For many, it’s hard to remember a time when Big Bird—the eight-foot, two-inch bright yellow bird who skates, dances and sings—wasn’t a daily feature of Sesame Street. But we do.
Before Sesame Street aired for the first time on November 10, 1969, TV programming for kids was a joke without a punch line. Howdy Doody was better than most commercial efforts, but it never claimed to be educational. Then came Big Bird.
But before Big Bird and his Muppet friends, there was The Junior League. Stepping into the vacuum left by the commercial networks (and not yet filled by PBS), Leagues from across the U.S. did their own programming.
As early as 1960, the Central Delaware Valley Junior League (now the Greater Princeton League), pioneered with a drug education program. By the mid-1960s, 11 Leagues were engaged in television projects, and many Leagues placed volunteers with local educational TV stations. In Albuquerque, League members wrote, acted and helped produce “Donkey Tales” for preschool viewers. The St. Louis League sponsored an ambitious series called “Outside In,” which took young viewers to the city’s art museum, a shoe factory, a turkey farm and a stained glass studio. Later, the Junior League of Boston joined with WGBH-TV to produce hour-long documentaries about sensitive subjects like training for the mentally retarded. The Philadelphia League received a National Educational Television Award for a televised close-up of the city’s skid row. Seattle researched and produced an eight-part series on the vanishing Western American Indians.
So Happy 40th, Big Bird! We’ve all come a long way.