Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist whose girl-watching habits inspired the creation of the groundbreaking educational children’s television program “Sesame Street,” and whose fundraising helped get it off the ground, died Jan. 15 at his San Diego home. He was 93 years old.
His daughter Julie Morrisett confirmed the death.
Mr Morrisett was vice-president of the non-profit organization Carnegie Corporation in 1966 when he attended a dinner party in Manhattan hosted by his friends. Joan Ganz Cooney and her husband Tim. During the evening, Mr Morrisett told guests that his daughter Sarah was so mesmerized by the television that she watched the test model on weekend mornings until the cartoons started.
Sarah had also memorized advertising jingles, which suggested to Mr Morrisett that young people could learn reading, writing and arithmetic more easily if they were presented in an entertaining way.
“I said at one point in the conversation, ‘Joan, do you think television can be used to teach young children?'” he said in an interview on “BackStory”, a history podcast, in 2019,” and his response was, “I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it. “”
The idea was intriguing enough that Mr. Morrisett, along with Ms. Ganz Cooney, then a producer of public affairs television, and others began to think about creating a program for children aged preschool, especially poor children who were at risk of falling behind at first. notes, it would educate them and amuse them.
“‘What if?’ has become their watchword, Michael Davis wrote in “Street Gang: The Complete Sesame Street Story” (2008). “What if you could create content for television that was both entertaining and informative? What if it looked more like ice cream than spinach? »
At Mr. Morrisett’s request and with money from the Carnegie Corporation, Ms. Ganz Cooney traveled the country interviewing educators, animators, puppeteers, psychologists, filmmakers and television producers to produce a study titled “The Potential Uses of Television for Early Childhood Education”. .” This study became the model for “Sesame Street”.
Mr Morrisett focused on raising $8 million to launch “Sesame Street”, about half of which came from the United States Bureau of Education and the rest in grants from Carnegie, the Foundation Ford and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Mr Morrisett had “magnificent political skills” which helped him raise funds, Mr Davis said in a telephone interview. “He lived in this rarefied world and had connections. It was so believable and so clear and made so much sense.
In a statement, Ms Ganz Cooney said: “Without Lloyd Morrisett, there is no ‘Sesame Street'”.
The series debuted on public television on November 10, 1969, introducing children to a fantasy world where they could learn numbers and letters with the help of a multiracial cast and a body of Jim Henson’s Muppets. which would include Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch. , Bert and Ernie, Kermit the Frog, Cookie Monster and Elmo.
Mr Morrisett recalled that ‘Sesame Street’ had a program based on ongoing research, designed to help children who watched the show do well in school.
“We were spending maybe a third of our budget on this research,” he said on WBUR radio in 2019, “and that was something that commercial TV just couldn’t do.”
Mr. Morrisett was born November 2, 1929 in Oklahoma City and grew up in Yonkers, NY and Los Angeles. His father, also named Lloyd, was assistant superintendent of schools in Yonkers, NY, and later a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. His mother, Jessie (Watson) Morrisett, was a homemaker.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1951, Mr. Morrisett studied for two years at UCLA, then earned a doctorate. in experimental psychology from Yale in 1956. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, but left after two years to work at the Social Science Research Council. He then joined the Carnegie Corporation as an executive assistant to its president, John Gardner. He then became vice-president.
Mr Morrisett never played an operational role at the Children’s Television Workshop, now Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization that produces “Sesame Street” and other programs, but he has been an active chairman of its board of directors until 2000. During this time, he was instrumental in the creation and funding of “The Electricity Company” a series that taught language skills to children ages 6 to 10, which aired in the 1970s and rebooted from 2009 to 2011.
“He had this wonderful combination of being a child psychologist who was also a media and technology champion and was research-based, which is the DNA of the company,” Sherrie Westin, the president of Sesame Workshop, said in a telephone interview. She added: “He was a pioneer who believed television could be an educational force.”
When “Sesame Street” received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2019, a group of Muppets on stage shouted “We love you” to Mr. Morrisett and Mrs. Ganz Cooney, who were seated on the balcony.
Besides his daughters, Julie Morrisett and Sarah Morrisett Otley, Mr. Morrisett is survived by his wife, Mary (Pierre) Morrisett, and two grandchildren.
Julie Morrisett has said that, unlike her sister, she dislikes television. “There wouldn’t be ‘Sesame Street,'” she joked, “if I was the oldest daughter.”
While President of Sesame Workshop, Mr Morrisett also served as President from 1969 to 1998 of the Markle Foundation and turned away from medical research and education to support the study of mass communication and information technologies.
In an essay published in Markle’s annual report in 1981Mr. Morrisett looked at the state of children’s television and advocated a cable television network devoted to young viewers. (He didn’t mention Nickelodeon, which started in 1979.)
He argued that such a channel must compete effectively for viewers’ attention, but that “the key to a new children’s television service will be to provide cultural and educational values widely considered necessary for living productive and satisfying in our society”.