Serbian “Great Retreat” Begins

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 210th installment in the series.  

November 17-24, 1915: Serbian “Great Retreat” Begins

By the second half of November 1915 Serbia was staring annihilation in the face: on November 16 the victorious Bulgarians captured the town of Prilep and the Babuna Pass, opening the way to Monastir in southwestern Serbia (now Macedonia). On November 20 the French relief force, cut off from the Serbs by the Bulgarian conquest of the Vardar River Valley and its strategic railroad, began withdrawing to their base at the Greek port of Salonika, while to the north the Austro-Hungarians conquered the territory known as Novibazar (which was, in a convoluted way, one of the main causes of First World War). 

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There was no question about Serbia’s fate now. But rather than accept defeat the Serbian government, led by Prime Minister Nikola Pasic, made the heroic decision to abandon their homeland and fight on from exile. From the beginning they knew this plan would mean death for many thousands of soldiers and civilians. As the armies of the Central Powers closed in from the north and east, the only possible avenue of escape lay to the southwest, over the towering Korab and Prokletije mountain ranges of Albania, both part of the Dinaric Alps (below, part of the Korab range). 

The “Great Retreat” (not to be confused with the Russian Great Retreat earlier in 1915) would take the remnants of the Serbian Army, along with hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, across some of the roughest terrain in Europe in the middle of winter (“Prokletije” translates as “Accursed Mountains” in Serbian; image below). They set out on this journey, challenging under the best of circumstances, with no more than a week’s rations and insufficient cold weather gear. Pack animals struggled to climb mountainsides turned to trackless wastes by several feet of snow, and what little shelter there was belonged to hostile Albanian villagers, who robbed and killed stragglers (perhaps in retribution for Serbian brutality in the First Balkan War).

No surprise, then, that the Great Retreat is still remembered as one of Serbia’s worst ordeals, as around 70,000 soldiers and 140,000 civilians froze, starved to death, died of disease or were killed by bandits between November 1915 and February 1916. Out of around 400,000 people who set out on the journey, just 130,000 soldiers and 60,000 civilian refugees arrived at the Adriatic coast to be evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu. 

By late November the weather was already turning against them, with autumn rains turning primitive roads into expanses of mud, followed not long after by snow. The British war correspondent Gordon Gordon-Smith described the miserable conditions as Serbian troops retreated from the town of Mitrovica in the middle of the night: 

By the light of the guttering lantern swinging above the door of our café, I could see company after company, squadron after squadron, and battery after battery pouring past. Hour after hour the steady “tramp, tramp” of thousands of feet echoed in the narrow streets. It was four o’clock in the morning when the last battery rumbled through, the roll of the wheels drowning the soft patter of the oxen drawing the guns. And then it began to rain, and such rain!... It came down in sheets, it came down in buckets, it rained ramrods. The gutters in the centre of the streets became rushing torrents, while Niagaras poured from all the overhanging eaves. 

Even before they reached the mountains, freezing weather was taking its toll on the starving animals, according to Gordon-Smith, who witnessed the final passage over the famous Kosovo Polje, or Field of Blackbirds, from November 20-25: 

As far as the eye could reach, the snow-covered plain of Kossovo extended on every side. Every feature of the landscape was blotted out by a shroud of snow feet deep. Over this, long lines of snow-clad figures could be seen moving, the columns extending for miles… By this time the wind had fallen, and the curious silence which accompanies heavy snow reigned everywhere. In every direction were the ghostly columns plodding in single file over fields and long roads. On all sides were dead horses and oxen, singly and in heaps, half buried in snow, with swarms of carrion crows whirling and croaking overhead. 

Olive Aldridge, a British nurse following the same route, remembered passing the first corpses by the roadside, as well as the suffering of prisoners of war even worse off than their captors: 

A few hours after leaving Prishtina and within a few miles distance of each other, five men were stretched out stiff and lifeless across our path. Nobody took any notice of them: all passed by, just stepping over or round the dead bodies. The driver of my ox waggon caught my glance as we passed the second man, but the only comment he made was “Niye dobro” (not good)… One saw, too, many hungry Austrians… Many of them were literally starving. They would come to us with clasped hands begging for bread, but we had nothing to give them. It was terrible, for in many cases we knew that within the next few days they would be dead, and would never see their homes or their country again. 

On November 23, as Pristina and Mitrovica fell to the Central Powers and the Serbian government abandoned Prizrend, its last temporary capital in Serbia, the defeated Serbian Army split into four columns and headed west into the mountains of Albania and Montenegro. Their only hope was reaching the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where Allied ships would rescue them from the Albanian ports of San Giovanni di Medua, Durazzo, and Valona. 

The army’s rock-bottom morale was boosted somewhat by the presence of the ailing, 71-year-old King Peter, who had stepped aside in June 1914 to let his son Prince Alexander rule as Regent but now resumed his throne to face the crisis with his people. The elderly monarch, who was almost blind, traveled through the mountains riding in an ox cart (below). 

In the snow-covered mountains, hunger, exposure and disease killed Serbian soldiers and civilians, as well as POWs traveling with them, by the thousands. Donovan Young, a British junior officer attached to the Serbian Army, recalled: 

We awoke one morning to the fact that snow lay from three to four feet on the ground… Day and night we were exposed to the full blast of the blinding sleet and cold… Our rations became increasingly short, and very soon we were faced with hardships which was impossible to contend with. Men went down in dozens from frostbite. It was a common event to see a man suddenly fall into the snow, frozen stiff and insensible, or a man half lying, half kneeling at the entrance of the hole he had scraped for himself, quite unconscious. 

Similarly, Gordon-Smith described the horrifying scenes that greeted refugees following in the footsteps of the retreating columns: 

Up and up we went, thousands and thousands of feet. Every few hundred yards we came on bodies of men frozen or starved to death. At one point there were four in a heap. They were convicts from Prisrend penitentiary, who had been sent in chains across the mountains. They had been shot either for insubordination or because they were unable to proceed. Two other nearly naked bodies were evidently those of Serbian soldiers murdered by Albanians. 

Despite everything, like some other observers and participants in the war, Gordon-Smith was still able to recognize transcendent beauty in the midst of horror, highlighting the insignificance of humanity in the face of nature:

By midday we reached the summit of the mountain, a wind-swept plateau several thousand feet above the level of the sea. For fifty miles extended range upon range of snow-clad mountains, the crests of which had never been trodden by the foot of man. Nothing could be seen but an endless series of peaks, glittering like diamonds in the brilliant sunshine. The scene was one of undescribable grandeur and desolation.

But these moments of beauty were fleeting, while the scenes of suffering became ever more frequent and shocking:

After traversing the plateau we began the descent, skirting the edges of precipices of enormous height and traversing narrow gorges running between towering walls of black basalt. Every few hundred yards we would come on corpses of Serbian soldiers, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups. One man had evidently gone to sleep beside a wretched fire he had been able to light. The heat of it had melted the snow, and the water had flowed over his feet. In the night during his sleep this had frozen and his feet were imprisoned in a solid block of ice. When I reached him he was still breathing. From time to time he moved feebly as if trying to free his feet from their icy covering. We were powerless to aid him, he was so far gone that nothing could have saved him. 

Britain Implements “Derby Scheme” with Threat of Conscription 

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Britain was unique among the Great Powers in having an all-volunteer professional army that was much smaller than the conscription-based forces maintained by the continental states – reflecting the centuries of security afforded by Britain’s “Splendid Isolation,” behind the protective barrier of the Channel. 

By autumn 1915 the traditional system was under attack, however, as the war’s vast manpower requirements quickly outstripped Britain’s tiny army. The British Army that went to war in July 1914 had been virtually wiped out by the end of that year, much of it at the desperate First Battle of Ypres; and while hundreds of thousands of patriotic young Britons enlisted voluntarily to form Secretary of War Lord Kitchener’s “New Army” in 1914-1915, grievous casualties at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert, and above all Gallipoli and Loos had once again cut wide swathes in the ranks. 

Indeed, Britain was rapidly catching up with the other belligerents in terms of both military strength and casualties, although huge discrepancies remained. By November 1915 Britain had mobilized 94 divisions and sustained well over half a million casualties, including around 150,000 dead (with over 100,000 of these on the Western Front), over 60,000 taken prisoner, and 340,000 wounded. For comparison, by November 1915 France had mobilized 117 divisions and suffered around two and a quarter million casualties, including roughly 680,000 dead, 300,000 taken prisoner, and 1.5 million wounded (may of the wounded returned to duty and sustained multiple wounds, so they are counted twice). 

On the other side the Central Powers, led by Germany, were doing their utmost to mobilize untapped manpower as well, relying almost entirely on conscription. Bulgaria’s entry into the war in October 1915 immediately added twelve divisions, and millions of new recruits inducted by Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in 1915 would allow them to begin fielding dozens of new divisions beginning in early 1916. 

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At the same time, after a promising start in 1914 and the first half of 1915 Britain’s own voluntary recruitment efforts were lagging, as the first burst of patriotism wore off and horror stories from the front filtered back via letters, news accounts and men on leave (as the aftermath of Loos showed, there was only so much censors and propaganda could do to cover up the truth). 

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This was especially ominous because, looking ahead, Lord Kitchener estimated Britain would need at least another million men to carry on the war in 1916, as France was fast approaching its maximum strength and Russia (though still able to draw on massive reserves of manpower in the long run) was temporarily out of the game following huge losses in the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive of mid-1915. In short, disaster was looming if British recruiting continued to fall short. 

This was the background to the “Derby Scheme,” a last-ditch attempt to fill the ranks through voluntary recruiting alone – although “voluntary” proved to be a relative term. The scheme was named for Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, who was appointed Director-General of Recruiting on October 5, and oversaw a national program whose goal was to strongly encourage eligible men to enlist, using every means short of compulsion, including social pressure and public shaming. 

The Derby Scheme built on earlier efforts to come to grips with the manpower problem. In August 1915 a small army of 40,000 census takers had surveyed the population and drawn up a registry of around 5.1 million men of military age in England and Wales. Of these, it was determined that 1.5 million were in “reserved” occupations in some way essential to the war effort. Another quarter were assumed to be probably unfit due to physical or mental shortcomings. That left somewhere between 2.7 and three million men of military age who qualified for military service but had not yet enlisted. 

Public Shaming

Beginning October 16, Derby’s office sent forms to every household in England, Wales, and Scotland, encouraging all men ages 19-41 to either join the army immediately, or make an official declaration of their willingness to join at a later date if needed. In order to “persuade” young men to embrace their patriotic duty, the Scheme employed a range of high-profile tactics including posters, banners, flag ceremonies, parades, announcements before and after music hall performances, and newspaper editorials. 

Beyond that, in each town and village it also relied on local notables, friends and family members – especially women and children – to cajole and if necessary shame young men into signing up. Men who had signed up, declared their willingness to do so, or received exemption because they were in war essential industries received a khaki armband to wear in public (below); everyone else was fair game, and “shirkers” were liable to be given a white feather by women in a public place, signifying cowardice. 

It would be hard to exaggerate the intense feeling in all the belligerent nations around the subject of “shirkers” or “slackers.” In August 1915 Private Robert Lord Crawford, serving as a medical orderly on the Western Front, wrote in his diary: 

Talking with men back from leave. They all seem to have had words with slackers they met everywhere at home. I observe the growth of resentment against this desertion of us – I hear threats of what should and will be done after the war, and I doubt not that, though many would forgive, there are some who will carry their threats into effect… The excuse that the country doesn’t realise the situation can no longer be pleaded, unless indeed we acknowledge ourselves to be a nation of idiots. 

Meanwhile John Ayscough, a Catholic chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force in France, wrote to his mother, complaining that “there are two or three millions in Great Britain who could and should come, but they stick at home, and let married men and only sons and widows’ sons come. Lots of the wounded we get here are quite old fellows.”

Even worse, foreign troops couldn’t fail to notice the reluctance of some young British men, heightening public embarrassment among the proud English. Yusuf Khan, an Indian soldier, wrote a letter home in October 1915 that combined contempt with a bit of inaccurate rumor-mongering: 

The news here is that the white men have refused to enlist… An Indian black man went off to preach to them. He asked them if they were not ashamed to see us come from India to help the King while they, who were of the same race, were refusing to help him. But really, the way these whites are behaving is a scandal. Those who have already enlisted have mutinied. 

Again, these attitudes were evident across Europe. In his play The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus includes a scene in which “The Grumbler” dismisses a naïve statement by “The Optimist” asserting that young men in Vienna were eager to go to the front. Thanks in part to the rickety public telephone system, “The Grumbler” gets to listen to the plans of draft dodgers taking advantage of official corruption to stay out of the trenches: 

I don’t get around much. But my phone is on a party line… Ever since the outbreak of the war, which has in no way improved the national telephone service, the conversations concern yet another problem, and every single day, whenever I am called to the telephone to listen to other people talk to each other, which is at least ten times every day, I hear conversations such as these: “Gus went up and got things fixed.” “And how is Rudi doing?” “Rudi went up, too, and he also got things fixed.”…

It’s worth noting that these attitudes, while common, weren’t universal; a strong current of pacifism, especially among socialists, positively discouraged military service. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, was on sentry duty in the Baltic port of Memel as 1915 drew to a close, and recalled one occasion when:

… a lad aged about seventeen came along and chatted with me. He wanted to volunteer to join the army. I advised him not to and described life on the Front to him in a way that made his hair stand on end. “No, if it’s like that, I would rather wait until I am called up.” “Even then it will be too early,” I said. He thanked me and went away. I had the feeling that I had done a good deed. 

In the same vein, in his novel and memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque bitterly criticized schoolteachers like the unflattering character Kantorek, who pressured their students into joining the army early: 

There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best – in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly. For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future… The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more human wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces… We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through. 

It was apparently a common occurrence for teachers to shame students into joining up before they were conscripted. In Arnold Zweig’s novel Young Woman of 1914, the character David Wahl noted the activity of one particularly disliked teacher, “The Bedbug”: 

“The fact is,” he went on, “no one can hold out any more at school. The masters treat a fellow with open contempt. There are now only eight left in the Lower Sixth, all the others have given in… The Bedbug honored them with a funeral oration, which contained sundry hidden threats and allusions to certain football players and swimmers who would do well to take a lesson from those departing.” 

Many young people privately lamented the unfairness of a situation in which old men declared war but young men had to do the actual fighting and dying. The English diarist Vera Brittain later recalled: “The war, we decided, came hardest of all upon us who were young. The middle-aged and old had know their period of joy, whereas upon us catastrophe had descended just in time to deprive us of that youthful happiness to which we had believed ourselves entitled.” Similarly in April 1915 a German soldier, Wilhelm Wolter, wrote in a letter home:

People are always saying that it is easier for the young men to face death than for the older ones, the fathers of families and others. I hardly think so, for such a man knows – at least, if he has been conscious of any mission in life – that he has at any rate partially fulfilled it, and that he will survive in his works, of whatever kind they are, and in his children. It can’t be so hard for him to die in a just cause.

The Derby Scheme Fails 

In Britain the Derby Scheme soon ran into some difficulties. Most importantly, it was widely assumed that single men without families would be the first to be called up, but married men (and their wives) wanted guarantees they wouldn’t have to go until all the available single men had enlisted. On November 2, Prime Minister Asquith made a vague statement to that effect in Parliament, but the lack of specifics only generated more confusion and anxiety. Above all, married men wanted to know, what would happen if not enough single men volunteered? The answer would inevitably involve conscription. 

On November 19, 1915, Lord Derby wrote a letter to Asquith to clarify the terms under which married men promised to join the military. According to the press bureau which publicized the letter and Asquith’s response (see poster below), the prime minister confirmed his statement on November 2, promising: 

Married men will not be called upon for war service before young unmarried men. If the latter do not offer themselves in adequate numbers, voluntarily, the married men who have offered as recruits will be released from any pledge, and a bill will introduced compelling young men to serve. If this Bill should not pass, the married men will be automatically released. Mr. Asquith, in his reply, says the letter correctly expressed the Government’s intention. 

In short, it was up to Britain’s male citizens whether the country would retain its tradition of voluntary military service or be forced to resort to conscription; either way, however, young men were going to join the army. Also on November 19, Lord Derby extended the deadline for men to declare and be attested from November 30 to December 11, 1915; this marked the beginning of the final phase of the Derby Scheme, with the threat of conscription hanging over the country if voluntary enlistment failed. 

Fail it did, as many expected (including Lord Derby, in private). From October to December, the Derby Scheme produced 215,000 direct enlistments in the military. Furthermore, out of 2.2 million single men of military age, only 840,000 declared themselves willing to serve if necessary – and over 200,000 of these were in “reserved” occupations (which might explain their willingness to volunteer, since they were much less likely to actually be called up) while another 220,000 were rejected as unfit. Meanwhile over a million unmarried men had not made any declaration or openly refused to enlist, of whom 650,000 were not in reserved occupations; in other words, the men most liable to service had (unsurprisingly) stayed away. 

Now there was no way around the issue: on December 14, 1915 a Cabinet committee began considering how to implement compulsory conscription, and on December 20, Lord Curzon and Leo Amery began drafting a bill to introduce to Parliament in the New Year. One of Britain’s proudest traditions was about to become a casualty of war. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

50 Fun Facts About Sesame Street

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Getty Images

On November 10, 1969, television audiences were introduced to Sesame Street. In the 50 years since, the series has become one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids.

1. The idea for Sesame Street came from one very simple question.

Publicity still of the Sesame Street Muppets taken to promote their record album, 'Sesame Country,' July 1, 1981
Children's Television Workshop, Courtesy of Getty Images

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the original idea for Sesame Street came about during a 1966 dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, who was a producer at New York City's Channel 13, a public television station. Lloyd Morrisett, an experimental educator at the Carnegie Corporation, was one of Cooney's guests and asked her the question: "Do you think [television] can teach anything?" That query was a all it took to get the ball rolling on what would become Sesame Street.

2. Sesame Street almost wasn't Sesame Street at all.

When the idea for Sesame Street was first being talked about, the original title being discussed was 123 Avenue B. Eventually, that title was nixed for both being a real location in New York City that would place the show right across from Tompkins Square Park, and also for being too specific to New York City.

3. Kermit the Frog was an original cast member.

Kermit the Frog
PictureLake/iStock via Getty Images

Before he became the star of The Muppet Show (and the various Muppet movies), Kermit the Frog got his start as a main character on Sesame Street.

4. Kermit was very similar to his creator.

Most people considered Kermit the Frog to be an alter ego of creator Jim Henson.

5. Carol Burnett appeared on Sesame Street's first episode.


BY CBS TELEVISION - EBAY, PUBLIC DOMAIN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Guest stars have always been a part of the Sesame Street recipe, beginning with the very first episode. "I didn't know anything about [Sesame Street] when they asked me to be on," Carol Burnett told The Hollywood Reporter. "All I knew was that Jim Henson was involved and I thought he was a genius—I'd have gone skydiving with him if he'd asked. But it was a marvelous show. I kept going back for more. I think one time I was an asparagus."

6. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange.

Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two. How did the show explain the color change? Oscar said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

7. Cookie Monster isn't Cookie Monster's real name.

During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

8. C-3P0 and R2-D2 paid a memorable visit to Sesame Street.

In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

9. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name.

It's Aloysius. Aloysius Snuffleupagus.

10. Ralph Nader appeared in an episode.

Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

11. Oscar the Grouch is partly modeled after a taxi driver.

A scene from 'Sesame Street'
Zach Hyman, HBO

Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

12. In 1970, Ernie became a music star.

In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

13. Count von Count isn't the only Count on Sesame Street.

One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

14. Afghanistan has its own version of Sesame Street.

Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover, and Elmo are involved.

15. Cultural taboos prevented Oscar and the Count from being a major part of Baghch-e-Simsim.

According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

16. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul's Gus Fring played Big Bird's camp counselor.

Giancarlo Esposito in 'Breaking Bad'
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

17. The big in Bird Bird's name isn't a misnomer.

How big is Big Bird? 8'2".

18. Being that big of a bird requires a lot of feathers.

Sesame Street Characters (L-R) Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Abby Cadabby attend HBO Premiere of Sesame Street's The Magical Wand Chase at the Metrograph on November 9, 2017 in New York City
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images for HBO

In order to craft Big Bird's iconic yellow suit, approximately 4000 feathers are needed.

19. Cookie Monster has an British cousin.

His name, appropriately, is Biscuit Monster.

20. South Africa's version of Sesame Street features an HIV-positive Muppet.

In 2002, the South African version of Sesame Street (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

21. Kami has caused some political discord.

Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS's funding.

22. "Guy Smiley" is just a stage name.

Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

23. The Count is really, really old.

The Count was born on October 9, 1,830,653 BCE—making him nearly 2 million years old. Try putting that many candles on a birthday cake!

24. Bert and Ernie have spent years explaining, and defending, their relationship.

Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmire, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay."

A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

25. Sesame Street's first season had a few superhero guest stars.

In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what to watch on TV. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

26. Originally, only Big Bird could see Snuffy.

In Sesame Street's third season, audiences were introduced to Mr. Snuffleupagus, Big Bird's BFF. There was only one problem: Big Bird (and, by extension, the audience) were the only people who were able to see Snuffy, leading the show's human stars to believe that Snuffy was an imaginary friend. It was a running joke that went on for nearly 15 years.

27. The decision to stage an episode where everyone finally met Snuffy came from a somewhat dark place.


Sesame Workshop

After 14 years of nobody but Big Bird being able to see Snuffy, Sesame Street's producers were confronted with some rather surprising information: There was a growing concern that the adult humans on the show not believing Snuffy existed might lead some children to believe that adults, in general, didn't always believe kids. This was particularly concerning to the show's producers when it came to cases of child abuse, where kids might be afraid that telling their parents would solve nothing. And so, Snuffy was finally introduced to the world!

28. Telly wasn't always Telly.

Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

29. Sesame Street is home to the only non-human who has testified before Congress.

Photo of Elmo from 'Sesame Street'
iStock

According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

30. Rumors once circulated that Sesame Street was planning to kill off Ernie.

In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

31. The Count wasn't always so nice.

Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

32. Most Muppets only have four fingers.

According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

33. The episode featuring Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day for a very particular reason.

The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

34. Big Bird offered a gut-wrenching tribute to Jim Henson at the Sesame Street creator's memorial service.

Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

35. Israel's version of Sesame Street has its own version of Oscar the Grouch.

Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Cookie Monster evolved from a different snack-obsessed character.

Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

37. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster isn't into cookies at all.

Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

38. Roosevelt Franklin was disliked by some parents, so was fired from Sesame Street.

Sesame Street's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

39. Roosevelt Franklin wasn't the only Muppet to get the boot.

Roosevelt Franklin isn't the only Muppet living on Abandoned Muppet Island. Harvey Kneeslapper, Professor Hastings, Don Music, and Bruno the Trashman are a few of the others who didn't make the cut.

40. Don Music's head-banging tendencies led to some at-home injuries.

The aforementioned Don Music was a frustrated composer who never seemed satisfied with the tunes he composed. As such, his musical sessions often ended with him banging his head on his piano keys in frustration. "The character, played by Richard Hunt, was abandoned because of complaints about his alarming tendencies toward self-inflicted punishment," author David Borgenicht wrote in his book, Sesame Street Unpaved. "Apparently, kids were imitating his head-banging at home."

41. The puppeteers have a few standard rules.

Because Sesame Street's puppeteers work in very close quarters throughout much of the day, Carmen Osbahr—who operates Rosita—told The Hollywood Reporter that "We have a few rules here: Always deodorant, never onions."

42. Puppeteering can be a dangerous job.

Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney operates Big Bird
Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film

Legendary puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who operated both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from 1969 to 2018, has shared a couple of war stories about what it's like for the folks standing behind the boards. In a 2015 interview with Bullseye, he revealed that he cannot see out of Big Bird's costume (he has a monitor he watches instead). He also shared some tales about the one time he almost caught on fire ... and the other time he did. He explained:

"Suddenly I'm looking down inside [the costume] and I said, 'Something feels hot!' I looked down and I see an orange flame and it started getting long enough to go inside the suit, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' I said, 'Hey, I'm on fire' ... One of the cameramen, Richie King, he saved my life. He went over and he patted the flame out with his hand."

43. The show has regularly tackled some touchy issues.

While Mr. Hooper's death is probably the most memorable incident of Sesame Street tackling a challenging issue for kids, it's hardly the only time. Over the years, the series has taught kids about racism, AIDS, and 9/11.

44. Sesame Street has inspired a lot of bizarre fan theories.

Sesame Street Muppets.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Kids are a curious sort, so it was only a matter of time before they started to ask questions about their favorite Sesame Street residents—like what kind of bird is Big Bird anyway? The invention of the internet, of course, has helped some of the more bizarre fan theories gain widespread interest and popularity. Like the rumor that the Count likes to snack on children.

45. There were never any plans to turn Cookie Monster into Veggie Monster.

In 2005, Sesame Street made healthy eating one of its main themes for the season—which led to some speculation that Cookie Monster might be trading in his cookies for something a bit more green and healthy. But these rumors were just that: rumors!

46. The show has racked up a ton of awards over the years.

Given the show's half-century of popularity, it's hardly surprising to learn that Sesame Street has racked up dozens of awards over the years. So far, it has earned 193 Emmy Awards, 10 Grammy Awards, and five Peabody Awards—and shows no signs of stopping there.

47. It's one of the America's longest-running scripted series.


Children's Television Workshop, Getty Images

At 50 years old, Sesame Street is one of the longest-running scripted series on television. Its main competition comes from soap operas like Guiding Light (which ran for 57 years before calling it quits in 2009), General Hospital (which has been on the air for 56 years, and counting), Days of Our Lives (55 years so far), and As the World Turns (which ended its 54-year run in 2010)

48. There are versions of Sesame Street all over the world.

According to Sesame Workshop, there are currently more than 150 different version of Sesame Street—in 70 different languages—being produced around the world.

49. Sesame Street is about to make history at the Kennedy Center Honors.

In December 2019, Sesame Street will receive a Kennedy Center Honor—making it the first TV show ever to earn the distinction.

50. Sesame Street is now a real street in New York City.

'Sesame Street' Muppets under a street sign that reads '123 Sesame Street'
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In early 2019, Sesame Street finally became a place in the real world. In honor of the show's 50th anniversary, and its impact on New York City in particular, the intersection of West 63rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan was rechristened as "Sesame Street."

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

David Hasselhoff's Strange Connection to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Americans might know David Hasselhoff best as the star of pre-peak television series Knight Rider and Baywatch. But in Germany, he’s been a popular singing attraction since 1985, when his album Night Rocker became a sensation. In June 1989 Hasselhoff released Looking for Freedom, an album with a title track that seemed to speak directly to citizens in European countries seeking democracy. That track had been playing since 1988 in anticipation of the album’s release.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Was it coincidence, or did Hasselhoff help incite a revolution?

In a new interview with Time, Hasselhoff takes no credit for that seismic change in Germany, despite the fact that some of the actor's fans have knitted the two memories—his popularity and the dissolution of the wall—together, leading some to believe he was partly responsible. Some of the same people who began chipping away at the wall dividing East and West Germany had been humming the song for months prior. Some have even told Hasselhoff his music helped inspire change. Others held up signs thanking him for the fall of the wall.

“You’re the man who sings of freedom,” a woman once told Hasselhoff, before asking for his autograph.

The wall, of course, came down rather abruptly, shortly after a premature announcement that East Germans could take advantage of relaxed travel restrictions, and Hasselhoff demurs when asked if he played a role. “I never ever said I had anything to do with bringing down the wall,” he told Time. “I never ever said those words ... There was the guy from Knight Rider singing a song about freedom. Knight Rider was sacred to everyone and hopefully we’ll bring it back as a movie. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right song. I was just a man who sang a song about freedom.”

After the wall fell, Hasselhoff was invited to sing on a crane hovering over its remains on New Year’s Eve in 1989, which you can witness in the video above. Hasselhoff recently returned to Berlin for another series of concerts to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the wall being torn down.

[h/t Time]

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