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Speaking Volumes: Fifty years after its debut, ‘Sesame Street’ enjoys historic season

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Sesame Street.”

This unique children’s television program, set in a colorful neighborhood of Harlem brownstones with a cast of diverse people and puppets, has entertained and educated generations.

“Sesame Street” has aired more than 4,500 episodes and dozens of TV specials. It is now broadcast in more than 70 languages worldwide and is the most-awarded children’s show in history with 189 Emmys.

“Sesame Street” has been a television pioneer, providing preschool-age children with early education in a fun and entertaining format that grabbed the attention of not only kids, but also their parents.

“Sesame Street” has welcomed numerous guest stars to the neighborhood over the years, from Johnny Cash in 1975 to Oprah Winfrey in 2010.

“Sesame Street” was conceived by television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and foundation executive Lloyd Morrisett. In the early stages of the show, still relatively unknown at the time, Jim Henson was offered a full-time position creating and puppeteering his Muppet creatures for the show. This would become the major launching point of his career.

Henson’s Muppets would prove to be the biggest strength of the show. Producers realized that the children were much more interested in the scenes with Muppets than the human street scenes.

“Sesame Street” quickly redeveloped the show to fix this issue. Henson and his team had to create new puppets that could interact with the human actors. This would lead to two of the show’s most emblematic characters, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

By the show’s 10th anniversary, almost 10 million preschool-age children were watching “Sesame Street” daily. The show was not only successful but also innovative.

Under the guidance of producer Jon Stone, the show hired and promoted women during a time when few earned top production jobs in television. Stone worked to ensure that a diversity of racial and ethnic groups were reflected both on the screen and in production.

Many of Stone’s producers and writers would go on to lead the boom in children’s programming for Nickelodeon, Disney and PBS during the 1990s.

Although “Sesame Street” faced years of hardship and near cancellation because of budget cuts for nonprofit arts organizations after the 2008 recession, it is now in a period of resurgence and is owned by HBO. Although the show has faced criticism for leaving its public television roots, this partnership ensures the beloved program continues for many years.

Your Manatee County libraries have numerous “Sesame Street” books for brand new readers such as “Bert and Ernie Go Hiking,” “Super Grover to the Rescue” and “Elmo and the Cookies.”

The library also has many DVDs for young learners featuring their favorite “Sesame Street” characters, including “40 Years of Sunny Days,” “Sing Yourself Silly” and “Elmo’s World: Let’s Play Music.”

Call your local branch for more information on available titles.

Central Library — 941-748-5555;

Braden River — 941-727-6079;

Island — 941-778-6341;

Palmetto — 941-722-3333;

Rocky Bluff — 941-723-4821;

South Manatee — 941-755-3892.

You also can access the library via the internet at mymanatee.org/library.

Katie Fleck is a librarian at the Central Library in downtown Bradenton. Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday in the Bradenton Herald.

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