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.
When we talk about the inception of Sesame Street, certain repeated names come up in every history of the series. Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, Jon Stone, Jim Henson. There’s no doubt that these visionaries were crucial to the success of Sesame Street, but there’s another name that doesn’t often get mentioned in the same breath, though he very much deserves to be.
Matt Robinson is arguably the most important and influential person of color to have ever worked in the Henson worlds. And it goes way beyond his work as a writer and performer.
Matt Robinson: The Writer
Before Sesame Street began, back when they were figuring out what Sesame Street should be, diversity was an important topic to tackle. Matt Robinson was working as a writer and producer for Opportunity in Philadelphia, a local show that advertised job opportunities for African-Americans. He originally took a job with the Children’s Television Workshop to oversee filmed segments of people from different cultures.
It wasn’t long before Robinson upgraded from working on those films and into the writer’s room. He became an unofficial voice of African-Americans through the show, providing crucial input on how to teach kids about tolerance, acceptance, and the importance of diversity.
For young Black children, he also provided a sense of pride. He knew that the preschool age was important for valuing one’s self-worth, and he wanted to play his part in making sure that those kids could see themselves on screen and see their heritage in a positive image.
Matt Robinson: The Actor
Despite having no acting experience, Robinson became the originator of the role of Gordon. Another actor – Garrett Saunders – played Gordon in the show’s test pilots, but if you’ve ever seen those videos, you can see why he didn’t stick around. However, Robinson himself fit the role for who the writing staff wanted Gordon to be. He knew how to talk to children without talking down to them. He knew the curriculum like the back of his hand, because he helped develop it. And he could act as an authority figure to the kids and Muppets without alienating them.
For me and many others, we think of Gordon as the bald, mustachioed Roscoe Orman. But Orman’s Gordon wouldn’t be what he is today without the important groundwork Robinson laid for those first three years of Sesame Street. Gordon is firm but fair, knowledgeable but fallible, and a trustworthy caretaker for his friends, family, and neighbors. All of that is thanks to Matt Robinson.
Matt Robinson: The Puppet
As far as I know, Matt Robinson never actually attempted to be a puppeteer. But he was responsible for the existence of a fan favorite puppet in more ways than one.
Roosevelt Franklin was developed to be a proud African-American child who was overflowing with confidence. Clearly, he could’ve been a role model for many kids, no matter their skin color. He was smart, driven, and a born leader. Sound like anyone you know? Maybe someone you’ve been reading about for the last five minutes???
Matt Robinson not only created the character, but in a move that was (and still is!) rare for the Muppets, he performed the voice while someone else handled the puppetry. Robinson voiced Roosevelt for sketches on the show, as well as a few albums.
Despite not wanting to be a performer, Robinson certainly left his mark in more than one way on screen.
Today, Robinson’s work is still as prevalent as ever. Sesame Street has continued to promote diversity and representation on screen and in their curriculum. The character of Gordon stretched from the first line of the series for almost 50 years, with Roscoe Orman continuing to perform the character periodically today. Even Roosevelt Franklin pops up once in a while as a representative of Sesame Street nostalgia.
Can you imagine what Sesame Street would look like today without the influence of Matt Robinson? Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about that, we can just enjoy the legacy he left us.
Click here to attend Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com