Sesame Street Through the Years: A Study of the Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Street

Sesame_Street_panoramic_1970s

Joseph Scarbrough – In 45 years, Sesame Street has managed to become the single most famous street anyone has ever known; in fact, it has already been the most famous street anyone has ever known long before reaching the milestone of 45, and it’s familiar locales make it instantly recognizable to people of all ages. That, in and of itself, is something of marvel, and in 45 years, Sesame Street has seen a number of facelifts – some subtle, some more obvious – which is to be expected of locations that have been around for a number of years. Sesame Street has always been an experimental show, and often times whenever the street has gone through makeovers, it was done as experiments; at the same time however, many of the changes to the street over the years have also been a reflection of changes in time. Hooper’s Store, for example, started out as a little soda shop in the seventies, and later was transformed into a convenience store in the 2000s.

At its genesis, creative maestro Jon Stone was inspired for the location of the show to take place on an inner city street after seeing a television commercial with the tagline, “Send your kid to a ghetto this summer,” which was filmed on location on a street in Harlem. The commercial showed kids out on a street, in front of a brownstone apartment building, running around, jumping rope on the sidewalk, sitting around on the stoop, younger children watching from upper story windows, and knew that if the show was intended to reach out to disadvantaged children, they needed to see a place that they could instantly identify with.

0043signIn his book, The Wisdom of Big Bird and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch: Lessons from a Life in Feathers, Caroll Spinney describes the comparisons of the older Sesame Street set to that of New York City at the time, noting that Sesame strongly resembled any typical New York City street, both in look and also in ambience, as whenever scenes on the street were taped, a record would play over the studio’s speaker system from the control room that featured city sounds such as car horns and engines and traffic cop whistles. Perhaps the biggest difference in the street’s look is from its inaugural season in 1969: that year, the street was completely straight. From left to right, you had a tenement building that housed an empty store front, and Hooper’s Store; next, you had a tall plank fence with the mural of a tropical island painted on it; then came the iconic 123 brownstone, which, as production designer Victor DiNapoli once put it, “Stands proudly next to a construction site,” that was blocked off by a colorful fence of discarded doors. It wasn’t until the show’s second season that the street was curved, and received it’s familiar arbor area, with its carriage house and famed tire swing; as noted in many difference sources, this idea came from director Bob Myrhum, so that a greater range of camera angles could be achieved.

Throughout the seventies, Sesame Street displayed all of the classic signs of urban decay and grit, with its rundown buildings that featured watermarks and other weathering, murals painted on the sides of buildings and on fences, dead leaves and litter covering the sidewalk, and as mentioned above, Big Bird’s nest area was an abandoned construction site that also doubled as a playground filled with painted hollow oil barrels. In fact, the difference in the street then and now seems to be pointed out rather plainly in this clip featured on YouTube from the show’s fifth season premiere episode (#536). This is exactly what Jon Stone wanted. And it paid off, as this elaborately and incredibly detailed set was so realistic and believable to the targeted children watching the show, that whenever they were invited onto the set, they couldn’t believe that Sesame Street was inside another building.

A Sesamestreetkeen eye and observation will reveal that although Sesame Street maintained its overall gritty appearance up through the early nineties, the street went through a very slow progress of sprucing itself up throughout the eighties. Slowly but surely, grit and grime was disappearing from the facades of buildings, other surfaces were free of blemishes, Big Bird’s nest area, and Oscar’s trashy domain seemed to also display more of a sense of organization… even the canvas flats that provided additional scenery seemed to more neatly painted than they were previously. In addition to that, the residents of Sesame Street must have also become a little more environmentally conscious as well, as any traces of leaves and litter on the sidewalks were mostly gone by this point. Still, in spite of the sprucing up, the street had its same familiar look of an older and somewhat rundown inner city street. Perhaps one of the more visually interesting (and also rather exciting) modifications the set received during this period was in the late eighties, when certain elements were actually built up, adding even more realism to the street: the brick siding of the two main structures, and the façade of the carriage house went from being brick pattern painted wood surfaces to actual brick surfaces.

Once the nineties came along, the face of children’s television began to see more variety: other educational pre-school shows were now coming into vogue, many of which offered teaching methods that differed from Sesame Street’s, while still utilizing some of Sesame’s signature styles, such as interacting with young viewers. The leading crusader in this influx of newer programs was Barney & Friends. With Barney now dominating the educational children’s entertainment scene, Sesame Street suddenly seemed prehistoric and outdated, and as such, had to catch up with the times (much to Jon Stone’s disapproval). To fight back, Sesame Street went through the first in a number of overhauls to its setting. The entire street received an image makeover, being cleaned and brightened up: the dark green doors of 123, the carriage house, and the framework of the tenement building were now suddenly as bright a green as highway signs; the construction doors that blocked off Big Bird’s nest area went from being painted in drab and somber colors to bright pastel colors; and the studio lighting gave the street a well-lit and sunny look as opposed to its previous dark and shadowy look.

NewyearsBut perhaps the biggest change to the street during this period was the addition of the infamous Around the Corner area. Just past Big Bird’s nest area – which had gone from being an abandoned construction site to a more simple vacant lot – was a new stretch of street that introduced a number of new locales, starting with another tenement building that housed an empty space that Gina eventually opened as a daycare center, and an apartment; next to that was the Furry Arms Hotel; a two-story building that housed two businesses – Ruthie’s Finder’s Keeper’s thrift store on the bottom floor, and Celina’s Dance Studio on the top floor; and finally rounding out Around the Corner was a community playground. In short, by 1993 (Sesame Street’s 25th season), Sesame Street went from looking like a gritty inner city street to a well-maintained little village street. Although it’s been widely accepted that the main reason behind the cleaning up of the street was due to the competition brought on by Barney, the New York Magazine article, Sesame Street, Gentrified, published by Jessica Grose in July 2013, seems to suggest that it was also a reflection of how conditions in New York City in general were improving, particularly during Rudy Giuliani’s administration.

As fate would have, research revealed that the sudden addition of new locations (as well as new residents) was confusing children who were having difficulties keeping up with who was who and where was where – as a result, when Sesame Street entered its 30th season in 1998, Around the Corner was dismantled, and all that you found once you journeyed beyond the construction doors was a dead-end alley. Sesame Street retained its newer and cleaner look but again went through a number of noteworthy modifications: Hooper’s Store received its first overhaul, gaining an old-fashioned striped awning with a new pale blue face and more modern red vinyl awning; the arbor area was enlarged to include two new features, including a two-story red brick apartment building that was situated behind the shorter and more rickety wooden fence (this building is where Elmo lives), and a new community garden that took up the small area back between the carriage house and 123; even the Sesame Street sign itself got a makeover, with a slimmer and sleeker look to it. Another noteworthy change during this period is Gina studied and eventually became a veterinarian, opening her new veterinary clinic in the carriage house.

MailitshopThe 2000s brought us the second of Sesame Street’s major facelifts, one that was perhaps more radical than the previous, and one that was a little more confusing, as many of the overhauls the set received starting in 2002 with Season 33 lasted for very, very short times, before reverting back to their original states. The entire set was given a unique and rather stylized makeover: a number of set elements were given new paint jobs, such as the doors of 123 being painted red instead of green, the façade of Hooper’s Store now being pale orange, the doors of the carriage house having a painted mural of various different animals coexisting in a jungle (probably to reflect Gina’s veterinary practice), while a number of other elements were replaced altogether. The familiar fire escape staircase to the carriage house had a much more stylized look that gave it a colorful and playful appearance; Big Bird’s nest area was also given a more colorful and playful appearance. The biggest change to the street during this time wasn’t so much any of the aforementioned facelifts, but rather, a change in a certain location altogether: Episode 3984 focuses on Maria and Luis opening their new Mail-It Shop, a postal office that had replaced their old Fix-It Shop.

Within two years, these changes started to revert, the first of which were the doors of 123 and the carriage house – they went back to being green; within another two years, practically all other changes and modifications were also reverted back: Big Bird had old discarded doors bordering his nest area again, the older green fire escape staircase returned to the carriage house; and curiously, the Fix-It Shop had suddenly returned with no explanation whatsoever… guess Maria and Luis preferred fixing toasters after all. These particular two years also saw something else return to the street as well: a sense of inner city grit. More and more dead leaves were being scattered about the sidewalk, not to mention more and more signs of age seemed to be appearing throughout the street, whether it was scuffs on the sidewalk, or weathering on building facades, it certainly is probably the most Sesame Street has looked like an inner city street in over a decade.

IMG_0791Finally, in 2008, just a year shy of turning 40, the street received one more radical facelift, and took on a much more modern look, so as to continue to keep the street looking like a familiar and believable location for preschoolers watching. The tenement building received the most noticeable change this time around: once again, the Fix-It Shop was gone, and this time, replaced with a Laundromat, which was also intended to double as a new hang-out for residents of the street; Hooper’s Store received a major makeover, both inside and out, modernizing it into a convenience store; the arbor area saw some heavy modifications as well, the carriage house now serves as a garage again (more specifically an auto repair garage); the community garden has been enlarged and appears to have a lot more growing in it, ranging from flowers to vegetables; and 123 now has a backdoor. Additionally, a new storefront was erected next to the subway, which remained empty for a couple of years, but eventually hosted a flower shop, and now a bicycle shop; this turns Sesame Street into something of a cul-de-sac. With this modernization phase, the street still retains an inner city vibe, but now that it has also caught up with the times, adds more depth and realism to the whole area; older fans may be disoriented and disappointed, but as noted in the book Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street, the ever-renewing audience of preschoolers are left unfazed, it’s still the same friendly neighborhood they’ve always visited each and every day.

In a sense, Sesame Street itself has come a long way in 45 years, from its humble beginnings as a ghetto-inspired street one may find in Harlem, to the kind of inner city street one may find in Anytown, U.S.A., and while the street itself may not look like the exact same street you grew up with, or your parents grew up, it’s still the same street as it always was from way back in 1969; this street has managed to stand the test of time, and remains a safe haven for children to mingle with friendly neighbors and enjoy sunny days. Sesame Street has maintained a sense of pride and integrity that is sure to stand for more years to come, and while the street is certain to probably see even more modifications and changes in the future, one thing that we can all count on, it will always and forever be the place with sunny days sweeping the clouds away, where the air is sweet, where everything’s A-Okay, and friendly neighbors are there where we meet.

There’s still the one burning question on everyone’s minds: can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

SesameStreet-StudioSet

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