Bob McGrath, who played the sweater-clad neighborhood music teacher and general advice-giver on “Sesame Street” for almost half a century, died at his home in New Jersey on Sunday morning. He was 90.
McGrath’s daughter Cathlin McGrath confirmed his death by email Sunday. She said McGrath died from complications after a stroke.
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 show 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 would be different.
“Sesame Street” had its premiere in November 1969, with McGrath and other cast members gathered around an urban brownstone stoop, in front of the building’s dark green doors, beside its omnipresent collection of metal garbage cans. His character, conveniently and coincidentally named Bob, was reliably smiling, easygoing and polite, whether he was singing about “People in Your Neighborhood” (the butcher, the baker, the lifeguard), discussing everyday concerns with young humans and Muppets, or taking a day trip to Grouchytown with Oscar the Grouch.
Viewers were outraged when McGrath and two other longtime cast members – Emilio Delgado, who played Luis, and Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon – were fired in 2016. When HBO took over the broadcasting rights to “Sesame Street,” their contracts were not renewed.
But McGrath took the news graciously, expressing gratitude for 47 years of “working with phenomenal people” and for a whole career beyond “Sesame Street” of doing family concerts with major symphony orchestras.
“I’m really very happy to stay home with my wife and children a little bit 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 minutes more.”
Robert Emmett McGrath was born June 13, 1932, in Ottawa, Illinois, 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 McGrath’s mother, who sang and played the piano, recognized his talent by the time he was 5. He was soon entering and winning competitions in Chicago and appearing on radio. He studied music privately but, as a practical matter, intended to study engineering.
But he was invited to attend a music camp outside Chicago the summer after his high school graduation. Teachers there encouraged him to change his plans, and he “did an about-face,” he remembered in a 2004 video interview for the Television Academy Foundation.
He majored in 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 7th Army Symphony. Then he went to New York, where he received a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
He took a job with 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” came along. He was one of 25 male singers who appeared every week on that show, on NBC, performing traditional favorites like “Home on the Range,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”
As St. Patrick’s Day approached, the program’s host and producer, Mitch Miller, asked McGrath if he knew the song “Mother Machree.” He was so impressed with McGrath’s rendition and his light lyric 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 in Japan. That led to an unusual chapter in McGrath’s career: teenage idol.
Schoolgirls chanted 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 on which he was accompanied by a shakuhachi, or bamboo flute. Back home, he amused American television viewers by singing “Danny Boy” in Japanese.
When “Sesame Street” began, it led to a very different collection of albums for McGrath, with names like “Sing Along With Bob” and “Songs and Games for Toddlers.”
The show was originally intended for children ages 3 to 5, but from the beginning it also attracted older boys and girls. Adult sensibilities were considered too, even in teaching the letters of the alphabet. At the Florida Supercon event, he and Delgado remembered that the sentiment “I love my X” made adults laugh and the song “Letter B” was a parody of a Beatles song.
He also learned American Sign Language, which he used regularly on camera with Linda Bove, a cast member who was born deaf.
Asked about important memories of his years on the series, McGrath often named the 1983 episode devoted to children’s, adults’ and Muppets’ reactions to the death of Will Lee, who had played Mr. Hooper on the show for 13 years. Another favorite was the holiday special “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” (1978), particularly the Bert and Ernie segment inspired by the O. Henry story “The Gift of the Magi.”
In 1958, McGrath married 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 Ann McGrath, who is 89, and their five children, Liam McGrath, Robert McGrath, Alison McGrath Osder, Lily McGrath and Cathlin McGrath, as well as eight grandchildren. He is also survived by an elder sister, Eileen Strobel.
“It’s a very different kind of fame,” Bob McGrath reflected in the Television Academy interview about his association with “Sesame Street.”
He recalled a little boy in a store who came up to him and took his hand. At first he thought he had been mistaken for the child’s father. When he realized that the boy seemed to think they knew each other, 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?”
“Yep,” the boy answered and promptly gave an example: “Oh, the number 7.”
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