Bob McGrath, longtime ‘Sesame Street’ star, dies at 90

Bob McGrath, who played the sweater-wearing neighborhood music teacher and general counselor on “Sesame Street” for nearly half a century, died at his home in New Jersey on Sunday morning. He was 90.

Mr. McGrath’s daughter Cathlin McGrath confirmed his death by email on Sunday. She said Mr McGrath died of complications following a stroke. She said that the night before Mr. McGrath died, his family had decorated his room for Christmas and sang and danced around him. “We just knew he would go the way he lived.”

Mr. McGrath wasn’t particularly interested when an old Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brother stopped him one night to tell him about his new project, a children’s program on public television. But then he had never heard of Jim Henson, the puppeteer, and he had never seen a Muppet. After his first meeting and a look at some of the animation, he knew this show was going to be different.

“Sesame Street” premiered in November 1969, with Mr. McGrath and other cast members gathered around an urban brownstone rise in front of the building’s dark green doors next to its ubiquitous collection of metal trash cans. His character, conveniently and casually named Bob, was reliably smiling, relaxed and polite, whether he was singing about “People in your neighborhood” (the butcher, the baker, the lifeguard), discusses everyday concerns with young people and the Muppets, or takes a day trip to Grouchytown with Oscar the Grouch.

Viewers were outraged when Mr. McGrath and two other longtime cast members — Emilio Delgado, who played Luis, and Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon — were fired in 2016. When HBO acquired the broadcast rights to “Sesame Street,” their contracts were not renewed.

But Mr. McGrath took the news graciously, expressing gratitude for 47 years of “working with phenomenal people” and for an entire career beyond “Sesame Street” of doing family concerts with major symphony orchestras.

“I’m really, really happy to stay home with my wife and kids a little more,” he said at Florida Supercon, an annual comic book and pop culture convention, later in 2016. “I’d be so greedy if I wanted five more minutes. “

Robert Emmett McGrath was born on June 13, 1932, in Ottawa, Ill., about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. He was the youngest of five children of Edmund Thomas McGrath, a farmer, and Flora Agnes (Halligan) McGrath.

Robert’s mother, who sang and played the piano, recognized his talent when he was 5. He soon entered and won competitions in Chicago and appeared on the radio. He composed musical pieces and studied privately, but practically intended to study engineering.

But he was invited to attend a music camp outside of Chicago the summer after his high school graduation. The teachers there encouraged him to change his plans, and he “made a U-turn,” he recalled in one Video interview from 2004 for the Television Academy Foundation.

He studied voice at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1954. He spent the next two years in the Army, mostly in Stuttgart, Germany, where he worked with the Seventh Army Symphony. He then went to New York, where he received a master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music.

He took a job at St. David’s, a private boys’ school in Manhattan. Freelance singing assignments, obtained through a vocal contractor, paid the bills until 1961, when “Sing along with Mitch” Come with me. He was one of 25 male singers who appeared each week on that show, on NBC, performing traditional favorites such as “Home on the Range”, “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “I’ll take you home again, Kathleen.”

When St. Patrick’s Day approached, the show’s host and producer, Mitch Miller, asked Mr. McGrath if he knew the song”Mother Machree.” He was so impressed with Mr. McGrath’s interpretation and his light lyrical tenor—he had been singing the sentimental Irish-American number since he was a little boy—that he doubled his salary and made him the show’s featured male soloist.

After “Sing Along With Mitch” ended in 1964, the cast played Las Vegas and did a 30-stop tour of Japan. That led to an unusual chapter in Mr. McGrath’s career: teen idol.

Schoolgirls shouted his name at concerts and organized fan clubs. Their demand brought him back to Japan nine times over the next three years, and he recorded nine albums there, singing in both English and Japanese. His repertoire included Japanese folk ballads whereupon he was accompanied by a shakuhachi or bamboo flute. Back home, he entertained American television viewers by singing “Danny Boy” in Japanese.

When “Sesame Street” began, it led to a very different collection of albums for Mr. McGrath, with names like “Sing Along With Bob” and “Songs and Games for Toddlers”.

He also learned American Sign Language, which he used regularly on camera with Linda Bove, a cast member who was born deaf.

Asked about key memories from his years on the show, Mr. McGrath often the 1983 episode devoted to the reactions of children, adults and Muppets to the death of Will Lee, who had played Mr. Hooper in the program for 13 years. Another favorite was the holiday special “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” (1978), especially the Bert and Ernie segment inspired by the O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi”.

In 1958, Mr. McGrath dated Ann Logan Sperry, a preschool teacher whom he met on his first day in New York City. They had five children.

He is survived by Ms. McGrath, who is 89, and their five children, Liam McGrath, Robert McGrath, Alison McGrath Osder, Lily McGrath and Cathlin McGrath, and eight grandchildren. He is also survived by an older sister, Eileen Strobel.

“It’s a very different kind of fame,” reflected Mr. McGrath in the Television Academy interview about his association with “Sesame Street.”

He remembered a little boy in a shop who came up to him and took his hand. At first he thought he had been mistaken for the child’s father. Realizing that the boy seemed to think they knew each other, Mr McGrath asked: “Do you know my name?” “Bob.” “Do you know where I live?” “Sesame Street.” “Do you know any of my other friends on Sesame Street?”

“Yes,” replied the boy, promptly giving an example: “Oh, the number 7.”

Livia Albeck-Ripka contributed with reporting.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button