Since 1969, the inarguable standard-bearer for educational entertainment for children has been Sesame Street. Winner of 143 Emmy Awards over the course of its four-decade-plus run, the show and its iconic characters have become invaluable denizens of the pop culture landscape, not just in the United States, but around the world. The show’s combination of humor and educational curriculum has long made it a valuable means of introducing young children to basic concepts like the alphabet and counting, while also teaching real-life lessons about the importance of sharing, compassion for others, and tolerance.
In 2006, Sesame Workshop released some of the earliest episodes of the series in a DVD set called Sesame Street: Old School (1969-1974). This was followed the next year by the release of a second volume, covering the years 1974-1979. Now, after a five-year delay, the third Old School volume, spanning the years 1979-1984, is finally being released to DVD in conjunction with Warner Bros.
These DVD sets are not marketed towards children; rather, they are intended for adults looking to revisit their earliest memories of Sesame Street. Indeed, watching the five episodes included in this set is a nostalgic treat. While I do not recall ever having seen any of these episodes in their entirety before now, it is still fun to watch the beloved characters go through their familiar routines. Personally, it brings back fond memories of sitting on the living room floor in the mid-'80s, surrounded by pillows and a virtual army of stuffed animals, laughing at Oscar the Grouch and learning all about the wonders associated with the letter “G” or the number “3.”
Viewing these episodes now, from an adult perspective, it’s easy to see why parents the world over have trusted their children to the Sesame Street gang for so many years. The shows are educational without being overly didactic; moral lessons are taught sans preachy overtones; and though the bright overacting of the adult human characters can be grating, they are nonetheless adept at engaging attention.
The five episodes included in this set are the premiere episodes for each season from 1979 to 1984, highlighting some of the show’s most memorable adventures. The first disc, covering seasons 11, 12, and 13, includes the gang’s trip to Puerto Rico to celebrate Maria’s birthday; Big Bird’s “first day of school,” as he nervously accompanies Kathy for “Visitor’s Day;” and a visit from actress Madeline Kahn, who plays a birdwatcher determined to protect “endangered species” Big Bird. Disc Two, covering seasons 14 and 15, features Big Bird’s trip to Camp Echo Rock (what was the first in a week's worth of camp episodes) with camp counselor Mickey (a young Giancarlo Esposito), and Gordon’s running of the New York City Marathon (unknowingly accompanied by Snuffleupagus, who was still unseen by anyone besides Big Bird at this point in the series).
Old School Volume 3 also includes one of the most famous clips from the history of the show—the explanation of the absence of Will Lee, who played store proprietor Mr. Hooper from the very first episode in 1969 until his death in 1982. While there was initially some debate about whether or not Sesame Street should address Lee’s death, the producers of the show decided the best option would be to deal with it directly, tactfully, and honestly. The end result is both a heartfelt tribute to a talented performer and a highly effective means of explaining the sometimes difficult concepts of life and death to young ones. And even 30 years later, watching the scene in which Big Bird realizes he’ll never see his friend again, “just because,” is an utterly wrenching moment.
In addition to Mr. Hooper’s goodbye, the set includes a number of extras, from behind-the-scenes footage of the making of some episodes, to interviews and audio commentaries from adult performers Carroll Spinney (the man behind Big Bird and Oscar) and Sonia Manzano (who played Maria). Old School is also packaged with a beautifully-detailed booklet filled with photos and sketches of the characters, historical highlights from the show, and remembrances of Will Lee from some of the actors and crew who worked with him on the show.
It's important to note that the shows included on these discs are not remastered or altered (other than having had some musical clips removed due to rights issues), and are presented as they originally appeared on television. While there is an inherent graininess to some of the images due to age, this does not detract from the overall enjoyment of watching these shows (though I must admit, the '80s "fashions" are almost painfully dated).
Spending time with these episodes is truly like recapturing a bit of childhood magic. Even today, the wizardry of the Sesame Workshop does not fail to ignite the imagination, bringing with it an undeniable sense of wonder. Filled with memories both fun and bittersweet, this third volume of “old school” Sesame Street is simply a must-have, whether you intend to share it with the children in your life, or just relive those memories for yourself.
Sesame Street: Old School Volume 3 (1979-1984) will be released on November 6, 2012.