Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Songs in the Key of Childhood

Q Is for Quarantine

When N’s daycare was shut down, I was plunged into the role of full-time work-from-home dad, responsible for the safety and enrichment of a one-and-a-half-year-old girl who was just beginning to walk and babble, blissfully unaware of viruses and politics and the concept of time. For N, there was no yesterday, today, or tomorrow, no best-laid plans, only the vast, enthralling Sea of Perception, where we drifted together from the moment her mother, a health care worker, left the house after breakfast until the moment her mother returned just before dinner, the outline of an N95 mask still impressed upon her face.

This was back when it seemed equally plausible that the world was ending and that we would flatten the curve in six weeks. The official word from the college where I taught was that we would be back on campus after spring break, so I passed the official word on to my students and convinced myself that I should enjoy some precious time with N while capitalism was on pause. 

I pushed her in our backyard swing. I pulled weeds while she followed me with a toy bucket. I pushed her in a toy car around the neighborhood, which felt like an empty movie set, the skies above the nearby airport devoid of planes. I pulled her around town in a bike trailer, BART trains wailing past overhead, empty car after empty car. I pushed her in a stroller until she fell asleep and at last I could read student work or, more often, doomscroll on Twitter, wondering if we’d brought a child into a collapsing world.

To keep N amused, I would try anything, as long as it didn’t involve turning on a screen. We’d managed to shield her from television for the first sixteen months of her life, and I resolved to keep protecting her from the ads and anxieties that would dominate her vision soon enough. 

By the end of day three of sheltering in place with a toddler, worn-out and desperate, I revised my parenting philosophy to embrace “developmentally appropriate educational television” in hopes that something, anything, on PBS would hold her attention long enough for me to plan for a Zoom class or, better yet, close my eyes and breathe. We nestled into the couch and fished the remote from between the cushions. An oasis from my own childhood was streaming on demand: “Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away…”

N was entranced. And… so was I? I remembered Sesame Street as a low-fi grab bag of skits on Oregon Public Broadcasting in the 1980s, the show my parents put on before and after school. The zany music resonated long after the TV was off, jangly tunes that stuck like glue until bedtime—and often until the next episode. Lyrics so elementary as to be elemental. I couldn’t tell you when exactly I outgrew the show and stopped watching it, only that I somehow absorbed everything I saw and heard along the way.

Three decades later, here was essentially the same program, now in its fiftieth season, in stunning HD with music that sounded like it could be on the radio. You could see individual strands of fur on the Muppets, who seemed to have time-traveled from my own childhood in the internet-free ’80s to the social media–infused pandemonium of spring 2020. 

The first episode N and I watched together was about body parts. A Muppet named Zoe shows her friends the ballet dance she’s been practicing. Zoe leaps here and there across a courtyard, impressing all who see her. When her grand finale comes, Zoe slips on a banana peel, shatters her arm, and writhes on the street in Muppet agony. 

N stared wide-eyed at the screen, absorbing Zoe’s pain like an empath, then burst into tears. I turned off the TV, grateful she didn’t have the language to tell her mother what I’d just shown her.

The next afternoon, exhausted enough to give TV another shot, I fast-forwarded through Zoe’s compound fracture to the scene where she returns to the courtyard with a fresh cast on her arm. I observed cautiously from across the room as N watched Zoe’s friends Elmo and the fairy Abby Cadabby do their best to make her feel included, adapting the lyrics to “If You’re Happy and You Know It” so everyone shouts “Wahoo!” instead of clapping their hands. N beamed with recognition; I sighed with relief. 

Maybe I was just desperate for something positive amid the breaking news updates and COVID task force press conferences, but it felt like a sign: this was one of the only songs N knew, and here it was on the television, a connection to the outside world at a time when the outside world was closed.

Day by day, we inched our way through the Sesame Street catalog. On Sesame Street, the “number of the day” was six. Off Sesame Street,the number of the day was the number of COVID-19 dead. March 16: 23. March 23: 121. March 30: 650. The nightly news anchors broadcasted from their living rooms, introducing clips of empty airports, deserted cityscapes, and hospitals brimming with patients on respirators. Our local playground was wrapped in yellow police tape to keep kids from trying to use the equipment. The ducks at the park grew ravenous with no one to feed them bread crumbs. 

I was grateful that N was small enough for me to carry her from point A to point B most of the time, that she had not yet turned two—mask-wearing age—that her first memories had likely not yet begun to crystalize, that I wouldn’t have to explain to her this mayhem that I could barely explain to myself. I’d had enough doubts about my parenting before the pandemic. Now I was afraid we were living in a world I couldn’t even describe to my child. 

By the time I’d finished pulling all the weeds in the backyard, N was walking well enough to help me. By the time we’d planted tomatoes, she could say tomato. By the time we’d finished a full season of Sesame Street,she knew Elmo and Abby by name and her ears perked up when she heard the theme song. 

One night after N went to sleep, my wife and I turned on CNN and saw Elmo talking to Dr. Sanjay Gupta. 

“Elmo’s seen lots of people wearing masks outside, but it’s not Halloween,” says Elmo. “So why are people wearing costumes?” 

“Well, those aren’t costumes, Elmo…,” says Dr. Gupta.

I Is for Influence

“It used to be said that there were three great influences on a child: home, school and church,” said Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow in a 1961 address to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC. “Today, there is a fourth great influence, and you, ladies and gentlemen, control it…. There are some fine children’s shows, but they are drowned out in the massive doses of cartoons, violence and more violence.”

The decade to come would be shaped by the television images beaming into more than fifty million living rooms across the country: napalm strikes, NASA missions, body bags, protest marches, assassinations, and an endless parade of commercials and propaganda meant to distinguish the free world from the communist threat. Children’s programming was a vehicle for advertising breakfast cereals, cigarettes, and toy guns. Kids woke up before their parents and sat in wait in front of the TV set before the broadcast day had even begun. 

“They’re singing commercials all over the country,” said Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV executive at Channel Thirteen in New York, recalling those days to TV Guide editor Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.“Why can’t you teach them something else?”

It was Cooney who assembled a group of friends to brainstorm ways to harness this obsession for educational purposes: not the commercial-laden schtick of Captain Kangaroo or Howdy Doody, nor the droning classroom lectures that typified public educational television, but a vivid, memorable, mentally and emotionally enriching show for children, especially the millions of Black and brown children living below the poverty line in cities that had been rocked by civil discontent. 

Over the summer of 1966, Cooney toured the country, speaking to academics, teachers, and parents about the possibilities of a new approach to children’s programming. 

“Until recently, it appears, far from considering the ‘whole child,’ educators were virtually ignoring the intellect of preschool children,” she wrote in her groundbreaking fifty-six-page report, The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education. “Indeed, we may have been performing a tragic disservice to young children by not sooner recognizing that their emotional, physical and intellectual needs are doubtless interdependent from infancy on.” 

Cooney called her crack team of educators and creatives the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), and they hired two psychologists from Harvard, Edward Palmer and Gerald Lesser, to help them unlock the educational potential of television.

In the year to come, Palmer devised an experiment. Visiting low-income children in day care centers, and later in controlled laboratory settings, he would set up a television alongside a screen on which he projected an assortment of slides—of kids playing, Escher drawings, tall buildings, leaves rippling through water—to see which images drew their attention away from the TV screen and which TV programs kept their eyes from drifting to the cycle of pictures. 

“By changing the slide every seven and one-half seconds and observing whether the eye movements of the youngsters were on the screen or on the tube, Palmer developed an attention profile of each episode that resembled nothing so much as the chart of stock-market prices in a highly unstable economy,” recalled public radio broadcaster James Day.

The so-called Distractor Method showed that children could focus their attention, and retain information, best in thirty-to-sixty-second intervals, roughly the same length as the commercials they were inundated with on television.

In response, the Children’s Television Workshop embraced quick, stand-alone, music-inflected segments, turning the visual language of capitalism into a quasi-socialist tool for the public good. Underscoring every segment was the secret weapon that advertisers had known about since the advent of radio, the jingle: “Oh, I’d love to be an Oscar Mayer Weiner”; “Rice-a-Roni: The San Francisco Treat!”; “Things go better with Coke!”

Through the power of jingles, the show would help children with the rote memorization skills they needed for their first days in school: identifying the ABCs by sight and sound and counting to twenty. But to hold kids’ attention, the songs would need to echo the sounds and sensibilities of a world in flux.

“Music was relevant to the whole period,” Cooney recalled. “We can’t get the inner-city kids if we can’t reflect what’s going on.”

Executive producer Jon Stone—a writer for Captain Kangaroo whom Cooney lured to the Children’s Television Workshop in 1969—envisioned a show that could entice parents to watch along with their kids. He knew that his friend Jim Henson occasionally brought his zany puppets to The Ed Sullivan Show, cracking up adults and children alike. Henson had already earned a small fortune making commercials with his characters, selling everything from coffee to hot dogs. Stone convinced Henson to join the experiment, and to bring his Muppet creatures along.

Henson’s innovation was simple but revolutionary: Instead of having puppets on a stage, use the television as the stage. By stripping away the framing, you could let puppets and people share the same reality—and swim in the same emotional depths. 

But what reality would they share? One evening, Stone caught a public service announcement decrying the unequal conditions in US schools. The clip showed scenes from Harlem: gushing fire hydrants instead of pools, kids playing stickball in the street instead of on a field, crowded tenement bunks instead of sleeping bags at summer camp. “You don’t want your kids to play here this summer?” a voiceover scolded. “Then don’t expect ours to.”

The Muppets didn’t need a stage—they needed a street. Years later, Stone recalled the revelation in his memoir: “For a preschool child in Harlem, the street is where the action is.”

And the streets of 1969 had a sound.

M Is for Melody

The Sesame Street songbook was born from the sonic imagination of Joe Raposo, the prodigal son of a prodigious Brazilian Portuguese violinist who immigrated to chilly Fall River, Massachusetts at the end of the Great War with $1.50 in his pocket, still wearing the sandals he’d worn on the island of São Miguel. 

Joe’s father knew hunger, and he knew that a man who could play an instrument could always put food on the table, which is why he sat his son at the piano bench as soon as he was old enough to reach the keys, teaching him how to keep his back straight, how to let his elbows and arms fall freely from his shoulders, how to round his hands and stretch his fingers. When Joe wasn’t learning how to play, he was learning how to listen: Cole Porter, George Gersh-
win, Harold Arlen, and Richard Rodgers spun on the phonograph in their duplex, across the street from St. Vincent’s Church. His father showed him how notes on a sheet became notes in the air, how notes in the air became melody, how melody became song. By the time little Joe was seven, he could play elemental Bach, the fundamentals of classical resonating in his bones: simple, slow, beautiful.

The Raposos wouldn’t dare send their only child to a public school, where a Portuguese boy was sure to get bullied—not when there was a perfectly good parish school at the St. Vincent’s Orphan’s Home across the street. On his first day of class, Joe arrived carrying a gift from his father: a handmade cardboard briefcase, his initials, J.R., etched on a flap. The orphan boys didn’t know what to make of a curly-haired kid with a briefcase, so they tore it from his hands and tossed it into the mud, where it quickly turned to mush.  At the end of each school day, Joe’s classmates returned to the orphanage. Joe went back across the street to his practice room.

“He was a lonely kid,” Joe’s son Nick tells me almost seventy years later.

By age five he was teaching piano to his father’s youngest violin students. By age eleven he was sitting behind the organ at midnight Mass. By the time he was a teenager, Joe played the organ at the Santo Christo Parish on Columbia Street, one of the largest Catholic congregations in Fall River. He played at Lebanese weddings, at bat mitzvahs at the Hebrew school, at Irish jig night at the Holy Rosary Band Society. No matter where Joe went, if there was a piano in the room, there was a place he could settle in and light up people’s faces. Cardinal Medeiros—a longtime friend of his father’s—felt he had the potential to study at Harvard and offered to make some calls.

In the Fall of 1953, Joe Raposo from Fall River took up residence at Harvard in a suite with a grand piano. At his first college party, Joe didn’t have to talk and reveal his southern Mass. accent. He didn’t have to pretend he knew the names people were dropping. He didn’t have to do anything but tickle the keys and sing.

With a cigarette hanging from his mouth and an assumed name, Joe passed as an upperclassman and soon began composing original songs for performances at the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, eventually becoming the conductor and music director. He trudged to class after long nights at Boston-area piano bars, playing until his fingers bled. At the Storyville jazz club in Cambridge, he played with Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday—and once warmed up Duke Ellington’s band. Between classes and shows, he kept up his work-study scholarship by cleaning bathrooms, scrubbing the toilets his friends used. 

Joe nearly flunked out of Harvard, but his professors could not resist his promise, steeping him in theory and ethnomusicology before securing him a summer scholarship at the American Conservatory at the Fontainebleau School of Music, in France, where he impressed the legendary piano teacher Nadia Boulanger, the mentor of luminary composers like Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, and George Gershwin. At the edge of the ancient Forest of Fontainebleau, Joe practiced solfège and keyboard harmony, memorizing cadence sheets in all keys. He drilled himself in counterpoint, splitting a single cantus six ways: three with the bass, three with the soprano. He learned to reverse his hands, harmonizing with a minor seventh chord on each degree. He learned to listen. Listen. What do you hear? No. Stop. What do you hear

Not long after graduation from Harvard, he got hitched to Sue Nordlund—an Irish girl he’d fallen for, to the chagrin of his parents—a girl who liked all the same stuff he did: music, shows, and art museums. They were going to have a big life together. He could see it when he closed his eyes. And when he opened his eyes, it was true: Joe and Sue were on the open sea, in steerage on the Queen Mary on their way to France, where Mademoiselle Boulanger had beckoned him to study composing in the city of lights. 

Mademoiselle Boulanger was a deadly serious woman, prone to migraines and toothaches. For her, time without pain or distraction was precious. “Anyone who acts without paying attention to what he is doing is wasting his life,” she once said.

For the Mademoiselle, faith was the difference between a good composition and a masterpiece—and Joe Raposo had the gift of faith. For two years Joe sat at the piano bench in her Paris flat while the Mademoiselle, by then in her seventies and going blind, sat beside him, listening, listening, calling out key shifts as he played, listening, listening, a minor mistake there, a semitone change there, another mistake, and there, there,the expression, F minor, the second voice, E… F… G… the essence, there it was, the inner voice. 

She introduced Joe and Sue to her circle of friends—composers, writers, painters, winemakers—the war-torn menagerie of literary Paris in the 1950s. Blackout nights that ended under the sheets in their rented apartment, on the second floor of a bombed-out building overlooking the city, waking up before dawn, bleary-eyed, to ink out the day’s assignments on movable clefs. When he left Paris for the United States, his heart set on Broadway, the Mademoiselle warned him it was a waste of his talents that would lead to an early death.

“You’ll end up like Gershwin!”

By the frigid winter of 1965, Joe and Sue were back in Boston, new parents to a baby boy, Joe Jr., making ends meet in an apartment in Somerville, Joe working three jobs at a time to bring home maybe $250 on a good week. Looking for work, he would list his title as “Conductor” and get offers to drive cars on the T. When friends visited, they would cram into the living room, which brimmed with records, art books, and sheet music, and play late into the night, falling asleep under the piano as Joe played, freshening his drink between sets. 

They finally made the leap to New York City that summer. “He was carnivorous, alcoholic, anecdotal, hyperbolic, ambitious,” radio host Jonathan Schwartz writes of Raposo in his memoir, All in Good Time. “He played the piano in a popular mode as well as anyone I had ever heard.” Joe found steady work as a session musician, and on the strength of his improvisational skills he joined the NBC house band, playing occasional nights on The Ed Sullivan Show,where he first collaborated with Jim Henson, accompanying the bohemian-looking fellow and his Muppets. In the janitor’s closet offstage where the side acts warmed up, out of range of the boom mics, Joe and Jim bonded over music and promised to work together again.

Word was getting around that Joe could compose a score to anything. He got a call from his old Harvard classmate Jon Stone, who thought he’d be perfect as the musical director of a show he was producing for kids, 123 Street or Open Sesame or something. They hadn’t finalized the name yet, but that didn’t matter—they needed music.

At first the producers wanted Joe to imitate radio music—“The Twist,” that sort of tune—but Joe figured the show needed its own sound, its own band. He’d play the piano. His friend Danny Epstein could do anything on percussion. They just needed guitar, bass, horns, and reeds. The show required a lot of songs, and Joe would get to keep all the rights. He ate in the studio. He slept in the studio. He wrote lyrics in the back of taxicabs, on the subway, at the park with Joe Jr. and his new baby, Nico.

For the initial theme song, Epstein brought on Toots Thielemans to blow the harmonica alongside a pack of little kids called the Wee Willie Winter Singers. Like all the best musicians in the city, the children worked by the hour. Joe wrote out the entire arrangement on a single lead sheet, ran off seven copies, and passed it out to the band with a reminder: “Don’t quit your day jobs. This is an experiment.” 

B Is for Bubble

By May, N seemed to be gaining awareness of a world beyond our household, a world full of people, people we took care to avoid. From our window she watched the two little girls who lived across the street laughing in a giant basket swing that hung from a sycamore tree, sisters fortunate to have each other at a time when so many children had to play alone.

N was still too shy to wave at the girls, but day by day she became transfixed by their games, especially when those neighbors formed a bubble with another family of four the next block over, a bubble that expanded to include the two boys next door to us, until our street was raucous with kids romping in the lengthening sunsets, playing hopscotch and splashing in a kiddie pool while their parents drank hard seltzer in lawn chairs, urging us to come on over.

Maybe next time? N and I had our own bubble on Sesame Street, where Elmo blew soap bubbles into the camera at the beginning of every episode, where nobody crossed the street to avoid neighbors, where there were no daily case counts or presidential polls, where adults did their jobs and told the truth. When the TV was off, N had no friends but me, no brother or sister, no Hooper’s Store or stoop full of elders, but when the TV was on, she had Elmo’s World, la la la la, la la la, Elmo’s World, every day something to discover, some question to ask Smartie the smartphone, some sight gag to watch while I checked the COVID stats on my own smartphone, wondering whether I was damaging my little girl by sheltering her from other kids.

Maybe I was projecting my own desire to escape the panopticon of Zoom, to commiserate with other grown-ups about Trump and Dr. Fauci and life without sports, to feel less alone amid the exhaustion and uncertainty of pandemic parenting. Maybe N was perfectly content spending all her days with me, Elmo, and our stinky dogs. Whenever N seemed painfully curious about life beyond our bubble, or whenever she seemed zombified by too much screen time, I would reorient her gaze to a pink bottle of bubble solution, a gift from her beloved tía, whom she hadn’t seen since Christmas. 

Bubbles became the world, erased the world. I blew hundreds of bubbles for N, thousands of bubbles, infinite bubbles, until I was blue in the face, filling the living room with shiny spheres, filling our home with N’s infinite giggles, until I forgot where we were, when we were, until the bottle was empty. 

C Is for Calls

On November 23, 1970, a year after the premier of Sesame Street, Big Bird poked his feathery head through the red-framed cover of Time magazine, introduced by a bright yellow banner: sesame street: TV’s gift to children. 

“As meticulously planned as a semester at medical school,” wrote Stefan Kanfer in a glowing review,
“[Sesame Street] catches the preschooler almost before his society does. Thus [it] is as popular with well-to-do kids as it is with the slum dweller.”

The show’s radical commitment to diversity and inclusion infuriated white conservatives, like the newly formed Mississippi State Commission for Educational Television, which banned the program on the grounds that the state “was not yet ready” for a show with an integrated cast. Mississippi “had enough problems to face up to without adding to them.” As movements for racial justice, women’s rights, and access for people with disabilities challenged traditional power structures, Sesame Street broadcast bilingual songs and soul music, spotlighted working mothers and moms who were breastfeeding, and introduced kids to a child with Down syndrome and a librarian who used American Sign Language.

The first Sesame Street album, from 1970—filled top to bottom with Joe Raposo originals—won a Grammy and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, peaking at number twenty-three on the Billboard charts, surpassing the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson 5, and other hitmakers. When the first royalties rolled in, Raposo irked his collaborators by waving around the eight-thousand-dollar check—more money than he’d seen in his entire life—an ostentatious display unbecoming to the sort of Ivy League men who ran CTW in those days. It was the beginning of a steady stream of residuals that allowed him to move his young family into a terraced Riverside Drive apartment overlooking the Hudson.

During production, Sue Raposo learned to expect the call that Joe wouldn’t be home for dinner with the kids. He routinely worked eighteen hours a day, writing hundreds of original songs and thousands of scored moments each season—clocking in at 130 hours of television per season by 1972. No moment in the show was too small for music, and Joe wanted feeling in every note and beat. When he wrote a song about termites, he wanted the band feeling termites. He ran off copies of the lead sheets in the smallest possible size. Think small!

“He reminded me of Duke Ellington,” said Bobby Crenshaw, a Sesame bass player who used to play with the Duke. “He knew we could play anything he gave us.”

The puppeteers pulled overtime too. Jim Henson obsessively ran the cast through as many as forty takes until the Muppet musicians embodied true stage presence, rocking as hard as a live band. He knew as well as Joe did that it was the music that brought the show to life, helping to make the Muppet characters every bit as real as the humans who interacted with them. The educators behind the scenes meticulously planned the academic content, but it was Raposo who infused the short, jingle-like tunes with life, sonic complexity, and instrumentation from cultures around the world, melodies that could speak to adults and children alike.

That year, Joe got a call from Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, inviting him to bring the Sesame Street band to the White House Christmas concert for what would become an annual tradition. 

Maybe it was all the time Joe had spent looking out the window as a kid. Maybe it was the loneliness of being an only child. Maybe it was sheer musical genius. Whatever it was, he had a gift for imbuing simple concepts—letters, numbers, colors—with rich emotion. When Jon Stone casually asked him to come up with “a song for the frog,” Joe took the directive home, and overnight produced “Bein’ Green.” The simple, soulful tune was recorded during an all-night session with Jim Henson, as Joe stood in front of him in the darkened studio, mouthing the words: 

People tend to pass you over 

’cause you’re not standing out 

like flashy sparkles in the water 

or stars in the sky…

 There was something elemental to the song, the idea that Kermit, so buoyant, so beloved, somehow felt he was on the outside looking in. Raposo had reaped the rewards of a crossover hit once before, when the Carpenters covered “Sing,” but “Bein’ Green” struck an even deeper chord. It was covered by Van Morrison and Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, but the Kermit rendition was the one for the ages. 

The residuals kept rolling in—and Joe’s phone kept ringing off the hook.

Joe Raposo from Fall River had no idea what to do with this kind of money, so he followed the lead of his moneyed friends. His friends had houses in the Catskills; Joe bought a summer camp in the Catskills. His friends didn’t seem to save much money; Joe didn’t save much money. Jim Henson bought himself a custom Kermit-green sports car; Joe went to a dealership to buy a Porsche in Kermit green before settling for a silver convertible. 

In his free time, Joe liked to build models with Joe Jr. and little Nico, but free time was rare. Sue would drop the kids off at the studio or the Sesame Street set to watch their dad work, but the kids often needed to stay quiet for hours at a time during sessions. “We got a ton of attention from my father,” Nick told me. “I just don’t think it was the sort of time that parents think of today. If your father’s a shoemaker, and you spend time with him in his shop, is it quality time?”

It was 1975 when Joe and Sue split.

“My father was working all the time,” Nick said, recalling those early days of Sesame Street’srunaway success. “Then he wants to buy a country house to get away to, but that’s a party house so all of his friends from work can come over and hang out. And then they go back to New York City, and my father’s in the studio basically every day, all day. I don’t think it was the bohemian, struggling lifestyle that my mother had totally accepted as part and parcel of being with him.”

By then Sesame Street had become an essential tour stop for musical stars like Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Cher, and Lena Horne. The show no longer needed to reach out to celebrities—the stars called them. Joe was at the end of his marriage and at the beginning of a new era of fame. He left Sesame Street for Hollywood Boulevard.

In the summer of 1975, Joe Raposo packed his bags and flew out to Palm Springs, settling into the pool house at Frank Sinatra’s place. Joe had written a few songs for Frank’s comeback album, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back,and now “the chairman of the board” wanted to repay the kindness. For a year Joe noodled around the estate, writing songs, shooting pool, and playing old records with Frank, sipping out of highball glasses until they got hungry or bored enough to head into town for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at Lord Fletcher’s, maybe a cocktail in the motorcade on the drive there, plenty more drinks over dinner, maybe a cocktail or two in the motorcade back, sometimes coming home to watch old movies with old friends or business partners, small-time lounge singers, or the girlfriends of small-time lounge singers.

Frank Sinatra Boulevard was a universe away from Sesame Street,but Raposo wanted the Children’s Television Workshop to remember him. Cooney recalls receiving a postcard from Joe that year—an aerial shot of Sinatra’s estate, the pool house circled in blue ink: “my place.” On the back Joe had penned the lyrics of “Bein’ Green” in their entirety, signing off, “Always your band leader.”

“One time,” recalled Christopher Cerf, one of Sesame Street’s most prolific songwriters and a longtime friend of Raposo’s, “I remember getting a call out of the blue from Joe. He said, ‘You’ll never guess where I am—I’m in Frank Sinatra’s limo! He just stepped out of the car and you were the first person I called.’ Well, it turned out he called everyone in his phone book.”

You hear a lot of stories like that from Joe’s oldest friends. The name-dropping. The bottomless ego. Maybe he was insufferable. Maybe he was drunk. Or maybe they just didn’t understand: What was a kid from Fall River doing in Frank Sinatra’s limo? Growing up first-generation Portuguese in Massachusetts in the ’40s and ’50s, Joe was looked down upon. Everywhere he’d gone in his life—Harvard, Paris, New York City—he’d had to sand the edges of his southern Mass. accent to prove himself worthy. Now Joe went fishing with Walter Cronkite; Joe wrote campaign jingles for Jimmy Carter. When Frank introduced Joe to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Nancy asked him to write a tune for her campaign to encourage seniors to become “foster grandparents” to children with special needs.

“One day Joe sat down with me for lunch,” said Cerf, “and he asked, totally serious, ‘What should I do when two of my friends are running for president?’ I told him, ‘Vote your conscience.’”

As the show’s catalog grew, the music was reissued and compiled into Sesame Street Gold!,a double album that became a perennial seller. Joe’s music had become the soundtrack of American childhood—and his life had gotten complicated. There were houses. There were alimony bills. There were boats. There was child support. There were cars. There was private school tuition. Songs went out; royalty checks came in. There were calls from New York. Calls from Hollywood. Calls from Las Vegas. Calls from London. 

Then there was the call to come see the doctor.

M Is for Mama

On May 26, after N finally went down for her nap, I turned off Sesame Street and collapsed on the couch for my afternoon doomscroll. Twitter brimmed with footage of a white police officer with his knee on the neck of a Black man, recorded the day before and posted to Facebook in the early morning hours. No matter how long I could bear to watch, the cop never lifted his knee.

In the weeks to come, while the news showed a burning world on a loop, I showed N new seasons of Sesame Street. In Elmo’s World, the Muppet T-ball team was making a run for the championship. In our world, downtown storefronts were being boarded up. In Elmo’s World, Cookie Monster and his friend Gonger drove their food truck to a bog to learn where “cran-ba-berries” come from. In our world, police around the country imposed strict curfews with rubber bullets and batons. Elmo and Abby started a band. Cars plowed into crowds of protesters. Elmo went camping. The Department of Homeland Security went to Portland, Oregon, to abduct protesters from the street in unmarked vans.

After N’s bedtime, when my wife and I finally had time to sit still, the television paralyzed us with hours of panel discussions about the discussions parents needed to have with their children, about what white children needed to know about this country, about what Black children had always known about this country.

I gave thanks that N didn’t need to know about any of it for now, that it would be years before she would say the names George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner or Michael Brown or Rodney King or Emmett Till, that I still had time to find the right words for these conversations, words that could explain why George Floyd was calling out for his mama, or how in the end, like in the beginning, we are all children.

D Is for Death

By the 1980s, more American families had single heads of household or two working parents than in previous generations, and millions of children spent their after-school hours free of adults, wandering a television landscape fragmented by home videos, Nintendo games, and the kaleidoscope of MTV.

As music videos transformed the look and feel of pop music, Sesame Street stayed true to its aspiration as a show—and a sound—that echoed the world children saw and heard outside their windows, even without Joe, their founding music director. By then, Christopher Cerf had written so many songs for the show that he inspired the Muppet Little Chrissy, a piano rocker known for banging the keys as hard as his namesake. Cerf and his fellow songwriters leaned into the show’s penchant for parody, shooting Muppet music videos complete with the introductory credits characteristic of music television. Bruce Stringbean sang “Barn in USA.” A surly Brit sang “(I Can’t Get No) Co-Operation.” Cookie Monster riffed on Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” in his own hit “Healthy Food.” An insect boy band in suits sang “Hey Food,” drawing a lawsuit from the Beatles’ publisher, Apple Records, which Cerf ultimately settled for fifty dollars. 

Meanwhile, Raposo and Henson were firmly in the orbit of Hollywood. Between his Muppet movies for adults and his work at the Creature Shop, known for producing otherworldly features like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth,Henson was being aggressively courted by Michael Eisner at Disney, who offered nine figures for the rights not only to the Muppets but to the Sesame Street gang. Again and again, Henson refused the overture: He would let go of the Muppets, but the Sesame Street characters were not his to sell. They belonged to children. They needed to be protected.

Henson feared that under the control of a media conglomerate, Sesame Street would lose its eccentricity and freedom. This commitment was put to the ultimate test by the unexpected death of seventy-four-year-old Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, owner of the corner store that anchored Sesame Street.

At first Jon Stone and his fellow producers considered having another character take over the store. Maybe Mr. Hooper had to move away or retire? But lying would go against everything that Sesame Street had come to stand for: teaching kids what they needed to know about the world, including what scared them, what worried them, what broke their hearts.

The episode shot in the wake of Mr. Hooper’s death is one of the most wrenching scenes in television history. After sharing the sad news with the community of kids and Muppets, the adults of Sesame Street take solace at a table in the courtyard, reminiscing about their old friend. Soon Big Bird appears with a surprise: drawings he has made of all his adult friends. Excitedly, Big Bird circles the table, proudly presenting each adult with their portrait. The final portrait is of Mr. Hooper.

Only then does it occur to the adults that Big Bird—written at the developmental age of a six-year-old—doesn’t understand what it means that Mr. Hooper is dead. 

“What do you mean he’s not coming back?” asks Big Bird, played by Caroll Spinney, who manages to imbue the bright yellow bird-child with the unbearable weight of grief. “Who’s going to make my birdseed milkshakes? And tell me stories?”

I remember watching this scene as a child, upset at seeing Big Bird so upset. Yet what makes the scene even more heartbreaking in retrospect is the expressions of the adult actors as they recognize that none of them have the right words to explain that nothing, not even fond memories of Mr. Hooper, can reverse this loss.

“I don’t understand,” says Big Bird. “Everything was just fine. Why does it have to be this way? Give me one good reason.”

“Well,” Gordon answers, “it has to be this way… because.”

“Just because…,” says Big Bird, pondering the notion. The adults hold their collective breath, hoping that, for today, for now, for a six-year-old unacquainted with grief, “just because” is the right answer to keep more questions at bay.

H Is for Hope

Joe returned to New York, remarried to TV talk show host Pat Collins, and recommitted himself to his dream of writing musical theater. Soon after, he felt some lumps, barely noticeable at first, under his arms and around his groin. Collins urged him to see a specialist just to be safe. Together they went to see the doctor.

“When he said it was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, our first question was ‘What does that mean?’” Collins told journalist Michael Davis. “You could immediately read from the doctor’s face that it was not something you want.”

“Pat is pregnant,” Joe told the doctor. “Will I live to see this child graduate high school or college?”

“No, you won’t.

“Will I live to see him be in the first grade?”

“Joe,” the doctor said, “this is a very tough thing.”

In that case, there was only one thing left to do: make music. Joe didn’t want anyone catching the whiff of death on him. In those days, cancer could sink a man’s career. “I do not want to be seen as a patient,” Joe said. “I’m having none of that.”

Joe and Pat told nobody but their business manager, not even the kids. Pat set up an account at a pharmacy near Carnegie Hall, where Joe had an office, so he could fill his prescriptions without raising eyebrows in their Bronxville neighborhood. In the years that followed, Joe worked in secret through swollen nodes and shortness of breath, through night sweats and chest pains, through fatigue that threatened to sap his voice from this throat. He scheduled his chemo appointments in the early morning, on the East Side, before too many people were around. The steroids that helped him stay on his feet also kept him from losing too much weight. If he played his cards right, nobody had to know.

In 1986, he got the call to return to Sesame Street. The show needed to get back to its sound—the Raposo sound—worldly and eccentric, crisp and consistent, as multitudinous as life itself. And Joe needed the show: the laughs, the sense of purpose—the health coverage. He wrote as furiously as ever. Songs about peanut butter. Songs about tree frogs. Songs about the alphabet, sung by Kermit the Frog and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. 

Nobody on the show knew Joe was sick, but as the cancer spread, Henson pulled Pat aside. “There’s something very wrong with Joe,” he said. “You’ve got to tell me what it is.’”

“I love you, Jim, but no, I don’t [have to tell you],” said Pat. “You’re right that he does have some issues, but you’ve got to ask him.”

“I can’t,” Henson said.

“Well, I don’t know, then,” Pat said. “It’s kind of a standoff, isn’t it?”

Friends recall dropping by Joe’s studio at Carnegie Hall in those days to find him at the piano, composing Sesame Street music on a lyric sheet while gabbing on a phone pinched between his shoulder and ear. He had deals to close, songs to finish, friends who needed him. He had mortgages and tuition payments, alimony and chemotherapy bills. But he still had a smile on his face, a hug, a song just for you.

Then one day Joe was too weak to make it to the set. Not even his own kids knew why. How was he supposed to tell his kids what he couldn’t even admit to himself?

Every morning was precious now, every breath. Joe was writing the musical that he thought would be his magnum opus, a stage adaptation of Raggedy Ann, titled Rag Dolly,based on the children’s books by Johnny Gruelle. The music was light but the story was, well… life. A broken home. Abuse. Alcoholism. Even suicide. When the show premiered in Moscow, it marked Russia’s first cultural exchange with the US in more than ten years. The world was broken in half, but music, music could be the bridge. 

“The Soviet people love their children as much as we do ours,” Joe told The New York Times during an interview about Rag Dolly at his Carnegie Hall office. By then he had made it to his goal: seeing his youngest son, Andrew, graduate first grade. “It is a story about life, death and love. And love conquering death.” Even as Joe answered the reporter’s questions, he could not keep his hands off the keys, as if he understood that any chord could be his last. “What are children, anyway, if not hope?”

P Is for Protest 

Within days of George Floyd’s death, protests against police violence gained momentum across the country until even the sleepy outer suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area were boarding up their downtowns. One day, from the backyard, N and I watched police helicopters circle the horizon over nearby Walnut Creek, a small town as white as it sounds, unaccustomed to civil disobedience. I wanted to pack the diaper bag, buckle N into the bike trailer, and see what was going on over there, but instead I turned on Sesame Street,telling myself there was no moral imperative to bring a baby to a protest in the middle of a pandemic. 

That afternoon, while N slept, in a Rose Garden speech at the White House, President Trump anointed himself “your president of law and order,” urging states to “dominate the streets.” Almost on cue, the Walnut Creek Police Department K9 Unit sicced a German shepherd on a young Black man who was part of a group of middle and high school students trying to shut down Interstate 680. The SWAT team fired tear gas at the gaggle of kids, and fourteen-year-old Isaiah Sandoval, with tears streaming down his face, screamed back at them: “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

That night, after bedtime, watching Sandoval on the local news, somehow my heart thumped with hope for the first time since before the pandemic. Somebody had taught Sandoval how to pay attention, how to feel the difference between right and wrong, how to fight the good fight. Even if I didn’t have the words yet, there was a way to teach N to be brave, to stand up for others, to refuse to accept a broken and battered world. 

“Listen to us,” Sandoval had shouted. “We’re the people. You’re supposed to protect us.”

S Is for Sing

On the crisp evening of November 9, 1987—fifteen months before his death from cancer, at the age of fifty-one—Joe Raposo spoke to a packed auditorium at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sharing the stage with Dr. Gerald Lesser, the developmental psychologist who was instrumental to the birth of the Children’s Television Workshop, Joe waxed nostalgic about his leap from St. Vincent’s to the Ivy League, his endless practice sessions with Mademoiselle Boulanger in Paris, and his sunny days on Sesame Street. 

His son Nico was in the audience. Midway through the night, Joe sat down at a grand piano to demonstrate his principles, penciling a new melody for the show right there and then. “Like most people getting to be my age,” he said, slipping on his eyeglasses, “it helps me see the notes.”

The audience leaned in, laughing as Joe spilled his guts. You got the impression he wanted to stay up there forever, talking to these kids, talking to his son out there in the dark auditorium, explaining how he had learned to listen, to play, to sing a song a kid could remember.

Like that one afternoon in 1973 when Joe called his friend Danny Epstein to share a song he was writing. “It goes like this,” Joe had said, crooning into the phone:

Sing, sing a song.

Sing out loud, sing out strong.

Sing of good things, not bad.

Sing of happy, not sad.

Sing, sing a song.
Make it simple to last your whole life long.
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
for anyone else to hear.
Just sing, sing a song.

La la la la la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la la… 

“I don’t think it’s finished,” Epstein said. “Call me back when it’s finished.”

But it was finished. Sometimes la la la la la is all you need. Sometimes you gotta go with the feeling.

Maybe Nick had a feeling that night, watching his old man onstage at Harvard. A feeling he didn’t want to believe.

“I do believe that songs are all stories,” Joe told the auditorium of Harvard kids. “They’re all tales to be told and every song indeed has a message which has to be gotten across to whoever you’re trying to tell the story to, and that story must be told with clarity.”

Easier said than done. Joe couldn’t even be clear with his own boys and little girl, Elizabeth. He wanted to let them in on the secret he’d kept
balled up in his chest for years, like a fist, whenever he sat down at the piano, whenever he fingered out a new tune, whenever he woke up thirsty in the middle of the night. Hey, guys, wake up, I gotta tell you something. I’m not going to be around forever.

Instead he kept smiling, singing, taking in the applause like oxygen.

When friends talk about Joe Raposo, when they remember his last years, they talk about his great big hugs. He’d hug you like a beast who knew nothing of time signatures or grace notes. He’d hug you and he’d squeeze you and he wouldn’t let go for nothing.

“Nick?” Joe called out into the darkness of the auditorium. “Stand up so that everyone can see that Sesame Street kids really do grow up.”

L Is for Listen

There are only two eras of Sesame Street music: before and after Joe Raposo. 

“The thing that revolutionized the Sesame Street sound most was Joe Raposo dying,” said Christopher Cerf. “Joe could write a rock-and-roll song or an operatic aria, and you could still tell it was the same band. That was miraculously brilliant. Nobody else was really able to do it—and eventually nobody aspired to do it.”

People who think Joe Raposo wrote music for kids don’t understand music or kids. Joe was writing music for everyone who ever looked out a window, music about the tidal swell of human emotion, sweet and bitter, funny and sad, major and minor, ragtime and blues. In Joe Raposo’s songbook, everything in sight was worthy of a melody: a duck, a cookie, a cloud. Every emotion could be set to music, brought to a resolution. There was a time signature for play and a time signature for grief. Familiar instruments could sound new; new instruments could sound familiar. From a person’s first heartbeat until their final measure, life was complex, and so, too, should be the score. That’s why Joe warned his band never to write down to kids. “Our audience just happens to be short,” he’d say.

In the 1990s, following the deaths of Joe Raposo and Jim Henson within months of each other, Sesame Street carried on, a street forever transformed. Competition from Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel was changing the game. Home videos and video games had lengthened children’s attention spans, and to adapt, the show evolved to include more continuous plot lines, moving away from its jazzy variety show format. When funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was slashed, merchandising revenue became increasingly critical for CTW, and by 1996, Tickle Me Elmo was the must-have children’s gift of the year.

Now the musical guests were artists who had grown up on Sesame Street.When R.E.M. came by to perform “Furry Happy Monsters,” they stayed on set all day, offering suggestions for other bits. “They liked us as much as we liked them,” Cerf recalled. Johnny Cash, who had originally performed on the show in 1973, returned with his granddaughter.

The show remained sunny, but the world beyond Sesame Street was getting darker. On the way to the set on the morning of September 11, 2001, many of the producers and puppeteers witnessed the Twin Towers collapse. The season was still in mid-production, with four episodes yet to be written.

“Even though we felt like Sesame Street should be a safe haven, children are not oblivious,” said producer Lewis Bernstein. But how to describe the reality of the 9/11 attacks—and the War on Terror that followed—in a developmentally appropriate way? 

In the first episode following 9/11, Elmo is about to order food with Maria in Hooper’s Store when a fire breaks out. The smoke alarm sounds. 

“Stay low and go!” Maria tells Elmo, urging him out the door to safety.

As real New York City Fire Department firefighters put out the fire at Hooper’s, Elmo trembles, clutching Maria’s legs. “Elmo doesn’t want to go back into Hooper’s Store ever again.”

Noticing they have frightened Elmo, who is written at the developmental level of a three-year-old, a firefighter explains each piece of his scary, multilayered gear—boots, mask, coat—all designed to keep him safe from the smoke and fire. They invite him over to their station to see more. Elmo visits a real Harlem firehouse that lost firefighters when the towers fell. He climbs up on a fire truck, goes down the fire pole, learns that even when events spiral out of control, adults will be there to keep you safe.

A generation later, the same ethos guided the show during the early days of the pandemic, when the lights of 123 Sesame Street went dark. Writers, musicians, and puppeteers—midseason—took their gear home to shelter in place with their own children. There was no telling when kids would return to school. 

That’s when a call came from CNN, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., one of the workshop’s new media partners. What if they did something special for kids? A town hall hosted by someone parents could trust? And who would be more trustworthy than Sesame Street

During a frenetic two weeks of production, Sesame Street and CNN staff planned over Zoom, exchanging show notes on WhatsApp with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and others to ensure that the proposed town hall was fit for small children and grounded in science. There would be a musical number, naturally, featuring Dr. Gupta on the accordion.

The town hall took the form of a videoconference, akin to the Zoom calls children had by then become accustomed to for school. Elmo and his friends—played by puppeteers recording from home—encouraged children to keep their distance from others and wash their hands. “Let’s keep each other safe,” said Elmo and the others from behind masks. The town hall went viral at a time when the White House was scolding people to get back to business as usual.

After the murder of George Floyd, as demonstrations gripped the country, there was a push for a second event. “Companywide, everyone said, ‘We’re not doing enough,’” said Kay Wilson Stallings, a creative executive at Sesame Workshop, the twenty-first-century incarnation of the Children’s Television Workshop.“It’s one thing to model, which we’ve been doing from the very beginning, but in order to disassemble racism, we knew we needed to be really explicit.”

The second CNN town hall—on a Saturday morning in June 2020, hosted by Van Jones and Erica Hill—was viewed by more than 1.4 million households, who tuned in to see Elmo’s dad try to explain the difficult truth of racism: “You know, Elmo, not every street is like Sesame Street.”

Current music director Bill Sherman—the Tony Award–winning composer of In the Heights and Hamilton—told me about the challenge of writing music for the follow-up prime-time special, The Power of We. “How do you write a song about racism for preschoolers?” he wondered, collaborating by text with Hamilton alum Chris Jackson. It would need to be emphatic but not confrontational, clear and direct, but not putting political slogans in the mouths of children or Muppets.

Come September, as protesters and counterprotesters swarmed cities across the country, the show introduced a new Black Muppet, Tamir, who helped Elmo and Abby learn why it’s unfair to judge anyone by the color of their skin—and how to stand up to racism. Their words, an anthem, rise in harmony: “You plus me makes the power of we…. Listen. Act. Unite.”

A Is for Air

On a Wednesday morning in September, following a mysterious weekend lightning storm, the sun didn’t seem to rise over California. My whole family overslept, even the dogs, and when at last we opened the curtains, the sky was blood orange. This was only N’s second summer. She had yet to see enough skies to understand that wildfires were closing in.

Turning on the TV, we saw that smoke had unfurled across the western US. The authorities advised everyone to stay inside. I switched to Sesame Street as if sticking to our normal routine could turn the sky back to blue. I scrambled eggs while falling ash dusted N’s backyard toys. I shopped online for an air filter while ash gathered on N’s tomato garden. It was hard not to wonder if we’d been foolish to imagine that her childhood would be anything like ours.

By then N was old enough to stand on the couch, peer out the window, and pound on the glass: “I want go outside.”

I still had no good words to explain why the sky wasn’t clear in the summer, why the water wasn’t always pure, why the smoke would get worse from here. There had to be a way to tell it, to sing it, to make everything A-OK. I kept it quick and simple—“We can’t go outside. The air isn’t clean today”—hoping that was enough, because it was the truth and it was coming from Dad.

But how do you tell kids the truth if the truth is changing?

I think back to the end of the episode when Mr. Hooper dies. Big Bird is in his nest, hanging the portrait of his late friend in a place of honor. The adults stop by to introduce him to the newest child on Sesame Street, baby Leandro.

On one hand it seems like a blindly optimistic way to end a story about death; on the other hand, it seems only natural: the end of one life, the beginning of another, like the circle of a drum or the mouth of a trumpet, the century between one pandemic and another, the pregnant silence between the end of one song and the beginning of a new one. 

“Gee, you know what the nice thing is about new babies?” says Big Bird, admiring baby Leandro with the simplicity of a monk. “One day, they’re not here, and the next day, here they are.” 

Leave a Comment