Revisiting sunny days

February 01, 2009|By KATE COLEMAN

I awoke at 7 one morning last month and, as always, switched on my radio to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

Radio still on, I flopped back into bed to sIeep off the side effects I was experiencing - every one possible - of a prescribed medication.

What roused me from my stupor - incredibly four hours later - was the sound of the "Sesame Street" theme song.

I smiled.

I continued to smile for much of the next hour as broadcaster Diane Rehm interviewed Michael Davis, author of "Street Gang, The Complete History of Sesame Street."


"Sesame Street" will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year. The "longest-running children's show in history" reaches some six million preschoolers weekly on PBS in America. Versions are shown in 140 countries around the world, according to the dust jacket of the book, which I bought.

I was aware of the show in its early years, but the Children's Television Workshop production and all its colorful characters became a part of my life in the early 1980s when my kids were preschoolers.

"Sesame Street" finger puppets were among "the guys" Maggie carried in a little tin box nearly everywhere we went. Well-used Ernie and Bert hand puppets and a Big Bird figurine are long gone, but Kermit and Grover rest comfortably in my basement. If I rummaged through the several boxes of cassettes I haven't gotten rid of, I know I'd find tapes of songs from the program. And I bet, with the clue of just a few notes, I could still sing most of them.

A Jan. 15 New York Times review of Davis' book cautioned that it can make for some very slow reading.

As my long-suffering editors might attest, I love background and I am enjoying learning how the groundbreaking show came to be.

Davis details a 1966 dinner party hosted by Tim and Joan Ganz Cooney, then a producer at New York's educational television station, Channel 13. Among the guests was Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist and vice president for the Carnegie Corporation responsible for helping to award hefty grants for programs intended to stimulate the intellect of preschoolers.

Morrisett was fascinated that his 3-year-old daughter would sit mesmerized watching the early-morning-prebroadcast television test signal. He wondered if television could be used to teach young children.

That question kicked off the research, the ideas, the values and the artistry that became "Sesame Street."

I admit that I occasionally used Big Bird and the "gang" as babysitters.

I expected that my kids would learn a little math from Count Von Count, and letters from Cookie Monster - "C is for Cookie," for example. Watching "Sesame Street" would be good for them and thereby good and guilt-free for me.

But that's not why they liked it - or why I enjoyed the show.

It's fun! Gentle and smart, it included important life lessons: getting along, being fair, kind and responsible.

The late genius Jim Henson's Muppet characters provided color and smart humor that pleased my children, but also gave me plenty of smiles.

It's been a long time since I visited "Sesame Street," but I recall one solo return trip. My kids were all-day elementary school students, long past preschool, when human characters Maria and Luis were married on the show in 1988. I tuned in and cried as I would at any friends' wedding.

I'm pretty sure that several of the actors from our frequent-watching days are gone. New Muppets have arrived. But I'm inspired to stop in again.

Sing along: "Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?"

Kate Coleman covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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