National Press Club

Author Describes History of Sesame Street

January 7, 2009 | By Joe Luchok

Calling the book “a labor of love,” author Michael Davis discussed his book "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" at the Club on Tuesday.

Davis stated that Sesame Street is the world’s most influential television program with over 120 versions playing in countries around the globe.

Davis explained that the idea of Sesame Street was born at dinner party in New York City when Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett discussed the possibility of using television to teach pre-school children. Cooney and Morrisett founded the Children’s Television Network, which produced Sesame Street. The founders approached the US Office of Education and secured the support of Commissioner of Education Harold Howe II. They obtained $4 million from the Office of Education and another $4 million from foundations.

Premiering in November of 1969, Sesame Street became so popular that Big Bird appeared on the cover of “Time Magazine” in 1970. Davis told the audience that Sesame Street was aimed at a bi-modal audience, children and parents. He talked about how Big Bird represented an inquisitive 6 year old, Oscar is the non-violent deviant, and Grover the “patron saint of second-born children”. He also pointed out that the characters were not born fully developed but evolved over time.

Davis called the creators Sesame Street a “confluence of genius.” He said that producer Jon Stone gave Sesame Street its “soul” and Jim Henson helped the program walk the fine line between entertainment and learning.

In response to a question about the importance of Sesame Street to PBS, Davis said that Sesame Street was essential to PBS because its popularity caused people to locate the PBS station on their television dial. A question about funding elicited the response that merchandising was essential to the continuation of the program because other funding sources had cut support. Sonia Manzano, who has played Maria on the show since 1972, was in the audience and added some information during the question and answer session.