Sesame at 25 Street Show turns a corner to new places, new faces, the future

November 21, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Children's Television Workshop and A. C. NielsenTelevision Critic

Television Critic "Sesame Street," the most successful show in the history of kids' television, turns 25 tomorrow with the start of its new season.

But don't look for any nostalgic retrospective or self-congratulatory gala. PBS and the producers and stars of the show want to focus on the future.

They say tomorrow is one of the biggest days in the history of "Sesame Street" not because of where Big Bird, Oscar, Maria and the rest of the gang have been, but rather because of where they are going.

Tomorrow, with a little help from such friends as Hillary Rodham Clinton, they are going to venture off Sesame Street for the first time ever and go around the corner to a new place called simply "Around the Corner."

It's a new block of shops, studios, a hotel, day-care center, park and playground, which connects to Sesame Street at the site of Big Bird's nest and which will more than double the geography of "Sesame Street" overnight. It's the home of an entire cast of new human and Muppet characters, ranging from Ruth Buzzi as the owner of a thrift shop to the Squirrelles, a Muppet Motown singing group. In all, nine new human characters and another nine new Muppets will arrive.

Most of all, the producers say, Around the Corner represents their commitment to change and to making "Sesame Street" as relevant for children today and tomorrow as it has been for the past 25 years.

"Twenty-five years is a long time, and the world now is a very different place than when we premiered in 1969," says Jennifer Lawson, the head of programming for PBS.

"And we felt, at this milestone, that it was time to . . . prepare for the challenges of the next 25 years, which is what led us to this fairly enormous set of changes known collectively as Around the Corner.

"All of it is designed to offer opportunities for us to address new issues."

"This means that for the first time in 25 years Susan and Gordon, Big Bird and Elmo, myself and Luis and Gina will have places to go and hang out other than the stoop of 123 Sesame Street," says Sonia Manzano, a staff writer who plays Maria on the show.

"Not only will we have other places to go, but we will meet other people there. We're going to have new families Around the Corner.

"Some of our regular cast members and some of the puppets will also have new relatives who live around the corner. And all of this will give us the chance to explore family issues in new ways."

Dr. Valeria Lovelace, vice president and director of research for the show, says those family issues will include: "the presence of a new baby, relatives visiting and going to the doctor."

"We want to show the family as a socializing agent, the most important part of a child's life," says Dr. Lovelace, who holds a Ph.D. in social psychology.

"We can use new families and extended family units on Around the Corner as starting points for talking about the positive relationship families can have to children's success at school," she adds.

Manzano says one of the most important new places Around the Corner will be the day-care center -- a bridge between family and school for many children. The center is run by a new character, Angela (Angel Jemmott), who is Gordon's cousin. Angela's husband, Jamal (Jou Jou Papailler), will be the ranger in the new park. The couple has a 6-month old baby, Kayla.

"I think the major change in 25 years is that when Sesame Street first started, most kids were home watching television with their parents. And now most kids, most American children, are going to be in day-care," Manzano says.

Day-care reality

"Now we'll be able to deal with the problems that those kids LTC might be having because we have an actual day-care on Sesame Street. We'll be able to deal with things like, 'Yes, your mother will come back.' Or, 'Yes, your mother has to go to work.' Things like that.

"Just going through the little routines that a child will go through in nursery school and day-care will be helpful, because most American children are now going to be watching 'Sesame Street' in a group, not individually."

Around the Corner includes other elements that are a direct response to changes in American life, the producers say. For example, eight of the nine new Muppets are female, and that's no coincidence.

"In terms of actors in the cast, women have always been equally represented," says executive producer Michael Loman. "But in terms of Muppets, we have been criticized in the past for not having enough female Muppets on the show, and I think that's an accurate criticism. This specifically seeks to address that."

Manzano explains the lack of balance by saying, "Most of the successful male puppets have compulsions, like Cookie Monster always has to eat cookies. And that's funny, that's acceptable in the male.

"But as soon as you show a female monster that has to eat all

the time, we would get tons of letters saying, 'Why are you showing a female that's overly concerned with food?'

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