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Cooney, Joan Ganz

Joan Ganz Cooney

Born: November 30, 1929
Phoenix, Arizona Former president, Children's Television Workshop

Armed with a degree in education and a knowledge of the power of television, Joan Ganz Cooney changed how young children learn. Before she helped start Sesame Street, the few educational television shows available were usually boring. Cooney realized kids would be more likely to watch shows that used the best techniques of commercial programs, such as humor and music, along with the repetition featured in TV advertising. Along the way, kids watching these entertaining shows could also learn.

"TV is often the catalyst that drives us to read more about something we only learn in sketch from the tube. But even if TV isn't a back door into books, as we hope it can be, if you can only teach with television, isn't that better than not teaching at all?"

The success of Sesame Street helped its producer, Children's Television Workshop (CTW), create educational material in many forms. It also made Cooney one of the most respected educators in the United States. In 1995, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. government can give to a civilian. As President Bill Clinton (1946-) honored Cooney, he noted how she "has proven in living color that the powerful medium of television can be a tool to help build young lives up rather than tear them down."

Determined to Make a Difference

Joan Ganz was born on November 30,1929, in Phoenix, Arizona. She was the youngest of three children born to Sylvan and Pauline Ganz. Her father was a banker, and in 1970, Ganz told the Arizona Republic her family was not "social-worker-minded." Her interest in helping others, particularly the less fortunate, came mostly from a discussion class she took at North Phoenix High School. Another important influence on Ganz was the Christophers, a national Christian group founded by Father James Keller. The Christophers encouraged Catholics to share their values with society in general, especially through the media.

After high school, Ganz enrolled at a Catholic college in California, then transferred to the University of Arizona. She graduated in 1951 with a degree in education. Her first job was writing for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. In 1954, she headed east, taking a job in publicity in New York for the National Broadcasting Company. The next year, she began doing publicity for a popular dramatic series, The United States Steel Hour, a position she held for seven years.

In 1962, Ganz moved from TV publicity to production. Although unskilled in that area, she managed to land a job making documentaries for WNDT, the public television station in New York. During her five years at the station, she married Timothy Cooney. (They divorced in 1975, and she married Peter Peterson in 1980.) She also met Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Corporation, who shared her interest in using television to educate young, poor children. When Morrisett helped her get a grant to study educational TV, Cooney leapt at the chance. She told Working Woman in 1981, "I could make a thousand documentaries on poverty and poor people but I was never really going to have an influence on my times. I wanted to make a difference."

Paving the Way for Sesame Street

For her study, Cooney crisscrossed the United States, talking to child psychologists and educators. Her conclusion was that the time was right to use television to teach preschoolers, especially from poor families. Morrisett then worked to get the funding for the organization that became CTW, which was launched in 1968. At first Cooney was not sure what role she would play at CTW. She told Richard M. Polsky, author of Getting to Sesame Street, "I think initially I saw myself as a number two somewhere, but that was during the study. Once we got rolling, I don't think I would have accepted less than the top spot."

Jim Henson: The Muppet Man

Joan Ganz Cooney, a woman with a commitment to education, was responsible for creating Sesame Street. The show might never have succeeded, however, without the creative genius of puppeteer Jim Henson. His Muppets, including Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and the Cookie Monster, helped give the show humor and warmth. Whether working for the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) or with his own staff at Jim Henson Associates, Henson always sought a challenge. "Most people think of work as something to avoid," he told People in 1983. "I think of work as something to seek."

Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1936. His family later moved to Maryland. While he was still in high school, Henson began working with puppets on a Washington, D.C., television station. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, he was given his own five-minute show, Sam and Friends. One of Henson's first creations was a puppet with halves of a ping-pong ball for eyes. This creature eventually became one of the most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog. Henson took the name "Muppet" from a combination of "marionette" and "puppet," since his characters used both strings and hands for their movement.

After graduating from college in 1960, Henson began taking his Muppets on national television shows and commercials. Henson's partners included his wife, Jane, and puppeteer Frank Oz, who helped bring some of the Sesame Street characters to life. As Henson worked with the Muppets, he began to explore filmmaking. That skill proved useful when he worked on Sesame Street. Henson also created new puppetry techniques. His puppeteers followed the Muppets' actions on television screens as they worked, helping them match their words with the movements of the characters' lips. Henson's methods let live actors interact with the Muppets in a convincing way.

As Sesame Street became more popular, the Muppets began appearing on many of the products licensed by CTW. Children around the world probably knew the faces of Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, and the rest of the gang as well as they knew their own families. Henson also created Muppets for his own TV program, The Muppet Show, and several Muppet movies. By the early 1980s, Henson was building new creatures not related to the Muppets, such as Fraggles, who appeared in their own show on the cable TV network HBO.

Henson was considered one of the true gentlemen of the entertainment world, a shy man who spoke through his puppets. Co-workers never heard him say a cross word. In 1990, Carroll Spinney, who played Big Bird for many years, told People, Henson "would never say he didn't like something. He would just go 'hmm.' And if he liked it he would say 'Lovely.'" Henson died in 1990 from bacterial pneumonia. At his funeral service, his daughter Cheryl read words he had written a few years before his death: "My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better than when I got here." Millions of Sesame Street fans would say he met his goal.

Cooney took the title of executive director (later president and chief executive officer) of CTW. She hoped to film a second program, a half-hour show for parents, but lack of funds killed this idea. Instead, Cooney and CTW focused on producing a one-hour children's show that would broadcast five days a week across the country. For creative assistance, she turned to Jon Stone, who served as head writer. He helped design the street scene used as the setting for the live parts of the show and created the program's overall look. Stone also introduced Cooney to puppeteer Jim Henson, who created the Muppets for the show.

Before the first episode of Sesame Street ran in November 1969, Cooney traveled to public television stations across the country, convincing them to run the program in the mid-morning, a "prime time" for preschoolers. She also talked to local school officials, telling them about the show and its purpose. Although Cooney believed in the show, no one knew how well Sesame Street would do since it was an experiment. Soon, however, Cooney and the staff at CTW saw it was a wildly successful experiment.

Shaping a Visionand a "Corporation"

Cooney wanted to give young children a solid foundation in numbers and letters, but she also felt that Sesame Street could address larger social issues. From the beginning, the show had African American and white actors working side-by-side; the first Hispanic Americans joined the cast in 1972. Les Brown, a noted television critic, wrote in Variety in 1969, "If racial peace and harmony ever visit this country, Sesame Street may be one of the reasons why."

Cooney also had the show's writers deal with such issues as adoption, anger, and family relations. The messages were always accompanied by music and visuals that stayed current with trends in popular culture. In one of the most memorable episodes ever, Big Bird and the rest of the cast confronted the death of Mr. Hooper, another character on the show, in 1982. The death of the actor who played Hooper led to this decision, and it created one of the most emotional Sesame Street programs ever.

Although Cooney was in charge of a nonprofit organization, she had to be concerned with making enough money to keep Sesame Street and other CTW shows up and running. Federal funds began to dry up in the early 1970s, leading Cooney to explore licensing deals with large corporations. Cooney also struggled with personal problems during the 1970sfirst her divorce and then a serious battle with breast cancer. Throughout these ordeals, she remained focused on improving CTW.

Moving on Down the Street

Even with the popular and educational success of Sesame Street, Cooney sometimes had to fight to convince others that TV could be useful for teaching children. In 1988, she called for putting a VCR in every elementary school classroom in the United States. The idea, however, met with resistance. Cooney told U.S. News & World Reports Parents and teachers are so convinced TV is a destructive force they won't even think about how to use it constructively."

In 1990, after more than twenty years as the head of CTW, Cooney resigned, but she remained on the workshop's executive committee. In that role, she still shaped new programs, such as the mystery Ghostwriter, while exploring new products for CTW. After stepping down as the head of CTW, Cooney devoted time to various charitable causes and served on the board of directors at several corporations. She also received honorary degrees from many leading U.S. universities, including Princeton and Harvard.

Cooney devoted her professional career to educating children, but the experience taught her something, too. In 1989 she told Changing Times, "We started out thinking that [television] might teach simple things. We learned you could do so much more."

Joan Ganz Cooney's honors include induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and the Women's Hall of Fame.

For More Information

Books

Brown, Les. Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1992.

Polsky, Richard M. Getting to Sesame Street: Origins of the Children's Television Workshop. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.

Periodicals

Baldwin, Kristin. "Keeping the Clouds Away." Entertainment Weekly (February 14, 1997): p. 50.

Bauder, David. "'Sesame Street' Getting Huge Makeover." AP Online (February 2, 2002).

Berlau, John. "Who Receives the Big Bucks from Big Bird and Barney?" Insight on the News (June 2, 1997): p. 13.

Byrne, Christopher. "Now Comes 'Baby Time!'" Playthings (October 1998): p. 88.

Conlin, Michelle. "Mass With Class." Forbes (January 11, 1999): p. 50. Greene, Michelle Y. "Children's Television Workshop Grows Up." Broadcasting & Cable (August 12, 1996): p. 44.

Katz, Michael. " The Mayor of 'Sesame Street.'" Broadcasting & Cable (April 8, 1996): p. 85.

Kramer, Michael. "A Presidential Message from Big Bird." U.S. News & World Report (June 13, 1988): p. 19.

Lystad, Mary. "20 Years on Sesame Street." Children Today (September-October 1989): p. 20.

McKurran, Kristin. "Muppet Master Jim Henson Has Another Brainchild." People (January 17, 1983): p. 39.

Moreau, Dan, and Jennifer Cliff. "Change Agents." Changing Times (July 1989): p. 88.

Schindehette, Susan. "Legacy of a Gentle Genius." People (June 18, 1990): p. 88.

Spreier, Jennifer. "Noggin Reads the Minds of Kids of All Ages with New Shows." The Dallas Morning News (March 31, 2002): p. 2.

Web Sites

The Jim Henson Company. [On-line] http://www.henson.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).

Noggin Network. [On-line] http://www.noggin.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).

Sesame Workshop. [On-line] http://www.sesameworkshop.org (accessed on August 16, 2002).

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Joan Ganz Cooney

Joan Ganz Cooney

Although few know her name, parents and children all over the world love the work of Joan Ganz Cooney (born 1929), who founded the Children's Television Workshop and created some of the most famous educational programming in television history, including "Sesame Street," and "The Electric Company."

Cooney, the youngest of three children, was born November 30, 1929, in Phoenix, Arizona, to Sylvan C. and Pauline Reardon Ganz. Her father killed himself when she was 26 years old, which, as Hilary Mills reported in Vanity Fair, sent Joan "into a long period of anorexia, which today she considers a form of passive suicide."

Early on, Cooney developed a strong sense of civic responsibility, which she credited to the influence of a priest named Father James Keller and his Christopher Movement, a 1950s Catholic group that encouraged Christians to work in communications. "Father Keller said that if idealists don't go into the media, nonidealists would," Cooney told Michele Morris of Working Woman.

Heeding Father Keller's directive, Cooney in 1951 graduated from the University of Arizona in Tucson with a degree in English, then spent a year working as a writer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. Next, she moved to New York City and found work as a soap opera publicist for NBC and then CBS television networks, where she promoted a variety show called the U.S. Steel Hour from 1955 to 1962.

Within a few years, Cooney had bluffed her way into a job producing documentaries at Channel 13, Manhattan's public television station. "I've never been qualified for any job I've been hired for," she later told Ray Robinson of 50 Plus. Lack of experience notwithstanding, Cooney continually rose to the occasion. Within four years of her hire, she won her first Emmy in an award-studded television career, for "Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor," a three-hour documentary that traced a busload of poor people confronting officials of the government's War on poverty program.

Cooney's big break came when she received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to do a study on educational programming aimed at disadvantaged children. She jumped at the opportunity to figure out a concrete way to help children. "I saw in a flash that that was where the power and influence of the medium was going to be," Cooney told Working Woman. "I could do a thousand documentaries on poverty and poor people that would be watched by a handful of the convinced, but I was never really going to have an influence on my times. I wanted to make a difference."

A Legend was Launched

By 1967, reported Peter Hellman of New York magazine, Cooney and Carnegie Corporation Vice-President Lloyd Morrisett, who arranged funding for the study, "we're convinced that a fast-paced, entertaining hour of educational TV each weekday, modeled after Laugh-In, [a comic variety show popular in the 1960s] could reach and teach pre-schoolers-especially the disadvantaged." They discovered that while middle-class children started school with a basic knowledge of letters and numbers, disadvantaged children didn't. Their study, The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education found that those same children watched an average of 27 hours of television per week. The duo figured that they could harness some of that viewing time into educational growth, like learning the alphabet.

Cooney and Morrisett managed to raise the show's first-year budget of $7 million through the U.S. government's Office of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Ford Foundation. "We had decided from the first that we wouldn't go around begging for pennies," Cooney told Peter Hellman of New York magazine. "Either we would get full funding to do the show right or we would drop it."

Children's Television Workshop has since branched out into a products division, which funds the show and others through its licenses of products ranging from books and toys to sheets, towels, and Big Bird toothpaste. The company in 1986 raised about $14 million a year from such deals.

Even after she conceptualized and raised money for the program's inauguration, the Children's Television Workshop board wasn't sure Cooney, with her relative lack of experience, was the right person to head the project. She has always given credit to her husband, Timothy Cooney, for encouraging her to hold firm for leadership of the Children's Television Workshop. "Without him," Cooney told Vanity Fair's Hilary Mills, "I don't know if I would have gone as far as I went." Joan Ganz Cooney has called Timothy Cooney, who once worked for New York City mayor Robert Wagner but quit to become a full-time activist, a "militant feminist." Married in 1964, the couple divorced 11 years later, and Joan Ganz Cooney continues to support him through alimony payments.

Sunny Days

Sesame Street began many years of sunny days with its launch in November 1969. Filmed in Queens, New York, the show, with its urban tenement setting and multicultural cast of characters, reflects a world familiar to its target audience. Hispanic, black, and white actors share the stage with puppets like Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Kermit the Frog, and loveable furry old Grover. The show frequently welcomes guests, as well, including Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, Rosie O'Donnell, Jay Leno, James Taylor, and Lena Horne. Even the Count von Count would have trouble tabulating the show's estimated 11 million weekly U.S. viewers.

Broadcast in 141 countries, Sesame Street had won a record 71 Emmys by 1998. One secret to its success is its constant evolution. "The first Sesame Street shows were aimed at two-to five-year olds, the curriculum a narrow five or six subjects," noted Dan Moreau in Changing Times. "Today the show examines more than 200, from geography to the color green." The show's writers particularly struggled over dealing with the death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, in 1982. Norman Stiles, then the head writer, remarked in New York magazine: "In any adult show, the choice would have been obvious-replace the actor or write him out of the script." Instead, the staff chose to dedicate a segment to Big Bird and others talking about his death and remembering him with fond memories. "We felt we owed something to a man we respected and loved," Stiles said.

Cooney is a constant advocate for innovation, noted Michele Morris in Working Woman. "Because she encourages the creative team to deal with current issues, such as changing male and female roles, sibling rivalry, child abuse, and death, the show stays fresh and contemporary." Led by Cooney, the Children's Television Workshop, which employs about 250 people, has gone on to produce a number of other educational shows, including The Electric Company, a reading program aimed at grade-school kids, 3-2-1 Contact, a science show that Cooney especially hoped would lure girl viewers, and Square One TV, a program about math.

No Dress Rehearsal

Cooney's career has included serving on the boards of corporations including Johnson & Johnson, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Xerox. Although she's still active in Children's Television Workshop projects, Cooney stepped down as CEO in 1990. With her husband second husband, Peter G. Peterson, a former U.S. secretary of commerce and investment banker whom she married in 1980, Cooney works with her own foundation, which focuses on children. Unable to have children of her own, she became a stepmother to Peterson's five children.

Cooney's zest for life was reinvigorated in 1975, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy, the surgical removal of both breasts. Her friend Stephen Schwarzman told Hilary Mills of Vanity Fair that "to understand Joan, you have to understand the cancer. Because of the cancer she has a policy of no bullshit. 'Life is too short, I could have checked out, I'm going to check out. There is no dress rehearsal.' That's one of her constant lines. Because of that she demands authenticity."

Further Reading

Who's Who of American Women, Reed Reference Publishing Company, 1993.

50 Plus, December 1987.

Changing Times, July 1989.

New York, November 23, 1987.

People, November 2, 1998.

Vanity Fair, August 1993.

Working Woman, April 1981; May 1986. □

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Cooney, Joan Ganz

Joan Ganz Cooney, 1929–, American television producer, b. Phoenix, Ariz. After graduating (1951) from the Univ. of Arizona, Cooney worked as a newspaper reporter and television publicist for ten years before becoming a producer at WNET, a public television station in New York City. There she developed the concepts for children's programming that led to the incorporation (1968) of the Children's Television Workshop (CTW; since 2000, Sesame Workshop); Cooney has been president since 1970. Through Sesame Street,Electric Company, and other innovative programs, CTW transformed children's television and learning. Cooney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995.

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"Cooney, Joan Ganz." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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