Wednesday, November 12, 2014

R Is for Roosevelt Franklin

I've talked about this guy before, but I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to once again call him by his first name first and his second name second: I love Roosevelt Franklin. Unfortunately, I never actually got to experience him as a cast member of Sesame Street as he was off the show before I was even born.

Roosevelt Franklin was created in the first season of Sesame Street (which premiered 45 years ago this week!) by Matt Robinson, a writer and producer on the show who was also the first actor to play Gordon (and, incidentally, the first Sesame Street character to speak on camera in the first episode). Robinson's vision for Gordon was a strong male figure, particularly for African-American kids, saying later that "Somewhere around four or five, a black kid is going to learn he's black. He's going to learn that's positive or negative. What I want is to project a positive image."

Although Roosevelt Franklin is never explicitly said to be Black, it's easy to infer. In every sketch of his I've seen, he's a great and compelling character, easy to like. He loves to scat, rhyme and sing the blues, he plays sports, and he has a great relationship with his mother. Most of his sketches take place at Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School and involve him and his classmates (like Smart Tina, Suzanne Something and Hardhead Henry Harris) learning about concepts like here and there, or up and down, traffic safety, poetry, acceptance, respect, family and, er, not drinking poison.

In this sketch, he teaches the class a lesson about pride by rhyming the story of a duck who wanted to be a chicken:

Here, Roosevelt teaches his class about how Africa isn't just one big jungle like it is in the movies:

And in this delightful sketch, Roosevelt tells the story of Morty Moot Mope, who needs to find some rhymes:

This guy is just so much fun. I'm not sure (no one seems to be) who performed the actual Roosevelt Franklin puppet, but Matt Robinson performed the voice and wrote most of the sketches featuring him, including some wonderful songs. Here are probably Roosevelt Franklin's three best sketches on Sesame Street, all featuring songs written by Robinson and the great Joe Raposo:

"Roosevelt Franklin Counts"

"Roosevelt Franklin's Alphabet"

and "Roosevelt Franklin's Days of the Week"

Incidentally, Roosevelt Franklin's Mother is voiced by Loretta Long, the actress who plays Susan. Here's a picture of the four of them together.

Long once said that Jim Henson performed Roosevelt Franklin's Mother, leaving it up in the air as to who performed Roosevelt himself. Frank Oz seems to be a popular opinion, but it's hard to tell.

By the way, those three songs and more feature on the 1971 album The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, which is my favorite Sesame Street album. (If you're interested, one YouTube user has the entire album posted.)

What I like about Roosevelt Franklin is that as a character he's not just about teaching the basic skills (though he does that quite well), but teaches the importance of accepting yourself for who you are. I think that's some powerful stuff for kids. I grew up not being comfortable with myself, internalizing the negative ways in which others saw me, and that's made being an adult pretty hard. On one track of The Year of Roosevelt Franklin--"The Skin I'm In"--Roosevelt's brother Baby Ray sings about his skin: "Way back in the old days, we used to be ashamed, but then we found out we were beautiful, and we've never been the same." That's important and it's positive.

What bothers me about Roosevelt Franklin is that, despite being considered a main character on Sesame Street, he was rather unceremoniously dropped after the seventh season in response to complaints that he embodied negative African-American stereotypes--particularly in his style of speech--and that his rowdy classroom set a bad example. (If you're really interested in going into the issue of Black linguistics--something Robinson was passionate about retaining as much as possible--and Sesame Street, there's an interesting criticism from 1973 here.)

Roosevelt Franklin appeared in Sesame Street books well into the 1980s, but after 1975, he didn't appear on the show itself. Despite his popularity--enough that he had his own record--he just disappeared.

Except for writing for and voicing Roosevelt Franklin, Matt Robinson had left Sesame Street in 1972 and continued to write scripts and produce. He was involved in two more of my favorite shows: he wrote episodes of Sanford and Son and served as story editor and, for a while, head writer of The Cosby Show, even appearing onscreen in the episode "Cliff's Nightmare," which features the Muppets! Diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1982, Robinson fought the disease for 20 years, passing away in 2002. His daughter is the actress Holly Robinson Peete.

I'm glad all of these sketches survive and that we can still enjoy Roosevelt Franklin. I think they've never had a character quite like him since, and he falls into the same category for me as Prairie Dawn, as a main character who is unjustly forgotten and who added something that the show doesn't really have anymore.

To me, Roosevelt Franklin will always be a main character.

ABC Wednesday


Su-sieee! Mac said...

It's good luck to be a duck. Quackity quack. This is a nice tribute to Roosevelt Franklin.

Roger Owen Green said...

I LOVED, LOVED Roosevelt Franklin. I pretty much stopped watching the show by 1975, so didn't notice his departure. Certainly, he never offended me, but rather, I found him an empowering (clearly black) kid.