Bob McGrath, the longtime star of "Sesame Street," died Sunday, Dec. 4, in his home in Norwood, New Jersey, while recovering from a recent stroke. He was 90 and always pointed to his US Army service during the Cold War for launching his career in music and television. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
Bob McGrath, the US Army veteran whose service in Germany during the Cold War launched him on a career in music, writing, and a star-making run on TV’s Sesame Street, has died.
McGrath passed away Sunday, Dec. 4, in his home in Norwood, New Jersey, after suffering a stroke. He was 90 and was best known to generations of children as Sesame Street’s Bob Johnson, a role he played for 47 years.
“He died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family,” announced his relatives Sunday on the entertainer’s official social media sites.
“Bob embodied the melodies of Sesame Street, and his performances brought joy to children around the world, whether teaching them the ABCs, the people in their neighborhood, or the simple joy of feeling music in their hearts,” added the Sesame Workshop in a prepared statement. “A revered performer, Bob’s rich tenor filled airwaves and concert halls from Las Vegas to Saskatchewan to Tokyo and will echo through the years as new generations discover the music of Sesame Street that Bob McGrath loved so well.”
Bob McGrath, from the original cast of Sesame Street (right) and singer Tony Bennett perform as Big Bird looks on at the Sesame Street Workshop 35th Anniversary Gala on June 4, 2003, in New York City. Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images.
Born in Ottawa, Illinois, on June 13, 1932, McGrath studied music at the University of Michigan.
After graduating in 1954, he was drafted into the US Army and posted to the Stuttgart-based 7th Army Symphony Orchestra.
Before it was disbanded in 1962, the orchestra was a key cultural weapon deployed by the US Army to win the hearts and minds of war-ravaged Europe as a Cold War pitting the democratic nations and the Soviet Union descended across the continent.
McGrath helmed the orchestra’s Soldier Show Division, conducted the symphony’s chapel choir, and created a male quartet that placed second in the All-Army talent competition, leading to a monthlong tour in France performing at US Army bases, according to his website.
Bob McGrath and the cast of "Sesame Street" speak at the 2010 AFTRA AMEE Awards at The Grand Ballroom at The Plaza Hotel on Feb. 22, 2010, in New York City. Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for AFTRA.
In an interview seven years ago for the Kids Can Groove website, McGrath thanked the Army for giving him his first professional gig because it catapulted him into a life of theatrical and television performances.
“I spent two years in Germany, booking for the 7th Army Symphony in Europe, and also performing,” McGrath said. “I came to New York to get a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music between ’56 and ’59, as well as auditioned for a wide variety of opportunities using my musical background. I freelanced with NBC, musical television specials, did late night Rock n’ Roll backgrounds, recorded under Igor Stravinsky, and performed concerts under Pablo Casals and Leonard Bernstein doing symphonic choral work in Carnegie Hall.”
After his honorable discharge, McGrath brought his talents as a tenor to Mitch Miller’s Sing Along with Mitch program from 1960 to 1964, and cut an album with the choral director in 1965.
After the singalong program got canceled, McGrath briefly became a headliner in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn before embarking on a tour as a balladeer and folk singer with a string of hit songs in Japan for both the Nippon Columbia and Sony CBS labels.
Cast members of the television show "Sesame Street" pose on the set with some of the puppet characters. Left to right: Will Lee (1908 - 1982), Matt Robinson (1937 - 2002), Bob McGrath, and Loretta Long, with (left to right) Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, Ernie, Bert and Oscar the Grouch. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
In 1969, McGrath was hoping to capitalize on his fame in Japan by starring in a TV show in America modeled on programs fronted by Andy Williams and Perry Como. When longtime friend Dave Connell left Captain Kangaroo for the Children’s Television Workshop and tried to cast McGrath for the Sesame Street pilot, the singer told him, “Not in the least!”
McGrath said he changed his mind a few months later after viewing footage created by Jim Henson and his Muppets, realizing that Sesame Street was unlike any other program in children’s broadcasting.
He became one of four adult actors picked to anchor five one-hour programs. He remained in the cast until retiring in 2016, although he continued making public appearances on behalf of the show’s studio until shortly before his death.
He's survived by his wife of 64 years, Ann (née Sperry) McGrath, five children, and eight grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
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Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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