Sunny day. Everything’s a-okay.
So goes the “Sesame Street” theme song, but the phrase familiar to millions of kids can also be used to describe the relationship between the show’s producer, Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), and Jim Henson Prods., responsible for the beloved “Sesame Street” Muppets like Big Bird and Bert and Ernie.
Both companies affirm that their relationship, which began 27 years ago when Jim Henson attended a meeting to plan the first experimental season of “Sesame Street” with CTW founder Joan Ganz Cooney, is as strong as ever and continues to flourish. In fact, the two companies treat “Sesame Street,” the show devoted to the world’s children, like a child of its own. “Somebody once compared ‘Sesame Street’ to the child of two companies who never got married. Both companies care very much about this child, and they both have a lot at stake in its ongoing success,” explains Cheryl Henson, Jim Henson’s 34-year-old daughter, who has served as vice president of Jim Henson Prods, and the liaison between the company and “Sesame Street” ever since her father died in 1990.
Still, there have been a few obstacles to overcome. One was Jim Henson’s death. “Obviously, when the creative force is gone, there is a concern that the magic needs to be kept alive,” recalls Gary Knell, senior vice president of corporate affairs at CTW. But CTW’s fears were swiftly allayed. “I remember how quickly the Henson family came to assure us that ‘Sesame Street’ was a special place for them, and that whatever happened, the interests of ‘Sesame Street’ would be protected.”
That protective attitude toward the show has continued – even though both companies have grown and entered into several deals independently of one another.
On the Henson end, much of the credit for nurturing “Sesame Street” after her father’s death goes to Cheryl Henson, whose job it is to watch out for the “Sesame Street” Muppets. “The ‘Sesame Street’ characters have never been treated in a commercial manner,” Henson explains. “They’ve always been handled separately and very carefully. They’ve never been mixed in with the other Muppet characters, so the licensing of ‘Sesame Street’ characters and products involving them has always been handled by CTW and separate from the other Muppet characters.” The only Muppet who lives on and off the “Street” is Kermit.
Cheryl is said to be the Henson child most in tune with her father’s idealism, and she keeps this vision in mind when working with “Sesame Street.” That vision includes what she describes as “basic ideals of family entertainment and good-heartedness. And having the characters look out for each other… We keep that alive, without restricting new ideas.”
Jim Henson Prods, is breathing life into old “Sesame Street” Muppets – like the duo Ernie and Bert. “For a number of years we didn’t have new Ernie pieces. Because of the format of ‘Sesame Street,’ we were able to keep using the original Ernie pieces,” Henson says. “Now, together with CTW, we are producing new Ernie and Bert pieces.” Frank Oz is Bert and Steve Whitmire is Ernie, who formerly was performed by Jim Henson.
The two companies also are working together to bring “Sesame Street” into new international territories. “Jim Henson Prods, will be creating all the characters for future co-productions,” Knell says, including the Muppets for a new Russian version of the show.
Another upcoming joint project: a “Sesame Street” feature, which currently is in development at Columbia, where Lisa Henson is an executive.