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'Sesame Street' Singing Along

Here's a kids show that still boasts plenty of street cred.

Now beginning its 35th season, "Sesame Street" remains a daily destination for millions of preschoolers, an evergreen cityscape as much a part of their world as any other play space.

It's been that way for generations of kids, as any of the show's estimated 74 million "grads" will recall from "Sesame Street Presents: The Street We Live On." This retrospective airs on most PBS stations 8 p.m. EST Sunday, then serves as the season opener the next day (check local listings).

Even if you haven't caught "Sesame Street" since around the time it premiered Nov. 10, 1969, you will be struck by how things seem much like you left them. The Muppets; the diverse community of humans; the letters and numbers that "sponsor" each hour.

Even parts of the 'hood are the same, notably the set for the brownstone apartment building at 123 Sesame St. (as it exists on Stage G at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens). Now nearly 35 years old, it should qualify for landmark status.

Clearly "Sesame Street" was designed for the ages by the "urban planners" at the upstart Children's Television Workshop (now renamed Sesame Workshop). But the era that gave rise to "Sesame Street" remains part of its culture.

A telling trace lives on in the theme song: "Sunny day, everything's A-OK." Popularized by pioneers of the U.S. space program, the term A-OK is as identified with the 1960s as granny glasses and tie-dye jeans.

So, perhaps, is the idealism surging in those years. Four months before "Sesame Street" premiered, that can-do spirit had helped put the first man on the moon. Likewise, it fueled dreams of helping put things right for the nation's kids.

"`Sesame Street' grew out of the Great Society programs," says executive producer Lewis Bernstein, referring to the Johnson administration's social initiatives. "That was a period when politics, educational needs and the social milieu all converged to say, `You influence kids at an early age and you can give them the skills they need to navigate their way through school and in life."'

And, with the civil rights movement at full throttle, racial equality became another part of the show's message.

"When I first came here (in 1972) there were a lot of ex-hippies working here with a spirit of Let's Change the World. Maybe some of us have cut our hair," Bernstein says with a chuckle, "but the passion hasn't changed."

Early on, the "Sesame Street" brand of passion paved the way to many kids-show innovations: the racially integrated cast, the inner-city setting, the fast-paced, bite-sized structure of each episode.

"Sesame Street" gathered caring, flesh-and-blood adults to offer guidance and support for the childlike Muppets. It brought in celebrity guests to catch the eye of parents, who, after watching with their kids, then "naturally reinforce and extend the learning for the child," Bernstein says.

A place with sunny days and everything A-OK, "Sesame Street" blended authenticity with aspiration: "Life doesn't exist in most places like it does on `Sesame Street,"' Bernstein acknowledges. "But if we don't model it, it'll never exist."

Today, after 4,057 episodes, more than 8 million viewers tune in at least once a week. The show remains a top 10 weekday program among children aged 2 to 5, with its preschool audience up 9 percent in 2002-03 from the season before.

"Preschoolers' needs haven't changed," Bernstein says. "But the world has changed so much! So we've tried to take what's going on and stay a step ahead of it with the lessons we offer to kids."

Accordingly, the show stays steadfast while constantly adapting.

Two years ago, Maria and Luis, long the proprietors of a fix-it shop, made a career change, opening a Mail Boxes Etc.-type outlet. Smart move. People don't get things repaired the way they used to.

A more substantial change: "Elmo's World," the popular feature which, since 1998, has swept young viewers off Sesame Street and into a virtual realm, where, logged onto his PC, Elmo takes them on cyber-explorations.

But the more things change, and however more dangerously, the more "Sesame Street" remains a safe haven.

That's why the detail of Secret Service agents seemed so terribly out of place deployed in Studio G the morning of Sept. 19, 2002, when Laura Bush dropped by to read a storybook to Elmo and Big Bird.

The nation's state of high alert meant an unprecedented level of security for the first lady. But everything went A-OK. Then, after Mrs. Bush took her heavily escorted leave, other agents, assigned to stay behind, got to do what any "Sesame Street" viewer, past or present, would delight in: They took turns posing with Elmo for souvenir snapshots. Stone-faced agents were suddenly grinning like kids.

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