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Q&A with Sesame Street's Bob McGrath

Bob has been the music teacher on the PBS show since its inception, and he hasn't changed much in nearly 40 years

Courtesy of the San Jose Mercury News
December 28, 2006

Bob McGrath, more commonly known by just his first name, has spent the past 37 years playing the music teacher on "Sesame Street."

His warm, gentle demeanor hasn't diminished a bit over the years. Bob spoke with me about his years on the show, people he has met in his time on "Sesame Street" and what it's like looking at himself almost 40 years after the original episodes were filmed and broadcast .

And yes, he really is as nice in person as he is on the show.

Q: Are you in the middle of filming the current season, or are you done shooting?

A: It's a much shorter season. It's kind of a hobby at this point. We're doing 26 episodes. Lew Berger, the head writer, wanted 26 episodes. The bean counters said 25 and asked, "Why do you keep saying 26?" Lew said, "There are 26 letters in the alphabet. Which letter am I supposed to fire?" That's why he's the head writer!

Q: What have been the biggest changes in the production of the show over the past 38 years?

A: It's not much different, except that there are fewer shows repeating six times, instead of once. They shot 130 episodes a season. The content went from an hour to 45 minutes with Elmo doing 15 minutes. It's geared to a much younger audience at this point. Most plot lines take place in the first 12 minutes.

Q: You play a music teacher on the show. Was music your career before you got the "Sesame Street" job?

A: Yes and no. I was singing since I was 5 and all through high school and college. I have a master's from the Manhattan School of Music. I recorded Bernstein and Stravinsky.

I was the featured tenor soloist on "The Mitch Miller Show" and I performed for three years in Japan. I was a teen idol in Japan. We toured there with Mitch for a 30-concert tour and they picked up "Sesame Street" around that time, so I had a chance to do 15- or 20-minute solos.

I did a couple of songs in Japanese. We had 5,000 teenagers every night. They were watching the show to learn English, so every time I came out to do a solo they screamed "Bob-u!!"

Q: What has been your favorite segment or story line from your years on "Sesame Street"?

A: "Goodbye, Mr. Hooper." We barely got through that show. Any emotions you saw were real. We tried to do a pickup and we got about a minute into it and we all fell apart emotionally. It crossed over not only from PBS, but all of the networks. They all felt it was such an important show that they took the time to highlight it.

A close second is "Christmas Eve on Sesame Street." It had the best elements of the writing and directing with Jon Stone. From Cookie Monster eating the tree at the end of the show, to "Keep Christmas With You," it had all those wonderful elements. It doesn't get any better than that, but it falls into the major classics that you've ever seen. I wish we were doing a lot more of that kind of thing now.

Q: I own the original cast album. You look the same now as you did then. How do you keep yourself looking so youthful?

A: A lot of it's in the genes. My mother and father lived into their 90s. I try to stay as active as I can. Being with the show has kept all of us young.

Q: I'm 32 years old and I grew up watching "Sesame Street." Do you get a lot of folks my age telling you the same thing?

A: I do, and it comes in all forms. A number of years ago, I was coming from a club gig in Atlantic City. I got pulled over by a state trooper for going a little faster than I should have been. He asked for license, then looked at it, and he stuck his head in the window and he said, "You're BOB! I grew up on you!!!" I'm thinking, "I might get out of this." Then he pulled out his ticket pad and said, "You know, Bob, I learned how to write on 'Sesame Street'!

Q: Tell me about Jim Henson.

A: He never spent any negative energy. Once we were doing a very complicated piece, six or seven Muppeteers. One young Muppeteer, she bumped into somebody and the piece crashed. They played it back, and she felt terrible. He watched and at the end he pulled on his beard, as he often did, and he sounded like Kermit, and he said, "I guess we can probably do another one, right?" It just left a light touch and a smile on everybody's face.

He'd stop and talk to you like he had three days to talk only to you. He was tremendously concerned with other people. He was a really gentle soul with a tremendous creative bent.

Q: What about the celebrities who come on the show?

A: I'm still very star-struck when a star comes in, and they come up to us like they've known us all their lives. Danny DeVito did a piece where he and Oscar worked together. I walked on set and he saw me and his face lit up, and he hugged me around the knees and he said, "You guys are great!" It's that kind of enthusiasm you get from all of our stars. I did get a peck from Beyoncé, and that was a highlight of my 38 years.

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