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'Sesame Street' turns 40 with help from Michelle Obama

This photo released by the Sesame Workshop shows

This photo released by the Sesame Workshop shows Rosita, left, and Elmo in a scene from"TLC II Military Outreach Project", directed by Kevin Clash. Mention swine flu to a young child, and odds are pretty good you'll get a blank stare. But an increasing number of kids can tell you that the Sesame Street character "Elmo" sneezes properly into the crook of his arm, and if they sing the whole "ABCs" song while washing their hands they'll get them really clean. (AP Photo/Sesame Workshop, Richard Termine)**NO SALES** Credit: AP Photo/Richard Termine

'Sesame Street" launches its new season Tuesday, 40 years to the day it premiered - and revolutionized television.

The show (weekdays at 7 a.m. on WNET/13 and 9 a.m. on WLIW/21) has made such an impact that the world can be divided into pre- and post-

"Sesame Street" people. Those old enough to have learned to read from Dick and Jane wound up watching the Muppets with younger siblings or children. Those who grew up with the show had an advantage. As studies have proven, children who watch "Sesame Street" start school more prepared to learn, know their letters, understand basic phonics and have a concept of math.

"Sesame Street," however, has been on for 40 years because it gives viewers what they want - sheer fun. When raising money to get it on the air, Joan Ganz Cooney, the show's creator, vowed that "every piece of education would be entertaining, and every piece of entertainment would be educational."

Sure, some skits work better than others. What program, offering so much for so long, could say otherwise? "Sesame Street" never stops trying, changing with the times. Those revisions sometimes rankle viewers who want it to stay as it was when they were toddlers.

This is not your mother's "Sesame Street." There are CGI segments with Bert and Ernie, "Abby's Flying Fairy School" and guys rapping a count to 40 in the season opener.

Tuesday's episode also has heavy-hitting guest stars befitting a special anniversary. First lady Michelle Obama, Cameron Diaz and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony Award-winning creator and performer from "In the Heights," appear.

Obama plants seeds with two girls, a boy and Elmo and talks about how delicious and healthful vegetables are. When Big Bird ambles by, she beams with unabashed joy. Who could blame her?

Where magic happens

Being in the presence of Muppets is a treat. But as to the 40-year-old question, "Can you tell me how to get to 'Sesame Street'?," the answer, geographically speaking, is to go to New York, take the R train to Astoria, and walk past well-tended homes until you get to the hulk of a building that houses the studios. Of course, you need to get past security.

Upstairs, magic happens. On a soundstage are Hooper's Store, with cafe tables, Charlie's Auto Repair and the 123 building. Though the new season premieres this week, the cast was wrapping up the season in February. As Telly's handlers finish a scene about "Jack and the Beanstalk," Emmy winner Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, takes a break in his sunny office.

Though Elmo, the curious, fuzzy, red Muppet, is perpetually 3, Clash first gave voice to him 16 years ago. "This character is so popular, it's really sweet to see how kids go crazy," he says of Elmo.

In Tuesday's episode, Elmo and his pet goldfish, Dorothy, cleverly work in the show's word for the day: habitat, which Diaz introduces. They talk about frogs' habitats; the season's overarching curriculum is nature.

"Children are natural scientists," says Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research. "We want to connect children to care about nature and to appreciate the natural beauty of the world."

She, like the others on this relaxed set, talk about the Muppets as if they're people. Marty Robinson, a friendly guy who would look at home at a Grateful Dead concert, has spent most of his adult life on "Sesame Street" and is the puppeteer for Telly, Mr. Snuffleupagus and Slimey the Worm.

"Telly cares desperately about everything," Robinson says, settling into a couch, with Telly, a fuzzy, crumpled pile on a table. "Telly is complex. He's slightly psychotic. He's never false and [is] very enthusiastic and very committed. He used to be panicked. We evolved that into more of an excitement.

A spunky personality

Anyone who watches knows these are not mere pieces of felt with eyelashes, but personalities. Fran Brill, the actress behind Zoe and Prairie Dawn, allows a visitor to try being Zoe's puppeteer. It's harder than it looks.

It was Brill's idea to outfit Zoe in a tutu and give her barrettes and bracelets. "She was one of the boys," Brill says. "I wanted her to be spunky. That's her personality. Who I am comes out with the puppet. I was like that as a little girl, always questioning, strong-willed. I love her. I always say the puppet tells you who it is. It has a certain look."

Such thought to the characters and a well-planned curriculum have been part of the series from the beginning, beautifully chronicled in the coffee-table book hitting stores Tuesday, "Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life on the Street."

Life on the street has evolved. Oscar was originally orange, and Cookie Monster tried gorging on veggies but wound up remaining true to his "C is for Cookie" credo. The show also used the 1982 death of Will Lee, who played kindly store proprietor Mr. Hooper, to teach about one of life's most difficult subjects.

In the season opener, Miranda plays a slightly smarmy, very funny, rapping real estate agent. He tries to get Big Bird to migrate, showing him beaches and forests. The giant yellow one, though, says, "Sesame Street is where I belong. This is my habitat."

And that ensures another season of sunny days.

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