And now, here’s a message from the star of Sesame Street.
MATT ROBINSON, JR.
“I was surrounded by teaching and education all my life. My mother is a teacher; my father taught for a time in Virginia. My wife Delores used to teach in the public schools. School counselors, neighbors and friends were always urging teaching on me as a career. But I didn’t want to do that, so it’s ironic that now I play the part of a teacher.”
There is in fact more than one irony in Matt Robinson’s association with Sesame Street. To begin with he never started out to be “Gordon,” the program’s resident father image. Robinson had been a staff writer at a Philadelphia TV station and host-staff producer of two of its shows, Opportunity Line and Black Book, when he was invited to become one of Sesame Street’s three producers (Jon Stone and Sam Gibbons being the other two). He was hired specifically to supervise the show’s “People” segments, as contrasted to the “animated” film, and this took him all over the United States and as far away as Rome.
Early in the summer of 1969, Matt recalls, “they made five test shows with a professional actor as Gordon, but he was considered ‘too actory’ and he didn’t project a strong enough male image. I was part of the searching party for a replacement. About two weeks before the show was to start rehearsing they still hadn’t found a satisfactory Gordon. Then Jon Stone said, ‘What about you trying out for it.’”
“I didn’t attempt to act at all. I just tried to get the gist of a scene and play it as myself.”
“About three minutes into the first scene, we knew we had found our Gordon,” Dave Connell confirms.
Matt accepted the role as the history teacher Gordon with great reluctance at first. He wasn’t terribly anxious to move his family to New York and he also wanted to pursue his first love, writing. (He has subsequently finished and sold a screenplay called The Bronze Star to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.)
What changed Robinson’s mind about taking on the role was what he hoped to accomplish as Gordon. It had been determined long before Sesame Street went on the air that the so-called disadvantaged youngsters, particularly the Black children of the inner cities, needed a strong masculine image to relate to, someone who could speak their own language and who also spoke his own mind. Matt, as Gordon, projects this image aloud and clear. So clear that he has been chewed out for his language.
“On Sesame Street I’m in a lot of trouble because I try to retain as much of the vernacular as possible,” Matt casually confesses. “When kids are comfortable, they speak whatever way is natural, and I respond on that level. For instance I think that grammar’s often a big hangup. I majored in English (at Penn State), so I respect the language, but I don’t think I’d correct a child on the air, or anywhere else. If you say, ‘Your grammar is incorrect,’ what you are saying is that his parents, his environment, all the people he associates with, are wrong. That can cause all kinds of psychological problems. What you can tell a child is, ‘There’s a different way to say that.’ What concerns me is making value judgments.
“Why insist on ‘standard English,’ ‘6 o’clock news English?’ It’s drab and lifeless. I’d prefer the southern way, where everything’s don in analogy: ‘as slow as a mule’ or ‘walking up a hill is like molasses in January.’ Kids flip. The safe but dull norm isn’t natural. A standard is imposed, a definite kind of propaganda for certain values.
“ ‘Black English’ involves all sorts of things. Tone infection, pacing. I think we should communicate with children in whatever way they understand.”
One of Sesame Street’s best lines of communication has been its character, Roosevelt Franklin. Robinson speaks the part of this jive creation. The youngsters adore Roosevelt as the first “soul” puppet.
On the show, Gordon is married to Loretta Long, alias Susan. They are transfixed in the young viewers’ minds as an inseparable twosome. When asked if Susan were returning for Sesame’s second season, Matt replied with a grin, “She’d better.” Originally Gordon and Susan weren’t married in the show, but the experts decided they had to be. That means if one leaves, the other’s in trouble. The kids in the audience would probably crack up; they’d need a judge to decide which one to be loyal to.
No question which of Matt’s two children, Matt, 9, or Holly, 6, is the more loyal. “Matt and Holly both watch the show, but Holly’s more loyal. Matt may bug off and play ball. They were interested about how the show was done, so I took them both up to see it. Each did a scene with me, but there was no mention of our relationship. No mention by me. Holly’s a little jealous of one little girl who appears regularly, so she walked up to her and said, ‘You know, that’s my daddy.’ Fortunately Loretta wasn’t there; Holly was going to set her straight, too!”