Street Scenes

The place could use a coat of paint. Otherwise, it’s perfect.

There was a certain magic to Sesame Street in the 1970s that doesn’t quite exist anymore. I came to this realization after borrowing Sesame Street Old School DVDs from the library and revisiting the street I remembered from my childhood. It was a very different place, to say the least.

For one thing, there were hardly any Muppets on the street itself. Yes, Bert and Ernie lived in the basement apartment at 123 – but they were rarely seen outside of it. Herry Monster would show up and occasionally wreak havoc. But really, the only regulars on the street were Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and, later, Snuffleupagus.

This is a far cry from the Sesame Street of today which frequently plays host to large roving gangs of Muppets, often led by Elmo and his loyal posse: Zoe, Abby, Baby Bear, Rosita, and Telly. Big Bird, Oscar, and Snuffy are there too, of course, and other Muppets can be found hanging out apartment windows.

Basically Muppets have taken over the neighborhood. It is a rare episode to see more than one or two actual human beings take on a significant role in any of the “street stories.”

It’s like a fuzzy, adorable West Side Story

This is a far cry from the street of the 1970s. Adults were everywhere then. They laughed and joked with each other. They did things as a group. It wasn’t unusual to see Maria, Luis, Bob, Gordon, Susan, and David – all young, fun loving, and outgoing – hanging out on the stoop chewing the fat. The friendships between them felt genuine – kind of like what you might see in a real neighborhood. Even the fact that Mr. Hooper was rarely a part of these coffee cloches felt right; he was of a different generation and had a store to run.

The physical characteristics of the street itself also changed over time. Today’s street reflects the slow but steady gentrification of the neighborhood. Sesame Street is now as sunny, bright, and colorful as the many, many Muppets who reside there. It is a beautiful place to be sure, but, like the Muppets, the street doesn’t feel quite genuine. The buildings are too crisp and pristine. It feels a bit too fantastic to be a part of this world.

The street of the 1970s looked lived on. The colors were muted to the point of dingy; the color palette leaned heavily toward, grays, olives, and browns. Fixtures were worn, maybe a little bent or rusty. The buildings were speckled with those mysterious black stains that always seem to find their way on to most every structure that’s more than a few years old. It was a clean street by 1970s standards, but 1970s standards weren’t all that clean. New York was an armpit back then and Sesame sort of fit into that environment.

And this is what made the Sesame Street of my childhood so magical: The place looked ordinary enough to be real.

In fact, almost every kid in my kindergarten class thought they knew where Sesame Street was; any visit to New York offered up dozens of potential sightings.

I, too, was one of the true believers. When I was young, my parents took me to the Bronx Zoo. As soon as we crossed the George Washington Bridge, I had my eyes out the window. I checked the street signs, looked for that familiar stoop, and got giddy enough to do a car dance whenever I found a location that came sort of close. I never did spot that friendly, seven-foot-tall canary, but the delightful possibility that I might was always just around the next corner.

47 Replies to “Street Scenes”

  1. My Sesame Street was the one of the Eighties, when my daughter was a baby and we watched it daily with a chaser of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I haven’t visited it since she outgrew it and I suspect I wouldn’t recognize it!;) xoM

    1. The ’80s was a pivotal era in Sesame Street’s history. It was when Hooper died and Snuffy was finally revealed to the adults in neighborhood; both of these events were handled beautifully by the writers and cast.

      It was also the decade in which the show’s center of gravity shifted to Elmo. The merits of that move, however, are certainly debatable.

      Oh, and I loved Mr. Rogers. Did a more wonderful human being ever exist? I doubt it. Perhaps he should be the focus of a future post…

      1. I’m sure my daughter and I have different takes on these shows. I was viewing them in terms of what’s my child learning from this? She was having fun…and I’ll have to ask her what else she got from them!

        Yes! A Mr. Rogers post! We loved Mr. Rogers and my daughter cried and cried when he died. She also cried and cried when Dr. Seuss died – she thought all his books would disappear with him! What she learned, however, is how very lucky we are to be living in a time where their gentle, funny lessons could be preserved through print and video for enjoyment again, and again, and again!

  2. Oh good gawd! I’m old as a bat! Sesame Street had just come out when I was a kid. I enjoyed reading this. I’m so cynical — I’m thinking the less people on Sesame Street the fewer paychecks executives have to dole out.

  3. I’m of the same generation as Margarita above, watching Sesame Street in the late ’80s with my daughter. Like her, I probably wouldn’t recognize it. I suppose I will soon be introduced to it again as I watch it with my grandson, but from your description, Mike, I’m not sure it will be the same. It’s too bad that it doesn’t feel like a ‘real’ place anymore, although I suppose there’s nothing wrong with imaginary realms. I write and read about them all the time. Even here we have neighborhoods that resemble the old Sesame Street, since the older streets were fashioned after Chicago (I know, Chicago and New York aren’t really the same) but it is fun for kids to think that they could actually visit that imaginary Sesame Street. 🙂

  4. When I tell my kids that when I was their age, everyone thought Mr. Snuffleupagus was Big Bird’s imaginary friend, they’re astounded at my age. I’m older than Grover.

    I agree that the gentrification and modernization of Sesame Street hits me right in the nostalgia—but I think the real shame is that it’s in many ways a reflection of today’s neighborhoods. I miss the times when a city neighborhood could be a small town unto itself and neighbors knew neighbors and talked instead of tweeting . It seems like even small towns have lost their small town community.

    But to be honest . . . I think I miss Grover’s vaudeville acts the most.

    1. You make an excellent point, Sarah. Sesame Street changed to better reflect the times we live in. People just don’t hang out on the stoop that much anymore, do they?

      One character I very much miss from the old show was Don Music. Whenever he slammed his head onto the piano keys in frustration I would laugh for what seemed like days.

      1. Kermit is the perfect straight man, period. If he was meat-people (as opposed to felt-people), he’d be mainlining Tums . . .

        Do I remember “Froggy Babeeeeee”? It was practically our family’s tribal call when we kids were growing up. Good (highly embarrassing) times.

        Now, we just say, “Oh, there you are, Perry.”

  5. This post has made me so wistful, Mike. Great photo of the original Sesame Street gang!!

    I haven’t watched a full episode of Sesame Street for a while now, but reading your post made me realize how much it really has changed since we were kids. It really was grittier back then. Everything was grittier then, I guess. Before NYC was gentrified and Disneyfied. I never thought about how different the Muppet-to-Human ratio is either, but it’s true. It’s hard to keep track of everyone these days.

    Also, the Muppets were such a unique thing back in the day. That’s part of what made them so special. Now, they’re competing with a zillion other puppet-type characters.

    And I miss the good old days when only the kids could see Snuffy.

    1. Oh, I hated, hated, HATED the way the adults never believed Big Bird about Snuffy. It was the one part of the old show that bothered me.

      It’s funny to think of SS as “gritty,” but you’re right. They did things on the show back then that they would never dream of doing today. Don Music, for one. I also remember one Muppet telling another Muppet to “shut up.” Also The Count was a sort of menacing fellow; he had the power to cloud men’s minds. Remember that?

  6. Sesame Street taught me how to read. I was a 1970s Sesame Street watcher, and Big Bird and Snuffleupagus were my best buds. I lost touch with the ‘hood until I had kids, and honestly… my kids only liked Elmo. I never paid much attention to the street because they didn’t. If you’ve never seen Elmo dancing to “I’m a Survivor,” you haven’t lived.

    But you make some excellent points. I had no knowledge of cities or New York, but it all seemed very real to me. I thought I could just walk right into the set.

      1. Heeeeey Yoouuuuuuu Guyyyyyyyyys! Was that the one? I liked it, but Sesame Street was where my heart was. TEC was the edgy older brother of SS, and I was all cuddly bunnies and puffy clouds. ; ) The edgy part came later. I think.

      2. That was the one indeed. I recently bought two DVD sets of TEC and my son and I have been laughing like loons ever since.

        Oh, and his reading has improved dramatically, too, which, I suppose, is a bit more important. 🙂

  7. Such a great post! By the way, just because your post reminded me of it, I highly recommend you watch the documentary Being Elmo. I saw it recently and it was SO good, and the film covers Sesame Street right when it first started, and even though I never watched it way back then, I could not help but feel so heart-warmed and nostalgic.

  8. Yes, I was a 70s Sesame Street watcher, I think it was probably the only American kids TV show we had here in England at the time, oh no wait…we had all the cartoons too, Looney Tunes and that, but as kids we didn’t necessarily realise they were American in the same way as we did Sesame Street. We could imagine that all American kids got to hang out in places like Sesame Street. I haven’t watched the modern ones, don’t think I want to.

    1. Sesame Street not a bad show today, it’s just not the show it once was.

      The new Muppet cast plays a big role as to why, I think. Just about every new Muppet created for the show over the past 25 years (Elmo, Zoe, Baby Bear, Abby, et al) is a child. All the older Muppets (Oscar, Ernie, Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster, Kermit) are adults – childlike adults, but adults nonetheless.

      This cast shift has dramatically changed the way information is communicated. The show’s tone is a bit softer and slower and less (for lack of a better term) “edgy.” (For example, nobody is going to call Elmo a “Meatball” the way Bert always would when Ernie did something dumb.) Kids love feeling superior to grownups, so when Ernie acted like a bonehead, he gave us kids a giddy thrill.

      The new show is good natured and cheerful. The old show was those things, too –but it was also funny. Very funny. I still laugh at the old Sesame Street skits. The new ones? Nope.

      1. I know what you mean about the old Sesame Street skits! There was this one where there was a monster with tall arms, but they were stuck above his head, so he could reach the fruit from the trees, but couldn’t get it into his mouth. Then there was a monster with short arms, who could reach his mouth, but not the fruit. In the end they decided that the monster with tall arms would pick the fruit and throw it down to the one with short arms, and he would then then feed both of them with it. They were very pleased with their solution, and one of them said “I know! Let’s call this ‘co-operation'”, and the other said “No, let’s call it Shirley”. Classic.

  9. Le sigh. Sesame Street and Electric Company were the bomb! I have to admit that I still like Sesame Street –despite the fact that it’s not what it used to be, it’s still one of the most multicultural/multiethnic shows on television for children.

  10. Oh – love the classic original orange Oscar in that photo!

    As a child I would wander into the kitchen for a snack when Bob started to sing. For me, too much of Bob singing on the original SS. I was clearly in it just for Bert and Ernie. Grover too.

    Had there been a remote control, or a mute button, I would have eaten far fewer snacks as a child.

    1. As great as any kid show is, there’s always dead spots, eh?

      I was thinking of this the other day re: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I could have listened to Fred Rogers all day — but as soon as that trolley showed up to take us to The Land of Make Believe, I headed for the kitchen to turn Double Stuf Oreos into Quadruple Stufs.

  11. I grew up with SS in the 70s. Froggy was awesome keeping Piggy happy. The adults then were like family. I revisited the Street when my daughter was born in the late 90s. By then, Elmo was in full force and she loved his “World” with Dorothy the goldfish. In a poll, who would you vote for? Froggy or Elmo?

  12. I have much more sentimental feelings about Sesame Street than my children do. I was always so delighted it was time to put them in front of the ‘tube’ to see the Street (this and Mr. Rogers were the only shows they were allowed). I sat and watched the show more enraptured than they. And now, I’m amazed they don’t put their children (3, 4, 5 years old) in front of the TV to watch Sesame. Noooo, they watch some stuff about science and about ponies, and about purple dinosaurs. Nothing as classic (and classical) as Sesame. Sigh.

    1. Please don’t mention that purple dinosaur. That awful thing was the beginning of the end of quality children’s programming. What mindless tripe!

      I, too, was a huge fan of Mr. Rogers. He always struck me as the nicest person in the world. I missed him terribly when he passed away.

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