As a child of the 70s, I grew up watching Sesame Street. Certainly my parents played a major role, but it was thanks partly to the efforts of people like Maria and Luis and Bob and Linda and Gordon and Susan that I mastered my alphabet and reading and counting and an assortment of other skills.
Big Bird by far was my favorite -- I had a doll that I dragged around by the neck and no amount of arguing was going to convince me that the The Four Seasons song was anything other than "Big Bird Don't Fly." I had the Fisher-Price playset complete with "Play Family" figures and books and records and clothing. I had a crush on Ernie, thought Bert was a killjoy and aspired to be as together as Prairie Dawn. I was devastated when "Mr. Looper" ("Hooper! Hooper!") died, I tuned in to see Maria and Luis get married and was incredibly relieved when Mr. Snuffleupagus was proven to exist. Yep, I was a Sesame Street kid. And when I finally reached the age where it was socially unacceptable for me to watch, I would secretly keep an eye trained on the television when (thankfully) my younger sister and brother would tune in.
When my two older children were young, I encouraged their love for all things muppet, and I was thrilled to discover that like me, Sesame Street had grown and evolved. In "my" show I found new characters, segments and lessons that reflected the challenges of my little ones' childhoods -- good nutrition, natural disasters -- as well as the pop culture -- rap and country music, computers and technology -- while still adhering to the show's basic tenets -- be kind and honest and always follow the golden rule.
The thing that amazes me about Sesame Street, was that as much as I felt this incredible personal connection, I was not the only one. Everyone has a story, a favorite segment (mine is Smokey Robinson singing "U Really Got a Hold On Me"), a character they could relate to the most. For so many, Sesame Street was a major part of growing up -- a treasured memory that stays with you forever, like the first time you rode your bike without training wheels or a favorite family vacation.
So you can imagine my reaction when I was invited to the most famous street in the country along with some other parenting bloggers to take a tour and learn about some new initiatives as the show celebrates 40 years on the air in November, 2009.On My Way to Where the Air is Sweet
The show is filmed in Astoria, NY in a neighborhood much like the show portrays. We were ushered upstairs to the third floor, and like me, the group I was with could barely contain their excitement, snapping pictures at everything. We were greeted by some friendly staff -- folks from the public relations and digital departments -- and then the big moment arrived.
As I walked into Studio J, I couldn't stop smiling but couldn't help but feel like I was going to cry. I was here. It was smaller than I imagined, but at the same time larger than life. There were the steps! And Oscar's trash can! And Hooper's store! I felt my head whipping around trying to take it all in at once, but wanting time to slow down so I could savor it.
The 40th season begins airing November 10, 2009 but the crew was actually filming an episode for season 41. I don't want to spoil anyone, but I can tell you that the two scenes I saw involved some "apps" and a pogo stick. We saw puppeteers, crewmen, actors and a assorted group of people working hard at making learning fun for little ones. As they shot take after take, tedious work no doubt, for people who had to stay in one spot in uncomfortable positions, trying to get everything just so, they were all smiles, laughing and smiling and happy. And who wouldn't be?Friendly Neighbors There
Our guides were fairy-in-training Abby Cadabby and puppeteer, Leslie Carrara. Such fun to meet them both, Abby happily greeting everyone and posing for pictures (she taught me how to do a fairy hug). After I did all the things a tourist to Sesame Street would do -- sit in Big Bird's nest, pose by the street sign and 123 steps, mosey on in to Hooper's store -- I started to really look around. We were there as guests, but this was a live, working set with cameras and lights and lots of people, all with specific jobs designed to keep everything running smoothly. We met Michelle Hickey, a muppet wrangler, who while we talked was attaching a muppet to a pogo stick. According to Hickey, her job is basically hair and makeup for muppets, doing whatever it is that needs to be done to get them on the air.
I was surprised to learn that the puppets last about eight years, although some do last longer -- Oscar the Grouch is 40 years old. Originally an orange muppet, the wranglers keep Oscar looking fresh and new by changing his foam when needed. Hickey also does a lot of work with Big Bird. She said every couple of weeks she hot glue guns on more feathers as he molts just like a real bird does.
After about 45 minutes on the set, we took a behind-the-scenes tour and then headed to lunch with the digital sesame department. As they gear up for the 40th episode, the team has been busy adding all sorts of kid-friendly, parent-appreciated features to the website. You'll find a ton of games, videos and activities on the site, but they also have some innovative tools and features. My favorites include "My Street" a function that allows your kids to save favorite games so they can come back to them again easily; "PlaySafe" a way for parents to lock the keyboard so kids can literally bang on it without causing unwanted downloads or visits to unapproved web pages and sesame family robinson, a blog written by Marty Robinson (puppeteer for Telly) and Annie Evans (a writer for the show). The two, who were married right on the steps of 123, have twin infant daughters and share their experiences as they raise their children and work on the show.
Sadly, our day had to end, but not before we all took some final pictures with Abby as well as the Elmo and Grover muppets. And to help us remember our day (like we could forget), we were each given an actual Big Bird feather. After proudly showing it to my kids, I hung it in my kitchen, its brilliant yellow reminding me of my day, but of my childhood too.