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‘Sesame Street’ is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Here’s a look back at its history

On Nov. 10, 2019, the show will be celebrating 50 years of education and entertainment. Here’s a look back at ‘Sesame Street’s’ history and what has made it an enduring fixture in many children’s lives.

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Big Bird, Chris, Rosita and Elmo appear on “Sesame Street.”

Big Bird, Chris, Rosita and Elmo appear on “Sesame Street.”

Richard Termine, PBS

“My mom’s been going through a tough time. She has what’s called a grown-up problem.” 

These are the words spoken by Karli, the newest Muppet on the children’s program “Sesame Street,” who lives in foster care because her mother struggles with addiction. Karli isn’t the only character on the show who goes through struggles, much like a considerable population of American children.

“Sesame Street” has attempted to normalize and educate children about diversity, whether that be in race, socioeconomic status, physical or mental disabilities or unconventional family situations. For those in the middle of these situations, the show has been a comfort, all while entertaining and fundamentally working to prepare millions of children for school.

On Nov. 10, the show will be celebrating 50 years of education and entertainment. Here’s a look back at “Sesame Street’s” history and what has made it an enduring fixture in the lives of many children’s lives.

Paving the way for educational children’s programming

In February of this year, 60 Minutes Australia host Liam Bartlett spoke with “Sesame Street” co-founder and early-education researcher, Lloyd Morrisett, who was “dishing up education disguised as entertainment” when he decided to begin the production.

Morrisett teamed up with television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, and together over dinner, they discussed the possibility that television could be used to teach young children. That night became what Bartlett described as “the dinner party that changed children’s TV forever.”

“The show had far greater success than we ever imagined,” Morrisett said.

Set in an ambiguous city in New York on the fictional “Sesame Street,” the show was made to teach low-income children their ABCs and 123s. Utilizing Jim Henson’s “hilarious and enchanting” Muppets as the show’s main characters was an experiment at the time, yet proved to be the “secret weapon” behind its success, according to Bartlett.

Many of these Muppet friends have been around since its conception in 1969, including Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird and Bert and Ernie. Yet, one of the most popular “Sesame Street” icons, Elmo, didn’t make its debut as a well-established character until 1980. Since then, children all over the world have watched “Elmo’s World” daily, and sung along to popular tunes like “Rubber Ducky,” performed by the orange, wiry-haired Muppet, Ernie. 

With over 4,000 episodes shown in 150 countries, it’s no wonder “Sesame Street” has become a constant in households with young children for this long, especially now that it can be watched on tablets and phones. 

Championing the celebrity cameo

Hundreds of celebrity cameos and spoofs have made it onto the show for the viewing pleasure of parents who watch with their young children. James Earl Jones, an American actor, was one of the first celebrity guests to appear on “Sesame Street” back in 1969, where he enunciated the alphabet in a booming, deliberate voice. This became known by producers as “the James Earl Jones Effect.”

Unabashed by the task of singing the alphabet or performing in silly skits while rubbing shoulders with colorful, fuzzy puppet monsters, Ellen DeGeneres, Johnny Cash, Michelle Obama, ’N Sync, Stevie Wonder, Kobe Bryant, Bill Clinton, Robin Williams and countless other public figures have made it onto the show since then.

Celebrating the people on our street

Ranging in ethnicity and occupation, the diversity of the show’s selection of celebrities was, and still is, often discussed and praised on their segments. This diversity mirrors that of the regular cast on “Sesame Street” and reflects the demographic of New York and other urban cities. 

“It was an urban environment, designed from the beginning to show diversity,” Morrisett said in an interview with American University Radio. “And, of course, the Muppets were different colors, different shapes, different sizes. And, that was purposely put in to show kids that they could be friends with people who weren’t like them.”

Among the regulars on “Sesame Street” were characters like Emilio and Maria Delgado, who were Mexican American; Gordon and Susan Robinson, who were African American; and Alan, an Asian American character who took ownership of Hooper’s Store on the show in 1998. 

Teaching more than just ABCs and 123s

In a segment about the show’s 50th anniversary on “Today,” Sonia Manzano, who played Maria, said, “‘Sesame Street’ always changes to address the needs of the current crop of children.”

These needs, besides racial awareness, health and fitness and intellectual literacy, include discussions about death, divorce, HIV/AIDS, breastfeeding, disability and other “grown-up” topics.

“Why it’s still around is that we still have many things to say,” Alan Muraoka, the actor who plays Alan, said in the same “Today” segment. “Society is constantly changing, and issues that arise for kids are constantly changing, and so we try to be on the forefront of that and create show around those topics.”

Impacting generations

“Sesame Street” has received many accolades, including multiple Primetime and Daytime Emmy nominations and awards. The cast has even performed a show for the “NPR Tiny Desk” concert series and appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” Families can even visit Sesame Place, a “Sesame Street” theme park in Pennsylvania. 

Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit dedicated to “helping kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder” through shows and entertainment, community initiatives and early development research. As an international organization, Sesame Workshop sent the cast of “Sesame Street” overseas to visit refugees in 2017 as part of their attempt to fulfill the needs of children worldwide.

“Education is always the way that individuals and families and societies have lifted themselves up,” Jeffrey D. Dunn, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, said in a video about the show’s 50-year history, “and ‘Sesame’ gives equal access to quality education at the time in a kid’s life that it matters the most.”

And now, in its 50th year, the people behind “Sesame Street” have even bigger plans. 

This summer, the cast embarked on a road trip to 50 of America’s landmarks and communities where they filmed segments of the 50th anniversary special as part of the show’s 50th season, airing in November on HBO. These segments included children expressing why they love where they live in an attempt to build hometown pride.

In May, the street on West 63rd between Central Park West and Broadway in New York City was named “Sesame Street.”

That same month, former first lady Michelle Obama was awarded the Joan Ganz Cooney Award at the Annual Sesame Workshop Benefit Dinner, which was a celebration of “Sesame Street’s” 50 years of helping kids. There, she described the impact “Sesame Street” had on her life as a young girl.

“At the time, before white flight set in, my neighborhood was a wonderful mix of races, ethnicities and income levels,” Obama said, “so whenever I’d catch a glimpse of that funky, diverse street with a stoop and a grocery store … what I saw felt familiar.

“And there were all sorts of kids, some who looked like me, and some who didn’t — a wonderful group of friends where it didn’t matter if you were black or white or fuzzy and living in a trash can. ... It was a place I couldn’t have been more excited to visit for an hour or so every day, … a place where it was ok to laugh and to cry and to be confused, … a place just for me, and I liked that.”

And even after 50 years, it looks as though “Sesame Street” plans on many more “sunny days” to come.