[Editor’s note: This interview took place on Christmas Eve – 12/24/14].
Merry Christmas! Recently, Sesame Street celebrated their 45th anniversary and I had a chance to talk with Bob McGrath who plays “Bob” on the show! It was so special for me to talk with Bob, as he was a major part of my childhood, and has been a part of my daughter’s memories as we’ve watched current and classic Sesame Street videos together.
Today’s post is Part 1 of a 2-part interview which focuses on Christmas. Bob discusses one his favorite episodes, “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (episodes can also found on YouTube),” the making of his Christmas album, Bob’s Christmas Sing-Along, and how he celebrates this time of year with his Sesame Street family, as well as his own.
No matter where you are, we wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that you can find some snuggle time by the fire as you delight in the gifts of tradition and family.
Kids Can Groove: Merry Christmas! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. We have been listening to your Christmas album and reminiscing about classic episodes on Sesame Street. After 45 years of being on Sesame Street, are there Christmas traditions that you all participate in together?
Bob McGrath: I feel very fortunate that I’ve been with an incredible show like Sesame Street for 45 years. The cast really is a very very close family. Loretta Long (“Susan”), Caroll Spinney and I are the three originals. In about the third or fourth year, Sonia Manzano (“Maria”) and Roscoe Orman (“Gordon”) and we just became a really really close family. In the past couple of weeks, some of us did a couple of hour long interviews for Sirius Radio, and a benefit for children at Mt. Sinai Hospital. The hospital had a nice little studio that someone donated with video equipment, and they video taped our performances. We did about a thirty-forty minute show with songs and stories, and because many of the kids are contagious the hospital had all the rooms wired with television sets so they all watched us in their rooms. [The kids] just get a tremendous kick out of seeing all of us talking to them and performing for them. We look forward to those kind of situations.
Another wonderful event we had was in January 2013. Alan Muraoka (current owner of Mr. Hooper’s store), Alison O’Reilly (“Gina”), Pam Arciero (“Grundgetta,” Oscar the Grouch’s girlfriend), Leslie Carrara Rudolph (“Abby Cadabby”) and I did two events for the kids at Sandy Hook. One event was very large with dozens of folks from the Broadway theater, and a smaller one with a few muppets and cast. They were both very touching. After we entertained the kids, we received a letter from Mary Rose Kristopik, the Music Specialist, thanking us.
KCG: What a wonderful gift for those children. Do you have a favorite episode on Sesame Street in relation to Christma?
BM: My two most favorite specials were “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” and “Goodbye Mr. Hooper.” Both were beautifully written and two of the best things we’ve done in 45 years.
People have told me that they have watched “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” every Christmas for 30 years. It really is beautifully written, and the scene I found very touching was between Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, and Bert and Ernie. It was like a “Gift of the Magi” moment where Bert and Ernie wanted to trade in their most favorite possessions, which was Ernie’s rubber ducky and Bert’s paper clip collection, so they could buy something wonderful for the other person. Bert and Ernie brought their favorite possessions in separately to Mr. Hooper’s store and he looked them over and very tenderly said, “Are you sure you want to give these up?” With almost a terror in his eye Bert said, “Yes,” and the same thing happened with Ernie and his rubber ducky. Later on in the episode, Mr. Hooper surprised them both with Christmas presents containing their very favorite thing in the whole world. He gave Ernie his rubber ducky back, and gave Bert his paper clip collection back. Will’s playing of that scene was just incredibly well done. He was a wonderful, long-tine professional actor in New York City. So that was a really wonderful special.
In that same special I had an opportunity to sing a beautiful song, written by Sam Pottle and David Axlerod, called “Keep Christmas With You.” There is a really lovely surprise in the segment when I was singing and playing at the piano and Linda Bove (“Linda”) was in my studio with several children. As I stopped playing the piano, I turned around to hear the children singing “Keep Christmas With You,” and I realized Linda, who was deaf, had taught all the kids in the room the whole song in sign language. They were signing it as a Christmas present for me from Linda. It’s really beautiful, and I liked the song so much that it is the closing song on my Christmas sing-along, “Bob’s Christmas Sing-Along” CD, because the message is wonderful. That was one of my favorite moments. You know you can keep the spirit of Christmas all year long not just on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
KCG: Is this a particularly special time of year for you?
BM: Yes this time of the year has always been special, but seems to become even more so as the years go by, and the more grandchildren we are blessed to share this special day with. My wife Ann and I feel so grateful that we have been fortunate enough to grow older, be in good health, and see our children and our children’s children enjoy this holiday as we did years ago. Ann and I both came from a family of five, and have had the experience of a large family.
KCG: Are there any special traditions you practice with your own family each year?
BM: We celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve. I pick out a Christmas tree with my wife, and our grandchildren trim it on Christmas eve before dinner, which is fun to watch. Then, we have a big dinner early in the evening, and then the opening of presents. All afternoon and evening, we always have a fire going in the fireplace, and we come prepared with gifts for our Secret Santa. Our immediate family is now 17 so the presents pile up quite high under and around the tree. I sit on the hearth with my Santa hat on, and the three younger grandchildren are my elf helpers. They bring the presents to me to name and then they deliver them to the right person. They feel very grown up with this job! I get such joy out of watching the three youngest grandchildren, who are now 9 and 10 years old, growing up, but are still “believers.” I recently received a copy of the letters the three youngest wrote to Santa and they are priceless.
KCG: How does music factor into your celebrations?
Christmas music is always playing. We’ll often have recordings from my earlier work with Mitch Miller & the Sing Along Gang on Mitch MIller’s Christmas Sing Along, some of my other favorite artists, and of course my Christmas Sing Along CD as well.
For many years my daughters, and the older granddaughters, have gotten together and sung Christmas carols and played guitar for us. Years ago, they used the song sheets that came with Mitch’s LP. My wife and I now get a kick out of watching them all pull out their iPhones or iPads and download all the lyrics! A new world!
KCG: What are some of your favorite Christmas memories growing up?
BM: Many of my favorite Christmas memories date back many years ago to a farm in Illinois where I grew up with my parents, two brothers and two sisters. Christmas was a very special event for our family – Mass on Christmas eve, or early Christmas morning, and then presents for all. We always left cookies out for Santa, which of course were all gone except for a few crumbs on the plate.
One time my Dad pulled a great trick for us to see Christmas morning. We had a fence around the yard that was in need of repair, and so Dad went out after we were all in bed, and knocked a section down, and trampled the heavy snow where Santa landed. He was quite angry as he woke us up and told us that Santa and his reindeer wrecked his fence while landing the sleigh last night! I was the youngest of five, but that trick convinced my older siblings about Santa for many more years!
Years later, one of my favorite remembrances was a story I heard at an event I did for the NYC post office who threw a party for low-income kids. All of Santa’s letters went to the main post office. The man running the event related one letter that was his favorite. He said this little boy asked Santa for a few toys, but said what he REALLY, REALLY WANTED, was a Pony. In a PS at the bottom of the letter, he said…”I will also need some “Grazing LAND.”
KCG: Can you tell us more about your Christmas Album and why you were inspired to create one?
BM: I had already recorded a CD for Babies, ”The Baby Record” with Katharine Smithrim which contains thirty-seven songs and activities for toddlers. I then created “Songs and Games For Toddlers,” (also with Katharine) which has about sixty classic songs on two CD’s for children, and “Sing Along With Bob (Vol I & Vol II).” Next, I created twelve of my favorite songs from Sesame Street, celebrating the first twenty-five years of Sesame Street, and honoring our two principal composers, Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss in “Bob’s Favorite Street Song” followed by “Sing Me A Story” (the first original set of songs).
However, I had never done a Christmas recording. The structure of my “Christmas Sing Along” recording was greatly influenced by my former boss Mitch Miller, who is mostly responsible for much of my career. He kept his recordings simple so that everyone could sing along with the 25 guys in his gang. There were no fancy melodic or rhythmic tricks, just all in simple keys that would fit most voices and encourage everyone to sing along.
I spent time researching dozens of Christmas LP’s from my favorite singers, and picked thirteen songs that I felt were the “gold standards.” I then added the song I sang on, “Christmas Eve On Sesame Street,” “Keep Christmas With You,” as well as a song submitted by Ken Baron called “What A Great Christmas It Was,” bringing the total number of tracks to 15. Ken also wrote “You’re Face” for my CD, “Sing Me A Story.”
I asked Mike Renzi, Sesame Street’s music director, arranger and fantastic pianist to help me produce “Christmas Sing Along.”Mike and I spent several weeks planning what the feel of each song should be. I thought it would be fun for kids to hear many different styles of music played by the incredible musicians we worked with: Country, Caribbean, Stride, Pop, R&B, and more. Mike chose the Sesame Street band who have been playing together since the show’s inception, and for just about every major artist in the country for many, many years. They are some of New York’s finest studio musicians: Mike Renzi, Sesame Street’s musical director, pianist, and arranger (Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, and Woody Allen); Lou Marini, saxophone and flute (Blues Brothers and Saturday Night Live); James Saporito, drummer and percussionist (NY Pops, Broadway music composer, Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, N.Y. Philharmonic, and Gladys Knight); Bobby Cranshaw, Jazz bassist (Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson); Jack Cavari, guitar (Alicia Keys, Frank Sinatra, and Aretha Franklin); and Buddy Williams, drums (Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder). My good friend Francisco Nunez was also kind enough to bring a few singers from his very talented Young People’s Chorus of New York City to the session. It was nothing short of thrilling to have all these guys together playing their hearts out on this recording – sheer joy!
Below you will find a YouTube playlist featuring 3 songs (“Feliz Navidad,” “Jingle Bells,” and “What A Great Christmas It Was”) from Bob’s “Christmas Sing Along.” Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!