Obituary: Jeffrey Moss
Thursday 08 October 1998
It was this very concern that Joan Ganz Cooney tried to address when she set up the Children's Television Workshop in New York at the end of the Sixties. With the help of the puppeteer supremo Jim Henson, she created Sesame Street, one of the first American programmes to appeal to children of a pre-school age. Using primary colours and the quick-cutting techniques of commercials, the revolutionary daily show became a surrogate teacher for millions of American children and was syndicated to 130 countries around the world (Channel 4 still broadcasts it on weekdays at lunchtime).
The versatile writer and composer Jeff Moss was one of the major contributors to Sesame Street, creating characters like Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch, dreaming up storylines and, along with Joe Raposo, penning hundreds of whimsical ditties ("Captain Vegetable", "The People in Your Neighbourhood", "Dee Dee Dee, But I Like You", "Up Goes the Castle", "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon") for most of the cast.
Over the course of nearly 30 years, his work on the educational show won Moss 14 Emmy and four Grammy awards. His musical score for The Muppets Take Manhattan movie, released in 1984 and directed by Frank Oz, also earned him an Oscar nomination.
Born in New York in 1942, Jeffrey Moss grew up in a creative environment. His actor father and writer mother had a great fondness for classical music and Broadway show tunes. Their encouragements were soon rewarded as the young Jeffrey began composing poetry and tunes while studying classical music at Browning High School in New York. Upon graduating from Princeton University in the mid-Sixties, Moss was offered the pick of two jobs at CBS television. His already fertile imagination couldn't possibly fit the news writer job description and he plumped for the position of production assistant on Captain Kangaroo, a children's programme.
He quickly became one of the show's main writers. Indeed, he was so prolific and distinctive that Joan Ganz Cooney and Jim Henson noticed his work. In 1969 they had launched the Children's Television Workshop to help plug the yawning gap in US television schedules which hardly catered for pre- school infants. Illiteracy was a concern and television chiefs felt that teaching small children was a natural area for the fledgling public broadcasting system to move into. A lot of money was invested in Sesame Street with the hope that it would teach inner-city children some of the basic skills they would need in later life.
Jim Henson headed the Sesame Street creative team and conjured up a playground replica in which fluffy and furry creatures (Fozzie Bear, Big Bird, Grover) could interact with real and fictitious children (Bert, Ernie) and big guest stars (everyone from Julie Andrews to Celine Dion via Cyndi Lauper).
Jeff Moss proved a very valuable member, both as tunesmith and soundboard. When Henson was stuck with Boggle Eyes as the nickname for one of his creations, Moss saw the potential and appeal of a character obsessed with two things toddlers could identify with: milk and cookies. The Cookie Monster was born. Voiced and animated by Frank Oz, the cuddly creature became a favourite around American households and helped Jeff Moss gain cult status amongst adults.
Though, like most of the original Sesame Street team apart from Henson, he hadn't yet become a parent, the writer had a knack for getting into children's psyches and homing in on what made them tick without ever being patronising. "I look at kids as being us, but younger," Moss would say in interviews. "What makes kids laugh is the same as what makes us laugh. And losing something or someone dear to you is also universal. The key is to keep the vocabulary simple so children can understand it. That way you keep the kids watching and smiling and it's something you watch yourself."
To help parents bathe recalcitrant infants, Moss composed "Rubber Duckie", one of Ernie's catchiest songs and a million-selling single in 1970. To promote naps and give adults a breathing space, Moss devised an episode entitled "Quiet Time". To teach children about the environment, he composed "I Love Trash" which became the signature tune of Oscar the Grouch, a character living in a garbage can.
Ironically enough, this proved one of the contentious points when the BBC passed on the chance to buy and broadcast the show: a British audience would have expected words like rubbish and dustbin. Cultural and linguistic differences were not the only reasons for the BBC's decision; cost and the refusal of the Children's Television Workshop to sell segments of the show rather than complete programmes also came into it. Eventually, London Weekend Television took the plunge and Sesame Street has since remained a feature of the commercial television landscape in the UK with a regular slot on Channel 4.
Alongside his constant contributions as chief writer on Sesame Street, Moss helped out on various Muppet Show projects as Kermit and Miss Piggy- led spin-offs were syndicated around the world. He also wrote a dozen popular books published by the Sesame Street franchise. Yet, he still found time to collect three volumes of his poetry aimed at children: The Butterfly Jar (1989), The Other Side of the Door (1991) and Bone Poems (1997), the last created with the assistance of the American Museum of Natural History.
Constantly buzzing with ideas, he also penned short stories. Bob and Jack: a boy and his yak (1992), Hieronymus White: a bird who believed he was always right (1994) and The Dad of the Dad of the Dad of Your Dad (1997) proved especially popular during his chat-show, radio and personal appearances, though Moss also took great delight in imagining other adults reading them to children.
Over the years, many performers such as the Boston Pops, Johnny Cash and even the late French teen idol Claude Francois recorded or adapted Moss songs. In the theatre, Moss wrote scores for Double Feature and Sweetness, which were performed on the New York stage.
According to colleagues, Moss had hidden his colon cancer for years and, on the day he died, was still hard at work on a song called "You and You and Me". It was tailor-made for Elmo, Ernie and Telly, three hapless characters trying to figure out who should go through a door first.
"From the beginning, Jeff played a critical role in the educational and creative standards of Sesame Street which led to the instant success of the show. He was a true music visionary. His wonderful lyrics and music reflected the mood and the style of the show: fun, energetic, sometimes sentimental and always entertaining," said Joan Ganz Cooney. A few years ago, Newsday, the New York daily paper, had already nicknamed him the children's poet laureate.
Jeffrey Moss, songwriter, composer, lyricist, poet, writer: born New York 1942; married Annie Boylan (one son); died New York 25 September 1998.
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