIS: Joan's fundamental idea was if we're going to try to see if television can teach, let's do it in a bona fide way. Let's get educators to help us craft a curriculum for the show that can be measured. We want to be able to prove to our funders that it worked. Now, that was a real part of the brilliance behind "Sesame Street" - to ground it in bona fide scientific educational research.

ABDELFATAH: Joan and Lloyd had been able to raise about $1 million from foundations to support their idea of a children's TV show, but they had to come up with a budget of $8 million to actually do it. In today's money, that's about $62 million. So who else was going to invest that much money into an idea that probably offered no kind of financial return?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON JOHNSON: I propose that we begin a program in education to ensure every American child the fullest development of his mind and skills.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPEN MIND")

GANZ COONEY: This was the era of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, but Washington was - had various pilot projects around the country that they were researching to see if early intervention could make a difference, and the research showed that it did make a difference.

ABDELFATAH: The administration of Lyndon Johnson was laser-focused on eliminating poverty and reducing inequality. To that end, they made education, especially for Black children, a priority. Joan and Lloyd were completely on the same page with the administration.

DAVIS: The civil rights movement - it gave energy to this initiative. And these were, you know, New Yorkers and liberals. They were convinced that the government could and should be in the business of helping preschool children with media.

ABDELFATAH: After months and months of pitching, it worked. In 1968, "Sesame Street" got almost $4 million from the Office of Education, facilitated by the LBJ administration. That made up about half the budget to kickstart the show. The rest came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Carnegie and Ford Foundations, along with other funders.

DAVIS: I think they had a holy crap moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: It was like, OK, you know, we - Joan spent a year, you know, doing research and talking to people and educators and psychologists and doctors and pediatricians, you know? And then, you know, all of a sudden, it became very real, and they realized that we've got to put a show on the air within a year. You're talking about something that'd never been done before. They summoned the brightest people they could find from disparate worlds - the worlds of education, psychology, psychiatry, medicine, artists, musicians - and they had a series of seminars, and they brainstormed together. No one had ever created this symphony orchestra of brain power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GANZ COONEY: I think it's fair to say that, by the time our program goes on the air, it will be the most thoroughly researched show in the history of the medium.

ABDELFATAH: The show was developed under a nonprofit called the Children's Television Workshop. All they needed was an audience, and Joan had to sell it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GANZ COONEY: The short, simple, 60-second form used by TV advertisers in commercials to sell products is used here to teach numbers and letters.

ABDELFATAH: This is from a promo that was filmed before "Sesame Street's" debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENSON: (As Rowlf the Dog) You know what this is, Kermit?

(As Kermit the Frog) A really bad triangle?

(As Rowlf the Dog) Oh, come on, Kermit. It's a circle.

(As Kermit the Frog) OK, so it's a circle. So?

(As Rowlf the Dog) Well, you know that, but a lot of little kids don't.

ARABLOUEI: It's hard to overstate how revolutionary this was. It was a show whose goal was to reach Black audiences at a time when Black families were struggling for equality in education. It was a show inspired by Harlem, which many people thought wouldn't resonate with a national audience. No one knew if anyone would watch, so the creators were literally hitting the streets to spread the word.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: A woman named Evelyn Davis - African American woman who was a community activist in New York City, very, very well connected - knew everybody - it was her job to raise awareness that this show was coming, and she was able to convince Con Edison - you know, the big utility in New York City - to donate a bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS DOOR OPENING AND FOOTSTEPS)

DAVIS: And on that bus, they had an early VCR - a tape machine - and a monitor...

(SOUNDBITE OF BUTTON CLICKING)

DAVIS: ...And they invited people onto the bus to have a look at, you know, basically a reel of what "Sesame Street" was going to look like. She went from church to church, preschool to preschool, community house to community house just selling this idea and doing her best to get excitement generated about its promise. That work was so important because she had credibility in the Black community - high credibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: It was 1969, three years after the dinner party at Joan's apartment, and "Sesame Street's" first episode would air on November 10. Millions of dollars had been invested, yet no one knew for sure if the show would work. Nothing like it had ever existed before.

ARABLOUEI: When we come back, "Sesame Street" launches and legends are born.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REGINA: Hi, this is Regina (ph) from Washington, D.C., and you are listening to the best sound-designed podcast there is, not to mention the best NPR podcast, THROUGHLINE. Thanks for all your work, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Part 2 - how the people spoke.

DAVIS: I was a senior in high school when "Sesame" debuted...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: ...And I already was determined to watch it.

ABDELFATAH: That first episode opens with weird, animated creatures. One looks kind of like a cross between a unicorn and an alligator; the other, an armless, grinning blue guy wearing a bowler hat. It has a very '60s vibe.

DAVIS: No. 1, I had seen a special on NBC that aired a couple days before that hailed the show. But No. 2, I loved the Muppets.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

HENSON: (As Ernie) I call my bathtub Rosie.

DAVIS: Here I was, you know, like, 17, watching a show meant for kids age 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

OZ: (As Bert) Why do you call your bathtub Rosie?

HENSON: (As Ernie) Because every time I take a bath, I leave a ring around Rosie (laughter).

DAVIS: And I thought, man, this is really great.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MATT ROBINSON: (As Gordon) Sally, you've never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here. You're going to love it.

ABDELFATAH: In the first scene of the very first episode, you meet the store clerk, Mr. Hooper, Bob, the music teacher, and in the background, two kids, Black and white, play with a ball. And then Gordon, the guy who owns the Sesame Street brownstone, calls into the window of his house.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MATT ROBINSON: (As Gordon) Susan's my wife. You'll love her. Susan, come here.

LORETTA LONG: (As Susan) Hi, honeybun.

MATT ROBINSON: (As Gordon) I want you to say hello to Sally.

LONG: (As Susan) Hi, Sally. What are you doing home from...

Susan is not a name that you name Black children, OK? I inherited Susan. However, Susan was from the Midwest. She grew up on a farm. She had a father and a mother and a brother, and I used my own story.

ARABLOUEI: Susan is you?

LONG: Yeah. Yeah, it's me.

ABDELFATAH: This is Dr. Loretta Long, who played Susan, starting from that very first episode in 1969.

LONG: I was born in Kansas, but I was raised in rural Michigan, 20 miles from Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo.

ABDELFATAH: Dr. Long has been an entertainer since she was a kid. She used to sing show tunes while helping her family sell produce at the roadside stand.

LONG: When I graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, I immediately moved to Detroit. My dream was really to work for Motown. I wanted to be part of the Motown sound, but all the slots were taken. The Supremes didn't need nobody. Martha had all the Vandellas. So I had to branch out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Dr. Long went to New York City in 1960. She wanted to make it big, be a star. But she needed a day job that would give her the flexibility to go on auditions. And so, with a degree in education, she landed substitute teaching gigs in Harlem and the Bronx.

LONG: I knew if I got the right phone call, I was history.

ABDELFATAH: When she finally got that call, it was 1969, and she'd been co-hosting a show on New York Public Television that was all about Black music, Black culture, and Black identity. It was a show called "Soul!"

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOUL!")

GERRY BLEDSOE: It's "Soul!" And this is your announcer, Gerry B.

LONG: No train. We didn't have the money for a train, just "Soul!" The young man who was the set director, every time the camera went off, you heard bzzt, bzzt, bzzt (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LONG: He was building the mockup for "Sesame Street." He said, oh, I'm doing this for this children's show. And you're a teacher, why don't you - and I was so - I'm an actor who happens to be teaching. I am not a teacher. He said, right now you're a teacher who can sing, OK (laughter)? So he sent me to the audition. It was just a regular room with a bunch of judgmental people sitting at a long table with their arms folded looking at you. But I was used to that. I mean, I had auditioned for Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LONG: They were looking for an acoustic, folk guitars, Joan Baez-looking - and I looked like Angela Davis. I had a big fro, short skirts and show tunes. They looked me up and down and said, where's your guitar? I said, excuse me? My what? They said, so - very New York - so sing already.

(Singing) One, two, you know what to do. Hey, I'm a little teapot, short and stout. Here is my handle.

And I said, hold it, hold it. See, I knew we were singing to children. And I looked right in the camera, and I said, now you all know this song. Now I'm going to start it again, and you stand up and sing it with me, OK?

(Singing) One, two, you know what to do. Hey.

Ed Palmer, who was head of research, said the kids all stood up and sang. And I have a career because of some kids in Harlem that stood up and sang with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

LONG: (As Susan) Anybody see any more rectangles right around in this neighborhood?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: Some pictures.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #8: The pictures.

LONG: (As Susan) Oh, the pictures. Those are good rectangles. Look at this.

ABDELFATAH: The thing about Dr. Loretta Long is that she really did embody what "Sesame Street" has been doing since the very beginning, mixing education and entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

LONG: (As Susan, singing) One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn't belong. Can you...

ABDELFATAH: In fact, during the first few years the show ran, Dr. Long was earning her Ph.D. in urban education, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

LONG: (As Susan) I have a riddle for you. What's closer to you than the air? And what stretches like a rubber band and comes in a lot of pretty colors like white, all shades of brown...

The fact that we could put entertainment and educational concepts together and make it more palatable for children - it fit me like a glove.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

LONG: (As Susan) Well, did you guess? It was skin.

I was hired for one week. We shot a pilot from a Monday through Friday to show how we would teach and utilize every day to reinforce the lesson we were teaching. I was only hired for a week, so there wasn't any big celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: And that brings us back to that first episode in November 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: See me. Milk - did you ever wonder where it came from?

ARABLOUEI: That first episode is trippy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird, singing) Do, do, do, do, do, do.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #8: (As Sally) Wow, he's big.

MATT ROBINSON: (As Gordon) Sure he is. Hello, Big Bird.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh, hi, Gordon.

ARABLOUEI: Big Bird is this big, dopey, disheveled-looking creature with sort of creepy eyes - a rough sketch of what we see today.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch) You're letting all the fresh air and sunlight in. Boy, I hate that.

MATT ROBINSON: (As Gordon) Aw.

ARABLOUEI: Oscar the Grouch is orange.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch) Oh, go away. Close my can, would you?

ARABLOUEI: And "Sesame Street" was born at a time when the government was taking a bigger role in people's lives. Medicaid and Medicare had been created, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the government was getting involved with what was on TV. "Sesame Street" first aired on the National Educational Television Network, which would become the Public Broadcasting System, PBS, the next year, which is why even today, "Sesame Street" can feel so synonymous with PBS.

DAVIS: I was there, man, in 1969. Nobody knew what the hell PBS was, believe me. In a lot of markets, you couldn't even find it. It was on a UHF station, and you were lucky if you could get rid of the fuzz and get a decent picture.

ARABLOUEI: But the picture was pretty clear. In its second week, "Sesame Street" was reaching almost 2 million homes, and the reviewers loved the show.

DAVIS: I think the majority of people hailed it and loved it. And, you know, it was an immediate success. It was a blockbuster success. It was everywhere. But there were opponents from the very start.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: Notably, Mississippi Public Television refused to air the show. Why? Because Black and white children were portrayed as being friends on the show and, you know, did things together. And it was as normal as normal could be. That was not going to fly in Mississippi until - aha - the parents said, wait a minute, we want this show. We think our children should be able to see this show. And they resolved that conflict in the best of all ways - the people spoke.

ARABLOUEI: The ban lasted less than a month. But the Mississippi government wasn't the show's only critic. Some educators themselves were questioning whether a TV show could really do a good job teaching kids.

DAVIS: They thought that the pace was too frenetic. They thought it was going to create a generation of kids with attention deficit disorder. There were people who were really angry with it, suspicious of it, didn't like it one little bit.

LONG: I had a guy say, well, am I supposed to be entertaining my kids in the class? And I said, why not?

ABDELFATAH: But "Sesame Street" was changing the game.

DAVIS: Kindergarten teachers had to rip up their curriculum. They had to start over because no longer were kids showing up not understanding the basics. They showed up ready to learn and to learn more.

ABDELFATAH: A 2015 study showed that a whole generation of kids in the '70s were coming to school more prepared. By 1979, around 9 million kids under the age of 6 were watching "Sesame Street" every day. And it wasn't just reaching, quote-unquote, "disadvantaged" children.

DAVIS: Within weeks of its premiere, it was clear that all boats were going to rise as a result of this show. A lot of people questioned the idea of the government getting involved in television, and the whole idea of a public television network seemed to them to be, like, just more liberal brainwashing. But - but, but, but, but, but - moms, grandmoms, dads, older siblings - I mean, once they started watching this show when it debuted in November of '69 - immediately defended it, immediately took to it, immediately saw that it was like nothing else on television. And, you know, within a year, Big Bird was on the cover of Time magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As baker, singing) Seven pumpkin pies.

DAVIS: The tone of "Sesame Street" and the tempo of it was extraordinary, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

DONALD BYRD AND THE BLACKBIRDS: L...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS PLAYING)

DONALD BYRD AND THE BLACKBIRDS: M...

DAVIS: It was very fast paced.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) One, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7...

DAVIS: There were quick cuts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Roy, you're really weird.

DAVIS: There was animation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: There were songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SONIA MANZANO: (As Maria Rodriguez, singing) Two whipped cream pies on the wall. Two...

DAVIS: There were parodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And now, time for TV's favorite game show, "Beat The Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And here's TV's favorite moderator, Guy Smiley.

ABDELFATAH: And the show wasn't just about numbers and letters.

LONG: The diversity was the soft skill that laid right in there with the ABCs and the 123s and Kermit singing, "It's Not That Easy Being Green."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog, singing) It's not that easy being green, having to spend each day the color of the leaves.

ABDELFATAH: And all the while, educators and researchers, directors and writers worked together trying to figure out how to do all this right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Hi, Mr. Looper. What you doing?

WILL LEE: (As Mr. Hooper) Hooper, Hooper.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Hooper.

DAVIS: Life presented Children's Television Workshop with a real dilemma when Will Lee, the actor who portrayed Mr. Hooper, died - and fairly suddenly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) I'll sweep for you.

LEE: (As Mr. Hooper) You would?

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) And that way you can sit down and study, 'cause that's what you should be doing.

LEE: (As Mr. Hooper) I see, I see.

LONG: He rode in the Thanksgiving Day parade, went in the hospital...

ABDELFATAH: And less than two weeks later, Will Lee - and with him, Mr. Hooper - died.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: They had to decide what would become of that character.

ABDELFATAH: Since the show spent so much time researching each episode, the episode where they addressed the death of Mr. Hooper wouldn't air for almost a year after his death.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) I just drew pictures of all my grown-up friends on Sesame Street, and I'm going to give them to you.

(CROSSTALK)

LONG: They said, we have to say the words, Mr. Hooper died, and it has to be put in Big Bird's mouth 'cause he's the child.

DAVIS: Big Bird was a stand-in for, like, a 6-year-old child. He's the child's representative on the street.

LONG: And if he had a question, we figured that the children were questioning that as well. So we were all in the alcove and sitting around, and he had drawn caricatures of each of us, and he brought them to give them to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Hey, it's time for your presents.

LONG: (As Susan Robinson) Presents?

(CROSSTALK)

LONG: And then he went to give Mr. Hooper's his.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) And last but not least, ta-da.

LONG: And that's when we said, well, Big Bird, you know, you remember Mr. Hooper died.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh, yeah, I remember. Well, I'll give it to him when he comes back.

LONG: (As Susan Robinson) Big Bird, Mr. Hooper's not coming back.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Why not?

LONG: (As Susan Robinson) Big Bird, when people die, they don't come back.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Ever?

LONG: (As Susan Robinson) No, never.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Why not?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LONG: We did it one time. The assistant director came out, Lisa, crying, there were a few things wrong. Anybody want to do it again? And everybody said no. And we ran for our dressing rooms. You know, that was it, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Coming up, how Sesame Street takes on empathy, diversity and some of the country's most divisive issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVEN BARRERA: Hi. My name is Steven Barrera (ph), and I'm a graduate student at Indiana University here in Bloomington, Ind. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #9: Part 3 - Don't Dis Big Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Now, where is that Roosevelt Franklin?

MATT ROBINSON: (As Roosevelt, scatting) Did somebody call me by my first and last name?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Yes, I called you. And it's about time you got here, too.

DAVIS: What's really interesting to me is the character, Roosevelt Franklin...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MATT ROBINSON: (As Roosevelt) Here I am. Here I am. And there you are. And that's just what we're going to get into today.

DAVIS: ...Who was an identifiably Black character...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MATT ROBINSON: (As Roosevelt) Here and there.

DAVIS: ...And funny and fresh. And the bits were always set in the schoolhouse, in the classroom, where he clearly spoke in Black vernacular.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MATT ROBINSON: (As Roosevelt) Rhyme time, rhyme time, everybody ready for rhyme time.

DAVIS: Well, some in the Black community were delighted to see it and thought it was something that Sesame Street absolutely needed to do if your target audience is Black. Other members of the Black community said, oh, no, no, no, no, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MATT ROBINSON: (As Roosevelt) It was over here. Now it's over there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Hardhead Henry Harris) Right. Yeah.

NORTHERN CALLOWAY: (As Baby Breeze) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Hardhead Henry Harris) Well, that's the difference between here and there.

DAVIS: The pressure mounted. And they did drop the character.

ABDELFATAH: Here's the thing, though. The guy who created that character was Matt Robinson, the same guy who played Gordon, Susan's husband. And he was proud of Roosevelt Franklin, which brings us to a question that "Sesame Street" has been forced to deal with throughout its entire existence. Who should be included in the neighborhood?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: While there were conservative voices saying that the show was trying to sell something that they didn't necessarily want their children to buy, voices on the left were saying, you folks aren't going far enough.

ARABLOUEI: In the early 1970s, you started to see pushback on representation on "Sesame Street." There were feminists who were angry that the Susan character was too subservient to her husband. Two new human characters, Luis and Maria, joined the show after activists asked for more Latino representation in the neighborhood.

DAVIS: There were individuals throughout the history of "Sesame Street" saying, you know, why aren't you showing a gay or lesbian family on the show? It's the rare television show that can claim getting criticism from both flanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We are looking at the public spat between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Big Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Big Bird put out a tweet after getting the COVID vaccine. He called Big Bird's tweet government propaganda for your 5-year-old.

ARABLOUEI: Over the years, "Sesame Street" has become known for taking on more and more of these culturally sensitive topics, trying to help families navigate how to talk about them. It's right there, along with the ABCs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

NOZIZWE ZULU: (As Kami) Do you tell everybody that it is OK to hug someone who is HIV-positive like me?

MATT VOGEL: (As Alex) My dad's in jail.

LESLIE CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby) In jail?

CARMEN OSBAHR: (As Rosita) Why?

VOGEL: (As Alex) I don't like to talk about it. Most people don't understand.

KEVIN CLASH: (As Elmo) What does divorce mean?

ROSCOE ORMAN: (As Gordon) Well, divorce means that Abby's mommy and daddy aren't married anymore.

KYRA HUNTING: We see ebbs and flows.

ABDELFATAH: This is Dr. Kyra Hunting, associate professor at the University of Kentucky, who specialized in children's media.

HUNTING: We see these moments where "Sesame Street" introduces something new. And sometimes, you get pushback from the larger culture in relationship to that or, more frequently, politicians' relationship to that. And then we move on. And maybe, perhaps, we don't have something new for a little while. And then we have something new again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Children don't need this kind of access at such a early age. They're simply not ready for it. They're not prepared for it. And, really, we're taking away our children's innocence. We're taking away...

ARABLOUEI: In a country that's so politically divided, what does a show like "Sesame Street" represent in terms of either exacerbating that divide or bridging it?

HUNTING: Well, I don't think it exacerbates it. I think it can be used by people who want to further the divide, right. I think we've certainly seen politicians take moments from "Sesame Street" and tweet about them and be like, oh, my God. Big Bird got a vaccine. Well, Big Bird also got a vaccine in the '70s. He was fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) I want to get a measles shot.

LONG: (As Susan) Well, good.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) I don't want to get the measles.

(LAUGHTER)

HUNTING: So I don't think that "Sesame Street" can really fulfill its goals and its purposes without engaging in some representations and some content that is going to be perceived as political in a negative way by at least some commentators and some politicians.

DAVIS: There was, in the early days, some critique of the government's place in funding "Sesame Street." But I think the volume on that was increased later, in the '80s and, you know, during the Newt Gingrich era of the Republican revolution. I mean, it was later when that drumbeat of criticism of the show really grew louder.

ABDELFATAH: By the mid-1980s, "Sesame Street" had been relying less and less on government funding and more and more on merchandising "Sesame Street" products, like stuffed animals, T-shirts and books. But because of its reach and because it symbolized a public, more liberal media, it was an easy target.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIL KLEIN: When Newt Gingrich, the leader of the Republican revolution, was asked - what in the federal budget would first feel his axe, he answered, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

ABDELFATAH: All this criticism hasn't stopped "Sesame Street," Children's Television Workshop and now Sesame Workshop from trying to represent what they feel is right for the moment. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, "Sesame Street" partnered with CNN to host a town hall on racism called "Coming Together."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMING TOGETHER: STANDING UP TO RACISM")

RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) Racism? What's that?

TYLER BUNCH: (As Louie) Oh. Racism is when people treat other people unfairly because of the way they look or the color of their skin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUNTING: If you look at some of the specials or the episodes that are being critiqued by some conservative groups and other commentators, you can really see that they're mostly just about children and Muppets in the community dealing with difficult experiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMING TOGETHER: STANDING UP TO RACISM")

CARRARA-RUDOLPH: (As Abby Cadabby) Well, my friend, Big Bird, he was bullied by some other birds because of his yellow feathers.

HUNTING: So "Sesame Street" having these direct depictions is very consistent, the way it's always done, in just a slightly more explicit way that's consistent with this historical moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT SCHLAPP: They won't stop with their push for woke politics.

It's the innocence of kids that's being attacked earlier and earlier.

HUNTING: And I think what, really, I want to ask is why that's controversial, why talking about self-esteem and inclusion and being a good friend and dealing with people who have excluded you or been mean to you or treated you badly for part of who you are is OK in some instances but, in other instances, is being treated as inappropriate or as, quote, "too political."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: I will tell you this. It's always a mistake to dis Big Bird.

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter).

DAVIS: Bad idea.

ARABLOUEI: Why can't you dis Big Bird?

DAVIS: Over time, what's happened is that we really, deeply understand these characters. We know who they are. And to suggest that Big Bird was doing something stupid or not good for kids just rings false with the viewer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Like the time presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he'd cancel subsidies to PBS and use Big Bird as a stand-in. There were all these memes and media coverage about it, and it was used against him in the election in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: We didn't know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.

ABDELFATAH: It's impossible to say how much of the rhetoric for or against "Sesame Street" helps anyone's cause. But there is something deeply ingrained in many of us about "Sesame Street," something that's decades in the making that makes some adults feel like kids, that makes dissing Big Bird off-limits for many people, including me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LONG: Big Bird, I said, was a prototype of the child. You were messing with their childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: "Sesame Street" started as a way to reach underprivileged kids. It was going above the noise and, really, above the politics that can slow down and sometimes obstruct real change in schools and governments.

ABDELFATAH: And because it was started by white liberals from New York City and kickstarted with government funding and aired on public television and meant for Black children, the question still remains - who gets to control the neighborhood, the messages, the music they choose? The Muppets who have continued to teach us generation after generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LONG: (Singing) One, two, you know what to do. Hey. I'm a little teapot short and stout...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) I'm a little teapot, short and stout.

Here is my handle. Here is my spout.

When I get all steamed up, hear me shout.

Tip me over and pour me out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me. And...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Anya Steinberg.

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

CASEY MINER, BYLINE: Casey Miner.

CRISTINA KIM, BYLINE: Christina Kim.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: Devin Katayama.

AMIRI TULLOCH, BYLINE: Amiri Tulloch.

JENNIFER ETIENNE, BYLINE: Jennifer Etienne.

ABDELFATAH: And a big, huge special thanks to the THROUGHLINE kids you heard at the end - Reid, Rumi, Solei and Finley.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by the one and only Kevin Volkl. Thanks also to Kimberly Sullivan, Micah Ratner, Taylor Ash, Samantha Bellguard (ph), Tamar Charney and Anya Grundmann This episode was mixed by Josh Newell.

ABDELFATAH: Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or you like something on this show, let us know. Please write us at throughline@npr.org, or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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