It’s far from a sunny day on Sesame Street. The show is decamping from PBS, its home for almost five decades, to pricier digs at HBO. And Maria, played for the past 44 years by Sonia Manzano, is retiring from the Fix-It Shop to take up residence in a year-round sunny clime, like maybe Miami Beach or San Juan.
I can’t pretend that I grew up on Sesame Street. My own black-&-white TV childhood was spent with bland characters like Howdy Doody, Sheriff John, and the matronly Miss Francis of (ugh!) Ding Dong School. Sesame Street, when it popped up in 1969, had plenty of innovations that I came to appreciate later, as a mother of young children. First of all, it used the medium of television in a way that earlier shows did not. Jim Henson, who was there from the start, contributed not only the Muppets but also the brilliantly-colored and visually inspired graphics that marked the show. There was also a creative sense of inclusiveness: Sesame Street, with its very Sixties awareness of racial inequities, created a rainbow brigade of characters, a far cry from the exclusively WASP cast of The Mickey Mouse Club. Not only were the majority of the regular human characters black (Gordon and Susan) and Latino (Maria and Luis), but the presence of orange, yellow, and blue Muppets suggested that warm, cuddly individuals exist in our world in all colors, shapes, and sizes. And Sesame Street, which was particularly planned to capture the imagination of inner-city kids, was not afraid to have an urban look. Previously, children’s programming seemed always to be set in some Dick-and-Jane-style dream-suburbia, like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. On Sesame Street, by contrast, there were stoops, and alleys, and trashcans (but no trash).
Sesame Street also seemed willing to talk about real life-and-death issues, though in the gentlest way possible. Human characters fell in love, got married, had babies. Perhaps the show’s most famous foray into reality came after Will Lee, the actor who’d played crusty but lovable Mr. Hooper since the show’s beginning, died suddenly in 1982 at the age of 74. The decision to incorporate the death of a beloved Sesame Street personality into the show, from the perspective of oversized five-year-old Big Bird, was not easily made. But the “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper” episode – which also captured the cast’s genuine grief at the loss of a longtime friend -- was to become one of the show’s most honored of all time. (I confess I can’t watch it without tearing up a little. Like everyone else in my age group, I’ve lost so many good people over the years.)
If Sesame Street could be sad, it was also very funny. The show’s creators had the foresight to understand that children would learn far more if their parents watched too. And parents, of course, would expect to be entertained on their own level. Which is why the show has always made a point of riffing on popular culture, often with the cooperation of major showbiz figures. In the heyday of the Beatles, I always chuckled at the salute to the letter B, set to the tune of “Let It Be.” And I particularly liked the Monsterpiece Theatre segments, parodying such landmark PBS dramatic series as Upstairs Downstairs. These were presented by Cookie Monster in the guise of the suave, smoking-jacketed Alistair Cookie.
Suffice it to say that the influence of Sesame Street lives on. Some of its fans even grew up to create Avenue Q, a Broadway hit that probes what’s really going on between Bert and Ernie.