Nightmare on Sesame Street

Nightmare on Sesame Street

OK, by the time I started this piece HBO, or Sesame Workshop, or whoever has the Sesame franchise in the post-Jim Henson universe had backed down, swallowed twice, mumbled something like an apology and invited three long-time residents of the fabled street back to the neighborhood after having sacked them without explanation.

My kids grew up with Sesame Street, the oldest almost from the start of the program and the younger son and daughter entirely in a pre-Elmo (pristine) universe.  Over the years many significant adults came to Sesame Street; visitors in the early years included James Earl Jones reading the alphabet, Margaret Hamilton reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the west, Lily Tomlin eating a sandwich at the switchboard as operator Edith Ann, Madeline Kahn affectionately teaching Grover to sing, “Be My Echo”, convincing my children that Grover was entirely and undoubtedly her very real friend, perhaps convincing me as well.

The best of guests fell into a convincing  relationship with muppets; the humans living on Sesame Street left no doubt that the complicated characters were part of the fabric of their lives.  The humans had dimension as well; they were  confused, occasionally surprised, and in some instances a bit crusty.  The owner of Sesame Street’s grocery, Mr. Hooper, was curmudgeonly, affecting testiness but frequently revealing his heart of gold. It was Mr. Hooper who gently righted what might have been a painfully ironic ending of  the classic Gift of the Magi Christmas episode.  Bert had sold his paperclip collection in order to buy a soap dish for Ernie’s Rubber Duckie; Ernie had sold the Duckie in order to buy a cigar box for Bert’s paperclips.   At the end of the episode, Mr. Hooper gave the friends the gifts they had sold, and all was well on Christmas Eve.

Not long after that broadcast, Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper died. With grace few people posses, the producers decided to acknowledge the loss on air. It was Bob, Susan, Maria, and Gordon who broke the news of Mr. Hooper’s death to Big Bird in  an episode that did not duck the hard issues. Bird and my children grieved but learned that the seasons change, the world spins, and that, as it must to all men, death came to Mr. Hooper  What comfort remained?  Muppets, of course, and the remaining grown-ups.  We were left with Bob, calm, patient, insightful, slightly odd, but buoyant.  He sang in a lilting tenor, often reminding us of the great truths and remaining a constant model of quiet resilience.  We had Gordon too, and Luis.

In an attempt to make the neighborhood accessible to a wider audience, Joan Ganz Cooney (journalist and documentary producer) and Lloyd Morrisset (Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale and Vice President of the Carnegie Foundation), the originators of the Children’s Television Network, had decided to add a Black neighbor with a family. Gordon actually had a last name (Robinson), a wife (Susan), and an adopted child, but was most appreciated as the only adult capable of contending with the perpetually disgruntled Oscar the Grouch.  It was Gordon who became the hero (Trash Gordon) of the tales Oscar told to his pal, Slimey the worm.  The first human joining the original cast was Luis, handy and philosophical, proprietor of the Fix-It shop.  In the course of the first seasons, he married Maria, had a child, and brought a joyful Hispanic family to Sesame Street.

These were the men my children saw daily, as parents of their own children and adult friends of the furry characters who were children as well, characters who lacked discretion (Big Bird), who lost control of impulse (Cookie Monster), who lived largely in their own imagination (Grover), and who maintained unlikely friendships (Bert and Ernie, the muppet odd couple).  These adults managed to meet the challenges unruly muppets presented on a daily basis with far more composure than I could muster, providing me with perspective I lacked and my children with expectations of adults that I hope have served them well.

I know that times change.  Sesame Street now airs on HBO, passing episodes on to PBS five months after they have aired on the cable channel.  The 26 new episode will be half hour shows; for forty four seasons, CTW aired more than a hundred episodes per year, each of which was a full hour in length.  Kids have changed, cuts had to be made; snappy techno-whiz graphics had to have their place.  Not much room for aging actors.

It’s easy for me to summon outrage.  If Bob, Gordon, and Luis are expendable, how about the rest of the cast?  Do we really want to see Bert at a stop light, roughly lettered cardboard sign in hand – “Will Work For Paperclips”?  Does Mr. Snuffleupagus who had a hard enough time convincing the people on Sesame Street that he actually exists continue to mutter as he finds a dumpster to sleep in?

OK, that may be over the top.

I guess I write this piece now to thank Bob, Gordon, and Luis and all those who invited my children and countless others around the world to visit Sesame Street each afternoon for more than forty years.  In ways the originators could not have anticipated, they gave us a second family, a family in which children matter, in which adults listen with patience.  Sesame Street did all that it promised in terms of reading readiness and the development of math skills (How many aging adults were fired?  One, Two, Three aging adults).  It also gave children a place that was uniquely theirs and entirely safe, a place  where characters delight in their differences.  I’m grateful for the years Bob, Gordon, and Luis have shared with us and delighted that we may visit with them as they move into the next chapter of their lives.

We still have lessons to learn.

Note: The human-muppet relationship has never bee more lovely than in this short duet sung by Grover and the late Madeline Kahn.




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