At Lincoln Center in New York City, the Library of Performing Arts has just mounted a fresh new retrospective exhibit on Sesame Street (“Somebody Come and Play: 45 Years of Sesame Street,” September 18, 2014–January 31, 2015). This once-controversial kiddie show is now older than most of the mothers who are crowding in with their toddlers and baby-strollers. I dropped in the other day and was hit with a blast of cultural amnesia.
The exhibit suggests that Sesame Street was always about Big Bird, fluffy puppets, and silly songs. It was never about urban slums, racial conflict, or any of those other “relevant” social themes of the late 60s that the newspapers always talked about when reviewing the program. Looking at this exhibit, you wouldn’t have a clue that when the first program was broadcast in November 1969, its “target child” was a “4-year-old inner-city black youngster” (according to the New York Times) or that the original opening sequence showed black children in a gritty playground, with Harlem “projects” towering behind.
Sesame Street‘s most striking early innovation was its “inner-city” studio set. Many people assumed it was meant to be Harlem. There were brick tenements with fire escapes, laundry hanging on clotheslines, garbage cans on the sidewalk; as well as an old brownstone inhabited by a black couple who wore afros. A kiddie show set in the “slums” (as the Times put it) seemed like a hip and edgy idea.
But hip, edgy ideas get old quickly. Within a year or two after the show’s launch, Sesame Street‘s producers began to rethink the “ghetto” idea. Gradually they gentrified the neighborhood, to the point where they now deny that they ever had Harlem in mind. Indeed, they now tell us that the Sesame Street set was inspired by the tony, picturesque blocks of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Or so they claim in the exhibit brochure: “The brownstone building of 123 Sesame Street . . . was designed to look like the typical middle-income brownstone homes on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Not quite. The set was designed in the late 1960s, when the decaying blocks between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues could hardly be described as “middle-income.” Up to the 1980s, in fact, most of that neighborhood north of 72nd Street was “transitional” at best.
The exhibition assures us that Sesame Street was an extraordinary “cultural, educational, and media phenomenon,” but it shies away from telling us why. A 2007 New York Times retrospective was more frank: It warned that the characters in the first episodes live in “a dismal basement apartment,” and that the series is a “frightening glimpse” of the 1960s. The conclusion about early episodes? “Don’t bring the children.”
There were many reasons for Sesame Street to pull away from its early grittiness. In its first year, that look-and-feel seemed a little too aggressively left-liberal; radical, even. Some educational-television stations were hesitant to carry it. Famously, the state-supported PBS station in Jackson, Mississippi, briefly banned it. But a more significant reason for Sesame Street to mend its ways was the boom in kiddie television in the early ’70s. Such “educational” programs as Zoom (from Boston’s WGBH) and The Electric Company (from the producers of Sesame Street, for slightly older children) came on air. They were funny, innovative, and highly popular; they weren’t set in a slum, freighted with ideological agenda, or obviously aimed at inner-city non-white children.
One amusing aspect of Sesame Street’s revisionist history is that it makes its first Muppet superstar a non-person. That’s right, Kermit the Frog–crooner of that 1970 hymn to racial self-acceptance, “It’s Not Easy Being Green”–has gone down the memory hole. You will find no photos of Kermit in the Lincoln Center exhibit. No mention of him in the brochure. Now, it’s true that Kermit departed Sesame Street after the first year, and that he had a rich and rewarding career afterwards. But surely there’s no need to excise him entirely?
The exhibit suggests that Sesame Street was the first popular “educational” program aimed at pre-schoolers. Of course, it wasn’t. The ’50s and ’60s had Ding Dong School, Captain Kangaroo, Misterogers, and others. They were tremendously popular, wholesome, and entertaining.
The trouble was that poor black children didn’t watch Captain Kangaroo. And in the era of Head Start, Vista, and The Inner City Mother Goose, this was imagined to be one of the key reasons why they didn’t do well in school. From the very beginning, therefore, a primary objective of Sesame Street founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett was to come up with something that a black four-year-old welfare kid in Bedford-Stuyvesant would watch.
This is the essential fact about the origin of Sesame Street, but the curators of this exhibit won’t talk about it. I don’t think it’s hard to understand why. It would be an admission that Sesame Street, like all the other black uplift efforts of the 1960s, was an utter failure.