5 Things You Didn't Know About 'Sesame Street'

By: Kathryn Whitbourne  | 
sesame street
Alan, the Japanese-American owner of Hooper's Store, is seen here with (from left) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, Big Bird, Zoe and Julia. HBO

At a dinner party in 1966, Lloyd Morrisett, a vice president of the Carnegie Foundation, told his fellow guests how mesmerized his young daughter was by TV — so much so that he found her one morning watching the test patterns while waiting for a show to come on.

The party's host, documentary producer Joan Ganz Cooney, talked to Morrisett about ways they could use that addictive quality of television for good. They proposed using TV to educate preschoolers while entertaining them at the same time. Cooney went on to co-found Sesame Workshop, which has produced "Sesame Street" since 1969. The show first aired on PBS, and now also airs on HBO.

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"Sesame Street" is still going strong more than 50 years later, and while you and your kids probably grew up watching Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Elmo and Oscar the Grouch, there are still surprising things you may not know about the Sesame universe.

1. Some Early Episodes Aren't Exactly Kid-friendly

When the show first aired in 1969, it included scenes that, let's say, wouldn't "pass" for quality kids' programming today. One episode shows children playing in a construction site while another shows Cookie Monster smoking a pipe. In a 2009 NPR interview, Dale Hrabi, then-online editorial director of The Week publication, said these were just reflections of the time.

"I mean there is a certain awareness that from the point of view of today when, you know, these things are monitored so strictly, these episodes might strike children oddly." In 2007 when these early "Sesame Street" episodes were released on DVD, they came with an "adults only" warning. How times have changed.

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2. The Set Was Based on Real Sections of New York City

Originally, the show was going to be called "123 Avenue B," but that title was ditched because it was considered too specific to New York City. However, the designer Charles Rosen based the set on streets in Harlem, the Bronx and the Upper West Side. Cooney wanted the show to appeal to inner-city preschoolers. The brownstone where characters Maria and Luis lived at, 123 Sesame Street, was based on a sketch Rosen did of a Columbus Avenue brownstone.

Sesame Street sign
Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?
HBO

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3. Many Muppets Were Created for Certain Reasons

A turning point in the show's popularity came when the creators decided to have the human actors interact with the Muppets (although psychologists had fretted that children would be confused by this). The original Muppets were Big Bird, Kermit, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie, all developed by Jim Henson.

"Some of them were created or used to respond to curriculum needs," Cooney said in an interview. "One of the academic advisers had said it would be good to see a child being very smart and topping adults in some way. And I thought, 'That would be politically incorrect. Parents would not wish to see this behavior modeled... Bert and Ernie appear to be peers but if you think of Ernie as the very clever child topping a very serious adult ... they came out of this idea that there should be a child who was smarter than the adults around them."

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After Henson died in 1990, it took a decade for "Sesame Street" to acquire the rights to the Muppets. The phenomenal success of the Tickle-Me-Elmo doll, based on the Muppet Elmo, made millions for the show and allowed it to buy the rights to the other characters.

sesame street
Jim Henson was instrumental in introducing the Muppets to "Sesame Street" and perhaps "Sesame Street" was instrumental in introducing the Muppets to the world.
HBO

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4. "Rubber Duckie" Hit No. 16 on Billboard Charts in 1970

Yep. Ernie's best bath time buddy made it big on the music charts. This catchy ode to a rubber duck who made bath time lots of fun was sung by the Ernie, who was voiced by Jim Henson. The song debuted Feb. 25, 1970, in the series' first season. It was popular enough to be recorded as a 45 single and went on to become a surprise Billboard hit, topping out at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 Sept. 26, 1970. It was written by Jeff Moss, who also wrote the show's memorable tunes "I Love Trash," "Bein' Green," "People in Your Neighborhood" and "One of These Things."

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5. Sesame Street and Human Loss

While the puppets were a huge draw for "Sesame Street," the show wouldn't be the same without its loving human characters. The original cast included Matt Robinson as Gordon; Loretta Long as Gordon's wife, Susan; Will Lee as Mr. Hooper; and Bob McGrath, who played Bob Johnson. Then came David (Northern Calloway), Luis (Emilio Delgado) and Maria (Sonia Manzano).

Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, died in 1982. "Sesame Street" used Big Bird's difficulty understanding that he wouldn't see Mr. Hooper again to teach children how to cope with grief in the episode "Farewell, Mr. Hooper." But Sesame Street's human characters have passed on in real life, too. The legendary Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from 1969 until 2018, died Dec. 8, 2019. Emilio Delgado, who played Luis for 44 years, died March 14, 2022, at age 81. Bob McGrath, who played Bob Johnson for more than 50 years, died Dec. 4, 2022.

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Even before some of these human characters died, many of them were cut from the show. Bob, Gordon and Luis' roles began changing in 2014, and were totally phased out by 2015 when the deal was made to air the show on HBO.

sesame street
Some of the original "Sesame Street" cast members pose with some of the children and puppet characters. (Left to right) Big Bird; Cookie Monster, Grover, Ernie and Bert (in the windows); the late Will Lee played Mr. Hooper from 1969 until his death in 1982; the late Matt Robinson was the first actor to play Gordon Robinson from 1969 until 1972; Oscar the Grouch; the late Bob McGrath played Bob Johnson from 1969 until 2015; and Loretta Long played Susan Robinson from 1969 to 2016.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Originally Published: Nov 10, 2016

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