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 I think of Sesame Street back in its heyday, I think about a lot of things – the music, the original puppet performers, and the sketches all come immediately to mind. Something else I think of is the slew of amazing humans cast in the first years of the show’s start. Among the original cast, it’s hard not to think of David, ie. Northern Calloway.
Northern joined the cast of Sesame Street in 1971. Only 23 years old at the time, he debuted in the show’s second season and created a lasting impression decades later. In the eighteen years he acted on Sesame, he was part of memorable episodes, sang songs that are still stuck in our heads to this day, and provided voices for more characters than you might realize. Not only that, David was the second Black male neighbor on the show, after Gordon.
Before we dive into his time with Sesame, it’s important to note that Northern Calloway’s life came to a difficult end. Mental illness awareness is still lacking to this day, and Black people in particular have felt the stigma of dealing with personal mental health. While the rest of this article wont touch on the complicated nature of Northern’s personal life – as ToughPigs tries to stay out of the personal lives of the folks we write about – it is something this writer wanted to acknowledge.
Northern Calloway: The Neighbor
David was a prominent, beloved resident of Sesame Street for many years, forever cemented as a fixture of the neighborhood.
Most will remember his relationship with Mr. Hooper’s store. He worked there part time while also studying law. However, with the passing of Mr. Hooper, David inherited the store and ran it – until Mr. Handford took it over in season 21. David was also one of the humans present when the cast explained Mr. Hooper’s death to Big Bird, encouraging Big Bird how he would take over the shop and still make him his birdseed milkshakes.
David also had a romantic relationship with Maria for a long while on the show, providing an example to young children of a happy interracial couple. The two of them often appeared in segments together, such as explaining Here & There to Grover, Maria gifting David a typewriter, playing ping pong, and David being stuck on a desert island. When Maria started dating Luis instead later on, the show addressed the fact that David and Maria would still remain friends, showing children a healthy relationship when partners stop seeing each other romantically.
Northern Calloway: The Puppet
In doing research for this piece, one thing I learned that I’d never known before is that Northern lent his voice to several felt characters on the show’s run!
He voiced Baby Breeze (also known as Baby Breeze Boo Bop A Doo), who appeared in the segments at Roosevelt Franklin’s elementary school. He voiced Same Sound Brown, a character who used rhymes to teach kids how to read. Northern also performed the voice for the hipster character in season 3 in a similar sketch to the Sam and Friends Visual Thinking bit.
At the start of Sesame Street‘s run, all the puppeteers were white men, but Henson and his crew knew the importance of diversity in the characters they represented, so asking Northern (along with Loretta and Matt) to lend their voices to Black Muppet characters was definitely a step in the right direction for the time.
Northern Calloway: The Performer
When thinking of David’s presence on Sesame, I’m sure many of you think about what an incredible performer he was. His talent as a performer on Sesame really isn’t much of a surprise, considering Northern’s background. During his life, he was in six different Broadway shows such as The Poison Tree, Whose Life Is It Anyway?, and he took over the lead role in Pippin.
The song I personally most associate David with is What’s The Name of That Song? While it’s obviously an ensemble number that showcases most of the human cast at that time (as well as a few Muppets), Northern starts and ends the number, being the only one to really propose the question to us the audience.
The showrunners didn’t hold back in giving Northern a chance to show off his range, we see that in the song It Feels Good When You Sing with Olivia and dancing the Between Ballet with Maria and Luis. One of the most charming numbers is A Very Simple Dance where, through song, he teaches very small kids some simple dance moves – slowly becoming a more complicated number with more and more moves added and with the speed increased.
Sesame also released an album called David, Daydreamin’ on a Rainy Day which was a vehicle for Northern Calloway to have a solo album. The record proposes that David is stuck home on a rainy day and uses his imagination to entertain himself. Songs from the album included I Wish, Space Cadet, and David’s Circus. He can also be heard on the other Sesame album On The Street Where We Live singing songs such as Just One Person.
From taking part in important moments with his acting, emoting through music, and being silly in dance, David will always have a special place in our Sesame-lovin’ hearts.
Click here to ask what’s the name of that song on the ToughPigs forum!
by Julia Gaskill
If you’re in need of mental health support, please reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741. You are not alone.