A Celebration of the Stars of Sesame Street Who Have Internal Organs

Published: January 5, 2016
Categories: Feature, Reports

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Who are your favorite Sesame Streeet characters?  Well, there’s Grover, of course.   And Bert and Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, and the guy who eats the cookies, and that big bird.  Everyone knows them, and everyone loves them.

But what about these characters: Bob, Maria, Luis, Gordon, Gina, Alan… Remember them?  Of course you do.  Since the beginning, the humans have been an essential part of the show.  They’re affable, they’re patient with youthful Muppets, and they’ve taught generations of children how to tell which one of these things is not like the other.

On Sunday, December 13th, the Museum of the Moving hosted a much-deserved tribute to the Humans of Sesame Street as part of its Jim Henson series.  Craig Shemin, the tireless host of all these events, introduced them in the reverse order of when they joined the show: Alan Muraoka (Alan), Alison Bartlett (Gina), Roscoe Orman (Gordon), Emilio Delgado (Luis), Sonia Manzano (Maria), Bob McGrath (Bob).  Bob got a standing ovation.

IMG_6377The guests at these Muppet/Henson/Sesame screenings are always charming, and always eager to share their memories, but I have to say, all of the Sesame Street humans seemed especially thrilled to be there, celebrating the show, facing their fans, and sharing the stage with their longtime co-stars.  And the way the event played out was perfect, allowing each of them to have their own little moments in the spotlight.

First, Craig went down the line, and each actor narrated a series of photos providing an overview of their life and career, from childhood to Sesame Street and beyond.  Some highlights:

Bob McGrath has been singing since he was a kid.  At one point, he sold war bonds in an Uncle Sam costume his mom made.  He was a huge singing star in Japan, which led to appearances on the game shows I’ve Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth, during which he sang Irish ballads in Japanese. The clip of this performance was a big hit with the audience.

Sonia Manzano grew up in the Bronx.  She appeared in various shows throughout college, including a production of Lysistrata that also featured Judith Light way before she was the boss.  Manzano was in the original production of Godspell, and she vividly remembers the audience laughing along with the show up until the point when the characters nailed the Jesus character to the cross, at which point everyone cried.  She considered that a valuable lesson about hooking an audience with laughter so a serious message can be delivered effectively.

IMG_6372Emilio Delgado lived in Mexico as a kid.  He played with a folk group.  He spent some time early in his acting career as “a movie Indian,” in Westerns like I Will Fight No More Forever.  Some years ago, he made friends with the members of the band Pink Martini and has sung with them several times.  On one occasion, he got the whole human cast to join them onstage at the Hollywood Bowl.

Roscoe Orman’s children’s book Ricky and Mobo was based on a true moment from his youth, in which he rode a rolling toy horse in a neighborhood race.  He didn’t win, but he felt great because he didn’t give up.  Not long before he joined Sesame Street, he starred in the blaxploitation movie Willie Dynamite (We got to see a clip!), and did stage work, acting alongside other up-and-comers like Morgan Freeman.

When Alison Bartlett was a little girl, she attended the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Sesame Street float passed right in front of her, and Will Lee-as-Mr. Hooper came down and greeted her.  Later in the ’70s, she had Farrah Fawcett hair.  She was in the Broadway play Hurlyburly when she was 13.  Photos of her wedding years ago remind her just how long the Sesame cast has been a part of her life.

IMG_6374Alan Muraoka was a cute kid.  He took a totally ’70s senior photo (He had a “body wave” haircut that he wasn’t exactly thrilled with).  His early acting roles included a production of South Pacific.  Later he performed at Walt Disney World, and later still, on Broadway.

Then it was time for the Sesame Street stuff.  Once again, Craig Shemin went down the row, showing photos and clips of each character and invoking reactions from the actors. Highlights:

Bob McGrath the person wasn’t sure of Bob the character’s last name. (It’s Johnson.)  Craig introduced a clip demonstrating Bob’s strange fixation on people’s occupations, which of course turned out to be “People in Your Neighborhood.” The clip began with the first-ever version of the song, and ended with a montage of several jobs, including a consumer advocate.  This was Ralph Nader, which prompted Bob to tell the story of how Nader insisted on singing “the people whom you meet” so it was grammatically correct.

IMG_6375Luis and Maria’s Sesame moments were covered together. Emilio Delgado told of an incident in which he passed a stranger on the street who stared at him for a long time but didn’t say anything, but finally shouted “AGUA!” from a distance.  The clip montage included the couple’s wedding, the birth of Gabi, the song “Hola,” one of Maria’s Charlie Chaplin bits, and “Sing Your Synonyms.”  Man, Sesame Street has done a lot of great stuff.

Gordon’s photo montage included a photo with Michelle Obama, who spoke to Roscoe on the set about how much he and Susan meant to her.  Gordon’s clips included the affecting (and obscure) song “If I Had a Kid” from the ’70s, followed by scenes of Gordon explaining adoption to Big Bird and the arrival of Miles of Sesame Street.

Gina’s photos showed her with Alan at Hooper’s Store, which prompted memories that Alan Muraoka was “terrified” the writers would pair the two characters romantically. There was also a photo of Gina with “one of her boyfriends,” who Alison noted seemed to come and go without any of them sticking around.  Clips included “The Word Is No,” Elmo proposing to Gina and Gina letting him down gently, and Gina & Rosita singing in English and Spanish about the body parts of Gina’s adopted son Marco. (“Where’s Marco now?” someone on the panel asked.  Probably graduating high school, Alison said.)

3981jAlan’s photos featured humans and Muppets doing Hurricane Katrina outreach shows for kids, along with other live appearances. His clips included the “fire in Hooper’s Store” episode, a ridiculous song about “powwidge” with Baby Bear, and the song about rebuilding Big Bird’s nest from Sesame‘s hurricane episodes.

A presentation devoted to the humans of Sesame Street would be incomplete without one of the show’s most famous moments, the “Goodbye, Mr. Hooper” scene.  The clip we watched included the scene from earlier in the episode that usually gets omitted from retrospectives, in which Big Bird explains to Gordon that he’s walking funny because… “just because.”  It’s important to the later scene, because Gordon ultimately explains to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper is not coming back, and that’s the way it is… just because.

The actors confirmed that the scene was difficult to get through, and in fact they got teary even watching it now. They pointed out that the “just because” reasoning was included after writer Norman Stiles discovered it could be understood by young kids. Bob McGrath said Jon Stone wanted to shoot a pickup shot for that scene, but the actors couldn’t hold it together, so the take we know was the only one.

Mr. Hooper drawingThe subject of Mr. Hooper and Will Lee also brought Bob to the story of visiting Lee in the hospital during his final days, during which one of the nurses told Bob that Lee wasn’t “passing water.”  Bob went into Lee’s hospital room and told him that if he did what the nurses wanted him, Bob would make sure that the next day’s episode of Sesame Street would be brought to you by the letter P.

And then, on a lighter note, it was time to see some bloopers! I had never seen these before, and I’m pretty sure it was their first time being shown publicly.  Highlights included baby Natasha burping loudly, actors getting the giggles, Bob having some trouble dumping a bag full of cans into a recycling bin, and Emilio Delgado repeatedly messing up his line in a seemingly simple song about counting to 3.

After that, it was on to questions from the audience.  You never know what kind of people will raise their hands at these things, but there were some genuinely good questions asked.

Stevie Wonder GroverQuestion: Who was your favorite celebrity guest? Roscoe said Lily Tomlin, who brought her acting coach and consulted her between every take. Bob said Jeff Goldblum, who played Bob’s brother, showed up off-book, and was able to read a play off-camera right up to the second before their cue. Sonia said Stevie Wonder, because his performance of “Superstitious” was so exciting for everyone. Emilio said his favorite was an idol of his, who he followed his whole career: Harry Belafonte. Alan said Rosemary Clooney, whom he was in awe of but who was nice to everyone. Alison said Billy Joel & Marlee Matlin, who performed together, and also Maya Angelou, whose work she started reading after her appearance. Emilio also mentioned that Tony Bennett dropped by the studio on at least one occasion even when he wasn’t on the show.

Question: Were there any stories that got dropped? Sonia explained the unaired “Snuffy’s parents get a divorce” story. Roscoe pointed out that they more recently released a video establishing that Abby Cadabby’s parents are divorced, which prompted Sonia to observe that there’s a whole “secret life of Sesame Street” in the outreach videos — incarceration, deployed parents, etc.

Alan said there was also an X-Files spoof street story where Telly sees an alien letter X, and makes an X out of mashed potatoes, Close Encounters-style, at Hooper’s. That was only aired once because the producers thought it was too scary.  (So now, of course, I REALLY WANT TO SEE IT.)

mariaoscarQuestion: Who’s your favorite Muppet? Sonia said Oscar, and elaborated that she left the show because she couldn’t wait any longer for him to propose. Roscoe said Grover, because he’s so funny and he keeps trying even though he fails at everything. Emilio said Big Bird. Bob said Oscar, who played a lot of great pranks on Bob back in the day. Alison and Alan both said Telly, because of his nervous energy that sucks everyone else into it. Alison spoke about noticing that the writers matched her with Telly in a lot of scenes early in her time on the show, perhaps because of her own nervous energy.

Question: Did Gordon have an afro? And Snuffy used to be imaginary? Roscoe noted that he was the third Gordon, and he had to convince skeptical kids that he was in fact the “real” Gordon, so hair was important at first. (Here, Bob quietly remarked that the second Gordon “came and went — good thing!” So there’s a story there…) Bob also recalled a story about the original Gordon, Matt Robinson.  They were doing an outdoor concert once that was packed with kids and felt like Woodstock. Matt Robinson took the stage and warned the kids “There’s some bad gum going around, so if you’re going to chew some, only do half a stick.”

Sonia responded to the second part of the question by explaining the reasoning for revealing Snuffy to the adults, and the way it gradually played out.  Alison observed that when she watched the show as a little kid, Snuffy’s endless close calls made her angry. (A perfectly reasonable response.)

bbs46Question: What do you think of the switch to a half-hour format and the deal for new episodes to be shown on HBO? This was met with a long silence, and then Alison spoke up, saying it’s hard to compare the show now to the show it used to be in the clips we’d been watching. Bob said the show’s constant research now proves that kids need to learn social skills to be prepared for school and life, which is why Cookie Monster is learning self-control and executive function. Sonia said TV has changed a lot since the ’70, ’80, etc. — the hour-long show was starting to feel long and lumbering in an era where some children’s shows are 15 minutes long. We live in a different time.

Question: Did Sonia Manzano have to get permission from the producers to do The Vagina Monologues between seasons? Answer: No.  But Roscoe Orman talked about playing a pimp on All My Children between seasons, which may have raised a few eyebrows.  He was offered an extended contract by the soap opera, and the Children’s Television Workshop made it clear that he had to choose, so he went with Sesame Street because he could tell Tyrone the pimp “wasn’t long for this world.”

Gimme Five Gordon David Luis BobThe “Humans of Sesame Street” was chock-full of videos, photos, and reminiscing, but Craig Shemin wisely made time to show one of my favorite Sesame Street numbers: “Gimme Five, the spoof of the Floaters’ “Float On” sung by David, Luis, Gordon, and Bob as the oh-so-smooth Lovers of Five.  The audience loved it, and when the clip was over, Roscoe and Emilio gave each other a high five. Roscoe revealed that the choreographer for the number was André De Shields, who worked on the original production of The Wiz.  He worked with them patiently even as Bob struggled with the choreography. Sonia recalled that a stage manager referred the foursome “Bob McGrath and the Third World.” Yikes.

As the event wound down, Bob thanked Craig for putting the whole show together, and Craig thanked Alan for his assistance. All the actors onstage agreed that it’s been great to be part of Sesame Street. And that’s when they all stood up to sing “Sing,” and the whole audience stood to sing along as photos and clips from behind the scenes and wrap parties played on the screen.  It was the perfect conclusion to a perfect event.

Sesame Street‘s human cast members don’t get nearly the amount of recognition as the Muppet characters, but the outpouring of enthusiasm and love at “The Humans of Sesame Street” proved that the Bobs and Marias of the show mean just as much to the fans as the Ernies and Grovers.

Click here to wish you lived on Sesame Street with these people on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com


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