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Sesame Street 35th Anniversary

Molly Griffin | Monday, April 5, 2004

“This story is brought to you today” by the letter “S” and the numbers “3” and 5″. The “S” would be for “Sesame Street” and the “3” and the “5” are because the show is celebrating its 35th anniversary, and this refrain will likely conjure up some memorable images from the childhoods of the estimated 74 million “graduates” that grew up watching Sesame Street. The show will be kicking off its 35th season with a prime-time special, entitled “Sesame Street Presents: The Street We Live On,” April 4 at 8 p.m., complete with a huge lineup of celebrity guests. This may not seem like big news on a college campus, especially since most students won’t watch a children’s show – and those who will won’t be judged too harshly. Many students can take this opportunity to think about where they learned about the letter “Y,” the difference between a rectangle and a square and valuable life lessons about sharing and playing nice. Whether in preschool or in the years following, millions of students across the world, learned mcuh of that essential information from “Sesame Street.”

“Sesame Street” originally was created because of concern over the lack of educational programming for children. Television producer Joan Ganz began researching television for children with support from the Carnegie Institute. This led to the foundation of the Children’s Television Workshop – a familiar moniker to any “Sesame Street” viewer, although the name has recently been changed to the Sesame Workshop. The show was and continues to be one of the most heavily researched programs on television, and its ultimate goal is to combine learning and entertainment for children. The show was conceived with puppets in mind. Thus Jim Henson was brought on board, and the characters Ernie, Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster and Big Bird were created. The inner city was chosen as the show’s setting instead of the suburbs because youths were typically less educated in such areas, and it included a racially diverse cast of people and characters, which was especially important in the Civil Rights era when the show was created. “Sesame Street” premiered on Nov. 10, 1969, and it has been influencing generations of children ever since.

The show has received a great deal of acclaim and praise over its 35 year run, both through critical awards and sheer popularity. It has won a plethora of honors, including 91 Emmy awards, which is more than any other television show in history and was voted Favorite Children’s Program by one million people in the First Annual TV Guide Awards. More important than critical praise, though, is the popularity of the show itself. It is watched by more than eight million viewers in the United States, and more mothers with a child under the age of 3 watch the show than any other.

Over 120 other countries watch “Sesame Street,” although it is tailored for the social climate and customs of each nation. Brazil watches “Vila Sésamo,” which emphasizes children’s freedom to play creatively and spontaneously. Egypt watches “Alam Simsim,” which is about basic skills, girls’ education, health, hygiene and nutrition. China learns about aesthetics and arts from “Zhima Jie.” There are three different versions of the show that are played in Israel, and there are two versions shown in Palestine. The South African version of the show has been in the news recently because of its inclusion of an HIV-positive character in order to teach children the disease, which is steadily becoming an epidemic in many African countries, and to show them how to interact with individuals who are infected with it. “Sesame Street” has become an almost universal experience for children all around the world.

The special, “Sesame Street Presents: The Street We Live On,” will be an compilation of clips from past shows, as well as new segments with new guest stars, who often parody their own famous songs, shows or movies in order to teach a lesson.

Elmo, infamous for the “Tickle-Me Elmo” craze, leads viewers through an hour of “Sesame Street” memories. He recollects past events in “Sesame Street” history such as weddings, births and other important memories on the show. For those viewers who haven’t been with the show long enough to remember all of these events, much of the show is actually new material featuring a host of different celebrities from all areas of the entertainment industry.

Norah Jones sings “Don’t Know Why ‘Y’ Didn’t Come,” a play on her song “Don’t Know Why I Didn’t Come.” Julianne Moore appears in “Far From Seven” a complete parody of “Far From Heaven” down to the 1950’s clothing. Dr. Phil appears with his own puppet doppelganger, Dr. Feel, to help kids cope with their feelings. Other guests include Bill Cosby, Seth Green, Venus Williams, Ruben Studdard, Harvey Fierstein, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Frans, Wayne Brady, Jason Biggs, Harry Connick Jr, and Cher.

“Sesame Street” even utilized the premises of shows that would not immediately strike you as children’s entertainment, like “Six Feet Under,” “The Tonight Show” and “Joe Millionaire” and made them educational and appropriate for children.

After 35 years, it is only natural that “Sesame Street” isn’t alone in the children’s entertainment industry. Other long-running shows like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” have ended, but new shows are constantly cropping up to try and join in the children’s television market. Shows like “Blue’s Clues” or “Dora the Explorer” are popular now, but they wouldn’t be here without the path that “Sesame Street” paved in creating entertainment specifically for children that was both educational and entertaining. “Sesame Street,” though, is truly in a league of its own, not only because it began the revolution in children’s programming, but also because of how many people it has touched over the years. “Sesame Street” has not only changed how kids learn before going off to school, but it also proves that the ever-popular adage of mothers, “television rots the brain,” is not always entirely true.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Molly Griffin at mgriffin@nd.edu.