ABC’s new “Sesame Street” documentary “50 Years of Sunny Days” opened up the world of Jim Henson’s muppets in a never-before-seen way. Produced by TIME Studios, the Monday night special took viewers through many of the show’s iconic moments, such as original Hooper store owner Jim Hooper’s death in 1982 and the introduction of characters with autism and AIDS. And everyone from “Sesame Street” executives to former cast members to celebrities like John Oliver, Questlove, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, W. Kamau Bell, Gloria Estefan, and more shared their own experiences growing up on what they favorably referred to as “The Street.”
Between nostalgic clips and personal stories, the documentary provided viewers with a heartwarming look at the history behind one of television’s most iconic and important educational kid shows. It also revealed some pretty interesting tidbits from the show’s half decade run — including how the once shot, then canceled, an episode about Snuffleupagus’s parents divorcing. Here are the five most intriguing things we learned from watching “50 Years of Sunny Days.”
In some of the first test shows for “Sesame Street,” the muppets and the humans were separated.
It seemed like the easiest way to do things, but Alan Muraoka, the actor who plays current owner of Hooper’s Store and also acts as a director for the show, explained that “they realized in testing with kids, that once the muppets were gone, the children didn’t really care about the humans as much.” Former cast member Sonia Manzano, the original actress who played Maria, admitted “it took me awhile to really feel comfortable, not try to upstage them–and that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform and get out of their way.”
Melding muppets and human interaction obviously became a natural thing for “Sesame Street” and the unique structure ultimately benefited the show. “I don’t know if ‘Sesame Street’ would still be here if the muppets weren’t part of it from the beginning,” admitted David Kamp, author of the book “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America.”
“Sesame Street” shot an unaired divorce episode with Snuffleupagus in 1992.
One of the defining aspects of “Sesame Street” is that it never hesitated to address difficult topics that parents probably wouldn’t have tried to bring up with young children, such as death and racism. But one of those difficult topics never even made it to the screen. Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer for Snuffleupagus and Telly, revealed that in 1992, the show filmed an episode centered on Snuffleupagus’ parents getting divorced.
“They did all kinds of research on this show. They researched that show as much as ‘Sesame’ researched anything ever,” said Robinson. “And then they screened it for kids and the kids freaked out. There was a fear reaction, there was confusion.” Robinson said he went to the producers and tried to convince them to air the episode because he recognized its importance. Ultimately, however, the producers made the decision that it would be “too irresponsible” to show it on television.
Footage from the episode had never been seen until the documentary, when clips were shown demonstrating some of the episode’s highlights. According to ABC, it’s the only time in the history of “Sesame Street” that this decision was made.
Roosevelt Franklin, a purple muppet, was created in to represent Black families — but he never got a chance to develop.
Many remember Roosevelt Franklin, the adorable purple muppet with catchy tunes and a full head of shaggy hair, who debuted in the show’s first season in 1970. To most people, it was clear the character was meant to represent a Black muppet–because despite the fact that the show employed different characters of color when it came to humans, muppet skin color was still pretty multi-colored in every way but Black. But because representation was so scant at the time, poor Roosevelt never got his time to shine.
“Roosevelt Franklin was the direct answer to why Sesame Street should have, at that time, an African-American puppet,” Manzano said. According to Kamp, despite the character’s popularity and many segments, “there was a contention of executives — Black executives — at the Children’s Television Workshop…they had a different take on how to present Black experience.”
Roosevelt Franklin was ultimately retired after 7 seasons in 1975. “When there’s such few representations, it has to fulfill everybody’s hopes and dreams. How could Roosevelt Franklin fulfill the hopes and dreams of every African-American in the United States of America? Impossible,” said Manzano. “It’s very sad they retired him.”
“That would’ve been a game changer for me, if that character had been allowed to develop and grow with the show,” Questlove shared. “That could’ve made a difference in my life.”
Sesame Workshop President Sherrie Weston openly regrets the way the show handled Bert and Ernie’s “coming out.”
When former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman said in 2018 that Bert and Ernie were, as many suspected, a gay couple, Sesame Workshop followed his announcement up with a statement that said “although they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics … they remain puppets and do not have a sexual orientation.”
Weston, the current President of Sesame Workshop, admits in the documentary that she regrets how the higher-ups chose to handle the situation at the time. “I think by saying that, it almost sounded like there would be something wrong with with it if they were gay … that denial, if you will, I think was a mistake,” she admitted.
New African-American puppets Elijah and Wes were created as part of Sesame Workshop’s new racial justice initiative Coming Together.
On March 23rd, “Sesame Street” introduced Wesley Walker and his son, Elijah: the Street’s newest muppets. “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment way it needed it to be. So we pivoted to address it,” said Steve Youngwood, CEO of Sesame Workshop. That led to the creation of Elijah Wes, two Black puppets specifically modeled to reflect the appearance and experience of African-Americans. The decision to create the characters, which was a long time coming, came to a head after the repeated instances of police brutality and specifically George Floyd’s murder.
Sesame partnered with their advisors at Coming Together, to develop not just the characters but a storyline and a curriculum specifically developed to teach children about racism, using Wes and Elijah as a mouthpiece to talk about the issues that are being faced today.