Ernie, the famed Sesame Street puppet, has long been an important part of Dr. Lori Arnold-Grine’s life, particularly in the classroom. So when chronic illness forced her to give up her teaching career earlier this year, the idea that she might just get to meet the Ernie at his actual Sesame Street home seemed almost surreal.
In the fall of 2011, Heidelberg hosted Sesame Street Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente as the keynote for The Patricia Adams Lecture Series. Lori, who taught early childhood education in the School of Education, struck up a friendship with Parente through her work on the PALS planning committee and during the event. The two have maintained email contact over the past year.
It was through that friendship that the trip for Lori, Heidelberg class of ’84, her husband, Mark, and son Kaleb materialized. “When Carol-Lynn was here, I told her about my journey (with illness) and that (a visit to sesame Street) was on my bucket list. I had mentioned that I’d like to make the trip while I was still able.”
Parente’s response: “Let’s make it happen.” And she promised Ernie would be available for a photo shoot on the day of the Grines’ visit.
The day arrived and they boarded the subway to Astoria and the Sesame Street studios. Turns out the studio is rather nondescript on the outside. But a world of wonder revealed itself once they entered. They got a full tour – the taping room, the props room and there, inside a large, open space, they saw the famed Sesame Street doors and other recognizable sights such as Hooper’s Store, the street sign, Big Bird’s nest and even Oscar’s trash can.
“All the parts were there,” said Lori, adding that the family got to watch the taping of an episode from inside Hooper’s store. The Muppeteers would not break character through filming, even during breaks; that didn’t stop them from cracking jokes and making puns. “Everyone was a lot of fun and really engaged with us.”
“It was very interesting to see how much time goes into making one segment,” Lori said. The day of their visit, the characters were taping a scene with Rositta, Baby Bear, Chickens and Telly, who – ironically – was playing the role of a teacher.
Through the taping and tour, there was no sign of Ernie. Finally, after a somewhat humble inquiry, Ernie was brought out for a tightly controlled photo shoot. “It seemed so surreal at the time,” Lori said. Although Ernie was not contracted to be part of the filming that day, Parente had made special arrangements for him to be brought to the studio to meet Lori. It may sound cliché, but it was a dream come true.
“I was so grateful that Ernie made a special appearance for me, thanks to Carol-Lynn’s efforts,” she said. “He was just how I expected him to be … warm and friendly. There’s just something about him that I’ve always connected with.”
The trip wasn’t without its obstacles, however, and Lori wondered if it might not happen. Just days earlier, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast. There were a lot of anxious moments, watching news of airport delays and weather forecasts. The day of her visit – Nov. 12 – was Sesame Street’s first day back in production after the storm.
While in Manhattan, Lori also visited the Muppet What Not shop inside the FAO Schwarz store, where she had the opportunity to craft her own colorful muppet. She named him Mannie (short for Manhattan) and is in the process of giving him his own identity. “I hope Ernie won’t be jealous,” she joked. She plans to use Mannie in her church ministry and other callings.
Ernie need not worry. He’ll always be a part of Lori’s story and her life journey.
The trip, which also included experiencing “The Lion King” on Broadway, Central Park, Rockefeller Center and a quick tour of lower Manhattan storm damage, was definitely a peak in a series of valleys and mountaintops for Lori. She had not planned to not be teaching at this stage of her life, but trusts that it is part of God’s plan for her.
“God has a way of working these things out,” she said. “That is what got me there.”
Along with sharing her photos and memories, Lori’s message is also about making those connections and relationships that can come back as a blessing.