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Image: First Lady Michelle Obama on the Sesame Street set with Big Bird and cast
Richard Termine  /  Sesame Workshop
Continuing her promotion of eating healthy, first lady Michelle Obama visits "Sesame Street," where she plants vegetable seeds with Elmo, Big Bird and several young gardeners.
updated 11/9/2009 12:03:55 PM ET 2009-11-09T17:03:55

Big Bird is leaving Sesame Street!

That's what he decides on the "Sesame Street" season opener. A rapping real-estate agent pitches him on migrating to a new habitat ("habitat," the episode's "Word on the Street"). After sizing up a beach and a swamp for his new habitat, Big Bird chooses a rain forest.

But then he comes to his senses with a musical number.

"Sesame Street is my habitat!" he sings. "Sesame Street is my home!"

Indeed, Big Bird — that towering, yellow-feathered 6-year-old — has been calling Sesame Street home for four decades, ever since the show premiered on Nov. 10, 1969.

Now, as it marks its 40th anniversary on Tuesday on PBS (check local listings), he remains an essential member of the flock.

He is still brought to life by Caroll Spinney, who also plays trash-can denizen Oscar the Grouch.

Hand-picked by Muppet-meister Jim Henson, Spinney was 35 when "Sesame Street" began. He turns 76 the day after Christmas. In his dressing room at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where the show is taped, he was pondering an existential question not long ago.

"If you didn't know when you were born, how old would you think you are?" he mused. "I can apply that to Sesame Street's longevity: It seems like years, but I'd NEVER guess 40!"

Maybe that's because the self-renewing "Sesame Street" is forever young.

A realm of sunny days where everything's A-OK, the series starts its new season with episode 4187, which features the letter H and, naturally, the number 40. With it and the 25 new hours that follow, "Sesame Street" will continue to explore its chosen habitat — and experiment with how it does the job.

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Video: Elmo’s recession advice "We think of every year as experimental," says Carol-Lynn Parente, the show's executive producer, "and this new season is just part of that continuing evolution.

"It was always designed to emulate the TV-viewing environment," she notes. "Back in 1969, it had a magazine format that emulated what was then on television."

To meet expectations of its audience 40 years later, each new episode has been reformatted as an hourlong block composed of modular programming parts.

Murray Monster, a lively orange Muppet, hosts each episode's four segments. These include Abby Cadabby in the new "Abby's Flying Fairy School," which marks the first time a "Sesame Street" character has been transformed into CGI animation.

‘Sesame Street’ going green
The program is also kicking off "My World Is Green & Growing," a two-year science initiative designed to increase positive attitudes toward nature and the environment.

With that in mind, first lady Michelle Obama visits Sesame Street to plant vegetable seeds with Elmo and several young flesh-and-blood gardeners.

Then Big Bird steps up.

"Wow, did I just hear right?" he says. "The first lady eats seeds? I love seeds!"

Not exactly, says Mrs. Obama, but "I do eat what grows from these seeds."

Big Bird absorbs this information with the thoughtfulness of any curious 6-year-old, which is what he is.

But that wasn't how he was originally hatched.

"For the first few shows, he was just a silly, goofy guy," recalls Spinney. "Then one day I said, 'Big Bird should be a kid. Forget the fact that he's eight feet tall.' And real children accepted him."

Video: Big Bird turns into 'Little' Bird Indeed, Big Bird fast became a signature figure on "Sesame Street." Early on, he appeared solo on the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed his show "TV's Gift to Children."

But even if he has never grown older, he has never stood still. Spinney continues to refine the performance.

"I study tapes to see how to get new expressions out of his face," Spinney says. "I see something good that I did, and I take note to make sure I do it again."

As the silver-haired, nattily bearded Spinney speaks with a reporter in his dressing room, Big Bird's lower half is hanging in the closet: fuzzy orange fleece pants with platter-size feet, into which Spinney climbs almost like pulling on waders.

Then, on the set, with an assistant's help, he encases himself in the feathered yellow body and head before each scene is taped. A tiny television monitor harnessed to his chest lets him glimpse the outside world. He recites Big Bird's lines as his upraised right hand supports the head and animates its mouth and eyes.

"The head weighs about 4 1/2 pounds," reports Spinney. "One fellow says, 'That's no big deal, I can do that.' And I said, 'All right. Let's hold our hand up for five minutes. You don't even have to put anything in it.' And in a couple of minutes, he said, 'My God!'

"There's a rule with puppetry: If it's comfortable, you're probably doing it wrong." Spinney laughs. "My arm has gotten much stronger than it was when I started. I'm really great at painting ceilings."

Spinney is one of but a few charter members of the show still on the Street. Among them: Bob McGrath (Bob) and Loretta Long (Susan), as well as camera man Frankie Biondo.

They and so many others pioneered a strategy for channeling television to help underprivileged youngsters. Cradled by a nonprofit organization (now called Sesame Workshop), the mission continues, its mandate expanded to reach middle-income kids, too.

Just as in the formulation of the show's original game plan, research continues to play a major role.

"That is the model that 'Sesame Street' has always been based on: The education and research department works hand-in-hand with producers," says Rosemarie Truglio, who heads up Sesame Workshop's research effort.

In-house testing helps identify key curriculum goals, shape the show's content and track its success.

Meanwhile, independent academic researchers have conducted more than 1,000 studies, making "Sesame Street" the most researched TV show in history.

One notable study reconnected with adolescents who had participated in "Sesame Street" research as preschoolers. It found that teens who watched "Sesame Street" in preschool had higher grades and spent more time reading for pleasure than other teens who had missed the show as children.

"We feel so passionately about getting 'Sesame Street' in the hands of as many kids as possible because we know it works," says Carol-Lynn Parente. These days, it's not only available on PBS, but also on cable's Sprout network, online and video podcasts.

Video: Elmo’s recession advice Last season, "Sesame Street" averaged more than 5 million viewers each week, and beyond that, logged 135 million impressions through media sources other than PBS between January and September.

And the show goes on. "Sesame Street" is currently midway through production of its 41st season, and one recent afternoon was shooting a scene on a rare rainy day. In Studio J, the diminutive Muppets Elmo and Rosita are having a problem sharing an umbrella with Big Bird.

"You can't fit under the umbrella if I'm holding it," Rosita worries.

"Oh, sure I can," says Big Bird. "I'll just make myself short." And down Spinney sinks into a Big Bird crouch. Good knees!

With no sign of slowing down, Spinney says he aims to keep at it as Big Bird and Oscar.

"I still have the job, and I have contracts for the future in hand," he says with a smile, "and I'm delighted."

After 40 years and counting (plus spelling and other explorations), on "Sesame Street" everything's A-OK.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: ‘Sesame Street’ celebrates 40 years

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘Sesame Street’ celebrates 40 years

    >>> for 40 years, " sesame street " has entertained and educated children around the world, and i recently found my way to " sesame street " to find out what makes it so special. * sunny day, sweeping the clouds away *

    >> reporter: when it premiered in 1969 , it was a revolutionary way to learn. * can you tell me how to get, how to get to sesame street *

    >> reporter: 40 years later, " sesame street " is still welcoming the world.

    >> hi, leila --

    >> leila's taking elmo to play chess!

    >> have fun.

    >> reporter: the street has come together to celebrate the happy times .

    >> friends, we'd like you to meet our little baby.

    >> reporter: and cope with the sad times.

    >> big bird , when people die, they don't come back.

    >> ever?

    >> big bird ?

    >> reporter: " sesame street " was the idea of joan gants cooney. it combined warm and fuzzy characters created by jim henson . in 1969 , nobody thought " sesame street " would be a success.

    >> they didn't have a clubhouse. it wasn't ooky-gooky sweet. everyone thought it's a 13-week job, you know, it's pbs.

    >> we have so many friends here and we have a really good time and we learn how to cooperate. do you like to cooperate?

    >> um --

    >> are you good at it?

    >> well, do you see --

    >> you're hesitating.

    >> do you know the people i work with?

    >> maybe you don't like to cooperate.

    >> reporter: it's taught three generations of children not only the basics of learning, but also about empathy, tolerance and inclusiveness.

    >> diversity and inclusion were a big part of what the '60s were about. it's not like we're consciously or obviously preaching diversity. it just happens to be that we include everyone on the show. everyone is a part of the neighborhood.

    >> i'm going to be wandering around sesame street . what are the most important things i should look for?

    >> well, if you're wandering around, you should look for the signs, okay, so you do not get lost. don't want you to get lost, meredith .

    >> reporter: humans may live on sesame street , but it's the furry monsters who are cultural icons.

    >> we don't create characters to play down the children. elmo has a young voice, but i don't think of him as a 3 1/2-year-old. i think of him in certain ways as a comedian. * this is a song about elmo , who likes to play and yelmo *

    >> yelmo! elmo likes to learn spanish, too.

    >> can you say anything in spanish?

    >> yes.

    >> what's that?

    >> come close to elmo . see, it means kiss!

    >> oh.

    >> reporter: the educational focus changes every season. this year, young viewers learn all about nature.

    >> oh, oh, oh, wow!

    >> jessica!

    >> reporter: a-list celebrities often stop by. even the first lady finds time for a visit.

    >> are you part bird?

    >> no, big bird , i'm not.

    >> " sesame street " has lasted 40 years because?

    >> because of humanity. * this is my tab hat, this street is my home *

    >> reporter: while much has changed in 40 years, the people and creatures on " sesame street " endure, as teachers and friends who encourage children to think, dream and discover. * sesame street is my home *

    >> and " sesame street " is produced by the non-profit sesame workshop , and the photos we just saw are from the new

    a celebration: 40 years of life on the street," and that includes a dvd of the very first episode. and here to help us celebrate are elmo , cookie monster and abby cadabby !

    >> yay!

    >> hey, folks. happy anniversary .

    >> congratulations!

    >> elmo big 40.

    >> yeah, you are.

    >> yeah.

    >> elmo , i've got to tell you, when you kissed me on that tape, ann gave me kind of a look, you know?

    >> yeah. well, it wasn't a bad look. i know you're an equal opportunity kisser.

    >> elmo is.

    >> yeah, i know. that's good. we'll kiss later.

    >> are you excited, cookie monster , about learning about nature this year?

    >> oh, yeah. me love learning about nature, yeah.

    >> yeah?

    >> yeah. me love to walk around in me backyard and, you know, find interesting things --

    >> to eat?

    >> of course, to eat, yeah. i didn't want to say that, but --

    >> abby, how is fairy school going?

    >> oh, boy. i'm telling you, i am learning so much, mostly how to take care of our gerbil corn. yeah, we have a class pet.

    >> oh.

    >> it's very exciting.

    >> that is very exciting.

    >> terrific.

    >> meantime, you had the first lady visit and you had meredith visit. how was meredith ?

    >> meredith is sweet. we had a little talk on the steps.

    >> you did.

    >> yeah, yeah.

    >> well, you were trying to get me, as we saw, to cooperate more with my co-host. i have a little trouble with that.

    >> zoe was.

    >> i have a little bit of an attitude.

    >> you helped her, that's good. you helped us all to cooperate.

    >> elmo , what's the matter?

    >> elmo loves this 40.

    >> you love the 40?

    >> you like the big 40 --

    >> can't believe we can count this high, yeah.

    >> can you believe that " sesame street " has been around, elmo , for 40 years?

    >> isn't that really cool? i mean, elmo --

    >> it's very cool.

    >> -- elmo 's mommy and daddy came in 3 1/2 years ago --

    >> you don't want to eat that.

    >> what are you trying to do, cookie?

    >> it looked delicious.

    >> cookie monster , you're supposed to be eaty healthy, but we actually have something for you guys.

    >> we thought we smelled something delicious.

    >> how about this, cookie monster ? sesame street turns 40.

    >> now, this 40 you could eat.

    >> yes.

    >> if you wanted to.

    >> that's cool.

    >> me could go for cake, yeah.

    >> that's so cool. thank you!

    >> we're going to cut this up in a second. what do you guys have planned for the next 40 years?

    >> um -- well, we hope that we get to sing and dance and love each other as much as we've been loving each other for 40 years.

    >> oh, we hope so, too.

    >> can i come back and bring my friends, elmo ?

    >> oh, yeah, you can bring everybody.

    >> all right. thank you guys. cookie monster , elmo , abby cadab cadabby, thank you so much.

    >> congratulations.

    >> 40th season begins next tuesday on november 10th on pbs, stations everywhere.

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