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Arts & Culture

‘Count’ on Controversy

From Scared Kids to Birthday Cards, ‘Sesame Street’ Producer Archives Showcase Passionate Viewer Reactions

By Liam Farrell

The Count

Fervid letters of complaint about the debut of Count von Count on "Sesame Street" in 1972 are included in an extensive archive of Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) records held by the University of Maryland Libraries’ collection.

Photo courtesy of “Sesame Street” via Twitter

In the decades since his first appearance on “Sesame Street,” a purple felt, Bela Lugosi-parodying math aficionado has become part of America’s most well-known childhood entertainment ensemble, and even has a replica permanently held in the Smithsonian.

But when Count von Count debuted 50 years ago this fall, he was far from a welcome addition to every household’s television routine.

“The character is funny to me; I’m thirty. He’s frightening to my three-year-old,” one Massachusetts mother wrote in November 1972 to Joan Ganz Cooney, a founder of Children’s Television Workshop, which produced “Sesame Street.” “(Some) God-knows-what primitive fear is touched off every time the Count makes his appearance and I end up with a screaming child to comfort.”

An Illinois mother concurred in December 1972: “It not only has terrified our younger child to the point of not wanting to be anywhere in the house alone or even go to sleep, but she does not want to see the program again for fear of seeing this Dracula creature … Why on earth such a character has been introduced into this program is beyond my understanding.”

These letters are part of the thousands of papers spanning 456 feet in the University of Maryland Libraries’ collection of Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) records ranging from administrative documents and board minutes to viewer mail and press materials. Now known as Sesame Workshop, CTW was founded in 1966 and developed revolutionary educational children’s programming such as “The Electric Company,” “3-2-1 Contact” and, of course, 1960 alum Jim Henson’s “Sesame Street,” which premiered in 1969 and returns with its 53rd season on HBO Max today before later appearing on PBS.

[Five Things You Didn’t Know About Jim Henson’s Time as a Terp]

The viewer mail is a rich window into the development of a beloved show that still had its share of contemporary criticism, said Michael Henry, coordinator for Special Collections and University Archives.

“We have this view of ‘Sesame Street’ as this pure, innocent intelligent educator. And it is,” he said. “But along the way there have been some controversies.”

Those flashpoints include not only concern about Cookie Monster’s food habits (“If you could convey to the children that only monsters eat this way and not children, it would be helpful in so far as parental guidance is concerned,” one father wrote in January 1973), but also a pre-Internet rumor mill that transmogrified a planned CTW series on health into panic that “Sesame Street” was going to run a segment on abortion.

“A simple phone call to the producers of ‘Sesame Street’ would have spared you the embarrassment of errors that abounded in your ‘Robbers of Innocence’ editorial of September 18,” wrote Stuart Awbrey, CTW information director, to a New Hampshire newspaper in October 1974 after a scathing editorial about the fictitious plans.

The files came to UMD in the early 1990s as part of an effort to preserve public broadcasting records, and are among other collections that give researchers a window into the development of 20th century television and radio. While it catalogues debates and controversies, the archive also has plenty of heartwarming material, from birthday cards for characters to parents and children asking how to get on the show themselves. It shows what an “intimate relationship” was developing between viewers and Henson’s creations, Henry said.

“They are so real to them and have such a one-to-one relationship with them,” he said.

Even the Count got his due.

“I am giving you this picture for your birthday,” wrote one 9-year-old from Illinois, enclosing a drawing of the vampire. “How are your bats?”

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