Born: November 30, 1929
Phoenix, Arizona Former president, Children's Television Workshop
Armed with a degree in education and a knowledge of the power of television, Joan Ganz Cooney changed how young children learn. Before she helped start Sesame Street, the few educational television shows available were usually boring. Cooney realized kids would be more likely to watch shows that used the best techniques of commercial programs, such as humor and music, along with the repetition featured in TV advertising. Along the way, kids watching these entertaining shows could also learn.
"TV is often the catalyst that drives us to read more about something we only learn in sketch from the tube. But even if TV isn't a back door into books, as we hope it can be, if you can only teach with television, isn't that better than not teaching at all?"
The success of Sesame Street helped its producer, Children's Television Workshop (CTW), create educational material in many forms. It also made Cooney one of the most respected educators in the United States. In 1995, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. government can give to a civilian. As President Bill Clinton (1946-) honored Cooney, he noted how she "has proven in living color that the powerful medium of television can be a tool … to help build young lives up rather than tear them down."
Joan Ganz was born on November 30,1929, in Phoenix, Arizona. She was the youngest of three children born to Sylvan and Pauline Ganz. Her father was a banker, and in 1970, Ganz told the Arizona Republic her family was not "social-worker-minded." Her interest in helping others, particularly the less fortunate, came mostly from a discussion class she took at North Phoenix High School. Another important influence on Ganz was the Christophers, a national Christian group founded by Father James Keller. The Christophers encouraged Catholics to share their values with society in general, especially through the media.
After high school, Ganz enrolled at a Catholic college in California, then transferred to the University of Arizona. She graduated in 1951 with a degree in education. Her first job was writing for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. In 1954, she headed east, taking a job in publicity in New York for the National Broadcasting Company. The next year, she began doing publicity for a popular dramatic series, The United States Steel Hour, a position she held for seven years.
In 1962, Ganz moved from TV publicity to production. Although unskilled in that area, she managed to land a job making documentaries for WNDT, the public television station in New York. During her five years at the station, she married Timothy Cooney. (They divorced in 1975, and she married Peter Peterson in 1980.) She also met Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Corporation, who shared her interest in using television to educate young, poor children. When Morrisett helped her get a grant to study educational TV, Cooney leapt at the chance. She told Working Woman in 1981, "I could make a thousand documentaries on poverty and poor people … but I was never really going to have an influence on my times. I wanted to make a difference."
For her study, Cooney crisscrossed the United States, talking to child psychologists and educators. Her conclusion was that the time was right to use television to teach preschoolers, especially from poor families. Morrisett then worked to get the funding for the organization that became CTW, which was launched in 1968. At first Cooney was not sure what role she would play at CTW. She told Richard M. Polsky, author of Getting to Sesame Street, "I think initially I saw myself as a number two somewhere, but that was during the study. Once we got rolling, I don't think I would have accepted less than the top spot."
Joan Ganz Cooney, a woman with a commitment to education, was responsible for creating Sesame Street. The show might never have succeeded, however, without the creative genius of puppeteer Jim Henson. His Muppets, including Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and the Cookie Monster, helped give the show humor and warmth. Whether working for the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) or with his own staff at Jim Henson Associates, Henson always sought a challenge. "Most people think of work as something to avoid," he told People in 1983. "I think of work as something to seek."
Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1936. His family later moved to Maryland. While he was still in high school, Henson began working with puppets on a Washington, D.C., television station. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, he was given his own five-minute show, Sam and Friends. One of Henson's first creations was a puppet with halves of a ping-pong ball for eyes. This creature eventually became one of the most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog. Henson took the name "Muppet" from a combination of "marionette" and "puppet," since his characters used both strings and hands for their movement.
After graduating from college in 1960, Henson began taking his Muppets on national television shows and commercials. Henson's partners included his wife, Jane, and puppeteer Frank Oz, who helped bring some of the Sesame Street characters to life. As Henson worked with the Muppets, he began to explore filmmaking. That skill proved useful when he worked on Sesame Street. Henson also created new puppetry techniques. His puppeteers followed the Muppets' actions on television screens as they worked, helping them match their words with the movements of the characters' lips. Henson's methods let live actors interact with the Muppets in a convincing way.
As Sesame Street became more popular, the Muppets began appearing on many of the products licensed by CTW. Children around the world probably knew the faces of Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, and the rest of the gang as well as they knew their own families. Henson also created Muppets for his own TV program, The Muppet Show, and several Muppet movies. By the early 1980s, Henson was building new creatures not related to the Muppets, such as Fraggles, who appeared in their own show on the cable TV network HBO.
Henson was considered one of the true gentlemen of the entertainment world, a shy man who spoke through his puppets. Co-workers never heard him say a cross word. In 1990, Carroll Spinney, who played Big Bird for many years, told People, Henson "would never say he didn't like something. He would just go 'hmm.' And if he liked it he would say 'Lovely.'" Henson died in 1990 from bacterial pneumonia. At his funeral service, his daughter Cheryl read words he had written a few years before his death: "My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better than when I got here." Millions of Sesame Street fans would say he met his goal.
Cooney took the title of executive director (later president and chief executive officer) of CTW. She hoped to film a second program, a half-hour show for parents, but lack of funds killed this idea. Instead, Cooney and CTW focused on producing a one-hour children's show that would broadcast five days a week across the country. For creative assistance, she turned to Jon Stone, who served as head writer. He helped design the street scene used as the setting for the live parts of the show and created the program's overall look. Stone also introduced Cooney to puppeteer Jim Henson, who created the Muppets for the show.
Before the first episode of Sesame Street ran in November 1969, Cooney traveled to public television stations across the country, convincing them to run the program in the mid-morning, a "prime time" for preschoolers. She also talked to local school officials, telling them about the show and its purpose. Although Cooney believed in the show, no one knew how well Sesame Street would do since it was an experiment. Soon, however, Cooney and the staff at CTW saw it was a wildly successful experiment.
Cooney wanted to give young children a solid foundation in numbers and letters, but she also felt that Sesame Street could address larger social issues. From the beginning, the show had African American and white actors working side-by-side; the first Hispanic Americans joined the cast in 1972. Les Brown, a noted television critic, wrote in Variety in 1969, "If racial peace and harmony ever visit this country, Sesame Street may be one of the reasons why."
Cooney also had the show's writers deal with such issues as adoption, anger, and family relations. The messages were always accompanied by music and visuals that stayed current with trends in popular culture. In one of the most memorable episodes ever, Big Bird and the rest of the cast confronted the death of Mr. Hooper, another character on the show, in 1982. The death of the actor who played Hooper led to this decision, and it created one of the most emotional Sesame Street programs ever.
Although Cooney was in charge of a nonprofit organization, she had to be concerned with making enough money to keep Sesame Street and other CTW shows up and running. Federal funds began to dry up in the early 1970s, leading Cooney to explore licensing deals with large corporations. Cooney also struggled with personal problems during the 1970s—first her divorce and then a serious battle with breast cancer. Throughout these ordeals, she remained focused on improving CTW.
Even with the popular and educational success of Sesame Street, Cooney sometimes had to fight to convince others that TV could be useful for teaching children. In 1988, she called for putting a VCR in every elementary school classroom in the United States. The idea, however, met with resistance. Cooney told U.S. News & World Reports Parents and teachers are so convinced TV is a destructive force they won't even think about how to use it constructively."
In 1990, after more than twenty years as the head of CTW, Cooney resigned, but she remained on the workshop's executive committee. In that role, she still shaped new programs, such as the mystery Ghostwriter, while exploring new products for CTW. After stepping down as the head of CTW, Cooney devoted time to various charitable causes and served on the board of directors at several corporations. She also received honorary degrees from many leading U.S. universities, including Princeton and Harvard.
Cooney devoted her professional career to educating children, but the experience taught her something, too. In 1989 she told Changing Times, "We started out thinking that [television] might teach simple things. We learned you could do so much more."
Joan Ganz Cooney's honors include induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and the Women's Hall of Fame.
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