Obituary: Jon Stone
Tuesday 22 April 1997
Regarded as one of the best writers of children's television, Stone helped to create such beloved characters as Big Bird, the Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch, that have been a staple of childhood entertainment since their creation nearly 30 years ago.
Over the course of his career he won 18 Emmy Awards - the television equivalent of the Oscars - and was widely credited as being the major creative force behind Sesame Street, the educational programme for children learning to read and write, which relied heavily on cartoons and puppets to convey its message and, at the peak of its popularity, was watched by eight out of ten US pre-school children. In collaboration with Jim Henson, he wrote Sex and Violence with the Muppets, the template for the extraordinarily popular The Muppet Show.
Educated at Pomfret School in Connecticut, Stone graduated in music from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1953 and, hoping to become an actor, received a masters degree from the Yale University School of Drama in 1955. Instead he moved into television production, with early credits including Captain Kangaroo, a children's film festival for CBS, and, with Jim Henson, a series called Hey, Cinderella.
In 1968 Stone helped bring Henson into the creative team working on the first episodes of Sesame Street. Stone was the original head writer and producer of the show and remained its principal director until last year. "He was probably the most brilliant writer of children's television in America," said Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the programme's co-founders.
Stone's brilliance was to be able to create characters that appealed not only to children but to adults. "He managed to give them a satiric and edgy kind of humour at the same time," said Christopher Cerf, a creative contributor on the show.
In creating Big Bird, a man-sized yellow bird, Stone and Henson wanted to instil curiosity in children. "They wanted a character who was bigger than the kids but didn't know everything," said Cerf, "They wanted to show that everyone makes mistakes, including adults, that big characters have things to learn, so they came up with this huge bird."
Stone was also the producer, director and writer of a number projects involving Sesame Street characters, including the travelogues Big Bird in China (1983) and Big Bird in Japan (1989). Both shows, Stone later explained, were an extension of the philosophy that the programmes should be more than a children's show. "We set out to make a show that children and adults could watch together, and children could ask questions," he said.
Stone was also the writer of children's books, including The Monster at the End of This Book (1971), a Muppet tale featuring another furry monster, Grover. The book sold more than 10 million copies and was followed by Another Monster at the End of This Book last year.
If there was any character that Stone most closely resembled himself it was Oscar the Grouch. "Oscar was a character who was very contrary and would make outrageous statements about everything, but . . . he showed tolerance for different points of view," said Cerf.
"John was that way himself, he never took himself too seriously and loved to be silly and outrageous. He was a little bit of an anarchist. He loved it if there was a sketch in which he could throw puppet sheep up in the air."Jon Stone, television producer, director and writer: born New Haven, Connecticut 1932; married (two daughters); died New York 29 March 1997.
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