Sunny days sweepin' the clouds away
May 4, 2020 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Half a century ago, before “Sesame Street,” and long before the age of quarantine, kids under the age of six spent a crazy amount of time indoors, watching television, a bleary-eyed average of fifty-four hours a week. In 1965, the year the Johnson Administration founded Head Start, Lloyd Morrisett, a vice-president of the Carnegie Corporation with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Yale, got up one Sunday morning, at about six-thirty, a half hour before the networks began their day’s programming, to find his three-year-old daughter, Sarah, lying on the living-room floor in her pink footie pajamas, watching the test pattern. She’d have watched anything, even “The Itty-Bitty, Farm and City, Witty-Ditty, Nitty-Gritty, Dog and Kitty, Pretty Little Kiddie Show.” Jill Lepore writes for The New Yorker on How we got to Sesame Street.
posted by ChuraChura (44 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, that's a read that begins with the warm fuzzies and ends with a cold chill.
posted by freethefeet at 6:45 PM on May 4 [6 favorites]

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood went national in 1968. Sesame Street debuted late in 1969. I was born in Jan of '68 to professional educators who had recently moved back to the US after spending several years in England while my father did post-doc work someplace.

I bet you can guess on exactly the television I was mostly allowed growing up. It all seemed to unfold exactly for my age demographic. Electric Company came on just the right number of years later. Big Blue Marble and Zoom as I grew into an interest about the world and science... I think about that now and again, and it feels like, as far as children's television goes, I'm sort of either a control model or part of the "extreme exposure" cohort.
posted by hippybear at 7:28 PM on May 4 [13 favorites]

Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, the neighborhood grocer. Lee, a former member of a radical theatre troupe, had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the nineteen-fifties and been blacklisted from television; “Sesame Street” had become his theatrical home. He was much admired by the rest of the cast...

Wow. I did not know that.

Sometimes I think back to the much grittier Sesame Street of my childhood (1970s and early ‘80s) and wonder if I’m just romanticizing the past when I feel the modern one doesn’t live up to it. But no, I don’t think so.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:30 PM on May 4 [20 favorites]

Hippybear, you just named 5 of my childhood viewing staples. Did you also watch 3-2-1 Contact? I can still sing the theme song. “Contact! is the secret!
It's the moment! when everything happens, Contact!”
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:35 PM on May 4 [24 favorites]

As a former subscriber to 3-2-1 Contact magazine, I wish to state for the record that Square One and Reading Rainbow, while both fine programs, weren’t as good as 3-2-1 Contact. (Or at least that was my opinion at the time.)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:56 PM on May 4 [8 favorites]

Yes, of course 3-2-1 Contact!
posted by hippybear at 8:08 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]

I really like this article, although I know it clearly dates me that one of my reactions was “hey, Muppet Babies wasn’t that bad!”

It’s wonderful and yet disheartening to read about how and why overseas versions of Sesame Street have stayed truer to the initial vision. Reagan: is there anything he didn’t begin the destruction of?
posted by Countess Elena at 8:09 PM on May 4 [7 favorites]

I wish we could stream the early 3-2-1 Contacts, with Lisa, Marc and Trini. They were always my favorite.

Of course, TV from that era looks amazingly terrible now, like it might as well be daguerreotypes, and I dunno if they have the original masters of CTW shows lying around.
posted by Horkus at 8:10 PM on May 4 [4 favorites]

There are a suprising number of Season One (1980) episodes on YouTube. They all have 3 digit episode numbers starting with 1. I used this search "3-2-1 Contact episodes" on Google and clicked Videos. They aren't in any order, but they are there.
posted by hippybear at 8:18 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised that a New Yorker article like this has so many errors. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood didn't stop making episodes in 1975. They made new content as late as 2001. Elmo was not "Barney-influenced." He was already on Sesame Street as a gravel-voiced Anything Muppet, then gradually adopted his current voice and persona from puppeteer Kevin Clash, way before Barney & Friends was on the air. The Elmo's World segments were influenced by the ratings success of Barney & Friends, because the success of the latter suggested that kids wanted slower sequences than the more frenetic editing style of 1970s era Sesame Street, but Elmo himself was not created because of Barney. In addition, Lepore depicts Muppet Babies as a modern creation of the Disney Channel, but neglects the mention the earlier version of the same show that ran on CBS from 1984-1991. Given how the New Yorker is supposed to have the best fact checkers in American magazine journalism, I wonder how this got by.
posted by jonp72 at 8:31 PM on May 4 [22 favorites]

I find it even more peculiar that Jill Lepore wrote this article with that many errors. I mean, I can deep dive a bit into Muppet Babies because it was actually inspired by a scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan which involved actual puppet Muppet babies of the popular characters, and Henson himself developed the show. The Wikipedia page about it even mentions it won the Humanities Prize one year.
posted by hippybear at 8:42 PM on May 4 [11 favorites]

As a former subscriber to 3-2-1 Contact magazine, I wish to state for the record that Square One and Reading Rainbow, while both fine programs, weren’t as good as 3-2-1 Contact. (Or at least that was my opinion at the time.)

I will defend Square One to the death!(*)

(* Metaphorically, that is. I feel like I have to add that disclaimer this year.)
posted by eviemath at 9:18 PM on May 4 [5 favorites]

Zoom demonstrated water surface tension to me by getting me to put a piece of single ply toilet paper on a bowl of water and then putting a flat sewing needle on the toilet paper and then gently push the toilet paper down from the surface. The needle will float there! Surface Tension!
posted by hippybear at 9:25 PM on May 4 [3 favorites]

As a kid I found 3-2-1 Contact deeply creepy because... is that what happens, that people just disappear somehow, and it's never spoken of? Who disappears, and what's wrong with them that make it happen in such secrecy? I never asked anybody about this.

(The opening video montage totally slaps, though, if that's how "slaps" works?)

[And in looking up the three-part Case of the Cackling Ghost, I have discovered that the Bloodhound Gang segments were written by Sid Fleischman!]
posted by away for regrooving at 11:37 PM on May 4 [4 favorites]

With the wonder of youtube, and iView my niece (just about 2) is experiencing old school Sesame Street clips, like 'put down the ducky', 'dance myself to sleep' and others. She is also watching Shaun the Sheep and Bluey, and that's about the extent of her screen time.

I wonder, with the diversity of screens now, if the sesame street affect on kids' learning just wouldn't be possible now.
posted by freethefeet at 11:59 PM on May 4

I will defend Square One to the death!

Yeah it's probably just that I didn't watch as much 321 Contact but my only memory of it is the theme song, whereas I could reenact that sketch from Square One where the pizza delivery guy goes to the creepy haunted house & sings a song about how probability should not mess with him ok

(While we're on 80s/90s Educational Kid TV: how 'bout Ghostwriter, Carmen Sandiego, & that show where the art guy showed you how to draw different parts of a fantasy city; I was obsessed with that one)
posted by taquito sunrise at 1:20 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]

I really like this article, although I know it clearly dates me that one of my reactions was “hey, Muppet Babies wasn’t that bad!”

I think Lepore is talking about the new show called Muppet Babies, which uses this bizarre flat 3D animation style that is de rigeur for Disney toddler shows now; I know this solely because I have a Japanese TV subscription & Disney Junior is the only channel where I understand most of what's happening but it's real weird and kinda not okay and I worry about what it is doing to children. Original Muppet Babies was in fact pretty good.
posted by taquito sunrise at 1:26 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]

I remember being three or four years old (so 1966-67) and getting up at the ass-crack of dawn on weekend mornings to turn on the TV to watch Boomtown starring Boston's own cowboy Rex Trailer. If I got up too early, there was indeed just a test pattern to watch until the show came on, and I would absolutely sit there and watch it. The test pattern WBZ used in those days had an Indian Chief head on it, so obviously it was part of the show!
posted by briank at 4:49 AM on May 5

Okay I'll admit I read the comments before TFA, but I highly recommend Street Gang, for a really great (and likely far more accurate) encapsulation of this.

Meanwhile, did anyone else grow up with Villa Allegre? Because I watched all the ones Hippybear mentioned (except I wasn't all that into Zoom), plus New Zoo Review and Banana Splits, both of which I hated, but they were on television and I didn't want to go outside, so... And then also Villa Allegre and the Gigglesnort Hotel . But no one seemed to have heard of either of them when I mentioned them -- to the point where I started thinking I was misremembering or making them up. Then a few years ago (here!) I finally had Gigglesnort Hotel confirmed. But Villa Allegre? Anyone? I can still sing the dang theme song.
posted by Mchelly at 6:32 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

But Villa Allegre? Anyone?


(The name totally rang a bell, but I did have to Google video to confirm I was remembering the right show - the second I heard that theme music, though, bam!)

I don't have strong memories of it, though - I suspect I didn't watch it that much, probably because my parents were fairly wary of giving me too much screen time even if they were PBS educational shows. (Also, maybe just how the scheduling worked out in my area? Like, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers were on pre-dinner for sure, but Zoom, 3-2-1 Contact, Electric Company & Villa Allegre often got pre-empted by family dinner time or post-dinner homework. I think. I can definitely remember having arguments about turning the TV off in the middle of PBS programs . . .)
posted by soundguy99 at 6:53 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]

I had a huge crush (for an 11 year old) on Trini from 3-2-1 Contact.
posted by SoberHighland at 6:57 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

that show where the art guy showed you how to draw different parts of a fantasy city; I was obsessed with that one)

The Secret City, also available on YouTube
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:59 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

I remember Villa Allegre, we watched that even before we moved to a mostly Latino neighborhood. Mom thought it would teach us Spanish but alas I could not learn.

In the seventies to early eighties we watched all the PBS kids shows, one after the other. Mom was a former camp counselor and wannabee Broadway actress and loved singing along to every song, and getting us to do all the dances. Even dad tolerated anything involving a muppet, though he otherwise grumbled at kid's programming.

In my memory they all blend together into a confusing overlapping montage. I was so bored by anything resembling a story arc, I just wanted dance numbers, in jokes and call backs.
posted by buildmyworld at 7:00 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]

I can even sing the theme song to Villa Allegre in my head! It was a Latin-style salsa(?) tune. I don't remember much else about the show except the song, though. Pretty sure Rita Moreno was on the cast (she was on The Electric Company, as was Morgan Freeman!)

Google "Vincent the Vegetable Vampire" and "Easy Reader Morgan Freeman"
posted by SoberHighland at 7:05 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]

Oh heck, here's Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman together on The Electric Company. Watch THIS and just TRY to make the argument that children's TV wasn't better back then! This is amazing.

posted by SoberHighland at 7:15 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

I was a bit too young for 3-2-1 Contact on TV although I do remember getting the magazine from the public library as a kid. I was obsessed with Time Team, which was a comic strip about a group of teens jumping through time and learning history/changing the future, as required by the storyline. The only one I remember now was when they were debating whether dropping the atom bomb was morally justified. This probably would have been sometime in 1995, around the 50th anniversary of V-J Day. In retrospect, it was a pretty heavy-hitting magazine for something aimed at preteens.

I never really got that much into Sesame Street or Mr Rogers Neighborhood that I recall, but the early/mid 90s was boom-time for children's edutainment. Between Reading Rainbow, Wishbone, Mathnet, Carmen Sandiego, and Bill Nye the Science Guy (Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill, Bill!), not to mention computer games like EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus and Oregon Trail and its spawn (Amazon Trail, Yukon Trail, MayaQuest, Africa Trail -- I had them all!), I think I learned more out of school than in it.
posted by basalganglia at 7:18 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]

Oh heck, here's Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman together on The Electric Company. Watch THIS and just TRY to make the argument that children's TV wasn't better back then! This is amazing.

My family really enjoyed the new version of The Electric Company that ran from 2009 to 2011 (when my kids were the right age for it). Among other things, it featured Chidi Anagonye and a young rapper named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who might be going places.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 7:51 AM on May 5 [10 favorites]

Really disappointed in this article – especially the lazy swipe at Sesame Street's current form at the end. As someone who happens to have a child of Sesame Street-watching age, allow me to rise to its defense: it's still really good!

I think they've done a spectacular job at keeping it contemporary without losing the original heart of the show. It's clever, it's smart, it's pedagogical without being clumsy about it, it's diverse, it's beautifully produced, it's good. It's good!

One thing it is not: the same show it was in 1975. There's a peculiar expectation of children's shows to encase themselves in amber as exactly how they were when the viewer themselves watched them (or when their kids watched them). That's human, of course. But it's also unrealistic – Sesame Street 1975 continues to exist, and if Sesame Street 2020 tried to also be Sesame Street 1975, it'd have been cancelled long ago.

Yes, Sesame Street adapted to a younger audience than it was originally designed for. But it's not the Elmo show (at least, not any longer). You've got Abby and Rosalita and Zoey and Rudy and a great mix of characters both past and present. If those names aren't ringing a bell for you, perhaps the issue is that you haven't actually watched the show since you were a kid?

For an example of how skillfully the show blends past and present, technology and tradition, yesterday and today – the recent Elmo's Playdate COVID episode is a great example:

As for the HBO thing – all the episodes still run on PBS, every day. That's how we watch them. They're also available for free on the PBS Kids app. Do you want to guess how much kids care that the episode of Sesame Street they're watching is a year old? What about the thirtieth time they watch it?
posted by workingdankoch at 9:00 AM on May 5 [9 favorites]

RELEASE ALL ZOOM EPISODES PLEASE. Yeah, there was a DVD release a while back of a few classic episodes. IT WAS NOT ENOUGH. RELEASE ALL ZOOM EPISODES PLEASE.
posted by Melismata at 9:27 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

Thanks for confirming Villa Allegre. I've had people looking at me in disbelief (and vice-versa) when I reminisce about growing up with 'bilingual Sesame Street'.
Theme Song
Sample full episode

Another theme song; a lifelong earworm it seems, since it popped into my head the other day. (When I had to explain the meaning of Chicano to a twentysomething, which made me sad.) Jose Felicano's Chico and The Man.
[Grampa Joe from Wonka is the cranky old garage proprietor, Freddie Prinze is the mechanic, lessons in mutual tolerance are learned]
posted by bartleby at 10:17 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

"For kids who were under six in 1969, watching “Sesame Street” had a measurable effect on what is known as “grade for age” status: they entered school at grade level, and, in elementary school, they stayed on grade level"
From talking to a few teachers that worked in elementary education in the 1970s, Sesame Street didn't just bring them in at grade level - many came in a full year ahead.

The kindergarteners showed up reading words and sometimes full sentences (Electric Company was a huge help here too). Some districts had to rearrange their curriculums to keep up.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:51 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]

Thanks for confirming Villa Allegre.

Oh yes, Villa Allegre and Carrascolendas too! I didn't get into them as much as Sesame-Street-Mr.-Rogers-Electric-Company-Zoom; as a five-year-old, I found them too overstimulating, too many characters and plots.
posted by Melismata at 11:18 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Villa Allegre was a great show! I loved that theme song.
posted by eckeric at 11:39 AM on May 5

Also a shout out to those whose first experiences with media anticipation and disappointment was when the latest episode of 3-2-1 Contact did NOT include a new Bloodhound Gang segment.
posted by bartleby at 11:39 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

My main Sesame Street/Electric Company/Mister Rogers-watching years were 1972-1974. In the autumn of 1974, I began kindergarten. But I continued to watch these shows throughout the 70s into the early 80s, especially in the summer. I was well past needing the lessons; I was there for the funny on the CTW shows, and the soothing calm reassurance of Mister Rogers.

What with the things that they've learned pedagogically since the early 70s, there is no way today's Sesame Street could be like yesterday's. It's not all bad; the few segments I've seen with Tom Hiddleston and John Oliver (both with Cookie Monster) are VERY cute and funny, though, admittedly, those were almost 10 years ago now, weren't they?

And I'll see y'all's Villa Alegre (LAAAAAAAAAAAA lalala lala la la la lalala la VILLA ALEGRE!), and raise you with Rebop with the Quincy Jones-written theme "You Have To Do It Yourself", and with LeVar Burton in his first TV role (but there are no clips of this program online, grrrrrr!), The Polka-Dot Door and Readalong! And if I had to stay home sick from school, the other shows I liked to watch were this one, this one, and this one (only for the vaguely Eno-ish opening theme, though, and after I heard it I changed the channel).
posted by droplet at 12:30 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Sesame Street taught me how to read when I was two and a half. My brother maybe was reading at four instead of two, but still pretty young.

I have a very, very vivid memory of sitting in a friend's treehouse with her and figuring out what we wanted to write in a protest letter to our local PBS station after they'd announced that they were going to stop screening 3-2-1 Contact. I think we were going to use illustrations or graphs as well. We were about nine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:56 PM on May 5 [3 favorites]


"Children all over the world have been shut out of their schools by the covid-19 crisis, and, one fears, are learning very little on Google Hangouts and in Zoom classrooms."

C'mon now

This essay has flaws, yes, but I will never not read about children's TV during that era.
posted by Caxton1476 at 1:14 PM on May 5

Another people-looking-at-me-goggle-eyed 'that's not a thing' that has happened to me, but I will fight you on, even if it's a micro-regional-temporal reference:
Carole and Paula from the Magic Garden were the lesbian Bert and Ernie (in the little kid meets their first gay male couple "oh, like Bert and Ernie! do you take baths together?"' way).
I remember being sad when a girl on the playground told me "no, you can't marry Carole when you grow up, she and Paula are married!"

Also, years later, working in retail, we would occasionally cheer ourselves up after a difficult customer by sardonically singing/humming/whistling The Goodbye Song, changing the lyrics to "hope to Never see you again, bye-bye!" etc.
posted by bartleby at 1:26 PM on May 5

Sesame Street taught me how to read when I was two and a half. My brother maybe was reading at four instead of two, but still pretty young.

Same here, my parents credit Sesame Street with teaching me to read by the age of 3. I was a little under 2 when it debuted in Australia but my brother, who was 18 months older, didn't get the exposure to it at such an early age. I remember that when he first went to school, I used to read his school readers to him.
posted by andraste at 6:33 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]

I was another kid who watched Sesame Street from 18 months and could read by age three. Preschool teachers gave my mom a lot of grief about it apparently- because I might not be doing it "right". I felt like I was too old for Sesame Street by the age of 6 or 7, but loved Electric Company, and also watched Zoom and Villa Allegre.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:28 PM on May 5

Z double-O M
Boston, Mass
(I'm Bernadette!)
posted by bendy at 11:56 PM on May 5 [3 favorites]

When I saw Kristin Hersh play a solo show in 1999 (?), she said that her song ”Tar Kissers” had the same chords as the Villa Allegre theme. “We used to watch Zoom, and we’d listen to the theme song for Villa Allegre and then shut the TV off.”
posted by pxe2000 at 4:18 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]

My father was initially a little worried that my niece didn't know how to read yet when she was five. "EC knew how to read way earlier than that!" he reminded my mother. "Should we say something to the kid's parents?" Mom had to remind him that me and my brother learning how to read that early actually was the exception, and a kid learning how to read when they were about five was about what it should be.

But now with all the other people saying that they learned how to read that early from Sesame Street, it has me thinking that that's more of a comment on the quality of the show these days.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:26 AM on May 6

As a Sesame-aged kid in the midwestern hinterlands of the early 80s, the scenes of other kids playing in urban parks or a tapped fire hydrant were like looking into another world. And a piece where a kid makes lunch in his apartment kitchen stands out, too. They weren't sets, they were real places, and I thought about them constantly.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:28 AM on May 6 [3 favorites]

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