Celebrating Sesame Street

By Paul Duckworth, MLS
Sesame Street

Let’s take a look back at the late 1960s, when television, in many respects, was grim. If the nightly news wasn’t reporting on race riots in America, it was broadcasting body counts in Vietnam. The war against communism in Vietnam and the War on Poverty in America were at the forefront. The ominous nature of these struggles, along with other signs of social ferment—such as assassinations, college campus war protests, civil rights unrest, and the infamous police brutality during the August 1968 Democratic convention, to name just a few—were regular features of TV news and conversation. People were watching Laugh In as a satirical break from grim daily realities and diverted themselves from unpleasant circumstances by enjoying “Mayberry R.F.D.,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Here’s Lucy,” “Get Smart,” “Bewitched,” and “Hee Haw.” Children’s programming was represented by “The Flintstones,” “The Addams Family,” “Bozo the Clown,” “Davey and Goliath,” “Underdog,” “Bugs Bunny,” “Tom and Jerry,” “Romper Room,” and “Captain Kangaroo”—mostly escapist entertainment. Very little programming was targeted at preschoolers, who watched an average of 27 hours of TV a week.

Wise educators knew something was missing for 3-to-5-year-olds. They understood how critical those years before kindergarten were and continue to be. A few forward-thinking people in television programming were able to clearly articulate that a gap in programming existed for young children: something that would not only entertain them, but also educate, uplift, and inspire them. And, something that would not shy away from real issues that small children were sensitively picking up on from parents, school, and siblings.

Enter “Sesame Street,” the creation of Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, and others, who had a vision that children’s television needed to play a key role that was missing in American society. They came up with the concept in 1966, and the first broadcast aired on public television, November 10, 1969. An excellent summation of its early history can be found at Sesame Workshop’s website on a page titled “ Sesame Street Celebrates 50 Years and Counting.” It says in part:

“Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty, Sesame Street was created to answer a simple question: could television be used to level the playing field and help prepare less advantaged children for school? The founders tapped educational advisors and researchers, entertainers and television producers, and other visionaries to create what became the longest-running children’s show in American television history.”
The very first words spoken on that first episode were “...you've never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here. You're gonna love it!” Most of us know what came from this declaration. Color! Music! Songs! Positive role models. Lively, upbeat characters that were not stereotypes. Animal puppets that didn’t look like people. Characters that were having genuine fun, speaking conversationally, and celebrating their day with exuberant spirits and infectious enthusiasm. Programs that drew in viewers, stimulated them, and yet did not avoid delicate issues like race relations, AIDS, emotions, prison, and even death.

It all began with the founders mentioned above. They persuaded and successfully courted some of the country’s longstanding and visionary private foundations, such as the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, and the Arthur Vining David Foundation, for startup funding, along with financial support from federal agencies. Coupled with this was the creative freedom of the show’s directors and writers, as well as Jim Henson’s marvelous Muppets.

Having received overwhelming acclaim over the decades (including 189 Emmy Awards and 11 Grammys), “Sesame Street” continues entertaining and educating young children. The show is 50 years old this year, and a 50th anniversary highlight video was released in February with a collection of favorite moments from the past five decades. Since the spring, the show has been visiting major cities as part of a road trip across the country to promote its half-century of programming. The stop in New York City featured Mayor Bill de Blasio in an outdoor event renaming the intersection of W. 63rd St and Broadway as “Sesame Street.” A celebratory primetime television special is in preparation for release in November on HBO and PBS that will feature many celebrities and icons from the show’s history. The special will also offer new takes on classic segments from the past. Stuffed animal manufacturer GUND has released 50th anniversary plush characters, and the United States Postal Service is selling commemorative stamps featuring 16 beloved Muppet characters.

Will “Sesame Street” still be around for another 50 years? Will libraries be involved? No one can predict. Regardless, it has thrived from the beginning. “Sesame Street” has been produced in 70 languages and has spawned countless books, videos, and music CDs. It has stimulated the minds and hearts of millions of young children and has left its mark with songs that have become part of our culture.

From the beginning, libraries have been sharing “Sesame Street” with children. The first related title, The Sesame Street Book of Numbers, was issued by Preschool Press in 1969. The next year, Columbia Records issued an LP with songs from the show by Joe Raposo. In 1986, Random House released the first commercial “Sesame Street” VHS videos. Did libraries offer them to the public? You bet they did! And, as formats continue to change through technology and ideas, libraries offer them. I’m going to make a prediction: so long as “Sesame Street” is in our lives and culture, libraries will be involved in sharing the wisdom and delights and education that comes forth from this program’s marvelous producers, writers, directors, and characters. What’s been the key to the program’s continued success? I like to think that “Sesame Street” touched on a few core truths that will always be with us, ones that Laurie Ulster identified well in her article on the website Scary Mommy:

  • Everyday people around us are valuable and interesting
  • Our alphabet, and words themselves, are brilliant and important
  • Everyone loves cookies
  • We can create a song from anything (Remember the lyrics “Sing, Sing a song, Sing out loud, Sing out strong”?)
  • Friends come in all sizes and shapes
  • Learning isn’t drudgery, it’s playful


These are the core elements of learning and of life. In honor of this milestone anniversary, we’ve put together a list of titles for you. Hats off to “Sesame Street,” and here’s to the wonderful and wild surprises awaiting us in the next 50 years!