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I’ve Worked on Sesame Street—Here’s What You Don’t Know

The iconic children's show is turning 50! And while you likely watched it as a child or with your own kids, this is what you didn't get to see.

sesame street season 49Richard Termine/Courtesy Sesame Workshop

Happy 50th, Sesame Street!

It's hard to imagine a world without Sesame Street, but it's equally hard to believe that the beloved children's show is turning 50 this year! TV shows sometimes have the power to change the world, and Sesame Street has definitely done that. To honor its lasting impact, a special anniversary celebration will air on HBO on November 7th and will be rebroadcast on PBS on November 17th. And even though the most die-hard fans may think they know everything there is to know about Big Bird and company, trust us—they don't. We got the behind-the-scenes scoop on America's longest-running children's show from Sesame Street's current executive producer, Ben Lehmann, and former cast member Emilio Delgado, who played Luis for a whopping 44 years. Here's what they had to say about the sunniest street in America.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Georg Wendt/EPA/Shutterstock (8228646a) Sesame Street Muppets Ernie and Bert Pose For Photographs During a Press Conference on the 40th Anniversary of the Sesame Street in Hamburg Germany 07 January 2013 on 08 January 1973 the Children's Television Series Sesame Street Premiered in Germany Germany Hamburg Germany Television - Jan 2013Georg Wendt/EPA/Shutterstock

One simple idea revolutionized TV

Experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett was studying the educational trends associated with low-income and minority children in the late 1960s when he was introduced to public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney at a dinner party. He expressed the idea that television could be an important teaching tool for preschool-age children. Cooney agreed, and together they workshopped the idea that would become Sesame Street. "Today, you wouldn't think of having a children's show without it being educational," says Lehmann. "That's because of Sesame Street." The Sesame Workshop continues the mission of educating children globally by assessing their needs through research and implementation. Teaching and inspiring children are at the heart of the show. Here are 10 "dream big" quotes that will motivate anyone, no matter how old they are.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock (6359732b) Caroll Spinney, Big Bird Michelle Hickey, a Muppet wrangler adjusts a book for Big Bird, voiced by Carroll Spinney, so he can read to Connor Scott during a taping of Sesame Street in New York. Spinney drops his fine-feathered obscurity (and emerges from his garbage-can fortress as Oscar the Grouch) for an enchanting film portrait, "I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story," which celebrates the "Sesame Street" puppet master who, at age 81, continues to breathe life into a pair of the world's best-loved personalities Film I Am Big Bird-Spinney, New York, USAMark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock

It takes all day to produce just ten minutes of the show

They make it look easy, but it isn't. In fact, it takes hundreds of employees to bring Elmo, Grover, Abby, and the crew to life. The creators of the beloved puppet characters work long hours to give personality to each puppet. From the careful selection of the character's eyes to the way the puppeteers create their voice, it's a methodical, conscious process. "It surprises people to learn that it takes a full day to get ten minutes of footage," says Lehmann. "We function somewhat like a symphony orchestra. It's really quite an intricate dance between the camera operators, the puppeteers, and the actors." Of course, it's always important to build trust with your coworkers, but it's essential to keep this show running smoothly.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris Pizzello/AP/Shutterstock (6347968a) Sonia Manzano Actress Sonia Manzano, right, performs at the Daytime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. Manzano, who has played the role of Maria on the groundbreaking kid show "Sesame Street" since 1971, is retiring. Manzano broke the news at the American Library Association's annual conference Sesame Street Sonia Manzano, Los Angeles, USAChris Pizzello/AP/Shutterstock

Sesame Street has always been a rainbow of inclusion

Inclusion, representation, and diversity are trendy buzzwords these days, but they've been at the center of Sesame Street all along. While the concepts may have changed and expanded over the years, Morrisett and Cooney originally set out to create a show that would allow minority children to feel seen. The early casting of the show was deliberately inclusive. Aside from Delgado, cast members Matt Robinson, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, and Will Lee played neighbors from different backgrounds who functioned like a family.

Manzano, who played Maria, was the first leading Latina actor to be cast in a television series, and Delgado played her husband. He recalls his early career as a young Chicano actor in L.A. and remembers a time when Latinos were often cast as racist stereotypes. Sesame Street was looking for something very different. Delgado says that people still tell him how much his character, Luis, meant to them: "They'll say to me, 'We were the only Mexican family in my town, and you looked and sounded like me!' It means so much to hear that." Here are some other trailblazing Hispanic Americans who made history.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sal Veder/AP/Shutterstock (6634058a) Jesse Jackson of Southern Christian Leadership Conference speaks at a University of California rally at Greek Theater in Berkeley Jesse Jackson, Berkeley, USASal Veder/AP/Shutterstock

So controversial, it was once banned

Because Sesame Street was so progressive and ahead of its time, it occasionally found itself at the center of controversy. Those who opposed integration were threatened by the show's casting and the appearance of certain celebrities, like civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. And in 1970, the show was banned from airing in Mississippi by the State Commission for Educational Television on racial grounds. Of course, Sesame Street stood its ground, and Lehmann says this has been a consistent theme of the show. "The aim of the show has always been to show kids someone like them and give tools to their caregivers to help them succeed," he explains. Of course, TV shows aren't the only type of entertainment to court controversy. Here are 13 of the most controversial books of all time.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock (10440203b) This photo shows puppeteers Haley Jenkins, left, and Leslie Carrara-Rudolph performing with their "Sesame Street" muppets Karli and Abby Cadabby, respectively, for segments about parental addiction in New York. Sesame Workshop is addressing the issue of addiction. Data shows 5.7 million children under 11 live in households with a parent with substance use disorder TV-Sesame Street-Addiction, New York, USA - 06 Aug 2019Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock

The toughest job on Sesame Street

It's not being an actor. That was easy from the start, according to Delgado, because the puppeteers are so talented. "My imagination was nurtured," he says. "It's easy to have a total suspension of disbelief because of the talents of the puppeteers." But that doesn't mean the puppeteers have an easy job—it takes a lot of skill to operate those puppets. Often, characters are operated by one or two people, working closely to make the puppet move, talk, gesture, and make facial expressions that are as human-like as possible. Having a job on Sesame Street is pretty cool, even though it may also be a little quirky...though probably not as quirky as the strangest jobs in every state.

sesame streetJulie Blattberg/Shutterstock

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Yes, actually! Sesame Street was originally set on an imaginary street in New York City—but it's no longer imaginary. On May 1, 2019, the intersection of 63rd and Broadway was renamed Sesame Street, and Mayor Bill de Blasio declared it Sesame Street Day to honor the show's 50-year run. But while you can find Sesame Street in Manhattan, the actual show is filmed in the outer borough of Queens, at Kaufman Astoria Studios. Here are 65 TV and movie filming locations you can actually visit.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ctw/Jim Henson Prod/Kobal/Shutterstock (5884856t) Jim Carrey Sesame Street - 1969- Ctw/Jim Henson Prod USA TelevisionCtw/Jim Henson Prod/Kobal/Shutterstock

Celebrities love to pop by

When asked about favorite celebrity guests, Lehmann has a hard time choosing just one. "Jamie Foxx did this super funny thing with a fox, and Terry Crews had so much great energy," he says. And while he's partial to Elvis Costello's appearance since he's a big fan, he'll never forget John Legend's moment with his three-year-old-daughter, Luna, as she saw him interact with puppets. The show has hosted a variety of high-profile celebrities over the years, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, Sir Ian McKellen, and Maya Angelou. For another trip down memory lane, check out these 46 memorable TV and movie quotes.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock (6363967a) Caroll Spinney, Big Bird Muppet character Big Bird reads to Connor Scott and Tiffany Jiao during a taping of the children's program "Sesame Street" in New York. Sesame Street continues to attract millions of viewers after 45 years on the air, appealing to both preschoolers and their parents with content that is educational and entertaining. The show has kept up with the times by making its segments faster-paced, by fine-tuning messages, and by keeping a steady flow of appearances by contemporary celebrity guests. The show first aired Nov. 10, 1969 Sesame Street 45 Years, New York, USAMark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock

The moment with the biggest impact was real

Both Lehmann and Delgado agree that the most impactful moment of Sesame Street was the death of Mr. Hooper, played by Michael Lee, in 1982. The show dealt with the character's death while the cast and crew were dealing with the death of their friend and coworker. The result was a touching and honest explanation of death to children everywhere (and Big Bird) in an emotional moment that took only one take. "To talk to kids about death had never been done," says Delgado. "We all felt the intensity of that emotion. We kept acting as we were feeling."

In terms of impact, Delgado says a close second was the marriage of Maria and Luis in 1988. "That episode showed the cultural context of Latino life," he explains. "It showed a whole family and a whole community behind these two people in love." For more groundbreaking cultural moments, read about these 13 Hispanic women who changed the world.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Richard Drew/AP/Shutterstock (6287109a) Grover Grover is posed on the set of "Sesame Street," in New York. Earning money is one of the financial fundamentals that is part of "For Me, For You, For Later," a new project featuring Grover, Elmo, Cookie Monster and their Muppet pals Family Finance Sesame Street, New York, USAShutterstock

Why the puppets are city kids

Since the creators wanted to speak to low-income and minority communities, they needed to create characters who fit the bill—as well as a setting those children could relate to. That's why the show's backdrop consists of clothes hanging out to dry, street vendors, stacked tenements, and an urban landscape. The education gap is still prevalent for many in the United States and can vary from city to city. These are the most and least educated cities in America.

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