Television: Who's Afraid of Big, Bad TV?

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Though Sesame Street's studio is modest­an old movie theater on Manhattan's upper Broadway­the budget is an impressive $28,000 per show. Yet because of its wide popularity, the switched-on school reaches its audience at a cost of about a penny per child; "a bargain," says Dr. Benjamin Spock, "if I ever saw one."

The reasons for its popularity can be traced to the opening days of casting. Television puppeteers of genius can be counted on the fingers of Ernie's hand: Burr Tillstrom, who has his own NET series, Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Bil Baird, who operates a puppet theater in Greenwich Village and Jim Henson of Sesame Street. Fusing the best of puppets and marionettes, Henson coined the name and the creature, "Muppet." For six years, Henson's Muppets enjoyed a quiet, loyal following (including Joan Cooney) before they hit the big time on the Ed Sullivan Show. On the Street where they now live, the Muppets no longer do guest shots. Operated by Henson and Associate Wizard Frank Oz, they eclipse the "real" actors. Big Bird, in fact, gets more fan mail than any of the human hosts.

No actor could be found with the proper mix of informality and authority to fill the role of Gordon, a black schoolteacher. The staff wanted someone like Matt Robinson, one of the show's producers, so Matt auditioned and won the part. He toned down his network accent, came on strong as the father figure many kids miss. So strong, in fact, that it emphasized the sweetness of Loretta Long, who plays his wife. She has been compared to a candy cordial, chocolate outside, syrup within. The rest of the cast is white: Bob McGrath, a singer with irrepressibly high spirits and voice; and Will Lee, an actor whose years on the McCarthy era blacklist made him perhaps more aware of deprivation. "I was delighted to take the role of Mr. Hooper, the gruff grocer with the warm heart," recalls Lee. "It's a big part, and it allows a lot of latitude. But the show has something extra­that sense you sometimes get from great theater, the feeling that its influence never stops."

The show's repeated numbers, its A-is-for-Ape approach, could make it only an electronic classroom, hammering data across. But there is something more: a Lewis Carroll-like humor, the cleansing sense of the absurd.

In its first series, Sesame Street used two clowns, Buddy and Jim, to illustrate problem solving. They were a walking Polish joke, one lifting and turning the other to screw in a light bulb, refusing a nail because it was turned the wrong way. In its new series, Big Bird helps Susan set the table­by putting the saucers on top of the cups. No child in the world would make that mistake­but every child delights in its ludicrousness.

Puppets who make soup of chocolate and spinach; creatures who ask for a ukulele to be mended and then eat the Instrument; a nose, like the one in Gogol's short story, that assumes a personality and speech when detached from a face­these are the touchstones of enchantment that reach far beyond ghettos.

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