It all started with a small group of lovable Muppets like Big Bird and Grover and Cookie Monster, and a simple ABCs and 123s mission: to help all children grow smarter, stronger and kinder.
Fifty years later, “Sesame Street” is perhaps the best-known children’s program in the world, an entertainment empire with universal name recognition and powerful merchandising clout that airs in 150 countries. And now, it’s coming to Seattle. As the Sesame Street Road Trip pulls into town July 26-27, the show’s producers will be gathering film for a special to air on HBO in November.
That’s just part of planned activities for this stop on the show’s summer tour of major U.S. cities to celebrate the anniversary. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization that makes “Sesame Street,” also will be highlighting its Sesame Street in Communities program. Muppet Abby Cadabby and her human friend Nina from the show will stop at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Friday, July 26, as part of Sesame Workshop’s work with military families, for instance.
The Sesame Street in Communities campaign — which is separate from the PBS show — tackles issues such as foster care, family homelessness, parental incarceration and others that are challenging to families. It offers educators, social workers and parents bilingual multimedia tools with resources that teach early math and literacy skills, encourage healthy habits and deal with challenging issues.
“It’s for grownups and children together, and understanding that hard topic from the child’s perspective,” said Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop. “We’re using the same approach we use in our (TV) programming, but now we’re using it a little more intensely and a little more targeted.”
The visit to Lewis-McChord and Madigan Army Medical Center is part of the Workshop’s Sesame Street for Military Families effort. The program is in its 13th year and focuses on the special challenges that armed forces families face. Abby and Nina will share stories with kids and families at the base during their visit.
“We’ve done everything from deployment to homecoming to the difficult topics such as visible and invisible injuries, grief when a parent doesn’t come home, but also other things like relocation, adapting to that, maintaining healthy habits,” Betancourt said. “And then most recently we’ve done transitioning back to civilian life.”
Sesame Street in Communities developed a second team of Muppets for these programs. They’re different than the characters most of us grew up with. Unlike Bert and Ernie or Oscar the Grouch, these Muppets are meant to represent children who are going through difficulties.
“We teach a lot about empathy and understanding differences,” Betancourt said.
Lily is experiencing family homelessness. Alex’s dad went to prison. Karli is in foster care. Julia, a character who has crossed over into the television show, is autistic.
“We also start to look at how do we frame a wonderful new character delivering the child’s perspective,” Betancourt said. “So we try to do two things with our Muppet, bring awareness to a topic … (and) we’re also bringing it up as an awareness for all the people who are around that child to be able to help them support and understand that child’s perspective.”
Abby, the 4-year-old Muppet fairy introduced to “Sesame Street” in 2006, is also hosting a family festival and stage show at Lincoln Park on Saturday that includes a giant maze, treasure dig, photo opportunities and a cookies-and-milk snack station. That event appears to be sold out.
And there’s a chance you might catch a glimpse of a Muppet here and there around town this week as producers capture characters at some of Seattle’s most famous landmarks for the HBO special and for social media.