The Ongoing Lessons from Sesame Street, Live from the Kennedy Center Honors

Many artists view the annual Kennedy Center Honors as the pinnacle of awards, and the opportunity for my wife and I to attend this year’s celebration was something we knew we couldn’t pass up.

Our expectations were extraordinarily high for this star-studded gala, and, yet, those expectations were far exceeded. It was one of my most memorable evenings – ever! Politicians, movie stars, the red- carpet entrance, you name it – it was an incredible scene at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The five honorees – Earth, Wind & Fire, Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, Sesame Street, and Michael Tilson Thomas – were given medallions on Dec. 7 at a state department dinner (which we didn’t attend), then the next night they sat in the box tier of the theater while they were saluted with performances on stage. The show was filmed, and it aired last night on CBS.

We’ve watched the Kennedy Center Honors on television in the past, but being there in person was an unbelievable privilege and the performances and tributes were incredible – not just entertaining, but truly inspiring.

I went to the event excited to hear Linda Ronstadt and Earth Wind & Fire songs, as well as clips from Sally Field’s movie career. I also had read about Michael Tilson Thomas, and I was anxious to hear some of the wonderful music this 11-time Grammy Award-winner led as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. But the thing that hit me most profoundly was something I least expected – the tribute to Sesame Street.

I always thought of Sesame Street as a great show for kids, but never realized the full influence it has had on millions of children since it debuted in 1969. It’s not just another show designed to placate children or keep them entertained. It was the first television show geared toward preschoolers that integrated education and entertainment, and it has become a powerful production that helps children think and learn in many, many valuable ways.

The most important objective of the show is to close the achievement gap for children by feeding them fundamentals. For instance, the puppets constantly teach kids how to count numbers and recite the alphabet. The lessons are entertaining and funny, which keeps kids interested. Some of the lines are hilarious. They showed one scene where Prairie Dawn asks the Cookie Monster why he is eating every last crumb of a cookie on the table. He looks at her in a funny way and replies that he is “learning subtraction!” Brilliant!

The show also helps children understand how to act by exposing them to healthy habits for life and what it means to be a good person. And it helps children become knowledgeable of social challenges they may need to deal with like grief, homelessness and despair. One of the most powerful episodes involves Big Bird dealing with the death of his friend, Mr. Hooper (actor Will Lee). Ironically,  Caroll Spinney, the iconic voice of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, passed away on Dec. 8, the day of the gala.

Another mark of genius by the show’s producers was unleashing its partnerships with approximately 600 celebrities who appear in many of the episodes. The celebrities relate to the puppets like they are their friends, and they also grab the attention of adults as they think about making sure their kids watch the show.

Sesame Street, which now airs first on HBO and is rebroadcast a few months later on PBS, continues to be “influence” at its finest. It has changed the lives of kids in ways that we will never fully recognize, which is why it was the first TV show ever to become a Kennedy Center honoree!

Really, that’s what the entire night celebrated – influence. The performances and speeches were tributes to years and years of positive influence by the people (and Muppets) who were honored. In the first line of Sesame Street’s first episode, Gordon Robinson tells Sally, a child who is new to the neighborhood, “You’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here. You’re gonna love it!” Fifty years later, we’re still loving it. Why? Because, like the other honorees, it makes our world a better place.

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Photos from the Kennedy Center Honors


  1. Theresa Schnetz

    I was the first generation to be influenced by Sesame Street. I was 4 years old in 1969 and was forever changed by this special show. It was my educator until I entered 1st grade in 1971 in Japan. My father was transferred to this post as the Vietnam war was coming to its conclusion. Sesame Street continued to be my friend and educator in a country with no other American programming until we returned to the United States in 1974. I am so proud that it is now being honored 50 years later. I am surprised it took so long. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this wonderful program. May it continue to educate and delight us for 50 more years.

    Reply to Theresa Schnetz

    1. Walt Rakowich

      I was a total convert by the end of the night. It’s no surprise to learn now what kind of impact the show had on so many people, including you, Theresa. It’s well-deserved!

      Reply to Walt Rakowich

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