Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Growing up on Sesame Street

Sesame Street is 41!  Can you believe it?  Talk about defining a period of time!  Before and after Sesame Street is kind of like before and after Pearl Harbor or before and after The Beatles -- a huge socio-cultural turning point.

Thanks to, we know that it was today, forty-one years ago, that Sesame Street first premiered.  Earlier that year, Richard Nixon became President, The Beatles played for the last time in public, Dwight Eisenhower died, Charles de Gaulle stepped down, Elton John released his first album, Judy Garland died (closely followed by the Stonewall Riots in NYC), Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, the U.S. landed on the moon, the last cartoon in the original Looney Tune series was released,  The Brady Bunch premiered, and within a month the first Boeing 747 jumbo jet would make its inaugural flight.

Feeling old yet?

In my little corner of the world, my sister had been born the preceding April and I would be three in the coming March. Considering Sesame's target audience was three- to five-year-olds, we were the tiniest bit too young to have tuned in for that first show (but maybe not...I'll have to check on that), BUT we never knew a world without it by the time we did start watching.  The Sesame Street we knew back then was one where Mr. Hooper was very much alive, Roosevelt Franklin hadn't been yanked, and there was no such thing as a snuffleupagus.

It was also a very black and white world.  Literally -- we didn't have a color television set until Christmas 1974.  Imagine our joyful surprise when my sister and I discovered our favorite muppets were not various shades of grey but were, in fact, bright yellow, green, blue and everything else in the rainbow!  We also realized that it wasn't just the muppets who were "of color".  I think it's safe to say that Gordon and Susan were the first African-Americans my sister and I ever "met".  Same goes for Luis and Maria, who taught us our first words in Spanish.  (I clearly remember running up to my mother to ask her if she knew the Spanish word for "water"...and being horribly disappointed when she responded:  yes, agua.  How did she know that!?)  Our bedroom community of Buffalo was just about as white as a suburb could get, and we simply didn't know anyone who wasn't Anglo-Saxon (give or take).

We also didn't know anything about cities!  Brownstones, buses, "don't walk" signs, fire escapes and a world that was seemingly completely paved over were totally unknown to us.  I remember thinking it was all so fascinating.  123 Sesame Street -- I was especially enamored of Gordon and Susan's double front door, stone facade and front stoop.

They may have had something close to that in Buffalo, but they certainly didn't where we lived.  I was probably just a little too old for this when it came out:

...but I was psyched as hell when my younger cousins got it.  Outta the way, kid!

I felt like it was all speaking to me.  Was not my childhood house number 321 (just 123, backwards!); was I not a Fisher-Price tester child (I was!); did I not live in New York (State)??  Was this not my world too, albeit on a flashing screen beamed through the ethers from some 400 miles away?

I now belatedly blame/credit Sesame Street for my 16 years in New York City and becoming an architect.  I clearly didn't stand a chance.  I don't know about the draw of architecture school, but how many other kids found themselves in NYC as adults to one degree or another because of this show?  I'm guessing I am not the only one.

So, Happy Birthday, Sesame Street!  Thank you for showing me and countless millions of others a world different from our own, giving us friendly neighbors, a place to meet and setting us on our way.  You are definitely A-OK.

[Hat-tip: (via Avery!); images:  123 Sesame Street stoop, Fisher-Price set; Sesame Street sign.]