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Telling History: Sesame Street

Welcome to the Neighborhood, Sesame Street, ca. 1969.
Welcome to the Neighborhood, Sesame Street, ca. 1969.

Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street? Well, as an historian, I’m glad you asked. First, go back to the 1960s until you see President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society, then turn left at his Project Head Start, past the Public Broadcasting Service, until you come to the Children’s Television Workshop... that’s how we get to Sesame Street.

So, sweep the clouds away, and then as Oscar the Grouch might say, scram! I’m Joel Rhodes “Telling History.”

Part of LBJ’s War on Poverty, Project Head Start delivered preschool programming for low-income children who arrived in kindergarten developmentally behind; a literal “head start” to make up for lost time in school readiness. By 1967, Head Start preschools operated successfully in seventy-five percent of American counties with high poverty concentrations.

Idealistic educators working with an experimental group called the Children’s Television Workshop wondered, why not put Head Start on television for everyone else? And so, with inspiration from the civil rights movement and funding from Johnson’s National Endowment for the Humanities and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Children’s Television Workshop created Sesame Street.

Since its debut in living color on November 10, 1969, Sesame Street pioneered the concept of television “edutainment.” The curriculum promoted good cognitive and behavioral habits for ages three to five – how to think and feel, rather than what to think and feel. Each lesson was brought to life with an imaginative sense of enchantment from which the series derived its name; Ali Baba from the Arabian Nights tales commanding “Open Sesame” to a vibrant new world of learning on a typical American street.

To capture the attention of young children, skeptical of “educational programming,” Jim Henson’s delightful Muppets taught without acting like a teacher: eccentric roommates Bert and Ernie, Oscar a grouchy negative example, gluttonous Cookie Monster, perpetually optimistic Big Bird, Sherlock Hemlock, Count von Count, and Kermit the Frog – a green, sort of straight-man emcee.

For urban audiences, the setting and cast were racially integrated featuring human characters which city children might readily identify with – Gordon and Susan, a Black husband and wife, along with Mr. Hooper the candy-store owner. Because children of color enjoyed watching kids that looked like them, commonsensical portrayals of Black children succeeding were everywhere. “Hey, that kid looks like me and he knows the answer.”

Each episode consisted of a repetitive advertisement-like assortment of longer and shorter segments, with constantly changing styles, pace, and characters. Since children watched irregularly, there was no prerequisite, or serial sequencing. Viewers were free to leave off and pick up whenever they chose. Scenes gently poking fun at grownups blundering simple tasks let kids master new learning with pride.

An immediate sensation, Sesame Street drew fully half of the nation’s twelve million preschoolers in its first season; more impressive considering it only ran on America’s 190 public television stations. Such popularity helped launch PBS by giving the untested network its first viable television hit, paving the way for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

In effect, Sesame Street – the longest running children’s program in American history – put public broadcasting on the cultural map.

So, off you go, but remember Sesame Street was brought to you, at least in part, by the Great Society, and the letters L. B. and J.

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.