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Column: Remembering Bob McGrath from “Sesame Street”
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

You might not know the name Bob McGrath, but mention Bob from “Sesame Street” and it strikes a chord with many.

McGrath, who was on the landmark TV show for nearly 50 years, died last week at the age of 90.

He got his start on TV as a member of the chorus on “Sing Along With Mitch,” the show started by Mitch Miller. He was often a featured performer on Miller’s show.

A few years later, he ran into a fraternity brother who was working on CBS’s morning kids show “Captain Kangaroo.” He told McGrath about a show that was being developed for public television.

McGrath became a member of the first adult cast of “Sesame Street,” a place he would find a home for the next half-century.

I was about to outgrow “Sesame Street” when it came on the air. But I can remember McGrath’s smooth tenor voice and his singing with the Muppets. I will always remember his rendition of “The People in Your Neighborhood.” He would sing the song he wrote about policemen, firemen, postmen grocers and other Muppets who portrayed them.

He also sang “Sing a Song,” a tune that also found success with The Carpenters.

Many of the songs on the show were not just sung by Bob — he wrote many of them, too.

McGrath found his voice early on. His mother, who sang and played the piano, entered him in singing contests. He also found popularity on radio stations’ talent contests. He became a member of the 25-member Mitch Miller group, which sang weekly on network TV. He eventually became the featured singer with the ensemble. 

After the show left TV, the group performed for an extended time in Las Vegas and then did a 30-stop tour of Japan, where McGrath developed a young following. He eventually learned to sing some of his U.S. songs in Japanese and recorded an album.

He wasn’t very excited about the idea of a kids show, but 47 years later, he was still going strong. In 2016, when HBO took over broadcasting rights, his contract was not renewed.

Bob portrayed the music teacher who lived on Sesame Street. He appeared with Gordon, Susan and Mr. Hooper, the grocer played by actor Will Lee. Lee died in 1982 and the show explaining Mr. Hooper’s death won an “Emmy.”

It was the first time a children’s program had approached the subject of death. That’s still a tough one, but we need to be honest with our kids and not just tell them that grandpa went to sleep or is in a better place.

McGrath’s words about Mr. Hooper were long remembered

“You’re right, Big Bird,” said Bob. “It will never be the same without him. But you know something? We can all be very happy that we had a chance to be with him and to know him and to love him a lot when he was here.”

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns publish weekly.