Alexandria, Va. --
For nearly 50 years, Bob McGrath has educated, entertained, and inspired generations of children from America’s most inviting neighborhood: Sesame Street. This Sunday, April 15 at 2 p.m., McGrath joins the Marine Chamber Orchestra for a special concert of classic songs and sing-a-longs from his extraordinary musical and educational career as an original Sesame Street cast member. The free concert will take place in Northern Virginia Community College’s Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria, Va.
“The concert is about community, family, joy, and how music brings everyone together,” notes Assistant Director Capt. Ryan J. Nowlin. “The program will connect with kids in real time, but also in a nostalgic way because many of the parents grew up with Bob.”
Bob’s singing career began on his Illinois family farm at the age of six. He attended the University of Michigan School of Music in Ann Arbor where he was a soloist with the men’s glee club. In 1954, he enlisted in the Army with his best friend since third grade, and after basic training at Camp Chaffee in Fort Chaffee, Ark., spent time at 7th Army Headquarters near Stuttgart, Germany, attached to the 7th Army Symphony and Soldier Show Division. He conducted the chapel choir and organized a male quartet, which placed second in the All Army talent contest. The prize was a month-long tour in France to perform for troops on U.S. Army bases.
“I had been infatuated with the military from an early age because my older brother was a pilot in the Air Force,” McGrath explained. “Being a member of the military was one of the best experiences I ever had. Not only did I get to make music, but it also gave me experience in booking performances for a touring group.”
After the Army in 1956, while working on his master’s degree in voice at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, the St. David’s School hired him to teach music appreciation and theory to second through eighth graders. For the next two years, Bob continued working as a freelance artist in New York City, performing both classical and contemporary works. He sang jingles for radio and appeared on camera in television commercials and musical television shows like “The Bell Telephone Hour” and the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” opera productions. Later, he appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “What’s My Line,” and “To Tell the Truth.”
In 1960, Bob was invited to be one of the top tenors on NBC’s new weekly television show “Sing Along With Mitch.” Two years later, Mitch invited Bob to sing alongside Leslie Uggams as the featured male soloist. The show ran for four years in the United States and became extremely popular in Japan, where McGrath was known as “Bobu.” After the show was canceled, the group continued to sing together, and McGrath headlined a month of performances in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn and went to Japan for a 30-concert tour.
“My experience in Japan was interesting because in the states, the average age of our audience members was about 50,” recalls McGrath. “But in Japan, the teenagers were avid followers of the show. I found out during the tour, that many of them were using the ‘Sing Along With Mitch’ to learn English.”
In 1969 McGrath had a chance encounter with Dave Connell, a former friend from the University of Michigan, and an original producer of “Sesame Street,” that would change the course of his career. Connell had recently left “Captain Kangaroo” and joined the Children’s Television Workshop. He asked Bob if he might be interested in auditioning for a new children’s television show. At first Bob wasn’t interested and was hoping to parlay his success in Japan into the U.S. teenage market.
A few months later, he got a call from the Workshop, requesting that he take a look at a few segments by someone named Jim Henson. Prior to this, McGrath had never heard of Henson or the Muppets, but immediately after attending a viewing he knew “Sesame Street” was going to be a very different kind of children’s show. He auditioned and was one of four actors (Bob, Susan, Gordon, and Mr. Hooper) chosen to film five one-hour pilots that premièred in 1969 on PBS.
Fans of “Sesame Street,” young and old, will recognize many of the pieces on the Marine Chamber Orchestra concert. The 50-minute program will open with “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street” and “It’s a Really Good Day.”
“Most of the program will be interactive, with visuals, sounds and storylines,” explained McGrath. “I love seeing kids and parents in the audience having a good time together and my goal is to keep everyone involved.”
Following the opening, the program immediately engages the audience with “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and “Your Face,” a McGrath original.
The program will continue with the mainstream hit “Rubber Duckie” originally performed by Muppet character Ernie (voiced by Henson), followed by “Five Little Monkeys.” Next, McGrath will narrate an arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, designed to explore the different instruments on the stage.
“We didn’t change the notes of the piece, but rearranged it to expose the entire orchestra,” notes McGrath.
The concert will also have a patriotic element that includes the “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and a new arrangement of “America, the Beautiful” by Marine Band Arranger Staff Sgt. Scott Ninmer. The show will conclude with McGrath’s performance of “Rainbow Connection,” which was made famous by Kermit the Frog in 1979 and Joe Raposo’s “Sing.”
“I’m really looking forward to my performance with the Marine Chamber Orchestra,” said McGrath. “I’ve always been super impressed by everything that the Marine Corps does.”
“What Bob had taught kids over his 50 years on television is something that we’re all still benefitting from today,” Nowlin said. “The themes of togetherness and joy and how music brings us all together is something that we can continue to pay forward.”
This 50-minute concert is best suited for kids ages 3-8, but all are welcome. After the performance, children are invited to try instruments in the musical petting zoo and meet Bob after the show for photos and autographs. The concert is free and no tickets are required. Free parking is available in the adjacent garage.