January 31, 2011

Sesame Street Writer, Geiss ’46, Dies

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Correction appended

Anthony Geiss ’46, a writer for the beloved children’s characters Big Bird, Kermit the Frog, Elmo and others on Sesame Street, died on Jan. 21 in Valhalla, NY. The 86-year-old Geiss had been hospitalized at Westchester Medical Center for a neck injury, The New York Times reported.

Born Nicholas Anthony Geiss to painter and animator Alexander Geiss and press agent Marjorie Thirer, Geiss encountered art from an early age. Geiss grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village, a neighborhood known for its artistic culture, which further exposed him to a culture of entertainers.

During World War II, Geiss spent two years as a radar technician in the Navy before attending Cornell in 1943.

At Cornell, Geiss began acting in theater productions in his freshman year, according to the Cornell Alumni News.

Geiss met his wife, the late Phyllis Eisen ’48, on campus. The couple was married for more than 60 years until Eisen died in 2009.

Although Geiss brought joy to many children throughout his lifetime ­— Sesame Street currently has approximately six million viewers each day, according to the Sesame Workshop website ­— he and Eisen did not have any children.

Following his time at Cornell, Geiss held positions as a press agent for Broadway shows and as a freelance writer. He joined the Sesame Street team, now called Sesame Workshop, in 1973 and contributed to the children’s television show until 2009. In the more than three decades that Geiss worked for Sesame Workshop, he turned playful puppets into household names, invented several Muppet characters such as the big-nosed Honkers and Abby Cadabby and helped win the show 22 daytime Emmys.

He also built upon the original franchise with Elmo’s World, a segment aimed at toddlers, and created the popular theme song for the show.

“Elmo loves his goldfish,” the orange-nosed Elmo sings in the show’s opening.  “His crayon, too!”

In addition to his work for Sesame Workshop, Geiss wrote screenplays for two films directed by the Disney animator Don Bluth and produced by Steven Spielberg. These films, The Land Before Time, the 1988 animated film about young dinosaurs, and An American Tail, about a young, Russian mouse who emigrates to the United States, have also become childrens’ favorites.

“Tony’s brilliant words, his sense of humor, his musical virtuosity, and his respect for children in this country and around the world, brought laughter, love and learning together for generations,” said the management and board of trustees of Sesame Workshop in a Jan. 23 statement. “His work will continue to be shown and treasured by millions for years to come.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article described Geiss as “the voice” of characters Big Bird, Kermit the Frog, Elmo and others on Sesame Street. In fact, Geiss was a writer for Sesame Street, not a voice actor.

Original Author: Margo Cohen Ristorucci