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How I got to Sesame Street

HOW I GOT TO SESAME STREET

By Louis Henry Mitchell


When I wake up in the morning and I sit at my drawing table, I am excited about what will be coming my way. My dream job came true from when I was a kid drawing the many different characters I saw on TV. But the ones that caught my attention more than any other were The Muppets. I was only six-years-old when I saw them for the first time on the old TV variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show. Even though this show introduced groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, I didn’t care about those guys back then. It was when I heard Mr. Sullivan say, “Here are The Muppets” that I would do a running slide in front of the television set. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was fueling my future!

One night after watching another Muppet segment, the man who would always come out to shake Ed Sullivan’s hand afterwards walked over to him. Just like with The Beatles and the Stones, I didn’t care about him, because I didn’t know who he was. But, this time, he walked over with one of the Muppets on his hand. It was Kermit, who was more like a lizard back then and not yet the famous frog. That’s when it dawned in me that there was a man back there working The Muppets. I was astounded because I never thought about or realized how that magic was happening until that very moment.


Although I was a child back then and was not thinking about a career, I was developing a deep love for what would become the foundation of my future profession. I spent a great deal of time after that thinking about The Muppets, drawing them, building sock puppets, and even teaching myself how to pay the piano. I did everything I could think of to immerse myself in The Muppets world. Something profoundly touched me then that eventually led me to my dream job as the Creative Director of Character Design for Sesame Street, an honor that I’ve held for almost 30 years now.

But, getting to Sesame Street was not without some real challenges. Many of the people I knew while growing up thought that becoming an artist was not something I should pursue. The reasons ranged from their opinion that I was not talented enough to my being an African American. My own father was adamantly against my pursuing an art career and resisted helping me buy art supplies and art books.


However, my mother, who was my forever champion, told me to “just keep going.” She helped me realize that naysayers should not get a vote as I pursued my dreams and goals. She had to overcome similar but far greater challenges when she was pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse. She faced sexism and racism in nursing school, and often thought to quit. Her mother told her that she could quit if she really wanted to, but that there was no reason why she couldn’t make it. She had what it took to succeed. Her mother knew what she needed to hear just as she knew what I needed to hear. I realized that although I was challenged with some serious difficulties, they didn’t compare with what she had faced. My mother became a nurse and she served and helped people for 35 years.


I remember so well the day we were walking on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, right about the same age when I had discovered Jim Henson. This woman walked up to my mother and asked if she remembered her. The woman went on to say that my mother was the nurse who had helped deliver her baby. She was so grateful because of the comfort and encouragement my mother had given her during her delivery. My mother smiled and told her that because she had helped deliver so many babies it was difficult to remember everyone, but that she was so happy to have been such a help to her. When my mother asked the woman how her child was doing, she gestured at the tall teenager who was standing nearby, and told my mother that this was the baby she helped deliver. They both laughed, but I was astounded and so proud of my mother. My mother was already a superhero to me back then, but this just added to the ever-growing esteem I had for her. So, whenever she encouraged me to “just keep going”, her precious words became more and more powerful to me as she had set the example. If she could do it, so could I.


My mother taught me that when something really inspires you and means so much to you, it is a clue of the direction and calling on your life. It is your heart leading you to what you are here to accomplish.


I have met many people who’ve had dreams and deep desires they didn’t pursue, because they were distracted; discouraged by people who just didn’t understand; or they derailed themselves for one reason or another. They let negative voices dictate their decisions, and many of them are unhappy or dissatisfied with where they are.


But it’s never too late. There is always hope, and where there is a will, there is a way. One can always course-correct, even if one has gone down a certain road for some time. And, for those just starting out, there is hope, too. Just remember, “the naysayers don’t get a vote.” And, we certainly shouldn’t be a naysayer in our own lives.


What is it that truly inspires you? What kind of work draws you toward it with great energy and joy? Or, what has distracted you from discovering what your dream career can be? It’s worth recognizing the obstacles and paying attention to what you are feeling deep inside. Only you can know the way you are being inspired to go and the things you are enthusiastic about accomplishing.


There are real challenges and tests at the beginning of a career journey and your confidence might not be where it needs to be. But the greatest lesson I learned in pursuing my dream job was that confidence is not like a light switch. You don’t just “have” confidence. It is something you cultivate. You grow confidence. Confidence is the by-product of commitment, practice, honing your craft, and not giving up.


The Muppets revealed a standard of excellence that I aspired to with all my heart. My first attempts were so crude, but my love for them spurred me on to keep drawing and building my own puppets, and I got better and better. My confidence grew through my commitment to keep making and drawing The Muppets.

Now, when I wake up in the morning, I am so excited… because those crude attempts from my childhood, that kept improving all the way through college, prepared me for my dream job!


And that’s how I got to Sesame Street!


This kind of joyful experience is possible for everyone. Have you discovered your dream? Listen to the call of your heart, what you truly love and feel driven toward. It’s your first and most important clue.

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