H is for Happy, B is for Birthday | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 06.01.2003
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H is for Happy, B is for Birthday

Sesame Street, the American show full of cuddly monsters that teach children valuable skills rather than give them nightmares celebrates its German birthday this week.


Bert and Ernie: Still friends after 30 years

Happy birthday Sesame Street: The children's television phenomenon that has helped generations of youngsters to read, count and understand important social messages through the use of brightly colored monsters celebrates 30 years on German screens on Wednesday.

Elmo aus der Sesamstraße gibt Musikunterricht

Elmo: the voice of change.

Characters such as Elmo, right, (small, red, likes to be tickled) and Oscar (green, grouchy, lives in a trashcan) will be joining thousands of children across Germany in wishing the hugely successful and well-loved show a happy 30th birthday.

Known as Sesamstrasse in Germany, the program was devised by Muppet master Jim Henson who, way back in 1954, created the prototype puppets for a Washington D.C. television channel. Characters such as Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie and the Cookie Monster eventually went on to become household names on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, which first appeared nationally in short spots on 'The Ed Sullivan Show', before their own one-hour long shows began airing on American screens in November 1969.

A winner with German children from the start

German filmmakers first got to know Sesame Street in 1970 at the 'Prix Jeunesse' international television competition and quickly decided to adapt it for their own audiences. German children were first treated to this innovative experiment in educational but fun programming two years later when the first pilot episode went out on August 1, 1972, in its original language.

But it was on January 8th, 1973 when the show started its unstoppable run. Within the year, almost all German children were familiar with the show Sesamstrasse, which showed a mixture of German and American scenes.

German identity

In the original American shows, repetition of spelling, speaking and other learning strategies were central to the overall theme of 'Edutainment', bringing skills to children through games and songs. In Germany, social behavior, creativity and self-confidence were added and emphasized by the producers who wanted a German identity apparent in their show.

Some German educators believed that small children couldn't identify with some of the American "street scenes", that included puppets, actors on the New York set and different locations in America so these scenes were cut. However, there were tears before bedtime as the children began to complain. It seemed that they liked the real, American actors who were interacting with the puppets.

Kofi Annan bei der Sesam Straße

Several Muppets from the cast of Sesame Street meet an important guest.

As a result, the German Sesame Street decided to introduce German actors and locations as well as new puppets. One example that is still hugely popular today is Samson, the big brown bear, who replaced the American Big Bird as the central character in the show. Because of him, many children started to call the show Samson-Strasse (Samson Street). However, the current German show still contains many American scenes in its episodes.

More than just information

Speaking about the show's impact on forming young minds, Anke Schmidt-Bratzel, a director with German broadcaster NDR which produces Sesamstrasse, told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper: " In addition to the main educational areas of emotional and social learning, themes of tolerance and conflict are very important. Through (the series') information concept, the children experience that."

Sesame Street has been updated through time to bring topical issues to children's minds across the globe. Shown in its original format or adapted to reflect regional issues, Sesame Street has shown the real world in terms understandable to its target audience.

For example, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, the original American Sesame Street helped children deal with the incidents of 9-11. Such is the show's impact in the Middle East that the Israelis and the Palestinians have now merged their independent spin-offs, to help teach the conflicting cultures about positive futures and face-value common bonds rather than the destructive influence of the past.

Whoopi Goldberg und Kami, die HIV-positive Muppetfigur aus der südafrikanischen Sesamstraße Takalani Sesame

Kami, the HIV positive muppet from South Africas 'Takalani Sesame' hugs actor Whoopi Goldberg.

In South Africa, a country ravaged by HIV and AIDS, a version of Sesame Street is adding Kami, a 5-year-old girl monster who manages to go about daily life with ease, even though she contracted HIV through a blood transfusion shortly after birth.

With physically and mentally disabled actors and participants, a colorful range of strong-minded ethnic characters and equal standings for male and female monsters alike, Sesame Street still strives, through the show and learning initiatives such as the Sesame Workshops, to eliminate prejudice in its most fertile environment - the open minds of children.

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