Gerald Lesser, one of the early shining lights in the development of “Sesame Street,” died September 24 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 84. As chairman of the board of advisers for the show, he transformed educational television for children by making it fun. A Harvard psychologist, Lesser had a deep knowledge of child development and introduced that to television. In the process, he broke down the barriers between education and entertainment.
Lesser was influential in developing the idea that the show’s characters — a grouchy monster. a goofy yellow bird or a bright green frog — could teach children the value of accepting others’ differences. Lesser also exported these ideas, helping other countries design their own versions of the show.
Lesser began working on “Sesame Street” in 1969. Lewis Bernstein, executive vice-president at Sesame Workshop, who worked with Lesser from 1972 until his retirement in 1996, said that what he remembered most about Lesser was his warmth and innate ability to be happy.
“He was sunshine,” Bernstein said. “He was a lot of fun to work with.”
Lesser always found a way to lighten up the pedagogical process in the early days of the show. “In academic discussions, there would be these little internecine debates. He would say. “‘C’mon Bud,’ – he’d call everybody Bud—‘it’s a television program we’re talking about here,’” Bernstein said.
Lesser taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 1963 to 1998. His classes were rigorous but remembered for their sense of collaboration and good humor. “He drew the best out of people,” David Kleeman, a former student, said.
He was also a mentor and followed the careers of his students. Kleeman, now president of the American Center for Children and Media, was once invited to speak to Lesser’s class. As he was introduced, Lesser displayed the term paper Kleeman had written at age 18 — complete with hand-drawn illustration by his college roommate on the front page. “Not only did he keep it,” Kleeman said, “he remembered where it was.”
Lesser encouraged his students and colleagues to be innovative. He was an empiricist, always telling people to experiment to see if new ideas worked before rejecting them.
His legacies, Kleeman said, were his ideas. “A lot of the people he trained and his ideas are still around. All of these things can keep going on.”