"Sesame Street" Is Now 40 Years Young

Big Bird reads to some children on "Sesame Street," which will celebrate its 40th year on the air Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009.
Here to help us celebrate the 40th anniversary of a children's television staple is our Martha Teichner:

Even if you were watching "Sesame Street" when it first went on the air in 1969, I'm betting 40 years later every character, every Muppet is still as imprinted on your now-middle-aged brain as the letters of the alphabet they all taught you.

Almost from the beginning, there were celebrity visitors to the neighborhood, such as a thin Jay Leno with black hair riding around on a tricycle in a cowboy suit. Funny how they've aged, but Big Bird and company haven't. Is it something in the water?

A group picture from 40 years ago includes Joan Ganz Cooney, "Sesame Street"'s founder, and Jim Henson, who created the Muppets. Cooney and Henson had the radical idea that television could be used to educate preschool-age children and entertain them at the same time. Little did they know what would come of that notion.

In their wildest dreams they couldn't have predicted that Kermit the Frog would become an international star.

Who could have imagined that Big Bird would make the cover of Time magazine?

"It was always a good idea," Henson told CBS News when "Sesame Street" turned 20 in 1989. "But even when the show went on the air, it immediately had a wonderful response from the audiences, which even that came as a surprise because, like, we were working on a fairly small, little children's show."

A few months later, Henson died suddenly. By then the show was already a global phenomenon.

Today, it's seen in 140 countries. That's nearly three-fourths of all the recognized countries in existence.

A 2006 documentary "The World According to Sesame Street" shows the kinds of places it reaches, like the AIDS-ravaged South African townships where Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet on "Takalani Sesame," is famous.

International productions are not just translations of what American kids see. They address local concerns and have their own unique characters.

Three years ago, I got to meet Abelardo, Big Bird's Mexican cousin on "Plaza Sesamo."

We here at "Sunday Morning" have experience interviewing Muppets.

Now here's the thing: You know you're talking to a shred of polyester shag. There's a puppeteer right there, but you forget and can't help but be enchanted by the likes of friends like Pancho Contreras and Lola.

On Tuesday, when the new season begins, first lady Michelle Obama will find her way to "Sesame Street" to plant a garden and promote healthy eating.

Over the years, the show has been subtly updated to reflect current issues and popular culture, but the educational message is still there.

Take, for example, actor Jake Gyllenhall with the octopus on his head.

Coming up, a parody of the show "Mad Men"; it's aimed at the adults watching alongside all the kids, adults who've been reintroduced to the residents of "Sesame Street" a generation or even two after making their acquaintance the first time.

Think about it. Today's kids have Big Bird in common with their parents and possibly their grandparents. That kind of thing may only be possible on "Sesame Street."