This year marks a ginormous milestone in children’s television, not to mention in the pop culture fabric of darn near every single one of us – Sesame Street is 50 years old!
Yep, it was way back in 1969 that a friendly city lane filled with humans and Muppets first entered our educational lexicon. In the years since, Sesame Street has seen cast changes, format updates, a slight shift in target audience… but one thing’s for sure, its ability to warm our hearts, sing out with joy and expand our minds from the earliest of ages continues to endure. Now, I was Sesame Street‘s target audience in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, so right around the point where it turned the corner into its second decade; most of my fondest memories are from this era, though because Sesame Street‘s daily format demanded a lot of recombination of past segments, so much of my memories are of bits and bobs that actually first aired before my time. So today’s Friday Five is a stroll down memory lane for some of you, and a history lesson for others… but hope you enjoy!
“What’s The Name of That Song?!” (1974)
Though I wasn’t alive yet when this first aired, the segment turned up frequently in subsequent re-broadcasts so it’s become an all-time favorite of the live-action, on-the-street moments. Not only is the song charming and catchy, but this is a superb example of a Sesame moment that made use of the entire, diverse and talented adult cast (Remember: The show was designed as an educational tool for urban kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to preschool; the casting of so many minority actors is not an accident), plus many of our Muppet favorites including Oscar the Grouch, Herry Monster, Bert and Count Von Count. Perfection.
Kermit and Joey Say the Alphabet (1972)
There have been a great many memorable and truly adorable children on the Street since it debuted, many of them most notable for their pure and honest interactions one-on-one with the Muppet crew. Tiny John Williams III, aka “John-John” was arguably the star of these little vignettes. (The smarts on that kid!) But the most heart-melting segement of all is probably still this alphabet-song-gone-wrong bit with Kermit and little Joey Calvan. It’s hard to decide if her giggle after every time she blurts “Cookie Monster!”, or her plaintive “I love you” when she thinks she may have upset Kermit (and relief when he comes back) is the most precious.
Pinball Number Count (1976)
Boy oh boy, it’s tough not to comprise this entire list of counting segments from Sesame Street‘s first decade. There were so many, from the “Jazzy Spies” series (sung by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick!), to the one that came to be known as “The Baker Series” because every one ended with a baker (dubbed by Jim Henson himself) falling down a flight of stairs and spilling a variety of sweet treats. If you ask any kid of this Sesame era which counting segment is at the forefront of their nostalgia, though, it’s inevitably this trippy and colorful pinball-inspired groove; there were 12 of them in all, every single one sung by none other than R&B legends The Pointer Sisters. No wonder it’s so great!
Martians and a Radio (1979)
In the decades since, numerous new faces have turned up on Sesame Street amongst the Muppet regulars; kids today don’t remember a time without Elmo, Zoe and Rosita, for example. And then there were the supporting characters who would turn up to our excitement every so often like game show host Guy Smiley, or the Twiddlebug family who lived in the planter in Ernie’s window sill. Perhaps none were ever as weirdly humorous – or as delightful to imitate when you were three years old – as the shapeless, slack-jawed Martians. They first appeared early on, in periodic segments where they haplessly interacted with Earth objects, but for my money none of them were ever as funny as this one from the show’s tenth season. Of course they think radio static is the dopest music ever. (“Aw-aw-aw-aw, happy happy happy, BOING BOING BOING” – it still kills.)
Stevie Wonder Sings “1-2-3 Sesame Street” (1973)
In a tradition that continues to this day, the celebrity guest appearances on Sesame were pretty darn terrific during that first decade. Again, could have written this whole list just about them, from Madeline Kahn to Johnny Cash to C-3P0 and R2-D2. Personally, my sentimental favorite will always be the great Lena Horne dueting with Kermit on “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” (“I’m green, and it’ll do fine”….”It’s beautiful!”) But for sheer captures-the-era perfection, it’s hard to top Stevie Wonder and his talk box jamming to this original ode to the Street. The band is TIGHT! The kids are INTO IT! (Look at that one kid jamming on the fire escape!) It’s tremendous. (By the way, Stevie also filmed a few segments with Grover that are as hilarious as anything the show ever aired.)
That Funky Outro Music! (Most of the 70’s, and part of the 80’s)
As with all parts of the show, the opening and closing titles of Sesame Street have morphed over the years, too. This excellent sample from 1977 demonstrates the outro that is probably most memorable to that first generation of Sesame kids, with its green screen effects, gentle instrumental theme and the ubiquitous “brought to you by” and “a production of the Children’s Television Workshop” bits. If you were there at the time, though… you know the very best bit was that totally funkadelic version of the theme that played over, for lack of a better term, the post-credits credits. It starts above at 1:44, and don’t tell me you didn’t used to strut around your living room like a disco king or queen to that music, folks. I see you. I was you. (Bonus to the bonus: Dig that totally 70’s PBS station identification bumper!)