Lloyd Morrisett, a Founder of ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies at 93
Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist whose young daughter’s viewing habits inspired the creation of the revolutionary children’s educational television program “Sesame Street,” and whose fund-raising helped get it off the ground, died on Jan. 15 at his home in San Diego. He was 93.
His daughter Julie Morrisett confirmed the death.
Mr. Morrisett was a vice president of the nonprofit 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 the guests that his daughter Sarah was so mesmerized by TV that she would watch the test pattern on weekend mornings until cartoons began.
Sarah had also memorized advertising jingles, which suggested to Mr. Morrisett that youngsters might more easily learn reading, writing and arithmetic if they were delivered 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 podcast about history, in 2019, “and her answer was, “I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it.’”
The idea was intriguing enough for Mr. Morrisett, along with Ms. Ganz Cooney, then a producer of public affairs television programming, and others to begin brainstorming about creating a program for preschoolers, particularly poor children who were likely to fall behind in the early grades, that would educate and amuse them.
“‘What if?’ became their operative phrase,” Michael Davis wrote in “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street” (2008). “What if you could create content for television that was both entertaining and instructive? What if it went down 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, “The Potential Uses of Television for Pre-School Education.” That study became the blueprint for “Sesame Street.”
Mr. Morrisett focused on raising $8 million to start “Sesame Street,” with about half coming from the United States Office of Education and the rest in the form of grants from Carnegie, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Mr. Morrisett had “magnificent political skills” that helped him raise money, Mr. Davis said in a phone interview. “He lived in that rarefied world and had connections. He was so believable and so clear and made so much damn sense.”
In a statement, Ms. Ganz Cooney said, “Without Lloyd Morrisett, there is no ‘Sesame Street.’”
The series made its debut on public television on Nov. 10, 1969, introducing children to a fantasy world where they could learn numbers and letters with help from a multiracial cast and a corps of Jim Henson’s Muppets that 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 curriculum based on continuing research, designed to help children who watched the show succeed in school.
“We were spending maybe a third of our budget on that research,” he told WBUR Radio in 2019, “and that was something that commercial television just couldn’t do.”
Mr. Morrisett was born on Nov. 2, 1929, in Oklahoma City, and grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., and Los Angeles. His father, also named Lloyd, was an assistant schools superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., and later a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. His mother, Jessie (Watson) Morrisett, was a homemaker.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1951, Mr. Morrisett studied for two years at U.C.L.A, then earned a Ph.D. 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 the executive assistant to its president, John Gardner. He later became a vice president.
Mr. Morrisett never took an operational role at the Children’s Television Workshop, now Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces “Sesame Street” and other programs, but he was an active chairman of its board until 2000. During that time he was instrumental in the creation and funding of “The Electric Company,” a series that taught language skills to children ages 6 to 10, which was broadcast in the 1970s and rebooted from 2009 to 2011.
“He had this wonderful combination of being a child psychologist who was also a champion of media and technology and was research-based, which is the DNA of the company,” Sherrie Westin, the president of Sesame Workshop, said in a phone interview. She added, “He was a pioneer who believed that television could be an educational force.”
When “Sesame Street” received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2019, a gaggle of Muppets onstage shouted “We love you” to Mr. Morrisett and Ms. Ganz Cooney, who were seated in the balcony.
In addition to his daughters, Julie Morrisett and Sarah Morrisett Otley, Mr. Morrisett is survived by his wife, Mary (Pierre) Morrisett, and two grandchildren.
Julie Morrisett said that, unlike her sister, she didn’t like television. “There’d be no ‘Sesame Street,’” she joked, “if I were the older daughter.”
While chairman of Sesame Workshop, Mr. Morrisett was also president from 1969 to 1998 of the Markle Foundation and shifted its focus from medical research and education to supporting the study of mass communication and information technology.
In an essay published in Markle’s annual report in 1981, Mr. Morrisett looked at the state of children’s television and advocated for a cable TV network devoted to younger viewers. (He did not mention Nickelodeon, which had started in 1979.)
He argued that such a channel had to compete effectively for viewers’ attention, but that “the key for a new children’s television service will be to provide cultural and educational values widely believed necessary for leading a productive and satisfying life in our society.”