"Sesame Street" becomes first TV show to be a Kennedy Center honoree

"Sesame Street" celebrated for its impact
"Sesame Street" celebrated for its impact 07:12

For the first time ever, this year's Kennedy Center Honors celebrated a TV show. The ceremony, which airs Sunday on CBS, paid tribute to "Sesame Street," a show that has revolutionized how we think about childhood and the world.

For 50 years, Sesame Street has been the favorite address for kids to learn the alphabet, how to count or about life. "CBS This Morning" co-host Anthony Mason spoke with the co-creator Lloyd Morrisett, actress Sonia Manzano and the people behind the famous Muppets about what made the show groundbreaking.

"Why is Sesame Street such a special place?" Mason asked the Muppets. 

"It is a place where no matter who you are or what you look like, you're welcome," Big Bird said.

"This is true whether you're a grouch, or a Big Bird, or a fairy or a monster," Abby said.

"Or a Snuffleupagus. I mean all of those people, they are our friends," Grover added. 

Not only are the Muppets all different colors on "Sesame Street," but from the beginning, so were the actors. 

"I was stunned," said Manzano, who was 21 when she joined the cast in the third season in 1971. "These people of color in a neighborhood that looked like my neighborhood."

One of the first Latino actors to have a lead role on TV, Manzano would play Maria for 44 years. "There aren't that many actors who play a part as long as you did," Mason said.

"I know. I was going to keep at it until I got it right," Manzano said, laughing. She added that she stuck with it "because the needs of the kids changed every year."

"I grew up on Sesame Street," she said. "We were allowed to age which was unheard of."

Asked about the show's mission from the beginning, Manzano said, "The show came out of the civil rights movement. We were going to change the world. I understood what the mission of the show was."

"The goal was to have children entering school prepared to succeed," said Morrisett.

It was an idea hatched when Morrisett, then with the Carnegie Corporation, had dinner with Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer with public television.
 
"And after dinner I asked her, 'Joan do you think television could be used to teach young children?' That's the beginning," he recalled. 

Ganz Cooney studied the idea, wrote a report, and realized, as she told "60 Minutes" in 2017, "it would be demonstrating what children's television could do for children. And that that would be huge."

The Muppets, however, almost weren't part of the show.

"Jim Henson did not want to do a children's show ... because he didn't want to be identified as a children's entertainer," Ganz Cooney said.

But Henson came around, and in 1969, "Sesame Street" went on the air.

"What was the show like in the early days?" Mason asked Manzano.

"It was very raw. It was almost like live television," she said. "We would do one rehearsal and then you take it."

"Had you ever acted with puppets before?" Mason asked. 

"No. No," Manzano said. "I kept looking down at the puppeteer at my feet until Frank Oz, who plays Grover, said, 'Quit looking at that man down there,' and I was shaken."

Oz, Henson and Carroll Spinney, who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, have since been succeeded by a second generation of puppeteers.

"We're actors from the elbow up," said Matt Vogel, puppet captain for the show who performs Big Bird and Count von Count. 

"We'll go out and do live shows … and w will go in with the puppet on our arm, and a child in front of us, the child does not see us at all," Vogel said. "They see those characters and they believe in them instantly. It does not matter at all that we are there."

Mason asked the Muppets how they felt about be a Kennedy Center Honoree.

"Is it like a bowling trophy?" Big Bird guessed.

"Is it like a prize you get in a cereal box?" asked Grover.

"Is it a basket of puppies?!" Abby said.


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