Bob McGrath, the Sing Along With Mitch tenor who portrayed the friendly music teacher Bob Johnson for more than four decades as an original castmember on Sesame Street, died Sunday at home with his family in New Jersey. He was 90.
“Hello Facebook friends, the McGrath family has some sad news to share,” McGrath’s family posted on his Facebook page Sunday. “Our father Bob McGrath, passed away today. He died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family.” (Hollywood also paid tribute to the actor on social media.)
Born on a farm in Illinois, McGrath was one of the four non-Muppet castmembers when Sesame Street debuted on public television stations of Nov. 10, 1969.
With no acting experience, producers always told him to be himself. Over the years, he sang dozens of the show’s signature tunes, including “Sing, Sing a Song” and “The People in Your Neighborhood,” and shared many a scene with Oscar, the grouchy Muppet voiced by Caroll Spinney.
McGrath and Oscar “were sort of like the Odd Couple,” he told Karen Herman during a 2004 conversation for the TV Academy Foundation website The Interviews. “Oscar was always having a rotten day, and I’m ‘Mr. Nice Guy.’”
He remained with the legendary kids show until it was announced in July 2016 that he would not return for its 47th season, though he continued to represent Sesame Street at public events.
McGrath had enjoyed a recurring gig singing songs in Japanese and English in Japan and was studying acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio for about a year when he had a chance meeting in 1969 with David Connell, a former fraternity brother at the University of Michigan, while he was waiting for a bus in front of New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Connell had recently left the CBS kids show Captain Kangaroo to join the new Children’s Television Workshop as vp in charge of production, and he asked McGrath if he might be interested in auditioning for a new children’s TV show he was setting up.
“Not in the least,” McGrath said, but he changed his mind a couple months later when Connell reached out again and showed him test pieces featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets.
“It took me about two minutes before realizing that I wanted to do this show more than anything else I could ever think of,” he said in 2015. “I was so overwhelmed by the brilliance of…Jim and [fellow Muppeteer] Frank Oz and everything else that was going on.”
McGrath and Loretta Long (as nurse Susan Robinson), Matt Robinson (her husband, science teacher Gordon) and Will Lee (candy store owner Mr. Hooper) taped five one-hour pilots that were shown to hundreds of kids across the U.S., and they went on to shoot 130 one-hour episodes during Sesame Street‘s first season.
“We knew we were on to something good almost from the get-go,” he said.
One of five kids, Robert Emmett McGrath (named for an Irish patriot) was born June 13, 1932 on a farm between the towns of Ottawa and Grand Ridge. His mother, Flora, was a pianist who could play by ear, and when he was 5, he began performing in local theaters. At 9, he won a talent contest at an NBC radio station in Chicago.
McGrath had his own local radio show while he attended Marquette High School, and as a voice major at the University of Michigan School of Music, he became the first freshman soloist of the glee club.
After graduation in 1954, he was attached to the Seventh Army Symphony in Stuttgart, Germany, during his two-year stint in the service. Then, while working on his master’s degree in voice at the Manhattan School of Music, he was hired to teach music appreciation and theory to youngsters at the St. David’s School.
For the next two years, McGrath sang Gregorian chants at funerals; recorded with Igor Stravinsky; performed in the chorus for Leonard Bernstein, Robert Shaw and Fred Waring; did jingles for commercials; and sang on such TV shows as the Hallmark Hall of Fame and The Bell Telephone Hour.
In 1961, McGrath joined the new Sing Along With Mitch in the 25-man chorus. The NBC program was headlined by Mitch Miller, a classical oboe player and top Columbia Records A&R executive who conducted an orchestra and chorus performing old-time songs. Viewers were presented with lyrics at the bottom of the TV screen so they could sing along, which made for a “great family experience,” McGrath noted.
Two years into the show, McGrath sang “Mother Machree” for a St. Patrick’s Day telecast and was promoted to featured male soloist at double his salary. (Leslie Uggams, who started on the show when she was 17, was a featured female soloist.)
After Sing Along With Mitch concluded its four-year run in 1964, Miller and company performed at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas and then on a 30-date tour of Japan, where the program had aired on NHK television.
“We had four and five thousand teenagers at every concert,” McGrath recalled. “We were quite amazed — why are these teenagers listening to all these old songs? They watched the show because they were very anxious to learn English; we sang clearly, and the [lyrics were on the screen].”
When he sang in Japanese, he was greeted with chants of “Bobu! Bobu!” and learned that there were McGrath fan clubs all over the country.
After the tour ended, he returned to open the Latin Quarter and Copacabana nightclubs in Tokyo and would come back often during the next three years for concerts, albums, commercials and TV shows. He even performed at a small private dinner for Japan Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.
In the U.S., “voices like mine are not really in season,” he told The New York Times in 1967. But [in Japan], they say an Irish tenor is just right for sentimental Japanese songs.”
McGrath said he couldn’t “pretend to speak Japanese” but studied song lyrics “phonetically and then with the meaning matched to the words.”
In 1965, he performed “Danny Boy” in Japanese on The Tonight Show — that went over big in his concerts — and later appeared on the game shows To Tell the Truth and I’ve Got a Secret.
McGrath said that his two favorite moments on Sesame Street were the 1978 episode “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” that riffed on The Gift of the Magi and a poignant 1983 segment that addressed the death of Lee’s Mr. Hooper. (Lee, with whom McGrath had shared a dressing room, died of a heart attack in December 1982 while the show was on hiatus.)
“On recording day, we rehearsed everything for several hours, totally dry with no emotion, just saying the words,” he recalled. “When it was time to go to tape, we filmed with full, raw emotions, which were very difficult to contain. We were barely able to keep it together, with tears in our eyes, because we were really reliving Will’s wonderful life on Sesame Street for all of those years.
“When we finished filming, [writer-director] Jon Stone wanted to redo one little section. We got about two minutes into the segment before Jon told us to forget it. We couldn’t take it, we were all just breaking up. So what you see in the episode is the first and only take of that whole show.”
The sweater-loving McGrath also appeared in Sesame Street specials as well as in the films Follow That Bird (1985) and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999); wrote several children’s books, including 1996’s Uh Oh! Gotta Go! (about potty training) and 2006’s Oops! Excuse Me Please! (about manners); released albums like 2000’s Sing Along With Bob and 2006’s Sing Me a Story; and performed with symphony orchestras all over the country.
He also hosted the annual CTV telethon Telemiracle, which benefits people with special needs in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, every year but one from 1977 until 2015.
Survivors include his wife, Ann, whom he married in 1958 — she was a nursery school teacher at St. David’s when they met — three daughters and two sons; and eight grandchildren.
In his TV Academy Foundation interview, he talked about the “fame” that Sesame Street brought him.
“I had a little boy in a store one time and he grabbed my hand, I thought he had mistaken me for his father,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Hi,’ he said, ‘Hi.’ I said, ‘Do you know my name?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Bob.’ I said, ‘Do you know where I live?’ He said, ‘Sesame Street.’… I said, ‘Do you know any of my other friends on Sesame Street? He said, ‘Oh, the number seven.’ I figure, I’m right up there with the numerals.”
He also described his “all-time favorite letter” that came to the show: “This parent wrote in and said their little 4- or 5-year-old girl had come running into their room waking them up one morning startled and said, ‘Mommy! Daddy! My pillow!’ And they said, ‘What is it?’ And she said, ‘It’s a rectangle!’ It was the discovery of her life.”
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