Sesame Street turns 50
BY Yako Molhov
It all began in 1969 on a street where colorful Muppets and humans lived—and learned—side by side. The founders tapped educational advisors and researchers, entertainers and TV producers, and other visionaries to create what became the longest-running children’s show in American television history. Fifty years later, Sesame Workshop announced a yearlong anniversary celebration to mark the occasion. Throughout 2019, Sesame Workshop will bring people together around the timeless lessons that Sesame Street has always taught reaching people in 150 countries in over 70 languages.
Yako Molhov talked to Sesame Workshop executives and talent about the show’s past, present and future, its unifying messages as well as its mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.
John Legend on Season 48 of Sesame Street
Steve Youngwood is President of Media & Education and Chief Operating Officer of Sesame Workshop. He oversees the Media and Education unit of the Workshop, which consists of U.S and international businesses, including distribution, product licensing, themed entertainment, and educational services.

This year, Sesame Street is marking its 50th anniversary. What has kept people from all over the world visiting the most-famous street in the world for more than five decades?
It’s a combination of compelling characters, engaging story lines and a laser focus on keeping kids and families first in everything we do. We are constantly evolving with the interests and needs of our audience, and creating shows that address relevant topics in an entertaining way.

What events and initiatives have you prepared to celebrate the anniversary?
Throughout 2019, Sesame Workshop will bring people together around the timeless lessons that Sesame Street has always taught: everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, is equally deserving of respect, opportunity and joy. We have a celebrity- and fan-fueled social media campaign called ThisIsMyStreet. Another highlight is our nationwide road trip where we’ll be taking Big Bird on the road and finding out what makes your community special. The videos we shoot with the local kids will appear on Sesame Street’s 50th season. And we’ll celebrate with a big outdoor event for families and fans. We have some fun and unexpected product collaborations, as well as Sesame Street stamps with the U.S. Postal Service. And as part of a large-scale early childhood intervention, we’ll launch a new local version of Sesame Street created for displaced Syrian families. And we’re not even done! There’s so much to we have planned. Stay tuned!

Throughout all of its history, Sesame Street has been airing on PBS. In January 2016 the first-run episodes went to HBO. What prompted this five-year deal?
We were at a crossroads. While Sesame Street’s relevance and reason for being was important as ever, the economic model to keep us sustainable was evolving. A fragmentation in the market led to declines in licensing, and technology changes led to declines in DVD revenue. In order to continue producing Sesame Street, we formed a win-win scenario with HBO. This public/private partnership model provides continued funding for the show and allows us to give Sesame Street to PBS for free making the show accessible to all kids.
Sesame Street started out as a television show and today, it’s become more. We are constantly evolving making sure that the show is as relevant and accessible as ever--whether it’s on HBO or PBS. It’s important that we are constantly expanding on what Sesame Street means, whether it’s short-form on digital platforms, whether it’s apps and other digital and interactive content, or whether it’s going into communities with more targeted content around initiatives like we have with Sesame Street in Communities.

What is the main mission of your non-profit organization?
Our overall mission is to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. We focus mostly on the earliest years, that’s where we can make the most impact. We believe inherently in the power of media and technology to be harnessed to help educate kids. We know that you have to reach if you want to teach, so we entertain in order to educate.

We are also sharing our expertise with other important people in a kid’s life. We have a partnership with NPR on a variety of podcasts to address kid/family related issues. In a fragmented world, we realize that for us to fulfill our mission, we have to go well beyond Sesame Street. Today, no one show can reach the same number of people as it used to. That’s why we’ve expanded with a new program called Esme & Roy, which recently won best new preschool show with Kidscreen. And we just announced we’re doing three shows with Apple. We’re expanding that pipeline to pursue various creative and curriculum goals in order help as many kids as we can, including the most vulnerable.

Ed Wells joined Sesame Workshop in 2017 as the Senior Vice President and Head of International Media and Education. Ed has a long and distinguished track record of building brands and operations throughout the world.

In 2018, it was estimated that 86 million Americans had watched the series as children. Do you have similar data for the rest of the world and how many countries are airing the show as of 2019?
Sesame Street is seen in over 150 countries, heard in 17 languages, reaches 150 million kids globally, and has over 24 million social fans. Sesame Street was the first children’s show – and one of the first shows, period – to speak on tough topics like familial incarceration, military deployment, divorce, even death. From being awarded multiple Emmy and Grammy awards, we are consistently being recognized as a creative and innovative force in educating children through media.

How many territories have done local versions of Sesame Street and what have been the most-successful adaptations so far?
In our 50 years, we’ve had about 30 local versions of Sesame Street. Our first ones were in Brazil, Mexico, and Germany, where the shows are as beloved today as they were when they first debuted. In each country, we have a talented ensemble cast and dedicated production team that creates storylines that resonate with kids and their families. Every year, we reevaluate what issues are affecting our global audience, and we engage with educational experts and researchers to deliver programming that best meet kids' needs.

What are some of the other show Sesame Workshop is working on?
We’re continuing to evolve and strengthen our flagship Sesame Street program with new animated segments like Abby’s Amazing Adventures, and another that will explore the different worlds of Elmo, Abby and Cookie. We’re also working with Apple on three new programs. We’re producing a live-action, an animated series, and a puppet series.

We’ve collaborated with Nelvana on Esme & Roy, which follows a young girl and her best monster friend on their adventures as the best monster babysitters in Monsterdale. The series, which recently won a Kidscreen Award for the best new preschool series, is now up for three Daytime Emmy Awards. Sesame Studios showcases new non-Muppet characters, short form series, and original stories.

What are your plans for Sesame Street not for the next 50 years but, let’s say, for the next 5-10 years?
As a non-profit organization, all of the work we do is in service of our mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. Sesame Street has a unique ability to reach and teach children, particularly those most vulnerable, and we’re constantly evolving to meet their needs. Thanks to a landmark $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, we’re undertaking the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response in partnership with the IRC, which will reach millions of children affected by the Syrian war.
Through Sesame Street in Communities, our largest domestic outreach initiative, we’re working hand-in-hand with direct service providers across the country to deliver resources to vulnerable children and families. In 11 countries around the world, we’re delivering life-saving water and sanitation education using the power of our engaging Muppets, in partnership with World Vision.

Ben Lehmann is the Executive Producer for Sesame Street. He is responsible for the production of all content for Sesame Street and is also a director for the series. Lehmann has been with the show for 16 years and has won multiple awards, including 10 Emmy Awards and 5 Producer’s Guild Awards for his work as a director and producer.

Ben, how has Sesame Street changed in these five decades?
There are the obvious technological changes that have occurred over the last 50 years – how many people would have guessed in 1969 that they would one day watch Sesame Street on a phone? The show was actually designed to evolve with the times. Sesame Street was born out of a simple question: can television help educate kids? As such, we create curricula that evolves with the changing needs of kids. The show re-invents itself every season. And, of course, we want to engage kids and are always thinking of new formats, new characters and new ways of reaching kids on different platforms.

Jim Henson’s Muppets have been an integral part of the program. What has made Henson’s puppets so popular for generations of both kids and adults to this day?
There is something timeless about the Sesame Street Muppets. Cookie Monster is universally understood by kids and adults alike (he is my personal favorite….Hmmmm Cookie!) because his personality is so well defined. You always know that no matter the adventure or story, he can be kind, he can be sad, he can be so many things, but at the end of the episode or the narrative arc, he is going to eat a cookie. Or barring that, a mailbox or whatever is nearby. Obviously, I focused on Cookie Monster but Jim Henson’s early collaboration with the show’s creators, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett contributed to the show’s success and longevity. Kids look at the Muppets, be it Elmo, or Abby or Grover, and they just connect.

What have been the most-memorable celebrity cameos throughout the show’s 50-year run?
There have been so many and everyone has a most-memorable. Lena Horne, Patti Labelle, Stevie Wonder, REM, Feist,, John Legend are just a few of the great cameos throughout our history. I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan so he’s a personal favorite, but honestly there are so many memorable ones, even just in my time here. And the great thing is, celebrities come on Sesame Street and they become kids again and just have a great time interacting with the Muppets.

Matt Vogel is one of the core Sesame Street Muppet Performers and is the show’s Puppet Captain. He plays Big Bird, The Count, Mr. Johnson, and one of the Yip-Yip Martians. As part of Sesame Street’s directing team, he has earned seven Emmy Awards and directed the Primetime Emmy Award-winning special Once Upon a Sesame Street Christmas for HBO.

Matt, you are performing the roles of two of Jim Henson’s most-popular puppets: Kermit the Frog and Big Bird. How did you get involved with the show and what have been the most-challenging moments for you playing the characters?
I moved to New York City in the fall of 1994 and got an audition for The Jim Henson Company with Jim Henson’s son, John Henson. I was asked to come in to audition for Caroll Spinney, who was looking for someone to help him out with Big Bird when he needed it. Caroll was introduced to me as “Matt Vogel” and, because he knew German, Caroll said, “Oh! Vogel means ‘bird’ in German, this may be the job for you!” Soon after that, I was Caroll’s apprentice and I have been for over 20 years. The most challenging moments in playing characters like Big Bird or Kermit the Frog is in the balance of honoring the intentions of the original performer while not delivering an imitation of a performance. So, that and keeping my arm up for a long time!

Tell us about Big Bird. What makes kids love him so much?
I think that Big Bird is the heart of Sesame Street. He’s the “every child” and our audience can see themselves in him. He’s kind, he’s friendly, he’s full of curiosity at the world around him. And that’s appealing to kids — and adults, too.

You have five kids. I guess they all grew up with the show?
My kids have been around Sesame Street and Muppets in one way or another for their entire lives, so it’s just a natural part of their world to be on a set and see their dad with a puppet on his arm. I think when my oldest were little, they just thought everyone’s parent did what I do. But as they’ve gotten older, and their friends find out what I do, I think they see that there’s something special about what we do.

Did you watch Sesame Street as a kid? Did it inspire you to become a puppeteer?
I’m part of the first generation of Sesame Street viewers. It was only a year old when I was born. I was brought up on the show as well as The Muppet Show and was inspired by Sesame Street and Jim Henson. As an eight-year-old, I was inspired to make my own puppets and entertain kids in the neighborhood. And now, here I am entertaining and helping educate kids around the world. It’s really a dream come true.

Carmen Osbahr, originally from Mexico City, performs Rosita, Ovejita, and other characters on Sesame Street. She began her relationship with the iconic program in 1987 when she met Jim Henson.

Carmen, could you describe your characters in a few words? What have been your favorite moments from the show?
Rosita is a strong, curious monster from Mexico. She runs before she walks so sometimes she gets into trouble because she gets so excited. She’s learning her way around. She loves music, dancing and plays the guitar. Ovejita likes to play games and tricks on Murray. She’s fun, playful, and silly.

Since I’ve been with Sesame Street for 30 years, there have been so many great moments. One of my favorites is when I first performed Rosita on Sesame Street. I was scared to death and my English wasn’t great, but I was so excited to finally be joining the Sesame Street family. It was overwhelming and joyful. Another moment was when I was watching a segment about vowels with Kermit the Frog and Forgetful Jones. Kermit was directing him in singing the song “Oklahoma.” There was music. There were cows, horses, and chickens. Forgetful Jones kept mispronouncing “Oklahoma” using every vowel except the “O” and Kermit was getting increasingly frustrated. The scene was total chaos—and so perfectly choreographed from the behind-the-scenes standpoint.

Another favorite moment was singing with Ray Charles. That was incredible. But being hired by Jim Henson is my top favorite moment. He understood the importance and potential of television. Jim was a true visionary.

Sesame Street is great at showcasing the diversity in the world. For me personally and for the producers, it’s always been important to share culture and I’m so proud to represent mine. I get to speak Spanish and sing songs, and talk about my abuela. I love it.

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