“Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet,
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street?”
--Theme song from Sesame Street
ON THE STREET WHERE THEY LIVE
As the theme and opening shots of children running and playing fade away on the screen, Sesame Street itself fades in. Sesame Street is actually a set on a television soundstage on Manhattan’s West Side, but it represents any city street in a poor neighborhood. It might, for instance, be East Harlem, in New York City. (“It looks real except there’s no litter,” said one young visitor to the set—who reacted as the Sesame people hoped when they purposely presented an ideal which could be attained.) The viewer sees an aging brownstone, No. 123. A lot where a building is going up is fenced in with a wall made of old doors. The sidewalks look worn from years of use and the back yards are crisscrossed with clotheslines.
If the viewer is a “regular,” he knows that Gordon and Susan and Bob live on the street. They spend a great deal of their time on the front stoop “rapping” with their friends and neighbors. One the left side of the brownstone are the famous Sesame Street garbage cans, lids securely shut, including the luxuriously appointed can that is the incredible home of Oscar the Grouch. The vacant lot to the right of 123 separates it from the candy store owned and operated by Mr. Hooper, an elderly white man.
From Sesame’s debut, November 10, 1969, to the present, each show has opened on the street and is loosely tied together by a running story about the people and creatures in the neighborhood. The street holds the show together and gives it continuity. The characters provide warmth and humanity.
The producers were extremely careful about creating the characters to the show. They wanted to make wholesome yet convincing models that their young audience would emulate—not unbelievable Pollyana types. The super-hero with this exaggerated super-power and super-prowess was also out. The main characters had to be people with qualities that children could relate to, even people with limitations. Gordon and Susan, therefore, became kindly parental figures who take a keen interest in the children of Sesame Street but who are not above a little family squabbing, too. Bob is a low-keyed, friendly neighbor who also enjoys a practical joke now and then. For the most part the characters are warm and friendly towards one another, but a small injection of abrasiveness is introduced from time to time to make them believable.
For instance, one day Bob McGrath was singing “Happiness Is” to a group of children. Immediately afterward, Oscar raises the lid on his garbage can to sing his antihero’s version: “Happiness is…sand in your sandwich, rocks in your sneakers…” This acerbic touch, to a rock beat, is the kind of thing that keeps Sesame Street from getting too bland for the kid who teethed on Laugh-In. A character such as Oscar makes children aware of their own and other people’s feelings, both negative and positive. He conveys that it is all right to be grouchy sometimes, or mad, sad, or silly—everybody is at one time one or the other. People have to accept you for what you are. When Oscar is grouchy, the other people on the street lean over backwards to understand and humor him.
“What we are trying to do on Sesame Street is to make that street really live—be a real place,” says Loretta Long. “We try to do this through the relationships of the people who ‘live’ on the street.”
It works beautifully, primarily because the actors who portray the human characters—namely Matt Robinson, Jr., Loretta Long, Bob McGrath, and Will Lee as “Gordon,” “Susan,” “Bob” and “Mr. Hooper”—respectively are a fine bunch of dedicated, genuine and concerned people.
Matt Robinson, with his bushy sideburns and Afro and walrus mustache, exudes self confidence. HE is very much concerned about identity. While he speaks to all children with a rapport that emits color-blindness, he still thinks of himself as a black performer: “Somewhere around four or five,” he says, “a Black kid is going to learn he’s Black. He’s going to learn that’s positive or negative. What I want to project is a positive image.”
Bob McGrath has had a minor identity problem of his own. While most Americans didn’t recognize the name Bob McGrath before Sesame Street, virtually everyone in Tokyo knew “Bobu Magulas.” Surprisingly, Bob’s greatest popularity had been achieved in Japan, where he became a teenagers’ idol after singing there with the Mitch Miller troupe.
Sesame Street is fresh territory for Bob, who has been almost exclusively a singer. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Michigan and the Manhattan School of Music, he began singing with such groups as the Robert Shaw Chorale and the Fred Waring Glee Club, before joining the Mitch Miller Sing-Alongs.
Aside from Bob’s positively disarming warmth and friendly manner, he has two other things going for him in his teacher role on Sesame Street—his teaching experience with preschoolers at New York’s Saint David’s private school and with his five children (ages 2 to 11).
Loretta Long is a teacher who switched to show business and suddenly found herself back in teaching. “One of the things I leaned as a teacher,” Loretta says recalling her days of teaching eleventh grade English in Yonkers, “is that the kids always know the teachers who really like them. They have a sixth sense. Children are so open and really honest—if they’re left alone.”
Back in Paw Maw, Michigan, Loretta’s parents left her pretty much alone with her decision to study to be a professional singer and pass up a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to attend law school. If they hadn’t, Loretta might have been a juvenile court judge instead of Sesame Street’s engaging hostess. She taught to pay for her singing lessons, got her first break as co-host for “Soul,” a television series on WNDT. She was recommended for the “Soul” job by Peter Long, a producer with the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Long told the “Soul” producers, “I’ve got just the girl.” What he didn’t tell them was the girl also happened to be his wife. In fact, the producers didn’t know Loretta was Paul’s wife until after they hired her. On this all Black show, Loretta sang, handled interviews and reported community news. When Sesame Street went scratching for a young woman who could relate well with children, Loretta’s name turned up and, after tests, she got the job. With that single stroke her class mushroomed from the 30 pupils she used to have a teacher to millions.
“If I had been unable to ever work in show business,” Loretta speculates, “I feel that I would been satisfied as a teacher. I like teaching and I like kids.” She adds knocking wood, “I still hold a teaching license in New York City—just in case.”
Will Lee doesn’t have to renew his teacher’s license—he never let it lapse. When he closes the candy store for the night, this veteran character actor of 35 years, teaches acting at that HB Studio which is directed by Uta Hagen, one of America’s most gifted actresses. Lee, who has portrayed everything on stage from a movie mogul in Norman Mailer’s Deer Park to a pinball machine addict in The Time of Your Life, has always had a hand in teaching acting to the next generation. During World War II, he taught in Australia as a GI. And in recent years, he has been affiliated with the American Theater Wing. One of the young hopefuls he taught there became that “Great White Hope,” James Earl Jones.