It was one of the most tumultuous summers in American history, with Vietnam, the moon landing, Chappaquiddick, the Manson murders and Woodstock inducing a kind of national whiplash. But in the fall after that summer of 1969, Sesame Street came into American homes, bringing with it an innocent joy—a sunny day, sweeping the clouds away.
Sesame Street was a one-hour experiment in educating children through television, and from the very start it looked and sounded like nothing that came before it: It was racially diverse; it mixed live actors with puppets; it was recorded in a studio but also had filmed remote segments, and everything was done with domestic warmth and slapstick humor and a kindness devoid of treacle. The 8’2” canary and trench-coated frog were offset by a misanthropic green monster living in a trash can. Oscar the Grouch worked the room like an insult comic.
The show immediately set a new standard for children’s entertainment and for entertainment more broadly, appealing to children and their parents, the poor and the middle class, rural and urban alike. No other program has won as many Emmys as Sesame Street—189 and counting as of 2019—and no television ensemble has remained together longer. Fifty years into their run, the stars of Sesame Street are instantly recognizable by people of almost any age, virtually anywhere in the world. And in most of the 150 countries where some version of the show airs, the children there think that the show they’re watching is exclusively their own.
In its most revolutionary achievement, Sesame Street has used television to educate children, and also to befriend them, without the ulterior motive of selling them cereal or plush toys. Yet it does emulate the tropes of Madison Avenue commercials, and there are plush toys, so many plush toys—and thank goodness, because all those licensed commercial products help support the nonprofit Sesame Workshop.
After six months on the air, Sesame Street had received 5,000 letters from children and parents, many asking questions of their Muppet heroes, who had become living creatures to the audience, household names and household faces in every conceivable kind of American household. After only 10 years on the air, the Children’s Television Workshop was annually receiving hundreds of security blankets in the mail from their viewers. Thanks to Sesame Street, many children no longer needed them.
When Sesame Street began in 1969, there was just one network television show devoted to children: Captain Kangaroo. Fifty years later there are entire networks devoted to 24-hour children’s programming. All of this was brought to you by Sesame Street.
—from Steve Rushin’s introduction to LIFE’s new special issue on Sesame Street, which is available here.
Below are a selection of images from the tribute that demonstrate both the international influence and enduring affection enjoyed by these sweet and seemingly simple characters.