“Sesame Street” has turned 50, and if that doesn’t make you feel old-ish, I’m not sure what will.
I’m of the pre-Big Bird era, but I’ve watched my share of episodes courtesy of my five now-adult kids. So knowing that this popular children’s TV show is celebrating a big birthday has turned me nostalgic for a time when Elmo, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster and Kermit graced my TV set.
“Sesame Street” debuted in the fall of ‘69, and its first episode was sponsored by the letters W, S and E and the numbers 2 and 3. At the time it was groundbreaking, an experiment: Furry puppets! Diverse cast! Academics on TV!
While other children’s shows modeled social skills, “Sesame Street” had decided to take a different tack. Designed by education professionals and child psychologists, it hoped to overcome some of the early literacy deficiencies low-income and minority preschoolers had when they entered kindergarten.
It did much more than that, of course. Before long, pretty much every 3-year-old was learning about shapes and colors, numbers and letters from a relatively new medium then known as the Boob Tube. As a mother, I welcomed how information was delivered in a child-friendly, developmentally appropriate way. And I’m referring to more than the catchy songs and the alphabet skits. “Sesame Street” held a mirror to my world and reflected it back with humor, rhymes and primary colors.
It still does. In addition to featuring the pioneer Latina actress Sonia Manzano, who played Maria until she retired from the show about four years ago, “Sesame Street” also introduced the bilingual Rosita and Julia, a Muppet with autism. It was the first children’s program to feature someone with Down syndrome, and it was brave enough to deal with homelessness, jailed parents and military families. After 9/11, writers showed Elmo, traumatized by a fire at Hooper’s store, being helped by the community and firefighters. This year it tackled the opioid crisis with Karli, a Muppet whose mother is battling addiction.
In short, “Sesame Street” has spent five decades presenting life with all its complications and heartaches but also with its glorious moments of joy. (I dare anyone to sing “Rubber Duckie” without smiling.) In doing so, the show has made the confusing more understandable and less frightening to little ones struggling to figure out the grown-up world.
Not unexpectedly, it has flourished in the ensuing years. It now plays in 150 countries and boasts 10 Grammys and 193 Emmys. It also has become a commercial powerhouse, merchandising its Muppets on everything from clothes to backpacks. In fact, I have three “Sesame Street” toothbrushes in my second bathroom. Earlier this year the Postal Service issued 16 commemorative stamps featuring the Muppets, and next month the show will receive a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime artistic achievement, marking the first time this prestigious accolade goes to a television program.
A lot has changed since its debut. We have cable, internet, social media, streaming, working mothers and children in day care. There are so many channels and shows for kids to watch that parents — and pediatricians — now worry about screen time.
Yet much remains the same, variations on a theme. The Vietnam War has been replaced with Afghanistan, student street protests with Twitter vitriol. We once again live in unusually turbulent times, and that only makes the wit and charm of “Sesame Street” so precious.
As Big Bird told a Time magazine interviewer recently: “I think all the kids I’ve met, they’ve always just been friendly and kind. They’re looking for a friend, for somebody to play with. I think kids have been like that for all the time I’ve known them, for all my 6½ years.”
Or for all those wonderful 50 years.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.