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Joan Ganz Cooney Built 'Sesame Street' and Now She Ventures Down Some New Artistic Avenues

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I go to meetings like other people go to the movies. Last fall the Xerox board flew down to Brazil for a week on its corporate jets. There was a lot of work involved, but I loved every minute of it. Wonderful people, stimulating conversation—whoever thought little Joan Ganz from Phoenix would ever fly like this?

It is 10 p.m., and the real-life scene is straight out of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Joan Ganz Cooney even looks a bit like MTM. Cooney is the pioneering architect of Sesame Street, president of the multimillion-dollar, nonprofit Children’s Television Workshop, a director on the boards of Xerox, May Department Stores and the First Pennsylvania Corporation and Bank. At the moment this 47-year-old high-powered executive is at the ironing board, pressing the wrinkles out of her skirt.

“Oh, I have cleaning help twice a week,” she admits. “But I just can’t…” She hesitates, then takes a different tack. “She would do it. I mean, she would love to do it. She’s always saying, ‘Why don’t you ask me to do something?’ But I…just can’t have servants!” she exclaims. “That is not my mentality.”

For the past two hours, in her modest two-bedroom Manhattan apartment, Cooney has spent her version of a quiet evening at home. First she digests the contents of five newspapers. Then her unlisted telephone starts ringing with business calls. Between them she plows through “the juicy passages” of a financial report.

Finally, though her brown eyes are glazed with fatigue and tension, she begins packing. Reaching into her bureau drawer, she pulls out her always-ready executive survival kit—toothpaste, multiple vitamins (“not the big stuff”) and a prescribed bottle of Valium.

She stares at her tailored wardrobe. “I always end up getting out the ironing board. You just can’t beat the wrinkles in the backs of the skirts.”

Almost nine years have passed since Joan Ganz Cooney was hailed as Saint Joan of the educational world for her vision of entertaining TV as a teaching tool. In this country alone nearly eight million preschoolers tune in to Sesame Street regularly, and its Muppets teach numbers and alphabets in 40 foreign countries. As the foremost classroom of the global village, Sesame Street has a unique place in American culture. Robert Redford, the social conscience of Hollywood, has cited it as one of his favorite programs. Joe Namath eagerly agreed to be a guest on the show. Betty Ford invited Big Bird to fly to the White House for a Christmas party. And last summer, during the Democratic Convention, Amy Carter slipped away to spend a couple of hours on the set, and even crawled into Oscar the Grouch’s trash can.

All such high-level praise notwithstanding, critics claim there are potholes in Sesame Street. Recalling its original intention to teach primarily disadvantaged children and prepare them for school, they suggest that it actually has widened the gap in society by reaching mostly middle-class toddlers. Cooney dismisses the complaint. “The press, Public Broadcasting and even the Nielsen ratings are middle-class; ergo, they think that because the show has an influence on their children, it is middle-class. We have spent between $700,000 and a million dollars to survey our audience in the inner cities of Washington, Chicago and New York. What these statistics reveal is a slightly higher rate of viewership among the very poor than the middle-class or rich. The critics who challenge our influence on the poor simply do not know what they are talking about.”

She gives slightly more credence to the theories of author Marie Winn. According to Winn’s controversial new book The Plug-In Drug, it’s not the content of a TV show that is damaging but the very act of watching. Cooney replies evenly, “Heavy viewing is dangerous, but only because it means that the kids aren’t doing something else. But I attribute passivity and aggression among children to the content of shows. And there’s plenty of evidence to substantiate that. I mean, how many parents want to hire a babysitter without character?”

From her spacious presidential suite with a breathtaking view of Lincoln Center, Cooney directs her media empire with more than 200 employees and a $20 million budget. CTW also produces The Electric Company for the 7-10 age group, publishes three magazines and merchandises toys, books, albums and clothes, sheets and towels decorated with Sesame Street characters. J. C. Penney’s has Sesame Street boutiques in nearly all its stores.

On the wall of Cooney’s private office bathroom are several major awards, including one of her nine honorary degrees. “I really wanted to hang them up,” she says, “but I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.”

Once she is at her desk at 9:45 a.m., staff members pop in, vying for her attention. There are phone calls from John D. Rockefeller III, Fred Friendly, Jimmy Breslin and Shirley MacLaine. “But I don’t get many phone calls from famous people,” she protests. “I tend to speak with behind-the-scenes bureaucrats who run the nation. You know, I don’t think famous anymore.”

At 11:30 a.m. she breezes out of her office to the conference room. “You can always tell her footsteps,” says Dee Kellett, her secretary for 10 years, “because she walks fast. The excitement and pressure stream in and out with her.”

Cooney is in the process of leading her organization into a new maturity. The company is changing its logo to CTW—a signal that programming for children only is being deemphasized. In the fall there will be a dramatic series for adults entitled The Best of Families, a social history of 19th-century New York. Also targeted for older audiences are minute-long health-advice shows. A future miniseries will deal with school desegregation. CTW is also developing a new science series for preteens. (The workshop’s record of programming for adults is not encouraging. It made a health show, Feeling Good, which lasted only one season, and through subsidiaries produced Beauty and the Beast, with George C. Scott, and Out to Lunch, a comedy revue, neither of which was financially successful.)

Cooney places her hand on her chin, nodding as the six male executives volley facts and figures about the new science project. “We’ve got about 10 minutes to deal with this hemorrhage,” she calls out. “It’s an enormous crap shoot. Do we want to play the odds?”

The conversation turns to financing. She glances at her watch. “I’ll raise the mil,” she says, advancing slowly toward the door. “But you guys better come up with a whopper of a show.”

Pausing in her office to pick up a black garment bag and a suitcase, she rushes down to the street to hail a cab to the airport. At the curb, she suddenly puts down her suitcase and opens her purse. An index card put there by her secretary spells out her travel arrangements. “Well, kid,” she tells herself, “you’re going to Chicago.”

Joan Ganz’s travels began on Nov. 30, 1929 in Phoenix, Ariz. Her father, Sylvan Ganz, was a bank vice-president, and Joan, her sister, Sylvia, and her brother, Paul, grew up as country club aristocracy. Joan was recognized in infancy as high-strung—”the different one. My mother was very protective of me,” she recalls. Joan’s Catholic girlhood was earmarked by her “challenging the catechism. The priests were Jesuits, and they understood that I was just intellectually curious. I mean, if there was an adult conversation, I moved right into the center of it.”

She majored in education at the University of Arizona. (Earlier Joan’s parents had vetoed her ambition to become an actress.) “The second I got out I knew I would never teach. I moved with a friend to Washington, D.C. and found a job in the foreign student exchange office at the State Department.” During this period she fell under the influence of the Christophers, a Catholic movement that encouraged Christians to go into communications. Inspired, Cooney returned to Phoenix and a job on the Arizona Republic. “Two weeks after I started I got a byline,” she says. “I moved up very fast.” Fourteen months later she took off for New York. At a party she met Gen. David Sarnoff, head of RCA, who helped her get a job in his company’s public relations department. “I was presumably having a lot of fun. I was dating a young producer named Harold Prince and a famous newspaperman. I was going to ’21’ and the Stork Club, and Spencer Tracy even took my friend and me out to dinner. I was in a social whirl—and I was miserable.” Though her mother urged her to give up and come home, Arthur Penn, the director, advised psychoanalysis. “How do you pay for it?” she asked him. She was making $65 a week.

“You’ll find you will make more money,” he said.

“Why, because it works?” she asked.

“No, because you will need more money.”

For the next six and a half years, she visited a psychiatrist twice a week. “My analyst, I think, was a real human liberationist. He kept urging me to fly. He kept reminding me that I didn’t have to become a housewife and move to the suburbs.”

When she finally got off the couch, she applied for a job as a publicist at Channel 13. “It’s filled,” the general manager said, “but I need a producer who knows cultural and political issues.” “I’m that person,” Cooney blurted.

In five years she built a reputation as a crack producer of discussion shows and documentaries, winning an Emmy. During this period she also met Timothy Cooney, a rising young administrator in the New York City government. Four months later they were married. “I just assumed that I would have a child and quit working,” she says. “But it didn’t happen.” Instead, they took over partial financial responsibility for a fatherless 7-year-old Harlem boy.

After a dinner party at the Cooneys, Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Corp. approached Joan about exploring a new role for TV in preschool education. Three months after she turned in her report the corporation hired her. “I proposed the creation of the company that I eventually became head of and conceived the show that became Sesame Street.”

When it aired in November 1969, Sesame Street was hailed as a “once in a generation” phenomenon. “Jiminy Christmas,” she admits of the aftermath, “I’d like to live that one over again. The phone never stops, the commercial world starts moving in, there are pressures to get new shows going. Your life becomes very, very different.”

Joan Ganz Cooney today is wholly devoted to her job. Two years ago she separated from her husband. She decided to keep “working, working all the time. I mean, I want a few more years of accomplishing just as much as possible. I don’t want to miss anything.

“At times, of course, I look in the mirror and ask, ‘Joan, is this a well-balanced life?’ But I don’t think it’s a decision you make consciously. If a personal life suddenly loomed up, I might make another decision. I don’t honestly know if I have built this life to keep the world away or the world is away because I have this life.”

Occasionally she takes time out for nonprofessional pursuits, such as her weekly doubles game when “I really go for the jugular on that court. I hate to lose.” On weekends she occasionally sees her husband, and together they will take out their young friend from Harlem, now 14.

“When I’m asked to a dinner party,” she claims, “and the hostess suggests I bring a date, I always say, ‘Oh no.’ The great thing now is to go when I want to go and leave when I want to leave. The ultimate liberation was the realization that I didn’t need a man.”