Behind-the-scenes facts about ‘Sesame Street’

Posted: November 22, 2019 in Did you know?, What's new

Happy 50th, Sesame Street!
sesame_streetIt’s hard to imagine a world without Sesame Street, but it’s equally hard to believe that the beloved children’s show is turning 50 this year! TV shows sometimes have the power to change the world, and Sesame Street has definitely done that. And even though the most die-hard fans may think they know everything there is to know about Big Bird and company, trust us—they don’t. We got the behind-the-scenes scoop on America’s longest-running children’s show from Sesame Street’s current executive producer, Ben Lehmann, and former cast member Emilio Delgado, who played Luis for a whopping 44 years.

One simple idea revolutionized TV
sesame2Experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett was studying the educational trends associated with low-income and minority children in the late 1960s when he was introduced to public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney at a dinner party. He expressed the idea that television could be an important teaching tool for preschool-age children. Cooney agreed, and together they workshopped the idea that would become Sesame Street. "Today, you wouldn’t think of having a children’s show without it being educational," says Lehmann. "That’s because of Sesame Street." The Sesame Workshop continues the mission of educating children globally by assessing their needs through research and implementation. Teaching and inspiring children are at the heart of the show.

It takes all day to produce just ten minutes of the show
sesmame3They make it look easy, but it isn’t. In fact, it takes hundreds of employees to bring Elmo, Grover, Abby, and the crew to life. The creators of the beloved puppet characters work long hours to give personality to each puppet. From the careful selection of the character’s eyes to the way the puppeteers create their voice, it’s a methodical, conscious process. "It surprises people to learn that it takes a full day to get ten minutes of footage," says Lehmann. "We function somewhat like a symphony orchestra. It’s really quite an intricate dance between the camera operators, the puppeteers, and the actors." Of course, it’s always important to build trust with your coworkers, but it’s essential to keep this show running smoothly.

Sesame Street has always been a rainbow of inclusion
sesame4Inclusion, representation, and diversity are trendy buzzwords these days, but they’ve been at the center of Sesame Street all along. While the concepts may have changed and expanded over the years, Morrisett and Cooney originally set out to create a show that would allow minority children to feel seen. The early casting of the show was deliberately inclusive. Aside from Delgado, cast members Matt Robinson, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, and Will Lee played neighbors from different backgrounds who functioned like a family.

Manzano, who played Maria, was the first leading Latina actor to be cast in a television series, and Delgado played her husband. He recalls his early career as a young Chicano actor in L.A. and remembers a time when Latinos were often cast as racist stereotypes. Sesame Street was looking for something very different. Delgado says that people still tell him how much his character, Luis, meant to them: "They’ll say to me, ‘We were the only Mexican family in my town, and you looked and sounded like me!’ It means so much to hear that."

So controversial, it was once banned
sesame5Because Sesame Street was so progressive and ahead of its time, it occasionally found itself at the center of controversy. Those who opposed integration were threatened by the show’s casting and the appearance of certain celebrities, like civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. And in 1970, the show was banned from airing in Mississippi by the State Commission for Educational Television on racial grounds. Of course, Sesame Street stood its ground, and Lehmann says this has been a consistent theme of the show. "The aim of the show has always been to show kids someone like them and give tools to their caregivers to help them succeed," he explains. Of course, TV shows aren’t the only type of entertainment to court controversy.

The toughest job on Sesame Street
sesame6It’s not being an actor. That was easy from the start, according to Delgado, because the puppeteers are so talented. "My imagination was nurtured," he says. "It’s easy to have a total suspension of disbelief because of the talents of the puppeteers." But that doesn’t mean the puppeteers have an easy job—it takes a lot of skill to operate those puppets. Often, characters are operated by one or two people, working closely to make the puppet move, talk, gesture, and make facial expressions that are as human-like as possible. Having a job on Sesame Street is pretty cool, even though it may also be a little quirky…though probably not as quirky as the strangest jobs in every state.

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
sesame7Yes, actually! Sesame Street was originally set on an imaginary street in New York City—but it’s no longer imaginary. On May 1, 2019, the intersection of 63rd and Broadway was renamed Sesame Street, and Mayor Bill de Blasio declared it Sesame Street Day to honor the show’s 50-year run. But while you can find Sesame Street in Manhattan, the actual show is filmed in the outer borough of Queens, at Kaufman Astoria Studios.

Celebrities love to pop by
sesame8When asked about favorite celebrity guests, Lehmann has a hard time choosing just one. "Jamie Foxx did this super funny thing with a fox, and Terry Crews had so much great energy," he says. And while he’s partial to Elvis Costello’s appearance since he’s a big fan, he’ll never forget John Legend’s moment with his three-year-old-daughter, Luna, as she saw him interact with puppets. The show has hosted a variety of high-profile celebrities over the years, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, Sir Ian McKellen, and Maya Angelou.

The moment with the biggest impact was real
sesame9Both Lehmann and Delgado agree that the most impactful moment of Sesame Street was the death of Mr. Hooper, played by Michael Lee, in 1982. The show dealt with the character’s death while the cast and crew were dealing with the death of their friend and coworker. The result was a touching and honest explanation of death to children everywhere (and Big Bird) in an emotional moment that took only one take. "To talk to kids about death had never been done," says Delgado. "We all felt the intensity of that emotion. We kept acting as we were feeling."

In terms of impact, Delgado says a close second was the marriage of Maria and Luis in 1988. "That episode showed the cultural context of Latino life," he explains. "It showed a whole family and a whole community behind these two people in love."

Why the puppets are city kids
sesame10Since the creators wanted to speak to low-income and minority communities, they needed to create characters who fit the bill—as well as a setting those children could relate to. That’s why the show’s backdrop consists of clothes hanging out to dry, street vendors, stacked tenements, and an urban landscape. The education gap is still prevalent for many in the United States and can vary from city to city.

Jim Henson made this all possible
sesame11Jim Henson created the original character puppets for Sesame Street when he came on the show in 1969. He also developed the method that puppeteers still use today. "Henson created the puppet stage for television," says Lehmann. The use of rolling stools, called "rollies," which get puppeteers from place to place and the use of TV monitors as a guide for puppet interaction was all Jim Henson. And here’s a little-known fact: Henson was the original voice of Ernie.

Of course, he also created The Muppets, a beloved cast of characters that includes Miss Piggy, Kermit, and Fozzie Bear. Henson’s influence on puppetry and children’s programming is second to none. He died in 1990. Speaking of Henson’s influence, did you know that some of the best life advice comes from The Muppets?

What’s next for Sesame Street
sesame12Lehmann’s not exactly sure what’s in store for Sesame Street, but he knows it will continue to forge the path of teaching children everywhere. "We continue identifying the current needs of kids," he says. "We’re learning that it’s not just about teaching kids their ABC’s and 123’s. It’s about teaching kids that taking risks and learning to be flexible are skills that are also important to learn." Lehmann says they hope to inspire kids for the next 50 years and beyond. To get some in-person inspiration, take a trip to Sesame Place in Pennsylvania, which also happens to be one of the theme parks that go all out for the holidays.

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