Muppets in Mourning: 'Sesame Street' Developer Dies at 84

Dr. Gerald Lesser created original curriculum for educational program.

Oct. 5, 2010 — -- Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird and their fellow "Sesame Street" characters have taught generations of children important lessons like how to count, but the science behind why you love them belongs to one man: Gerald Lesser.

Dr. Gerald Lesser, the man responsible for molding the personalities of "Sesame Street's" famed characters and the lessons they've taught to generations of preschoolers has died. He passed on Sept. 23 at the age of 84.

"He helped us choose what subjects we really thought we could teach, like counting," said Joan Ganz Cooney, the founder of the Children's Television Network.

Cooney said it was Lesser who created the so-called "Sesame Street" Curriculum.

'Sesame Street' Curriculum

Before "Sesame Street" first aired in November 1969, children's television had a very different tenor. It was rare for a children's show to incorporate educators and psychologists in the creative process.

"Sesame Street," meant to target disadvantaged children, brought Lesser in to help. The revolutionary program had a lofty goal to hold 3-year-old children's attention and teach them.

The program's creators wanted each preschooler to learn their ABC's and how to count to 10. Those benchmarks were unheard of in the 4-year-old age group at the time.

"Because of us, kindergarteners changed their curriculum," Cooney said. "Children came to school knowing their letters and numbers, that was Gerry who did this."

Lesser worked with the show's staff to determine what information a preschooler needed to know and how much information their young minds could absorb. He also pondered the unique way children digest television.

When Lesser noticed kids were riveted by commercials, he brainstormed with Madison Avenue ad-men about how to draw the tiny viewers in.

Segments of the show were like a commercial: "This segment brought to you by the letter K."

Lesser Helps Create Oscar the Grouch

Not only did Lesser's knowledge help mold the show's episodes, but also helped the creation of those beloved characters.

During those first test shows, Lesser thought something was missing. Everyone seemed impossibly sunny on the show. Lesser thought kids needed to know it was OK to be grumpy.

That thought birthed Oscar the Grouch, the green character who lives in the dumpster and loves noise.

Cooney said that there was something else missing early on.

"Gerry thought children needed to see some kid that was awkward, but we didn't want it to be a child," she said.

The solution: Big Bird. The perfect feathered foil taught kids its OK to spill milk sometimes.

Lesser was born in New York on Aug. 22, 1926. He received a master's in psychology at Columbia and later a Ph.D. from Yale.

Lesser continued to influence the show long after its debut. While teaching at Harvard University, he studied how children reacted to the show.

Always learning, Lesser tweaked the lessons the show taught as he learned more about the 80 million young minds that have tuned in for decades.

Lesser helped turn "Sesame Street" into the avenue for millions of children to learn.

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