Lloyd Morrisett, the co-creator of the beloved children’s education TV series Sesame Street, which uses empathy and fuzzy monsters like Abby Cadabby, Elmo and Cookie Monster to charm and teach generations around the world, has died. He was 93.
Morrisett’s death was announced Monday by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit he helped establish under the name the Children’s Television Workshop. No cause of death was given.
In a statement, Sesame Workshop hailed Morrisett as a “wise, thoughtful, and above all kind leader” who was “constantly thinking about new ways” to educate.
Morrisett and Joan Ganz Cooney worked with Harvard University developmental psychologist Gerald Lesser to build the show’s unique approach to teaching that now reaches 120 million children. Legendary puppeteer Jim Henson supplied the critters.
“Without Lloyd Morrisett, there would be no Sesame Street. It was he who first came up with the notion of using television to teach preschoolers basic skills, such as letters and numbers,” Cooney said in a statement. “He was a trusted partner and loyal friend to me for over 50 years, and he will be sorely missed.”
Sesame Street is shown in more than 150 countries, has won 216 Emmys, 11 Grammys and in 2019 received the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime artistic achievement, the first time a television program got the award (Big Bird strolled down the aisle and basically sat in Tom Hanks’ lap).
Born in 1929 in Oklahoma City, Morrisett initially trained to be a teacher with a background in psychology. He became an experimental educator, looking for new ways to educate children from less advantaged backgrounds. Morrisett received his bachelor’s at Oberlin College, did graduate work in psychology at UCLA, and earned his doctorate in experimental psychology at Yale University. He was an Oberlin trustee for many years and was chair of the board from 1975-81.
The seed of Sesame Street was sown over a dinner party in 1966, where he met Cooney.
“I said, ‘Joan, do you think television could be used to teach young children?’ Her answer was, ‘I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it,’” he recalled to The Guardian in 2004.
The first episode of Sesame Street, sponsored by the letters W, S and E and the numbers 2 and 3, aired in the fall of 1969. It was a turbulent time in America, rocked by the Vietnam War and raw from the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the year before.
Children’s programming at the time was made up of shows like Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room and the often-violent cartoon skirmishes between Tom & Jerry. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was mostly teaching social skills.
Sesame Street was designed by education professionals and child psychologists with one goal: to help low-income and minority students aged 2-5 overcome some of the deficiencies they had when entering school. Social scientists had long noted kids who were white and from higher-income families were often better prepared.
The show was set on an urban street with a multicultural cast. Diversity and inclusion were baked into the show. Monsters, humans and animals all lived together peacefully.
It became the first children’s program to feature someone with Down syndrome. It’s had puppets with HIV and in foster care, invited children in wheelchairs, dealt with topics like jailed parents, homelessness, women’s rights, military families and even girls singing about loving their hair.
It introduced the bilingual Rosita, the first Latina Muppet, in 1991. Julia, a 4-year-old Muppet with autism, came in 2017 and the show has since offered help for kids whose parents are dealing with addiction and recovery, and children suffering as a result of the Syrian civil war. To help kids after 9/11, Elmo was left traumatized by a fire at Hooper’s store but was soothingly told that firefighters were there to help.
The company said upon the news of his death that Lloyd left “an outsized and indelible legacy among generations of children the world over, with Sesame Street only the most visible tribute to a lifetime of good work and lasting impact.”
He is survived by his wife, Mary; daughters Julie and Sarah; and granddaughters Frances and Clara.