By the time I reached my third birthday, I had joined the millions of young Canadians hooked on the Holy Trinity of Canadian children’s television: The Friendly Giant, Mr. Dress-Up, and Sesame Street.
Wait a minute – Sesame Street? Isn’t that an American show? Of course it is, but the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, seeing Sesame’s value as a children’s educational tool, was keen to import the series after its late-1969 debut. That, however, presented the CBC with a conundrum: How was it going to stay within the newly-introduced Canadian content rules if it had five hours’ worth of Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster gobbling up airtime every week?
The solution: Develop a partnership with the Children’s Television Workshop to produce Canadian segments, both live-action and animation, that would fit seamlessly in-between Kermit the Frog interviewing fairy-tale characters and Ernie finding new ways to torment Bert. At the same time, the show would steer impressionable young Canucks like me away from the original series’ unavoidable focus on American history and culture. As John Nowlan, CBC’s executive producer of children and youth programming in the back half of the ’80s, would later describe it: “You have the ‘zees’ for ‘zeds,’ and the Spanish, and the Stars and Stripes” – hardly the elements we’d expect to see on Canadian children’s television.
So it was Sesame Street that was responsible for my first glimpse of such Canadian icons as the RCMP Musical Ride. And since the Canadian-aired shows replaced the Spanish segments with French pieces, my Acadian upbringing in Richmond County, Cape Breton was supplemented with musical numbers like “Je T’Aime Means I Love You” and an animated skit in which a bug-eyed, English-speaking alien, plucking a banjo and struggling to finish his musical tribute to the moon, is assisted by a young Francophone astronaut who shows him that “la lune” is French for “the moon.”
Upwards of four decades later, if I start singing “Oh, the moon in June is a big balloon,” there are friends and family members that will chime in with the next line (and perhaps even sing the bridge, which name-checks Saskatoon). The same affection exists for another Canadian Sesame Street segment, an operatic salute to perogies against a backdrop of several hundred of the Ukrainian-Canadian puff pastries being mass-produced and then happily consumed at the end of the song. Seriously, I’ve found a dozen different posts on other Canadians’ blogs asking if anyone else remembered “the Sesame Street perogi song”; hats off to the kind soul who went to the trouble of uploading it on YouTube.
By the time the early ’80s rolled around, half of every Canadian episode of Sesame Street contained homegrown content. Live-action segments shot in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver were balanced by the thick-voiced cartoon character Beau Beaver and animated musical numbers like “A Quarter Has A Caribou On It.” Mind you, I’m not sure if that 50 per cent Can-Con figure incorporates the closing credits sequence, featuring moms and kids heading down the Alpine Slide Ride at the Blue Mountain Ski Resort in Collingwood, Ontario. (With the slide now officially closed, this footage that frequently wrapped ’80s episodes of Sesame Street in Canada is among the few remaining bits of proof that it existed.)
The partnership between the CBC and the Children’s Television Workshop extended outside the Canadian Sesame Street inserts; Muppet performer Carroll Spinney frequently brought Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch across the border to do everything from hosting broadcasts of Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade to recording the 1981 CBC-distributed album Camping In Canada (above).
But the CTW’s biggest contribution to our Sesame Street broadcasts came courtesy of a whole new quartet of full-time characters – Katie (quite possibly the first Muppet ever seen in a wheelchair), Basil Bear, Louis The Otter (a rare bilingual Muppet, with English and French dialogue), and Dodi The Bush Pilot – who were created specifically for the Canadian series’ home-grown segments in 1987.
Fully integrated into the Canadian Sesame Street broadcasts (and even the opening theme song) by the early ’90s, the new Muppets were supplemented by a gaggle of one-shot “anything Muppets” who played any role deemed necessary for the piece, from news anchor “Peter Londonbridge” and reporter “Barbara Plum” to author “Margaret Redwood,” science and nature expert “David Bouzouki,” and resident green thumb “Hana Gardener.”
The experiment initially worked so well that a spin-off special, Basil Hears A Noise, hit the CBC airwaves in 1990 (and even featured a guest appearance by Elmo, roughly five years before he inexplicably became the merchandising phenomenon that he remains to this day). Finally, in 1996, CBC revised its format for Sesame Street broadcasts and made the Canadian characters (including a new Muppet, the hyperactive kitten Chaos) the focus of the show, in the half-hour series Sesame Park.
While the producers still popped in the occasional American Sesame Street segment, they also felt the new show’s outdoor park setting was more representative of a majority of Canadian viewers than the inner-city, New York-esque street that had hosted Hooper’s Candy Store and Luis’ Fix-It Shop for decades. They also filled the show with Canadian guest-star cameos, from Steve Smith as Red Green to figure-skater Kurt Browning to actor Eric Peterson (who looks like he’s having a hoot in this 2000 episode featuring his portrayal of Old King Cole). Actress Sheila McCarthy even won a Gemini Award for a Sesame Park appearance five years into the series’ run.
Sadly, Sesame Park was not to last, as the CBC abruptly cancelled it and ended all broadcasts of Sesame Street segments in 2001. So today, Canadians looking for any sign of themselves within Sesame Workshop productions will have to settle for things like Feist singing “1,2,3,4” with a gaggle of Muppet monsters and penguins (although I’ll admit I get a charge out of that particular cameo). Or they can check out the Muppet-filled Sesame Street spin-off The Furchester Hotel, which has a regular slot in the CBC Kids line-up despite having no Canadian content whatsoever. (Yeah, I don’t get it, either.)
By the way, if you want to learn more about Sesame Street‘s Canadian content, check out this exhaustive research posted on the Canadian Journal of Communication Web site. Or feel free to start up a Sesame Street conversation on the Muppet Central fan site. I’m over there on a regular basis, posting under the screen name “LouisTheOtter.”
(P.S. Don’t forget to bring the perogies.)