The word on the street
Behind the scenes of one of our most beloved Kids' show.
Ernie and Bert, Grover, Big Bird and Cookie Monster have been with us seemingly forever but in fact, the creative spark that led to Sesame Street came out of sheer luck in the late 1960s. Executive producer and Senior Vice President Carol-Lynn Parente describes it as a magical moment in history that saw Jim Henson and other "creative visionaries" come up with a show featuring furry monsters.
Now, of course, it's a mega-million-dollar business, reaching 150 countries in all kinds of formats - television, books, interactive games.
New Zealand runs about a year behind the US in episodes. But as in the US, the Street is aimed at two to five year olds, with the two-to-three-year-old market very much in their sights, as older children tend to peel off in favour of something new. It's a far cry from the old days when children used to watch the show well into their school years, and a sign of how much more competitive the preschool TV market is now.
Sesame Street first aired in 1969, some time after a question was posed at a cocktail party: Can television help children to learn?
And over time research has proved it to be true, in Sesame Street's case anyway.
Educators work with producers in the making of each episode and then the show is tested on preschoolers.
Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett were the originators while Jim Henson (of Muppets fame) is a name forever to be associated with Sesame Street. He was one of the original puppeteers.
Jim played long-timer Ernie but his death in 1990 devastated the team at Sesame Workshop, particularly fellow puppeteer Frank Oz, who played Grover, Bert, Cookie Monster, as well as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal on The Muppets.
Frank had a difficult time after Jim died and, now 78, he comes in about once a month but in the main his characters are worked by other puppeteers.
Elmo was originally just one of the generic puppet monsters. Then one of the writers gave him a name but his puppeteer couldn't get into the character. He passed Elmo to Kevin Clash (pictured), an up-and-coming puppeteer who worked with Elmo for a couple of hours and created the cute and funny creature we love today, age: three and a half.
"Kevin is a brilliant puppeteer. He has a way of channelling a three and a half year old." And that's the way successful characters are created. "It doesn't matter how well you market something if the magic isn't there it isn't there."
Carol-Lynn says initially parents (most former fans) didn't like Elmo. It was only when they saw how fascinated their children were that they came around.
While trying to stay relevant, Sesame Street is up against an adult fan base which doesn't want Sesame Street to change. So the Street has evolved gradually and looks set to rock on for another 40 years.