Welcome to Important Muppet People: ToughPigs’ newest series in which we’re shining a spotlight on some of the more diverse members of the Muppet, Sesame, and Henson worlds! From puppeteers to writers, from artists to actors, we’re paying homage to the creatives that helped make the Muppets what they are today.
Given that last week, we saluted Matt Robinson, who played Gordon in Sesame Street’s early years, I thought it only fitting to focus on his TV wife Susan. Gordon has had several different actors since then, but there’s only been one Susan, and that’s Loretta Long. Being Sesame Street’s first female cast member, she provided us with one of the show’s most surprising, inspiring characters. But if you think that’s her only contribution to the show, allow me to educate you on Dr. Long’s work. (And don’t worry, we’ll get to the doctor part.)
Loretta Long: The Pioneer
On a 2004 episode of The Tavis Smiley Show, Long recalled her audition for Sesame Street, and I think it highlights just how much of Susan came from Long:
“I started patting my foot, clapping my hands… [singing] ‘I’m a little teapot, short and stout, here is my handle here is my spout.’ And I looked right at the camera, and I said, ‘Everybody sing.’ And the little kids in the daycare, when they played the tape — I said, ‘Everybody sing, they all stood up and started to sing.”
From the beginning, Susan was unpretentious, engaging, welcoming, and never spoke down to anyone, be they child, adult, or Muppet. And best of all, she knew how to make a person feel special, from the way she told people they were right in “One of These Things,” to how she explained addition and subtraction. She was the neighbor everyone wished that they had.
Loretta Long: The Voice Actress
Of course, in those early years, Long also served in a different capacity. It’s no secret that at the time, the Muppet performers were almost exclusively male, so to get a genuine female voice, at times, they would turn to Long. You can hear her as Roosevelt Franklin’s mother (opposite Matt Robinson as Roosevelt Franklin, giving them another pairing beyond Gordon and Susan), and as his classmate Suzetta Something. This allowed her to go outside what would be Susan’s comfort zone, showing off her great range without losing their humanity. You can also hear her vocals on two classic Sesame Street songs, “Five People in My Family” and “Mah Na Mah Na.”
Loretta Long: The Teacher… On Camera and Off
Through Susan, Long taught by example on the show. Halfway through the first season, Susan went back to work as a nurse, showing kids at a young age that women could have professional careers and follow their ambitions. She also defied stereotypes by becoming the Street’s resident automotive mechanic, repairing cars and buses and proving that women could do what was considered “men’s work” just as well as their male counterparts. (The look on her face when she sees how many repairs her Volkswagen needs at the end of Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird is priceless. But knowing Susan, she probably had it all fixed by the end of the week.) And in season 17, Susan and Gordon adopted Miles without making a big deal about him being adopted – it just showed a different way to have a family. But perhaps Long’s biggest teaching role happened off-screen.
Before being cast for Sesame Street, Long taught junior high and high school. And even as the show took off, Long continued her passion to educate. In the early 1970’s, Long used her Sesame Street experience in her studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (where she commuted on her off-days) to earn her Ph.D. in Urban Education. Naturally, her dissertation focused on the teaching methods that the show utilized. And she hasn’t stopped teaching, lecturing on media, education, and multiculturalism. And I think that’s perhaps best represents Long’s legacy: she’s adapted to changing times, but she’s never compromised her passions or Susan’s spirit. There’s only been one Susan, and that’s because she’s inextricably linked to the woman who performs her.
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by Matthew Soberman