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Even Sesame Street has learned one or two hard lessons over the decades — from those times when somebody in the writers room or in Jim Henson’s puppet factory took a wrong turn that had all the other Muppets scratching their felt heads.
Take, for example, Roosevelt Franklin, the show’s first African-American Muppet (although he looked more purple). He was popular at first — he even got his own record, 1971’s The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, the first Sesame Street album devoted to a single character. But then, much to the producers’ shock and dismay, he became a lightning rod for the racial politics of the day. Some parents complained that the rowdy little guy was a poor role model for young black males; others thought he wasn’t authentically black (the literary digest Black World published a searing 1973 essay, “Sesame Street: A Linguistic Detour for Black Language Speakers,” arguing that the character spoke a “stage Negro dialect” that “subject[ed] their audience to large doses of middle-class verbiage.” Franklin got booted from the show in 1975.
Another booted character: Don Music, a composer Muppet who appeared on the show throughout the 1970s and 1980s — his big hits were “Mary Had a Bicycle” and “Drive, Drive, Drive Your Car” — who would get so frustrated while writing his ditties that he’d bang his head against his piano. Not surprisingly, parents called in complaining that their kids were doing the same. “We would never do something like that now because the research shows we have to help kids with self-regulation skills,” insists Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Street‘s senior vp of curriculum and content, who works closely with the production department to make sure such mistakes as Don Music and Roosevelt Franklin no longer get made. She notes, “Banging your head is not an effective way to cope with your emotions.”
Read more about Sesame Street:
This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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