Publicity Agents — Notebooks, Typewriters, and Optical Art: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of ROOSEV
Roosevelt Franklin was the first Black American Muppet to appear on Sesame Street, from 1970 to 1975. Perceived to be an intelligent preschooler, he was also controversial.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Sacramento, Calif. — A year after the educational children’s series Sesame Street aired on public television stations in America, Muppet character Roosevelt Franklin made his first appearance representing a youthful Black American male.
Designed by muppet master Jim Henson and voiced by Matt Robinson, actor Holly Robinson-Peete’s dad, Roosevelt Franklin was loved by many and hated by many more.
His reddish-magenta features dropped off the television screen after five seasons. But he has resurfaced in different formats in the last 40 years. Roosevelt Franklin was and still is, a memorable character to Sesame Street viewers of the time.
Sesame Street first aired on Nov. 10, 1969, as a television tool that helped children prepare for school. The series was able to connect live action with puppetry, also known as Henson’s Muppets. No doubt about, the Muppets became the hallmark of the series.
Henson famous Sesame Street Muppets such as Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, Grover, Cookie Monster, Guy Smiley, and Bert and Ernie are legendary Muppets. The most famous Muppet is Kermit the Frog, whose statue stands on the facade of Henson Studios in Hollywood, Calif., formerly Charlie Chaplin studios.
Robinson, who played Gordon on Sesame Street the first three season, was responsible for creating Roosevelt Franklin. The Muppet’s name was reversed from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt Franklin soon became one of the main characters.
Matt Robinson, far right, provided the voice over for Roosevelt Franklin while Dr. Loretta Moore Young, far left, voiced his mother.
“Hail to Thee our Alma Mater
Roosevelt Franklin High!
Robinson made Roosevelt Franklin a suave, cool, hipster cat. Highly intelligent. He could say his ABCs rhythmically, count numbers with ease, and had no problem taking over the classroom to convey a lesson or two, or maybe three.
With his black, spiked hair and golden stripe turtleneck, Roosevelt Franklin also had a school in his name and where he taught in the funkiest and effective ways. The intro for his segments opened the doors to singing, poetry, and rhyming. The rhyming was the modern day of Hip Hop, well before the art became famous in the late 1970s.
All of Roosevelt Franklin’s classmates, or more to the point — pupils, were always energized and wanted to “learn something ” from his magnetic personality that fell in line with the King of Soul, James Brown.
Roosevelt Franklin had a mother, too. She was voiced by Black American thespian Loretta Moore Young, who also portrayed Susan Robinson on Sesame Street. Roosevelt’s mother was always encouraging and often mentioned that “Mmm-mmm-mm, Roosevelt sure does know his ABCs.”
It is the early 1970s, so yes, there were no father figures around Roosevelt Franklin on the Sesame Street set. But the mother was a loving symbol and participated with her Muppet son while they conveyed educational messages and poetry.
Ms. Young earned her Ph.D. in Urban Education from the University of Massachusetts. She continues to work on the children’s television series to this day.
Roosevelt Franklin soared in popularity as he shared the toy-store shelves with Ernie, Bert, and the Cookie Monster, Steve Schneider reported in his 2013 article, “Franklin Bashed: Whatever Happened to the First Black Muppet” for the Orlando Weekly.
But Roosevelt Franklin had haters that led to his demise. Roosevelt and his circle were far more urban than some would like him to be. He was also branded other names that indicated that he was not Black enough.
In Schneider’s article, he reported that doctoral candidate Barbara H. Stewart categorized Roosevelt Franklin as “the White man’s bastardization of the real thing and he or his mother did not use “Stage Negro Dialect.” Overall, at times Roosevelt Franklin was an “Uncle Tom,” Schneider wrote or did not “employ “Black Language” as Stewart insisted.
As letters of complaints filled the producers of Sesame Street’s mailbox and the negativity persisted, Roosevelt Franklin faded from the television screen, in reference to Muppet Wiki. He did not return on-air, though made a comeback in 1996 storybooks.
By 2014, Roosevelt made a brief appearance in an episode of Smart Cookies. Is it now the time to bring Roosevelt Franklin back to Sesame Street’s lineup?
By T. Ray Harvey | PA Public Information Officer
T. Ray (Antonio) Harvey is a Public Information Officer and Photo Artist for Publicity Agents. Harvey is also the author of The HOMICIDAL HANDYMAN OF OAK PARK: MORRIS SOLOMON JR.