The secret history of Sesame Street: ‘It was utopian – it’s part of who we all are’ | Sesame Street

“I“I still squeeze myself because my dad, of flesh and blood, had Ernie on one side and Burt on the other,” says Eli Atti. “It’s like sitting in Abbey Road Studios and watching the Beatles record I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Attia’s father was photographer David Atti, who in 1970 visited the Sesame Street group in New York City during its first season. His photographs remained forgotten in the wardrobe for the next 50 years, until recently discovered by Ellie. It is a glimpse behind the scenes of a cultural phenomenon waiting to happen. Here’s not just Burt and Ernie but Kermit, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch with his original orange fur (it was green by season two). And here are the people who brought these characters to life, led by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, and Lennon and McCartney from Muppetdom. What also stands out in Attie’s photos are the children visiting the set. As in the show itself, they are clearly startled by the puppets, completely ignoring the humans who control them.

Eli himself was one of these visitors, although he does not remember it. “I was wearing diapers and, as the story goes, I was too loud and wouldn’t be quiet, and I was yanked off the set,” he says. His parents and older brother Oliver have at least accessed the photos. Oliver was even on an episode of the show, in the background at Hooper’s Shop, explains Elle, with just a hint of jealousy.

Bert and Ernie with puppeteers Daniel Segren, Henson and Oz

  • Above: Burt and Ernie with puppeteers Daniel Segren, Jim Henson and Frank Oz

  • Left: Cast member Bob McGrath, actor and musician, in a segment called The People in Your Neighborhood.

  • Right: Henson (left) and Oz – Lennon and McCartney of Muppetdom – running the dolls for a sketch titled Hunt for Happiness

Cast member Bob McGrath, actor and musician, in a segment called The People in Your Neighborhood
Jim Henson (left) and Frank Oz - Muppetdom's Lennon and McCartney - spin the dolls for a sketch titled Hunt for Happiness

Fifty-two years and over 4,500 episodes later, Sesame Street remains the main title in children’s entertainment. It is still watched by hundreds of millions around the world, and is broadcast in more than 140 countries. An attempt to statistically measure the impact of the program on American society failed because no one could find a large enough sample set was not I watched it. Sesame Street’s place in American culture was oddly emphasized last month when Big Bird happened Advertise on Twitter: “I got the Covid-19 vaccine today! My ward feels a little sore, but it will give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy.” He was promoting the publication of vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11, but Big Bird’s tweet, along with Sesame Street’s recent introduction of a new Korean-American doll, led to a conservative reaction. Texas Senator Ted Cruz responded: “Government propaganda… for your 5-year-old!” Cruz later doubled, tweet cartoon Sesame Street characters seated around the Thanksgiving dinner table, with a cooked Big Dead bird in place of turkey.

Others accumulate. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has explicitly banned Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters from their next convention, and CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp has called for PBS, which broadcasts the show (although new episodes are now airing on HBO Max), to be discontinued. “They will not stop their quest to awaken politics,” he complained. And Wendy Rogers, a Senator from Arizona, went even further, declaring: “Big Bird Communist.”


BBeyond the beating optics of the universally beloved children’s characters, in the context of David Attie’s photos, these picks couldn’t be more wrong. Atti was commissioned to photograph Sesame Street by Amerika, a Russian-language magazine funded by the US State Department and distributed in the Soviet Union. Essentially, it was a Cold War propaganda project. Soviet officials regularly returned copies of America’s book to the unsold US Embassy, ​​saying their citizens were not interested. In fact, the magazine has been highly sought after, and has become a commodity on the black market, explains Eli Atti. “One of the embassy officials told me that they exchanged two copies of Americana for ballet tickets that were impossible to find in Moscow at the time,” he says. So Sesame Street I was Used as government propaganda, not in the way Cruz and Rogers might imagine.

Choosing a New York street scene was a radical step in children's television in the 1960s.

You could argue that Sesame Street has had a political mission from the start, as the new documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (of which Attie’s book is a companion piece), explains. One of the programme’s founders, broadcaster Joan Ganz Cooney, was “intellectually and spiritually” involved in the civil rights movement. The other, psychologist Lloyd Morissette, was concerned about a widening education gap in the United States in the 1960s, which left behind socially and economically disadvantaged children, especially African Americans. These children often spent many hours at home watching TV while their parents were busy at work. Instead of carols for beer ads, Connie and Morissette conclude why not use television to teach them literacy and arithmetic?

Big Bird with actors Loretta Long and Matt Robinson, husband and wife of AKA duo Susan and Gordon.

  • Above: Big Bird with actors Loretta Long and Matt Robinson, husband and wife of AKA duo Susan and Gordon.

  • Below: According to Big Bird player, Carroll Spinney, his ‘very melancholic and sometimes complicated personality’ gave the show depth.

According to Big Bird player Carroll Spinney, his 'very sad and sometimes complicated personality' gave the show depth.

WWith an $8 million federal grant, the newly formed Children’s Television Workshop spent two years researching how to make content that is not only educational, but entertaining. This is where The Muppets Workshop came in (even if Henson Alhebishi was initially not trusted by his fellow academics). Not to mention the messy comedic songs and graphics, surreal animations and improvised clips for kids with dolls. Everything was an experience. Nothing like it had been done before and there was no guarantee that it would work, but everyone seemed to be on the same path.

As Kony said in the documentary, “We weren’t too concerned about reaching middle-class kids but really, really, really badly wanted to reach inner-city kids. It was hard to do if you didn’t get to them.” This explains why the show takes place on an ordinary New York street – a radical move for children’s television, a familiar place for the target audience. Radically, the show was multicultural and inclusive from the start, with black, white, and Latino actors alongside non-human characters of all colors. Even the title and guest sequences reflected the diversity in the US (Season 1 featured James Earl Jones, BB King, Mahalia Jackson, and Jackie Robinson). As longtime writer and director John Stone said of the series’ holistic approach: “We never beat this horse to death by talking about it; we simply show it.”

Puppet designer and singer Carole Wilcox goes to work with Henson.

Sesame Street taught children all the topics of life. Not only racism (most recently with the introduction of two new African-American characters, Post-Life Blacks matters) but also poverty, addiction, autism, HIV, AIDS, and public health (Covid was not the first hit of the Big Bird, He also received a measles vaccination in 1972), gentrification (in 1994, the street was threatened with demolition by a loud-mouthed businessman named “Ronald Gramp”, played by Joe Pesci). Sesame Street even addressed the concept of death: When Will Lee, who played the shopkeeper Mr. Hopper, died in 1982, the show featured a heart-wrenching clip in which neighbors, visibly crying, explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hopper is dead and will never come back.

Spinney, who played Big Bird for nearly 50 years until his death in 2019, jokes with kids.

  • Spinney, who played Big Bird for nearly 50 years until his death in 2019, jokes with kids.

It wasn’t just the “inner city kids” that Sesame Street was famous for. While his father was working, Elie Atti’s artist mother would put him and his brother in front of the TV to watch so she could draw. “There was a block of watches that were on public broadcasters in the New York area. I just thought: Hallelujah. I can put them here, they’re having fun.” We were learning to count, we were learning spelling and we were learning a kind of comedy: We both became fans of Monty Python and comedy. stand-up and I’m sure that was the gateway.” Attie went on to become a television writer and producer, working on shows like The West Wing, House, and Billions.

Filming on Sesame Street filming location.

  • Above: Photography on the set of Sesame Street.

  • Below: Henson with the dentist and bus driver from the song The People in Your Neighborhood about different professions.

Henson with the dentist and bus driver from the song

Sesame Street’s inclusive, humane agenda and progress have always had its enemies. Mississippi broadcasters refused to broadcast the first season again in 1969 due to the series’ spin-off setup (they dropped off after a few weeks). In the past decade, conservative disapproval chorus voices have grown louder. Before Cruise and his co-stars, the show and PBS have been targeted by the likes of Mitt Romney, Fox News, and inevitably Donald Trump.

“Sesame was never a political show; it was a very socially relevant show,” says Trevor Crafts, producer of the documentary Street Gang, although today’s political climate has echoes of the 1960s, when Sesame Street was created, he feels. “It was a very similar time. There was a lot of social upheaval, and here we are again. It just shows that you need something like Sesame Street to increase the amount of good in the world. And also to know that through creativity, you can make a difference. Positive change can happen if you are willing to see a problem, try to fix it, and do it creatively.”

Spinney with Oscar the Grouch.  Henson wanted Oscar to be purple, but TV cameras couldn't handle the shade.  In the second season, Oscar became green.
Long peeks at Oscar's trash.  Now in her 80's, she has become one of the tallest members of the original cast

  • Spinney with Oscar the Grouch. Henson wanted Oscar to be purple, but TV cameras couldn’t handle the shade. In the second season, Oscar became green.

  • Long peeks at Oscar’s trash. Now in her 80s, she is one of the tallest members of the original cast.

Where some might see a political agenda, many might simply see a model of the kind of society the United States would like it to be. “I think it showed everyone, ‘This is what we should be in our hearts,’” says Elie Ati. “It was perfect. He was upbeat, he was challenging and smart. And he didn’t talk to the kids.” In addition to the family album, his father’s photos capture his playful idealism. “Now I see that’s part of who I am,” he says. “And that’s part of who we are all.”

The Unseen Photos of Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street by Trevor Crafts, with photos of David Atti, Posted by Abrams on 23 December at £28.99. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy for £25.22 at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. The documentary, Street Gang, premieres on HBO in the US on December 13 and in the UK next year.

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