The name Bob McGrath has a very different meaning to me than “Bob from Sesame Street.” I grew up watching Bob and still hold a very special place in my heart for him as someone who regularly made me smile and encouraged me to sing as a child. Bob was the friendly face, the bright smile and comforting voice that always greeted me when I would watch Sesame Street, and then came back into my life when my daughter began watching the show.
I recently had the honor of talking with Bob, which was delightful and nostalgic. I initially expected to talk about the 45 years he’s been on Sesame Street. What I found out was that Bob has had an incredibly prolific career singing and performing with major symphonies around the country.
In our interview, Bob and I discuss his performance for a Japanese Prime Minister, memorable moments from Sesame Street, his daredevil tandem jump out of an airplane at 10,000 feet, and how the show helped strengthen his identity as a father.
With great pleasure, I invite you to get to know a bit more about a true legend, Bob McGrath.
Note: This is part 2 of my interview with Bob. You can read about the first part which covered Christmas music and memories here.
Kids Can Groove: Sesame Street recently celebrated 45 years of being on television. Congratulations! How did you celebrate the 45th anniversary of Sesame Street?
Bob: I feel very fortunate to have been with an incredible show like Sesame Street for 45 years. Loretta Long (as Susan), Caroll Spinney (as Big Bird and Oscar) and I are the three originals still on the show. In the third year, Sonia Manzano as Maria, Emilio Delgado as Luis and and Roscoe Ormann as Gordon also came in. We have all grown together and become like a very close family.
On our 45th anniversary, the cast went out and celebrated with Cookie Monster and the other characters but I was at home working hard to launch my new website. I wanted to post a tandem jump I did up in Canada with the All Veteran’s Parachute Group. We jumped out of an airplane at 10,000 ft, and it was just incredibly exciting. I thought it would be fun for folks to see one of the elder statesman of Sesame Street do something daring like that. My webmaster Tammy, and my daughter Cathlin were helping me get everything up to speed. We finally got my website running fairly late in the day, and then we did a digital toast. So that was our drink for the day.
KCG: Can you describe your favorite moments on Sesame Street?
Bob: Naturally it’s difficult to narrow down 45 years of memories, but my two most favorite specials were “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street,” and the “Goodbye Mr. Hooper” episodes. Both shows were beautifully written, and two of the best things we’ve done in 45 years. We’ve had hundreds of wonderful scenes within shows, but these two episodes are the ones that standout for me.
In “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street,” there was a special part with Will Lee, “Mr. Hooper,” Bert and Ernie. It was a “Gift of the Magi” moment where Bert and Ernie wanted to trade their most prized possessions, so that they could buy something wonderful for each other. In the same special, I had the opportunity to sing a really beautiful song called “Keep Christmas With You,” which was written by Sam Pottle and David Axelrod. There was a really lovely surprise in that particular segment. I was singing and playing the song at the piano while Linda Bove, who was deaf, was in my studio with several children. I stopped playing the piano, and turned around to hear the children singing. To my surprise, I saw that Linda had taught them the whole song in sign language, and they were signing it for me. That was my Christmas present from Linda! It was an extremely beautiful moment, and I liked the song so much that I closed my Christmas Sing-Along album with it. The message in it is wonderful: You can keep the spirit of Christmas all year long, not just on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
“Goodbye Mr. Hooper” is one that is hard to compare to, though. It gives kids a really good perspective on dying, certainly if they have a parent, grandparent or someone they know and loved who died. Will Lee passed away when Sesame Street was on a break. Jon Stone, a wonderful writer, director, and one of the few original creators that started Sesame Street, had about 3 months to research everything that a child should know on death and dying. Jon worked with our own research team, as well as many top outside children’s specialists during that research period. After all that work, the team ended up producing a beautifully written script.
On recording day, we rehearsed everything for several hours, totally dry with no emotion, just saying the words. When it was time to “go to tape,” we filmed with full, raw emotions, which were very difficult to contain. We were barely able to keep it together, with tears in our eyes, because we were really reliving Will’s wonderful life on Sesame Street for all of those years. When we finished filming, Jon wanted to redo one little section so we reluctantly said, “Ok,” and got about a 1-2 minutes into the segment before Jon told us to forget it. We couldn’t take it, we were all just breaking up. So what you see in the episode is the first and only take of that whole show. It was very emotional and we all miss Will still to this day very very much.
KCG: That sounds emotional but beautifully authentic which makes the message even more relatable. Did you visit with Will before he died?
Bob: I got lucky and was the last one to see Will in the hospital the night before he died. He had so many tubes in his body so the poor guy was really limited in terms of what he could say and do. I asked the nurse how he was doing, and she said they could not get him to urinate, so I told Will that if he would just try to urinate we would dedicate the next day’s show to him with the letter “P.” Will couldn’t really speak because of the tubes, but he had the biggest smile on his face that he could possibly manage, and was laughing as well as he could. The nurse was just overwhelmed with joy that Mr. Hooper had come around for that short time to have some happy last moments.
KCG: Have you grown close to other cast members whom you spend time with outside of the show?
Bob: Caroll Spinney and I have been extremely good long-term friends because of the many wonderful Big Bird and Oscar pieces we filmed together in early years.
KCG: Was it hard to work with them as muppets on-screen?
Bob: It’s sometimes hard to separate the muppet from the person that’s running it. I always felt that way whenever I was dealing with Oscar in the trashcan. We were sort like Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in “The Odd Couple” with Oscar being the grumpy one and me being “Mr. Nice Guy.”I was a sucker for every one of Oscar’s cheap tricks.
KCG: Can you give us some examples?
Bob: There was one segment called “The Magic Spoon.” I was walking by Oscar’s trashcan and in his nice, high grouchy voice he said “Hey Bob, you wanna see something?” and I happily obliged. Oscar told me that he had a new invention called “the magic spoon.” I asked him how it worked, and he handed me a bowl and a spoon. I could see that the spoon was attached to something, and Oscar said, “You don’t even have to work at all, just put the spoon there and it will feed you without you lifting a finger.” So the spoon dips into the bowl and comes up to my mouth. I tasted the food and told Oscar it was delicious. Oscar encouraged me to have some more, so I took some more and of course it was only a short time before he started speeding up the motor of the spoon going in and out of the bowl of chocolate. Within a quick moment, it was going feverishly fast and I became totally splattered from head to toe with chocolate syrup. Watching this, Oscar starts chuckling and just said, “Gotcha again, Bob!”
Oscar would also always say things like “High-Tonsils” and call me “Bright Eyes,” which was a nice tender sort of greeting.
KCG: Can you tell us how you got to Sesame Street, Bob?
Bob: You know the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Musicians often ask that but it’s not for directions. The answer is practice. If you really practice, maybe 1 out of 10,000 musicians get to perform in Carnegie Hall. So, my variation of that joke is “How did I get to Sesame Street?” I got to Sesame Street by standing in front of Carnegie Hall. As I was waiting for a bus, I bumped into Dave Connell, a fraternity brother of mine from the University of Michigan. Dave had just left the Captain Kangaroo Show, where he was a producer, and joined the Children’s Television Workshop. After he told me about the kids’ show he was working on, he asked if I’d be interested in auditioning for it. I had to take a step back because I had just come off of 9 tours from Japan where I had this incredibly large teenage following. At that time, I had in mind that I would become the next Perry Como or Andy Williams and wanted to acquire a similarly large following in the United States as I had in Japan. So I declined Dave’s offer saying, “Not in the least!”
A couple of months later I got a call from the Workshop asking me to come in and take a look at some of the test pieces they were doing with a guy by the name of Jim Henson, whom I had never heard of before, and some puppets called Muppets. I agreed, and it took me about 2 minutes before realizing that I wanted to do this show more than anything else I could ever think of. I was so overwhelmed by the brilliance of the animation, claymation, early film and test pieces with Jim and Frank Oz, and everything else that was going on in the studio.
The Workshop auditioned many actors and chose a cast of four. We shot five 1 hour pilot shows that were shown all across the country on several closed UHF channels for a week. The original Gordon did not test out well, and that’s when they brought in Matt Robinson, who had been a writer for the Bill Cosby show. We then taped 130 episodes together. Many of the early shows written by Matt Robinson were wonderful, and really related to our inner city target audience especially the muppet “Roosevelt Franklin.” In the third year, we received feedback from the Latino community, and that’s when Sonia Manzano as Maria came in, followed by Emilio Delgado as Luis.
KCG: So you were an international sensation in Japan. How did you end up there and what did you do while you were over there?
Bob: Mitch Miller invited me to be the featured male soloist, alongside Leslie Uggams, in the 2nd year of the NBC program, Sing Along With Mitch. The show ran about 4 years. At the same time, Japan started airing the show on NHK, one of their major stations. When the show was canceled at NBC in New York the whole gang was invited to do some touring all over Japan. We did about 30 concerts in 30 days. Because NHK had picked up the NBC show unbeknownst to me, I had a tremendous number of fans already in place before we even landed in Tokyo.
Our audience in the United States was between 45-50 years old and up, and we expected the same in Japan. We were a bit startled to discover that every night we had 3,000-5,000 teenagers in the audience which was very amusing because the songs we sang were kind of old-timey songs, nothing hip and current at the moment. Every time I came up to do one of my solos the whole audience was screaming “Bobu…Bobu.” We found out later that there were “Bobu Magulas,” teenage fan clubs, all over Japan which none of us knew existed. After our tour ended, the booker asked if I would like to come back in the Fall and open at the top two night clubs in Tokyo. I asked what they were called and he said, “Latin Quarter and the Copa Cabana (same as in NYC).”
For the next 3 years, I returned to Japan 9 times. I did a ton of recordings, concerts, televisions shows, and even commercials in Japanese. By my second tour, I was doing half my show in English and half in Japanese.
One incredible experience I had was when Japanese Prime Minister Sato invited me to entertain him and two of his guests at a private function. At the time that I received the invitation, I was opening the second half of my show in full Kimono and performing with Minoru Muraoka, who played the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute. The Prime Minister’s daughter was a fan and told her father all about our show which led to our invitation. I was very honored of course, but I always found it humorous that an Illinois country farm boy was singing Japanese folk songs to the Prime Minister of Japan.
KCG: Were you first introduced to music as a child?
Bob: I would not be in the music business had it not been for my mother. I had no intention of making this a life career, but I was exposed to music at a very young age by both my mother’s playing and me singing anywhere and everywhere she could have me perform. I grew up living in the country, and would visit with my Grandmother who had 8 children in the family, including my mother. For some reason my grandmother insisted that they all learn a musical instrument of some sort or be involved in music. My mother could play by ear, and read music. In our big farmhouse “parlor” we had an upright piano, and while my mother was playing one day, I walked in and started humming along. She noticed that I was humming in the right key and had me learn the piece she was playing, which was called “In The Good Old Summertime.” I learned it very quickly, and by the time my Dad came in from the field for lunch, I had it memorized and sang it for him. About a month or so later, my mother entered me into a contest at the Roxy Theater’s amateur program. I came in second place, and that is essentially what started my musical career.
KCG: You mentioned that you had no intention of making music a life-long career. What was the turning point that ultimately led you in that direction?
Bob: During my senior year of high school there was an amateur music club in my home town of Ottawa which awarded me a one week scholarship to a music camp outside of Chicago. The camp was very well run with faculty from Northwestern Conservatory in Chicago and we did small, light opera type things. The faculty members were complementary about my voice and asked if I ever thought of being in music. I said, “Not, really. Can you make a living at that?” and they said, “Sometimes.” I had originally planned on going to the University of Illinois for engineering because I was really good at math. However, when they asked me about music I thought more about it and asked if they could suggest some programs. One of the schools that was recommended to me was the University of Michigan and it just so happened that my very best friend in life, from 3rd grade all the way through college and into the army and Germany, was going there. So I signed up to go there and getting an education at Michigan was best thing that ever happened to me. Interestingly, I had no difficulty coming from a very small farm town community to a gigantic University.
KCG: What was your first music related job out of college?
Bob: When I graduated from Michigan in 1954 I was inducted into the army. I spent 2 years in Germany, booking for the 7th Army Symphony in Europe and also performing. I came to New York to get a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music between ’56 and ’59, as well as auditioned for a wide variety of opportunities using my musical background. I freelanced with NBC, musical television specials, did late night Rock n’ Roll backgrounds, recorded under Igor Stravinsky, and performed concerts under Pablo Casals and Leonard Bernstein doing symphonic choral work in Carnegie Hall.
KCG: You have produced a number of albums. Did you explore the idea of being a songwriter and writing your own music?
Bob: I’m not really a songwriter. In fact, I never had any great inclination to write. I was strictly a 100% performer. I spent a gazillion hours my whole life attempting to perfect my singing voice and my concert performances. Certainly that’s true with the past 45 years working with over 100 symphony orchestras doing 3 different types of family concerts all over North America. Performing with the orchestras, using 50 or 60 local children in the production, required a tremendous amount of energy and work to perfect those concerts. I enjoyed it so much and was honored to be invited back to several of the same orchestras many times. Specifically, with orchestras like the Albany, Vancouver and NJ symphonies.
When I started on Sesame Street, I thought a little bit about songwriting, but I enjoyed performing the excellent hits that composers Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss were writing for the show. I sang “Sing, Sing a Song” first on the show as an English-Spanish duet with the original Luis, and then The Carpenters picked it up and made it a hit. I did some co-writing with Christian Rex on the album Sing Me A Story. There’s a wonderful song on that album called “Everyone Asked About You.” Christian’s daughter brought a book home from school called “Everyone Asked About You,” which is a lovely story and the inspiration for the song he wrote. It’s a great song done in a South African Pop style, and wonderful for teachers to use in a multi-ethnic cultural lesson because it’s about every kind of person all around the world.
KCG: You have also authored books.
Bob: That was very different from songwriting. Some years ago my wife and I wrote a series of books called “Bob’s Books” for Price Stern Sloan. The stories addressed issues that we felt were important for children growing up. One book, titled “Dog Lies,” was about a kid who just told one teeny tiny white lie that just mushroomed and snowballed into situations he couldn’t get out of. So the message was “don’t lie.” Other books we wrote were “I’m a Good Mommy” and “I’m a Good Daddy” which were feel good books about moms and dads and so forth.
Then Barron’s publishing called my manager saying that they would like to have me write a potty book so my wife and I wrote “Uh Oh! Gotta Go!: Potty Tales From Toddlers.” We ended up writing a second one on manners called “Oops! Excuse Me! Please!: And Other Mannerly Tales.” Both have continued to sell well after many years.
KCG: How do you feel being on Sesame Street has influenced or changed you – personally, parentally, professionally?
Bob: You can’t help but be influenced by all of the wonderful research and good messages that are shown on Sesame Street. Each segment focuses on every phase of a child’s growth, and that has been a big influence on me as a father of 5, and grandfather of 8. When my kids were young it was certainly a challenging learning curve to be a father, as it is for many dads. Understanding how the scripts were written helped me learn how to become more attentive and sensitive to the way a child thinks, and for their potential to learn and grow. I learned how important it is to listen, really listen, carefully to what your children have to say. When my kids were young that meant getting down on the floor to to their level, eyeball to eyeball, and focusing on all the terrific things they had to say.
We’re starting our 46th experimental season of Sesame Street. The word “experimental” is part of the heading for every writer’s notebook when they get it each year because the show is an ongoing experiment every year. I was thinking just a few days ago that when my wife and I celebrate our next wedding anniversary, we will begin our 57th experimental season of being married (laughs). We’ve been so lucky and blessed with a large family. Being a parent, grandparent, and participating in a marriage, is a lifelong experiment just like Sesame Street continues to be. The challenges and celebrations of life keep things fresh and vital.
KCG: What has been the biggest adjustment for you on Sesame Street as the show has evolved?
Bob: Adjusting to being “Bob on Sesame Street” was pretty unique, as well as the reactions from both children and parents when they have seen me off-screen. One woman tried to explain through her tears that seeing me brought back a flood of so many wonderful memories from her childhood, and how much the show has meant to her over the years.
Also, I was not a professional actor when I was hired for Sesame Street. I was a professional singer my whole life and I was concerned about my acting abilities and working out different scenes sometimes with challenging scripts, depending on the topic. Will Lee had a wonderful career as an actor and teacher in New York and I shared a dressing room with him for the entire time he was alive. Will taught the likes of James Earl Jones, and he was a tremendous help to me. He gave me little short acting lessons while getting into our costumes for the day.
KCG: What have your children thought about your career on Sesame Street?
Bob: My younger children loved watching Sesame Street. One of my fondest memories was when my youngest daughter, Cathlin, was about 3 or 4-years old. I came home from Sesame Street and she was sitting with her back to me on the couch watching the show. I happened to be on TV at the time I walked into the house. I said “Hi, Cat!” and when she heard my voice she looked at me then she looked at the screen, and went back and forth 3 or 4 times doing double takes before she stood up on the back of the couch and just leapt into my arms. With a big smile, she started beating me on my chest and looking at the screen and pointing and saying, “That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!” I don’t know who she thought I was but that was really a really wonderful moment, I will always cherish.
KCG: Were your children on Sesame Street?
Bob: A few times, but very infrequently. I wanted them to have a realistic idea of what I was doing, which was a lot of work and a long day. My son Robbie was a wonderful guitar and banjo player, and he was on the show one time with a little jug band. The kids loved going in and meeting the cast and some of the muppets they’d always seen, but I didn’t want them to be show biz kids.
KCG: Your grandchildren must also love watching you.
Bob: They do, and it’s a really nice bonus to the job quite frankly.
KCG: Do you have favorite characters or muppets that you identified or felt the most comfortable with?
Bob: Besides Caroll Spinney doing Big Bird and Oscar, I just have a very soft spot in my heart for Grover especially as the waiter with the blue guy, Mr. Johnson. It was such a vulnerable thing when Mr. Johnson would order and then Grover would spill everything on the way out of the kitchen and say in his infectious Grover voice, “Sir, this was the last one, I’m so sorry but it was a wonderful choice.” I think Grover is just really charming, brilliant and lovable.
KCG: I also have a soft spot for Grover, especially Super Grover. He just couldn’t help himself.
KCG: What was being off-camera like. Any memorable moments you can share?
Bob: Lang Lang, a world famous pianist was a guest on the show, and in between takes he would just entertain us with extraordinary pieces on the piano that just knocked you over. He would play with incredibly rapid speed.
When Lang Lang was on the show, the writers created a wonderful scene for him where he auditioned for Oscar’s Trash Band dressed as a grouch. I recognized him in the scene and asked him what he was doing on Sesame Street. He said he was auditioning for Oscar’s Trash Band. I turned to Oscar and said “Oscar! That’s Lang Lang! He doesn’t have to audition!” Oscar said gruffly, “I’ll be the judge of that,” and then said “Play somethin’ twinkle fingers.” So Lang Lang played a few extraordinarily beautiful short passages and after each one Oscar said “That’s beautiful!”. When Lang Lang asked Oscar if he made it into the Trash Can Band, Oscar said “No, of course not!” It was because the passages Lang Lang played were beautiful and Oscar hates anything beautiful. In desperation, Lang Lang just went down with both elbows to the keyboard which made this loud noise. Oscar perked up and asked “What was that?!” Lang Lang replied, “nothing,” so Oscar asked him to play it again. After Lang Lang smashed his elbows again, Oscar said, “Yer hired!”
KCG: Do people continue to talk to each other in character off-screen?
Bob: Oh yeah, there are ad-libs that go on all the time. The muppeteers are wonderful at that. They have to work very intensely. First of all, they’re lying on their backs or on their knees, and you’ve got 4-5 people wrapped around each other like a car crash trying to get everyone into the right position together. Being a puppeteer/muppeteer is technically and physically challenging and so every break to clear their heads and unwind they will just start rapping with each other. Some of it is really hilarious.
During a taping session, if someone messes up a line, there will be funny comments going back and forth about it as soon as taping stops. It’s really amazing to watch the muppeteers in action. Actors have to come in with their script totally memorized whereas muppeteers all read off of their scripts, which are taped in various places where they can see them. They’re watching on a small monitor so they can see what they look like on camera and they’re manipulating the muppets sometimes with two people at the same time. It can be extremely challenging both physically and creatively. Playing Big Bird is probably the most challenging because Caroll is inside of this huge costume that he can only work in for so long. His script is taped inside inches away from his eye, and he’s got a little monitor about 1 1/2 inches – 2 inches wide strapped to his chest. Now, how about this? When he wants to go left he has to go right because the optics are reversed.
KCG: How do you think Sesame Street has benefitted it’s audience?
Bob: We’re in 120 English speaking countries and have about 60 foreign co-productions. In Africa they have a muppet called Kami who is HIV+, which is pretty startling when you think of it. Kami helps inform millions of African children what they need to know about AIDS, such as the fact that you cannot get it by playing with a child who is HIV+ or your parent(s) who are HIV+. I’ve heard our CEO express in his speeches that when our writers and producers go to foreign/third world countries they’re really on a mission, they’re not just their to hype or pump up a television show. The writers have also written some really beautiful segments for our veterans’ families dealing with the loss of a parent, mother or father, amputees or guys with PTSD and so forth. Sesame Street salutes and supports military families and their children with a bilingual educational outreach initiative that can be found on their website called “Talk, Listen & Connect.
I always thought “Bein’ Green” was just a neat little song for a frog until I heard Ray Charles do it on the tonight show many years ago and I just about fell out of bed. I realized that it’s more than just a song for a frog. The message speaks to the meaning of life for all different kinds of people.
KCG: It’s incredible how children can relate to puppets through the power of imagination. I have seen my own daughter communicate with puppets as though they are real, even though she knows they aren’t. Talking with a character helps her communicate and connect with her own emotions. Even as a child, and to a certain extent today, I consider Big Bird a person.
Bob: Absolutely. When Caroll Spinney puts his Big Bird costume on I can barely imagine him being inside of it. Caroll brings that character to life to such a degree that he is Big Bird, and that’s his persona. That same thing applied to Jim Henson, Frank Oz and with all the people in the neighborhood pieces. You can attribute all that incredible skill and professionalism to Jim Henson who set the bar very very high for all of the muppeteers that have come and gone over the years.
Einstein said even though he has this incredible ability for abstract thought he feels that his imagination is more important than anything he ever had in his life. So he too felt the same way about imagination.