Joan Ganz Cooney (born November 30, 1929 in Phoenix, Arizona) is an American television producer. She is one of the founders of the Children's Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop), and the organization famous for the creation of the children's television show Sesame Street. Cooney received her B.A. degree in education from the University of Arizona in 1951.
She has been married to Peter G. Peterson, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, since April 1980. Unable to have children of her own, she became a stepmother to Peterson's five children. She lives in New York City.
Cooney was born Joan Ganz, and adopted the name Joan Redden Ganz, using her mother's maiden name. Cooney's mother was Irish-Catholic, and born in Jackson, Michigan. After her maternal grandfather died, her mother's family came west when she was 18 or 19. Her father was Jewish and was born in Phoenix, but his mother went to California to get better medical care when giving birth to him. Her Jewish German paternal grandfather was Emil Ganz, who fought in Georgia during the American Civil War, on the Confederate side. Ganz was elected mayor of Phoenix three times.
Cooney's mother and father dated for five years. She describes her father as "the perennial bachelor," being thirteen years older than her mother.
Her father, Sylvan, always had a job in the Depression era, and the family had a summer cabin "up near Prescott, Arizona, because the weather was terrible in the summer." Growing up near the Phoenix Country Club, she grew up more affluent than her family had money, although she considers them to have been middle class. Her father's occupation was executive vice-president of the First National Bank in Phoenix.
Cooney went to public school in first grade, switching to Catholic school St. Francis Xavier in Phoenix for grades 2-8. She describes herself then as "just a grim, over-wrought little kid." Never able to keep up with her siblings, she always read, much to the chagrin of her mother, who always wanted her to get outside. While she doesn't consider herself to have been a nerd as child, she always argued about ideas—including religion—with Jesuit priests.
For high school, Cooney went to North Phoenix, while her siblings went to St. Mary's. She feels this separation, that she was no longer "their little sister", let her come into her own. In school plays and even state-wide drama contests, Cooney was sure she wanted to become an actress. She describes herself as the "world's happiest adolescent", especially after not being a happy child. She says that a psychologist once told her, "You're the only patient I've ever had that's ever had a happy adolescence."
One of Cooney's teachers in 1943, Bud Brown, taught a course on the history of culture, as well as operating Bud Brown Barn, a dancing establishment. Brown was Cooney's first teacher to talk about the injustice of segregation, and it "absolutely inflamed" her. Brown talked about Hitler's treatment of the Jews, a topic Cooney says "nobody talked about": "I was 13-years-old, and it totally changed my life." Later, both Brown and Ms. Natscowski were investigated as potential Communists.
Cooney stopped acting in college, when her father expressed that he would never support such a career; she says she's very content with this life path, instead of trying to find jobs on Broadway. Cooney attended the Catholic girls' institution Dominican College, before transferring to the University of Arizona, where she was initiated into Kappa Alpha Theta and obtained her BA in Education. Along with not wanting to stay in an all-girl institution, she switched because it was "more fun" at Arizona. She feels she learned more at Dominican, simply because she didn't find Education challenging. Her mother advised her to take Education, with the justification that women teachers could find work if their husbands were to die, and could still be at home at the same time as their children.
After graduation, Cooney went with a friend to Washington, DC, to work for the United States government in 1951, organizing Foreign Student Exchange for the State Department. She started as a clerk typist, and was on the point of being given the position of Program Officer when she left. During that period, Cooney visited New York City a couple of times, and became intent on moving there.
She returned to Phoenix and began working at the Arizona Republic newspaper, getting a job on the women's page, to write wedding stories and the like. As time went on, she got many general assignments.
Moving to New York City, she was hired in the press department of RCA. There, she wrote regular releases, on prediction of what television would be like in the future, from shopping for groceries, and color transmissions. She was offered a job on the women's page of Lester Markel's the New York Times, which she found easy to turn down. Her stay at RCA was miserable, as she was thought to have been sophisticated and manipulative, and sleeping with her boss.
She met up with the Arizona-born head of a firm that ran publicity at Pat Weaver's NBC, moving there after eight or nine months at RCA. At NBC, Cooney promoted the Day Drama lineup, consisting of soap operas. As Cooney had started at RCA with a low wage, and transferred within the same company to NBC, her boss wasn't able to raise her income to acceptable levels. He helped Cooney move to publicise The US Steel Hour, which aired on CBS.
Cooney became involved in the Democratic reform movement, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, helping them write releases about their activities. Still, she had much time on her hands, promoting a bi-weekly show. She became involved in the Partisan Review, to help fundraise; the intellectual contributors had great contempt for Cooney, as she was involved with both television and publicity.
When someone from The US Steel Hour was left to go to WGBH in Boston, Mass., Cooney was shocked to learn that there was a new educational television movement. She instantly knew that she was meant for such an area of broadcasting, "it was like St. Paul on the highway." She wanted to become the publicist for what is now WNET. The head of the station told Cooney he had a publicist, but needed producers. After proving she knew the national issues of the time and pursuing the position through a series of notes, she became a producer for the station.
At the station, she had an initial income of USD$9000, down from USD$12000 at US Steel.
Her first program was Court of Reason, where two advocates debated, with an audience of three expert judges. The series was hosted by Columbia University's sociologist Robert Merton. All tapes, including those with notable guests like Malcolm X, no longer exist, as videotapes were reused (a standard industry practice at the time as videotape was expensive).
One show Cooney produced was called Cuba: Should America Change Its Policy? It featured was a roundtable discussion on the topic; guest President Kennedy "virtually declared World War III." The series, incidentally, debuted the week before the Cuban missile crisis.
Cooney's first documentary produced was A Chance at the Beginning. Through this, she met Tim Cooney, who would become her husband. The first episodes focused on adult literacy programs, teenage program Har U in Harlem, and Martin Doutch's program for four-year-olds in Harlem. Head Start was started within months of the third episode airing, and bought 125 print of the episode to use for teacher training.
Cooney produced Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the World, for which she won a regional Emmy. The program invited multitudes of poor people into the studio, to confront the bureaucrats about the programming going on at the time. It was the very first teach-in, a format that became increasingly popular during the Vietnam War.
Cooney "gave a little dinner party" in 1966 with her then-husband Tim Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett (VP Carnegie Corporation) and his wife Mary, and Louis Friedman. Carnegie Corporation had been researching children's education; Morrisett was inspired by Friedman's speaking on how the medium of television was untapped for children.
Morrisett called Friedman and Cooney over to the Foundation's offices a few days later. During the meeting, Morrisett and Friedman agreed to create a study by channel Thirteen, to investigate what reactions would be to such a program. During the meeting, Morrisett mentioned that Cooney wouldn't be interested in such a project, as she was involved in public affairs programming. Cooney remembers yelling back, "Oh yes I would!" Friedman passed over her enthusiastic response, however, as he didn't want to lose her from his crew.
One day, Tim Cooney and Morrisett were having lunch together on a separate matter. Tim suggested to Joan that he would mention the project, and Joan agreed, knowing that with Friedman in the way she would never get involved. Morrisett eventually convinced Friedman that he wanted Cooney, who went on a three-month leave of absence from documentary production. Cooney toured the United States and Canada, talking to educators, researchers, and television producers. She wrote a paper based on this study, titled The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education. Cooney says that she always knew television could teach, as kids nationwide learned and sang ad jingles perfectly, but a paper was needed to make things conclusive and systematic.
Along with some unused components, the paper suggested the basic format of what was to become Sesame Street. The paper also proposed the creation of a children's television production company, to be part of channel Thirteen; Cooney couldn't suggest to her employer that such an organization might be independent. Harold Howe, U.S. Commissioner of Education, liked the findings of the report, and the Ford Foundation soon became interested in such a series, thanks to Macarthur Bundy.
Moving to Carnegie, to act and advise independent of Thirteen, Cooney began laying the groundwork for the Children's Television Workshop. Carnegie hired Linda Gotley to help Cooney write the proposal. Barbara Finberg and Morrisett would regularly act as funders, every few days trying to find holes in the proposal. During these days, segments now considered traditional Sesame Street favorites like "One of these things is not like the other" were established.
Despite the insistence of the US Office of Education that there was no money to fund the project, Howe persisted, and insisted the project be classified as a research project. The Ford Foundation joined funding, as did the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was being established just as Sesame Street was. Between those organizations and Carnegie, USD$8 million was raised to create a semi-autonomous organization. This organization was established to become completely separate, should they succeed.
At a press conference in March 1968, the Children's Television Workshop and Sesame Street were announced. Jack Gould, television critic for The New York Times gave the project front page space. "If you had Jack Gould in your corner, you could not believe what it meant."
In 1988, David V. B. Britt took over as President and COO of CTW. In October 1990, Cooney stepped down as CEO as well, Britt taking the position, based on long-standing plans. She wanted to be able to focus more on the creative side of the company's projects, then Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, and Square One TV. She became and still remains chairwoman of Sesame Workshop's executive committee.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center was founded in 2007 by Sesame Workshop, to study the role of digital technologies in childhood literacy. It was created on the belief that the "vast wasteland" theory was being repeated in new media; few of the educational games available were based on detailed educational curriculum.
Since its launch in 2008, Joan Ganz Cooney has been a contributor for wowOwow.com. A new website for women to talk culture, politics and gossip.
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