In the summer of 2006, something strange happened to me: After my graduate summer class in uptown Manhattan dismissed for the day, I found myself wandering around Harlem on 125th street. I turned a corner to see a sign advertising a book-reading at an independent shop. I’m not even sure if I saw the title Sesame Street Dad or not, because my eyes were immediately drawn to those big eyes and even bigger mustache that I had grown up looking at. I glanced at my phone and was ecstatic to realize that I hadn’t missed it.
As I entered the shop I found a spot in which to stand in the back. I gazed around a bit and (gasp!) saw Luis! The Luis was standing a mere few feet away from me! I looked to see if Maria was with him, but, alas, she wasn’t. A few minutes later the host gave an intro and summoned “Roscoe Orman” front and center. He greeted everyone and gave a shout-out to his friend Emilio in the back, who blushed a bit while waving to the crowd.
I was confused.
“Roscoe?” “Emilio?” What was going on here? These guys’ names were “Gordon” and “Luis.” My mind was racing. For the first time I got a good look at the book cover that was blown up all over the store and I realized that the kid on the cover was not in fact Miles, but a little girl. And then I saw the subtitle, Evolution of an Actor.
Since some of you are already concluding that I am a nut job and wondering whether you should break it to me that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real either, you should know that I actually “grew up fast” when it came to media. Thanks to a regular weekend babysitting session by my lackadaisical grandparents in the ‘80s, I started watching adult television shows as young as 6 years old. I never missed Dallas or Empty Nest and I especially loved Columbo. I understood that Golden Girls was funny because Blanche was permissive while Rose was prudish, and I cackled at the dry humor of both Dorothy and Sophia.
How, then, did a somewhat precocious youngster grow up thinking that Sesame Street was real?
Tough Pigs’ own Ryan Roe presented me with this very question not long ago. It was during this website’s “Maria Week,” and all the talk of Sonia Manzano (whose name I only recently learned) inspired me to come out about my Sesame Street delusions. Ryan was incredulous. He peppered me with questions:
You knew that Grover wasn’t a real monster, but you thought Maria worked at a real fix-it shop?
At some point in time, though I can’t tell you quite when, I of course came to understand that my fleece friends were in fact puppets. I became a huge fan of Jim Henson as an artist and researched his career when he passed. I knew that there wasn’t a nest in Manhattan that housed an enormous talking yellow bird and that there was not an equally hefty orange-and-white service dog assisting a deaf woman, but somehow it never occurred to me to think that the rest of Sesame Street wasn’t real.
Imagine how delighted I was when Maria and Luis got married. How amazing that these two neighbors happened to fall in love with each other while their lives were being documented for all of America to witness!
Did you understand that the show was scripted, or did you think that they just gave the puppeteers and humans a prompt and then yelled “Action!”
I definitely thought everything was improvised. I chalk some of that up to the fact that in those earlier years, Sesame Street did not hire child actors. The kids were real. They were flawed and oftentimes unpredictable, and that is something that is not lost on a child. As an educator, I not only notice kids, but I notice kids noticing other kids. They are fascinated with each other–constantly trying to connect and relate.
When I watched Sesame Street and saw kids dancing and playing and interacting with adults, I felt markedly different than when I watched Punky Brewster quip some sassy retort to Henry (followed by a laugh track, of course) or when Stephanie Judith Tanner would lament about something or another to one of her many father figures. Did Kermit know that a little girl was going to repeatedly insert “Cookie Monster” into the alphabet? There was so much footage in those days that was spontaneous. How is a little kid to sort it all out?
Also, the street scenes in Sesame Street felt like watching reality TV. Everyone seemed to be going about their daily lives in often unremarkable ways–whether it was selling milkshakes in a general store or peddling hot dogs on the street in a bright yellow hat. It seemed like a bona fide neighborhood, replete with all the usual people that you’d meet when you’re walking down the street.
Did you notice human cast members joining and leaving the show? What did you think of that?
They were moving, of course! Completely normal neighborhood occurrence.
What about the fact that there were cartoons in between?
I understood that those were produced for my entertainment and educational benefit. But then there were those inserts that showed me how stamps, peanut butter and crayons were made. Those were real kids taking tours of real factories making real products for real people. This only gave further credence to my understanding of Sesame Street as a show about real stuff.
So… you thought they were bringing puppets and a film crew to a real neighborhood?
The most logical explanation for my ignorance is simply that I stopped watching before I had the chance to piece it all together. As I mentioned earlier, I moved on from children’s television at a young age and didn’t revisit Sesame Street until my whimsical boyfriend brought DVDs of the show to our second date (presumably as a test to see if my reaction proved that I was worthy of a third). By the time I would have made sense of Sesame Street, I had moved on to the more “adult” Muppet Show-Muppet productions. and Sesame Street was no longer on my radar.
For this reason, it managed to stay frozen in time. In my mind, Roscoe, Emilio and Sonia will always be Gordon, Luis and Maria. Same goes for Linda and Bob — don’t even bother telling me their real names.
Click here to watch Punky Brewster quip some sassy retort on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Staci Rosen