‘Sesame Street’ Doc Tells The Story Of First Black Muppet
For more than 50 years, Sesame Street has been a resource for educating and entertaining children. The new documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, provides insight on the show’s beginning when Jim Henson, inventor of The Muppets, and the rest of the team took on the challenge to transform childrens’ programming.
Adapted from the book by Michael Davis, the documentary focuses on the experiences of Matt Robinson, a Black actor and activist who originated the role of longtime Sesame Street character, Gordon Robinson.
“It was very interesting to bring someone like Matt Robinson into the fold,” Street Gang director Marilyn Agrelo told Yahoo Entertainment.
“As his wife Dolores [Robinson] said in the film, ‘What does Mr. Black have to do with a kiddie show?’ He was really quite involved in the struggle with Black rights and his own programming that he had done on TV was very centered around Black culture and promoting that,” Agrelo said.
The film highlights how Robinson wanted to use Sesame Street as an avenue to promote Black culture even though Henson and the creators wanted to have a color-blind approach to human and puppet characters.
Although Robinson agreed with the show’s emphasis on multi-racial diversity, he also wanted to ensure that representation was provided for Black children watching the series at home. With that in mind, Robinson created and voiced the show’s first Black Muppet Roosevelt Franklin to honor the 32nd president of the United States.
Roosevelt appeared in the show’s first season as a student at the all-Muppet school, Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School. The character had no fear about leading class discussions about the differences between the past and present as well as the achievements of important Black historical figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson.
Even though Roosevelt departed from Sesame Street’s color-blind approach, Agrelo said the show’s producers gave Robinson the space to execute his vision.
“The people on Sesame Street were very much behind Roosevelt Franklin, they were supporting Matt all the way, Agrelo told Yahoo Entertainment.
While Roosevelt was embraced by the cast and crew, the character did not resonate as much with the viewing audience.
According to Agrelo, Black parents, in particular, took issue with the character. “They didn’t want this stereotype to be present for their kids to emulate. They wanted their kids to be on equal footing. You can see the argument on both sides of that really: it’s a very complex issue… and it’s one we’re still grappling with today.”
Even with the controversy about the character, Robinson continued to play Roosevelt on screen. Due to the amount of viewer’s concerns, producers eventually retired the character in 1975, reported Yahoo Entertainment.
“I think the pressure came from the Black audience, and it was one of those decisions,” Agrelo said.. “Sesame Street was so experimental in every way and not every idea succeeded, not every idea lived to its fulfillment because they were tackling so much through the lens of a show for preschoolers.”
The loss of Roosevelt led to the loss of Robinson who voiced the character. Robinson continued his career as a writer for TV comedies such as Sanford and Son and The Cosby Show before his death in 2002 of Parkinson’s disease. As for Roosevelt, the character has made appearances on the show and in The Muppet Movie.
In recent years, Sesame Street has continued to emphasize inclusivity and celebrating different cultures and backgrounds. The series recently welcomed two new Black Muppets to the cast, a father and son Elijah and Wesley.
I happen to know that in the next season of Sesame Street, the curriculum will be around the subject of race,” Agrelo told Yahoo Entertainment, noting that the show has already been actively addressing the issue.
Street Gang producers Trevor Crafts and Ellen Scherer Crafts said that Robinson’s family continues to be associated with Sesame Street.
“Matt’s daughter, [actress] Holly Robinson Peete, is still connected with the show. She’s an ambassador for autism awareness, and was very involved in the roll-out of Julia,” Sherer Crafts said.
Agrelo added, “I think they were disappointed that Roosevelt went away… but the overall feeling is that they’re so proud that their father and husband was this seminal figure in television.”