This is a look back on the infamous Sesame Street episode that featured Margaret Hamilton reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West. This episode was created with good intentions, but terrified kids–and outraged parents. The response was so bad that the Children’s Television Workshop banned the episode and it was never aired again.
This notorious episode has taken on its own kind of urban legend and only grainy clips and still frame photos existed. For 46 years this episode has been locked away and just a few weeks ago, the episode had been leaked and released all over the internet.
This is a look back on the only banned episode the show ever did: The time the Wicked Witch of the West made a visit to Sesame Street.
Setting the Stage for the Wicked Witch of the West Episode of Sesame Street
I was born in the late 70s but grew up in the 80s. I grew up in Canada so we had our own versions of children’s programming such as Polka Dot Door, Mr. Dressup, and Today’s Special. But Sesame Street was of course in the mix. Like every other household in North America, Sesame Street completely captured my imagination. With its perfect blend of entertainment, education, and Muppets, the show has become an institution and staple in children’s programming.
If you grew up watching Sesame Street, you know how you would get used to re-runs. Even though it was on every day, they only filmed for less than half of the year. But this was still an astonishing production rate. The show would crank out 130 episodes a year and kept this up for a mind-blowing 30 years. In 1998, they went down to 65 episodes for three years.
By the mid-2000s, they settled in at 26 episodes a season. And moved up to 35 for the last few years. But this was understandable as their back catalog was now massive. As of season 52, there are 4,631 episodes of Sesame Street.
The point is, despite this prolific production, there was still the need to show reruns for more than half the year. Little kids don’t take the summers off, so you probably remember seeing the same episodes, or portions of the shows spread out over other episodes. Even if you grew up a decade after Sesame Street first debuted in July 1969–and were an avid watcher–you had probably caught up with every episode. But unless you were watching on February 10th, 1976, there is one episode you definitely never saw.
I have cousins that are quite a bit older than me. The closest in age was about 6 years older. In the early 80s, I distinctly remember my one cousin and my aunt telling us about the terrifying episode of Sesame Street they had seen. He was about 4 or 5 in 1976, so old enough that the memory stayed with him. In an era before the VCR was common, you only had one shot to watch something.
Even though I watched Sesame Street all the time, I had never seen this episode with the “wicked witch” from the Wizard of Oz. But they swore it actually happened. I also had a neighbor during the early 1980s who swore he had seen this episode–and his mother backed him up. My own mother hated the Wizard of Oz so even if this episode did exist, it would probably be off limits for me. Despite this, I remember watching all the time hoping I would see her appearance–as scared as I may have been. I was influenced by my older cousins and wanted to do whatever they did.
Even though my mom limited what we could watch at a young age, I was very aware of the Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West. By the mid-80s, we were only allowed to watch to the halfway point when Dorothy enters the poppy field before we had to go to bed. But like every generation since 1939, the Wicked Witch of the West scared the ever-living crap out of me.
After hearing these stories from my cousin and neighbor, I do remember watching Sesame Street with a little trepidation wondering if she would ever appear. She obviously never would, but this whole story stuck with me. So how did this episode come to be, and why did it backfire so terribly?
Margaret Hamilton and The Story of the Wicked Witch
When L. Frank Baum wrote the Wizard of Oz in 1900, I’m certain he never thought it would still impact us to this day. The 1939 film followed the book pretty closely, except the movie made Dorothy’s visit to Oz a dream, and in the book, it actually happened. The book also contains “the Little Old Witch of the North.”
For the character of the Wicked Witch of the West, Baum had her even more evil than she appears on screen. When it came time to make the film, they tried to capture the true “wickedness.” But a few additions were made. First, in the book, she never had a broom but an umbrella. And the movie introduced the concept of the green skin. She also had an eye patch in the novel. Was the green skin to make her look more reptilian and evil?
So, who was going to play this notorious character? Enter 37-year-old Margaret Hamilton. Born in 1902, Hamilton was actually a school teacher and spent time performing in children’s theater. She loved acting and would be cast in several movies before being cast as one of the most iconic characters in film history.
Hamilton was actually the second choice to play the Wicked Witch. The first choice, Gale Sondergaard, was considered too glamorous. They, unfortunately, wanted a “less attractive” witch.
Hamilton jumped at the chance to be in the movie as she had loved the book for years, but was taken aback when they told her they wanted her to play the role of the Wicked Witch. Over the course of filming, Hamilton was famously injured in the fiery exit scene in Munchkin land. The burns she suffered caused her to be in the hospital for 6 weeks.
Despite appearing in over 50 TV shows and over 80s films, it was the role in The Wizard of Oz which would be her most famous. The movie forever changed film and frightened the life out of a generation of kids. But this fear would continue well past 1939, as every era that rediscovered the film would also be frightened by the Wicked Witch of the West.
The thing is, they intended for even more frightening scenes in the film but didn’t want to completely traumatize children. And the truth is, Margaret Hamilton appeared to be the gentlest, sweetest, and the kindest lady you would ever meet. It was her worry that her portrayal of the Wicked Witch would scare children too much. They would never get to know who she really was and would only ever see the witch.
For her entire life, Hamilton has been a powerful advocate for causes to benefit children and animals. She was also a Sunday School teacher. At her core, she was still a kindergarten teacher and, despite her successful Hollywood career, she was committed to public education.
I definitely understand her concern. There was no promise that the Wizard of Oz was going to be a hit–let alone be one of the most important films in cinema history. I can see how this would have just been a gig to her, and I wonder if she would have taken the role, knowing the negative impact it would cause on so many children. Many kids were genuinely too frightened to meet her.
I imagine this was a tough way to go through life. This role gave her fame, but also caused kids to be scared of her for generations. Hamilton has said that while filming, they knew the character would be scary but had no idea how scary once they saw the final product.
The Resurgence of the Wicked Witch of the West
Every generation would discover the Wizard of Oz, but Hamilton had moved on from the character. But in the mid to late 1970s, a resurgence of sorts happened. This was getting to be the later stages of Hamilton’s life, and her primary interests continued to involve pets, education, and children. Remember: at her core, she was always that caring kindergarten teacher.
Hamilton saw the impact that the Wicked Witch had and took opportunities to lessen the impact of the character. But she preferred that any appearances she would make be education-based. It seems as if she was done with show business, but preferred to use her name–and legacy–to do some good any chance she got.
One key–and very famous–appearance was when Margaret Hamilton appeared on Mr. Rogers in 1975. You can watch her segments on YouTube, and the difference here is she is appearing as herself, and not the Wicked Witch. This genuinely sweet lady explains her experience as the Wicked Witch of the West but is using it as a teaching moment for kids. She explains how the Witch has never got what she wanted and this is behind her “wickedness.”
Hamilton is trying to explain how all of us go through periods of unhappiness and the Wicked Witch is no different. Ultimately, the Wicked Witch was just lonely and unhappy. Interestingly, this theme of the true Wicked Witch would be explored in the novel and then musical, “Wicked,” decades later.
Hamilton’s appearance on Mr. Rogers completely humanized her to generations of kids–and adults–who had probably never seen her interviewed in this capacity. Since Mr. Rogers was such a popular show, many people were seeing the real lady behind the witch for the very first time.
In the Mr. Rogers episode, Hamilton puts on the Wicked Witch costume to show kids what the transformation was like–complete with the Wicked Witch’s voice. It helped to show it was a real lady just playing dress-up to perform this iconic role. Despite being 72 years old, without the green face paint–and the fact it was 36 years after the movie came out– it’s remarkable to watch this transformation happen.
Hamilton had reservations about even putting the costume on but Rogers assured her it was important to show the kids how she was only playing a character. Fred Rogers did a great thing for Margeret Hamilton by allowing everyone to see what a sweet lady she was. It also helped teach kids about the process of performing and to see how everyone struggles with feelings of unhappiness. Basically, they had nothing to be scared of.
The appearance on Mr. Rogers did wonderful things for Hamilton, the character, and the kids who had been scared for generations. Unfortunately, much of this would be undone less than a year later.
Sesame Street Takes Notice
It’s amazing to realize how long Sesame Street has actually been on the air. The show first debuted on November 10th, 1969. But even seven years later, the show was still in its relative infancy. Everyone saw Hamilton’s appearance on Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street was also interested in having her appear.
Sesame Street was growing in popularity, and the lessons taught on Mr. Rogers would work perfectly for Sesame Street. The theme of the show would be about children confronting their fear–and what better fear to confront than the infamous Wicked Witch of the West.
It must have been the thought that the same kids who watched Sesame Street watched Mr. Rogers so kids and parents were now familiar with the grandmother of three who played the iconic Witch.
But the show didn’t seem to take the right approach with this episode.
Instead of showing up as Margeret Hamilton, we get the full Wicked Witch of the West. The costume, the green face, the cackling voice; it was all there. And there was a storyline to her appearance.
Woven throughout the hour-long show, is the story of the Wicked Witch dropping her broom while flying over Sesame Street. The show also wanted to teach kids about the importance of being prepared as the Wicked Witch would have to demonstrate “the value of planning by creating and implementing methods of retrieving the broom.”
Here is the plot: David walks out of Hopper’s store only to encounter a wind storm. He sees something falling from the sky and catches what turns out to be a broom. Catching the broom stops the wind storm. He uses the broom to sweep up, and then–underscored by an electric guitar–the Wicked Witch appears.
The Witch realizes she’s not in Oz anymore and must have drifted somewhere over the rainbow. She demands the broom back but she can’t physically get it as long as someone else is holding it. She vows to get it and disappears into a puff of smoke. Back in Hooper’s, David is sharing the story. Everyone doesn’t believe him until the Witch magically appears. David says she can’t get the broom back until she shows him some respect. The Witch then makes it rain inside the store giving this a bit of a Nightmare on Elm Street vibe.
Maria tells him to give the broom back. Big Bird then appears to help his friends fight off the Wicked Witch. He grabs a stick and when the Witch appears, Big Bird actually physically threatens her to leave everyone alone. The Witch tries to grab the broom and gets electrocuted? She then threatens to turn David into a basketball and Big Bird into a feather duster.
She then taunts Big Bird with a feather duster and when she leaves, the feather duster is left smoldering on the ground in a pretty creepy scene. The Witch then appears in front of Oscar The Grouch’s trash cans and tells him everything that’s gone down. An idea comes to the Witch and she transforms herself into sweet old Margeret Hamilton. Using this disguise, she goes into Hooper’s–That Big Bird is now guarding with a baseball bat and hockey stick–and she asks if she can hold the broom that she sees David with.
They suspect she is the Witch but tell her she has to be nice if she wants to hold the broom. She relents, says please, but turns back into the Witch once she grabs it. She leaves, vowing to never return to Sesame Street again. As she is flying off, she again loses the broom. David catches it and begins crying, “ I can’t go through this again.”
The Backlash to the Wicked Witch Episode of Sesame Street
Episode 0847 of Sesame Street, entitled “The Wicked Witch of the West loses her Broomstick” aired on February 10th, 1976 as part of the seventh season. And as you can guess: it scared the living crap out of a lot of kids.
The theme of confronting fears completely backfired for the Children’s Television Workshop. The episode received immediate backlash. Not only were kids scared, but it seemed to trigger something in parents who also grew up scared of this character.
Maybe we’re more desensitized today, but back in 1976, Children’s programming was arguably tamer. This episode completely threw off the tone that Sesame Street had spent seven years creating. Older kids would have had no problem with this, but they weren’t the ones watching. The show was always produced with three to five-year-olds in mind. This is also the age that some of the characters portray such as Snufflelupagus who is supposed to be four years old, Big Bird who is around 5, and Elmo who is even younger, for example.
By the way, have you ever seen the original Snuffleupagus that debuted back in the early 70s? If you haven’t seen this, you’ll just have to do a Google image search; but prepare not to sleep after you see it…
But Analysis has found that even younger kids have been watching Sesame Street. Over the years, the target audience has dropped to the two to four-year-old range. Either way, extremely young children were watching this episode back in 1976. And it freaked them out.
If you watch this episode today, it probably won’t have a major impact on you, but you may easily find it creepy. However, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a four-year-old–or younger–who were tuning in to watch Ernie and Bert and to see how words are spelled.
Parents understandably freaked out. When you put a show like Sesame Street on for younger viewers, you do it with the trust that what they’ll see is catered to them. Shows like Sesame Street can serve as a babysitter while a parent is taking care of other things. You can leave your kid in front of the TV knowing it will be beneficial for them.
This was also a heavily promoted show as it was a big deal to have Margeret Hamilton reprise her role as the Wicked Witch of the West
Enraged parents immediately responded to PBS and the Children’s Television Workshop. Letters quickly began pouring in. You can only imagine how this would have gone over in a social media age where we can immediately react to anything and let companies hear about it in real-time.
Because of the time mail takes to arrive, the backlash didn’t happen right away, so things seemed fine. The show would actually air a couple more times. On February 10th,1976, it came on at 10 am and 4:30, but then was rerun a few more times. But the response came swiftly. Parents said not only were their kids freaked out, but they refused to ever watch Sesame Street again.
Parents also spoke of crying, running out of the room, and having nightmares for days after. The lessons the show tried to portray were completely missed, and real fear took the place of the lesson about fear.
If you go to muppetfandom.com, you can see many of the actual letters sent to PBS.
“My 3-year-old was pale as a ghost and so worried about Big Bird that he has had trouble sleeping ever since… I would hate to delete Sesame Street from my child’s day but the nightmares are not worth it.”
“Our four-year-old was frightened by the witch and ran crying from the room. She had difficulty going to sleep that night because she was still afraid of the witch.”
“Our daughter is now afraid to view Sesame Street for fear that the witch will return.”
“There is, however, one part of a recent show that has upset (my son) greatly and I fear it may have the same effect on many small children. The show that involved the witch that visited Sesame Street seemed to frighten him during the daytime and he awoke screaming from bad dreams about a witch at night.”
And here are some letters from actual children. Here was one from a Rebecca from New York:
“I wish you wouldn’t put that witch on Sesame Street anymore because I dream about that witch at bedtime. I have been dreaming that witch again and again and again and again, so much that I have been getting so tired of it that I can’t think of anything else to dream about.”
And written into New York channel 13: “I do not like the witch to be on Sesame Street. Please don’t have it there anymore. I am scare of it.” love, Hilary, age 3 and a half.
It’s not that child psychologists for television programming weren’t a thing decades ago, they just are not at the level they would be in the future. Think of the stuff we watched growing up that was just thrown at us without any study or regard. Ryan Reynolds has talked about how Deadpool would be one of the first R-rated movies on Disney+, but many past Disney films should have been rated R for the irreversible trauma they caused so many kids.
We all have those movies and shows from our childhoods that have stuck with us to this day. And I’m not talking about a TV show not made for kids, but cartoons and “kid-friendly” content that had these damaging effects. For many kids growing up in the 80s, the Wicked Witch of the West episode of Sesame Street was one of these things.
What Did Sesame Street Do About the Wicked Witch Episode?
As mentioned, this show aired a few times before the letters were able to pour in. But once they did, PBS and the Children’s Television Workshop undertook a case study to examine this episode.
According to Muppet Wiki, additional test screenings took place from March 1st to March 5th to see how a select amount of children would react to it. Ultimately, it would be the reaction of all the parents that would lead to them pulling the episode from syndication. A memo was released saying”
“Due to the parents’ reactions, the content of the letters, and our impressions from group observation data, we suggest that the Margeret Hamilton show not be re-run.”
The episode would become vaulted with the only evidence of it ever existing were the memories of the people who saw it when it was released. For 46 years this episode sat in the background with only the odd mention of it ever coming up.
As people grew older, they wondered if the memory they had of this episode was actually real. Did this actually happen, or was it just in their imagination? Then, as the internet age began, more people were able to connect over memories of it. And the odd still-frame emerged. But the episode became more of that urban legend.
Then, in 2019, everything changed. The American Archive of Public Broadcasting announced it was going to house every episode of the last 50 years of Sesame Street. It turns out the Wicked Witch episode really did happen and was now sitting in the “vault.” People could now actually view this thing, but it was on a restricted basis and dependent on location.
Later in 2019, the Museum of the Moving Image actually started showing clips from the episode as part of the “Sesame Street Lost and Found” exhibit. It turns out my cousin and neighbor weren’t crazy–this thing was very real. It was also the first time that people from Sesame Street acknowledged and discussed this episode.
But this was a short-term exhibit and was not accessible to the mainstream public. Until just a few days ago.
The Sesame Street Wicked Witch Episode is Leaked to the Public
On June 18th, 2022, very quietly, and out of nowhere, the episode was released online. Not a crappy bootleg copy, but the entire studio version. It was uploaded to Reddit by user “sarsaparilla170170.”
For 46 years this thing has been locked away, and I couldn’t believe I was actually watching it. No one knew who this user was but they somehow had a studio recording copy of the episode. It then appeared all over YouTube. And then the mainstream press picked it up. This episode was now everywhere. People who had never heard of this episode would get to see it for the first time, and those who thought they imagined it were finally vindicated.
And as mentioned, it’s obviously not that horrifying. But it goes back to putting yourself in the shoes of a little kid. There are parts I still find a little unnerving and can definitely see myself being frightened of it when I was a kid. It was funny to hear people say how it wasn’t that scary. If you’re in your 50s, cynical, and desensitized by a lifetime of horrifying images, of course, it’s not scary. This isn’t an uncut version of the Exorcist–it’s still Sesame Street. Were people expecting to see Ernie and Bert get beheaded by her? This was a children’s show and the episode scared plenty of them.
So why did this thing get leaked nearly a half-century later? No one’s really sure. Was it passed on from the PBS itself to the Muppet Fandom sites? Was it from someone connected to the TV studio? Or was someone really trying hard to get this thing? According to the YouTube channel, blameitonjorge, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting actually suffered a data breach in 2021. It sounds like whoever hacked them downloaded episodes of Sesame Street that were restricted to the American Archive.
Either way, possibly the Holy Grail of lost media is now out there. As of right now, you can still watch it on YouTube but there’s no telling how long it will be up there for.
Final Takeaways on the Wicked Witch of the West Episode of Sesame Street
I mentioned how 1976 was a big year for Margeret Hamilton: not only had she appeared on Mr. Rogers, and Sesame Street, but 6 months after the banned episode, she also appeared on the infamous Paul Lynde Halloween Special.
This train wreck of a variety show–which you can still watch on YouTube– featured Hamilton playing the role of Lynde’s housekeeper, but then transforming into the Wicked Witch of the West. However, in this show, she plays a much more comical version of the witch.
If they had taken this approach with the Sesame Street episode, it may have had a much different effect. The Paul Lynde Halloween Special is one of the most over-the-top things you will ever see and Margret Hamilton appears alongside Witchipoo from H&R PufnStuf–played by Billie Hayes. The Wicked Witch is completely cartoony and would have made for a much better performance on Sesame Street. Kids could have seen the Wicked Witch of the West in a much different light and the lessons of fear could have been more effectively shared.
But obviously, things didn’t go that way. What we got instead was one of the most famous banned episodes of television ever. And, now, it’s finally been released to the world.
The only thing left to be released by Sesame Street now is their only other banned show: The never-before-seen “Snuffy’s parents get a divorce” episode from 1992. But that discussion will have to wait for another time… now off to bed.