Bob McGrath helped teach generations of Americans how to read and count as one of the original cast members of "Sesame Street," but the Army veteran lived a fascinating life before he helped launch the program in 1969.
McGrath died from complications of a stroke at age 90 on Dec. 4, 2022, at his home in New Jersey. He had retired after being fired from "Sesame Street" in 2016 after 47 years of playing music teacher Bob Johnson. Fans who had grown up with the show were devastated when the show let him go, along with his fellow cast members, Emilio Delgado (Luis) and Roscoe Orman (Gordon).
McGrath might be best known as the guy who sang "People in Your Neighborhood," a song that introduces children to all the jobs that adults around them might have.
Bob McGrath was born in Ottawa, Illinois, in 1932 and majored in voice at the University of Michigan before joining the Army in 1954. He spent most of his service in Stuttgart, Germany, where he performed with the Seventh Army Symphony.
After his military service, McGrath obtained a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Most kids who grew up watching "Sesame Street" will be shocked to learn that McGrath was a TV star long before he joined forces with Big Bird and Oscar. He got his first big break on the NBC television series "Sing Along with Mitch," which highlighted McGrath's tenor voice and his formal music training.
His appearances on the show made him something of a teen idol in Japan, where teenagers screamed his name when the cast toured the country after "Sing Along with Mitch" ended. McGrath learned to sing in Japanese, released several albums and singles and toured the country nine times over the next few years.
The singer wasn't interested when a friend first told him about "Sesame Street." He wasn't familiar with the Muppets, even though Rowlf the dog had starred alongside USAF veteran Jimmy Dean on "The Jimmy Dean Show," and the puppets had appeared in popular television commercials. When he was convinced to watch some test footage of the show's animation and the Muppets, McGrath knew he wanted to do the show.
McGrath often said his favorite episode of "Sesame Street" was the 1983 show taped after the death of actor and World War II veteran Will Lee, who played the beloved shopkeeper Mr. Hooper. "Sesame Street" wanted to explain why Mr. Hooper was no longer on the show and had the adult characters explain what death means to a confused Big Bird.
Four decades later, that episode still has all the power it did when it was first broadcast. As we remember Bob McGrath, it's worth watching the Army veteran's favorite moment again and thinking about how much he meant to American children.
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