Still counting on 'Sesame Street'

In the fall of 1969, something unusual was happening every afternoon in the Beverly Hills High School library. I know because I was there. The facility had just been hooked up to something called the Information Retrieval System, a sort of precursor to the electronic age that lay ahead. It allowed students to watch the local public television station from small cubicles, each of which contained a TV screen and a set of head phones.

A myriad of programming was available. Documentaries on everything from Alaskan wolves to Vietnam. Programs that taught languages - Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese. But only one show got any real viewing audience from the teenage habitues of the library, and these were mostly large athletic-looking seniors. They would sit in their individual carrels, happily oblivious to their surroundings, shouting out a song that went "1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10!" They were watching this new show called "Sesame Street."

Obviously the intended audience was children slightly younger, by oh, maybe 15 years. But right from the start, when "Sesame Street" debuted Nov. 10, 1969, everybody got with and loved the program. It melded and welded learning and having fun into one big, loud, cross-cultural mishmash. It showed America as a land of many colors - red, white, and brown.

In the 30 years it's been on the air, we the viewing audience have watched the "Sesame Street" family grow and change as our own families have grown and changed. Right from the start, it had an urban appeal. It showed kids living and learning in a magical, mythical place filled with talking monsters like Grover, and Cookie, and eventually Elmo; plus my two personal favorites, the chronically cranky Oscar the Grouch and the sublimely angst-ridden Telly. "Sesame Street" is a place that looks more than a little like that magical, mythical place called New York City, where occasionally you might run into a cranky and angst-full character who's not made of brightly colored faux fur.

I won't tell you how old I was when I first started watching "Sesame Street" 30 years ago. No, I wasn't a high-school senior, but I had known my ABCs and colors, and how to count from 1 to 10 for quite some time. However that didn't keep me or any of my friends from tuning in most afternoons to see what was happening on that now famous front stoop, or in Mr. Hooper's store, to see who was making a guest appearance that day.

Everyone - from the New York Mets to the cast of "Upstairs, Downstairs," to Isaac Stern to Robin Williams to, most recently, the rock band called The Goo Goo Dolls - eventually gets to "Sesame Street." Because, after all, celebrities have children, and what better way to impress your child than to dance the mambo with Snuffleupagus? And those who don't have children were once children (or act like badly behaved children, in the case of The Goo Goo Dolls). The point being somewhere deep down inside of us all there still lives a wide-eyed three-year-old.

My own kids are now too old to be part of the "Sesame Street" target audience, which I assume is between the ages of 2 and 5. They were "Sesame Street" maniacs in their pre-school days, but now they have a hard time admitting the guilty pleasure of hearing Bert and Ernie sing a duet. That's OK, they're still too young to understand that no one is ever too old for "Sesame Street." Giving up this show is about as likely as growing taller than Big Bird. Face it. It's not gonna happen.

*Madora McKenzie Kibbe, a freelance writer in Bronxville, N.Y., knows all the words to 'Rubber Ducky' and does a fairly impressive imitation of Grover.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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