Generations of children raised on the songs and characters of Sesame Street have Vi at La Jolla Village resident Dr. Lloyd Morrisett to thank. His distinguished career includes a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Yale University, serving as Vice President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and as the chairman of numerous boards including Oberlin College, The RAND Corporation, and the Children’s Television Workshop. It is his work for the latter that has created a lasting gift to humanity in the form of a beloved children’s program that has touched the lives of millions.
Conducting Experiments to Close the Education Gap
During his time at the Carnegie Corporation, Dr. Morrisett was responsible for research in psychology education, focusing on young children. “We were supporting experiments that tried to see whether young children who had not achieved much in school could be helped if you provided earlier education for them,” said Dr. Morrisett. “The idea was, could you do something with them before they went to school that would enable them to succeed?”
The Carnegie Corporation’s intensive work with preschool children was successful in improving their first grade performance, but they were only able to reach a few thousand of the 4.5 million children who were entering first grade every year. “There was a huge difference between what we were able to do with these experiments and the larger social problems we were trying to address.”
His Daughter’s Love of TV Hatched an Idea
In 1965, Lloyd and Mary Morrisett’s daughter Sarah was three years old and fascinated by the TV. “She would get up on Sunday morning, turn on the TV, and watch the station identification signal, waiting for something to happen! She also picked up jingles she heard from various ads.”
Around the same time, Dr. Morrisett attended a dinner party hosted by TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney. “At the dinner, I asked her if she thought TV could be used to help teach children. I don’t even know why I asked that question! She said she didn’t’ know but wanted to talk about it.”
After conducting a feasibility study that showed positive potential for the idea, Morrisett and Ganz Cooney set to work on raising funds. Meanwhile in 1969, the Public Broadcasting Act was passed and PBS was created. The duo now had the money and the station, but they needed the content for the show.
Finding Jim Henson and the Name Sesame Street
“We held five seminars to source content and decide how the show might be done. We invited many people from TV, and Jim Henson was one of them. He was skeptical at first, but he joined the group. Out of those seminars, we got the beginning of the curriculum, and the nucleus of the staff to produce the show.”
The final piece to the puzzle was naming the show. “On a staff retreat, someone came up with the name Sesame Street. Everybody liked that idea, sort of like ‘open sesame.’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Sesame Street has aired for 47 years in over 140 countries and is the most decorated children’s show in television history. It revolutionized the way millions of children from around the world watch TV and learn.
Dr. Morrisett remains humble about his work on Sesame Street. “I never imagined my work in psychology would lead to Sesame Street. Remember, it was all an experiment — we didn’t know if it was going to work!”
Life at Vi at La Jolla Village
A few years ago, Lloyd and his wife Mary decided it was time to think about a place to “grow older.” While Lloyd has done little to lessen his busy schedule – he’s still on the Sesame Street Board of Directors – the couple moved to Vi at La Jolla Village in 2013.
Today, Mary enjoys tending to her balcony garden and serves on Vi at La Jolla Village’s Building and Grounds committee, while Dr. Morrisett is on the Budget Oversight Committee.
“I had planned to return to the piano when I got here to Vi at La Jolla Village, but it’s hard to believe, I have very little free time,” he said. “But I’m still hoping!”