Have you ever looked back through your life and really tried to figure out what things, people or events truly shaped the person you’ve become? I have and I’ve discovered that many of the earliest memories I have of my life have to do with music. I distinctly remember hearing Elvis Presley (“Stuck On You” in particular) at my mother and stepfather’s home when I must’ve been 10 years old, maybe. Presley would stay with me, playing a significant role in my life. But previous to even this I can recall being babysat by my beloved Aunt Louise. I spent some time at her apartment in the morning, went to kindergarten and then returned to Aunt Louise’s to await pick-up. I took a couple things with me for comfort and to pass the time. One was Blue Bear, pictured below with me at Aunt Louise’s, the other was my Roosevelt Franklin record.
I watched Sesame Street like every other kid my age but I don’t really have many endearing, indelible memories of that show helping to raise me. I actually recall Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood having more of an effect on the child I was but the legendary Fred Rogers didn’t have Roosevelt Franklin in his stable. I must admit, though; I don’t have any vivid memories of seeing Roosevelt Franklin on Sesame Street as much as I remember listening to his record – My Name is Roosevelt Franklin (1971) – constantly as a young boy.
Roosevelt was a Muppet that appeared on Sesame Street between 1971 and 1975. He was designed by Jim Henson and voiced by Matt Robinson. The amount of talent that has come out of Pennsylvania is staggering – I’ve talked about this before – and Robinson can be added to this list having been born in 1937 in Pittsburgh (add Fred Rogers, too, actually. Born in Latrobe). Matt was hired by the Children’s Television Workshop to help develop Sesame Street. His first job was to create segments illustrating the diversity of the characters and he was eventually tapped to originate the role on the show of Gordon. When debating Sesame Street‘s significance, keep in mind that African-American Gordon was the first character on the show to have spoken lines. Matt Robinson was more of a behind-the-scenes guy, though, and gave up playing Gordon after three years. Robinson, however, carried on writing and voicing sketches featuring his creation, Roosevelt Franklin.
Roosevelt was a magenta-coloured puppet with black hair who was one of the main characters of the early years of Sesame Street. In many sketches, Roosevelt would take the opportunity to teach a room full of his classmates whenever the teacher left the room. He taught them about things like family, pride, respect, Africa, making an effort, rhyming, leaving other people’s belongings alone, traffic safety and not drinking poison. His teaching manner was buoyant and excitable and the class often ended up in an uproar. In 1971, during the second season of the show, Roosevelt Franklin became the first character from Sesame Street to have his own album.
The Year of Roosevelt Franklin (Gordon’s Friend from Sesame Street) was released in 1971 and featured songs written by Matt Robinson and composer Joe Raposo. Later in life when I dove into Frank Sinatra’s catalogue I was amazed that he recorded Raposo’s songs; I mean, after all, Raposo wrote music for children. Didn’t he? Perhaps not just for kids; they were good enough for the Chairman. Of Portuguese extraction, Raposo got his break when he met Jim Henson and was tapped to work for the Children’s Television Workshop, writing the theme for Sesame Street and some of its most popular songs; “C is for Cookie”, “Bein’ Green” (recorded by Sinatra with three other Raposo songs on Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back ) and “Sing” (a Top Ten hit for the Carpenters). Sinatra was apparently “infatuated” with Raposo and regularly referred to him as “the genius”. Raposo also composed the themes for The Electric Company and Three’s Company and was nominated for an Oscar for a song from his score for The Great Muppet Caper (1981).
Significantly, as it relates to Roosevelt Franklin, Raposo was said to be a skilled American funk composer. Joe “(made) frequent and arguably credible musical allusions to the underground black soul and funk performers of his day…coupling a convincing African-American Seventies funk bassline to the cycling musical structure of a European round”.
The Year of Roosevelt Franklin was reissued in 1974 as My Name is Roosevelt Franklin and that’s what I grew up with. The album is joyous and starts off with “Roosevelt Franklin Counts” that features some scatting and some great lyrics. When Roosevelt turns three, he will “look his daddy right in the knee”; when he turns six, he will “get my first job haulin’ bricks”; and at eight he will “eat all the collard greens off of my plate”. “Days of the Week” starts out with some kids who are arguing about the days of the week; they are unsure about them but they know that Roosevelt is smart and – wanting to be smart like him – they ask him to teach them.
During the song, Roosevelt says that going to school all through the week will mean “I wouldn’t be nobody’s fool” and will make him “five times smarter”. Roosevelt’s friend, Mobity Mosely, runs down the months of the year in a groovy track. On “Keep On Trying”, Roosevelt’s siblings, Mary Frances and Baby Ray, sing about making an effort and persistence. The two decide they want to “keep on keepin’ on” to be smart like Big Brother. “The Safety Boy Blues” is obviously about being careful. Roosevelt admonishes kids to not go down sewers to get a lost ball. “Just Because” maybe wasn’t my favourite song on the record but I think it was the one that had the most effect on me as a child. I can maybe even trace my sensitivity to the pain of others right back to this song. In this ballad, Roosevelt says that he will do many things for you but one thing he won’t do is intentionally hurt someone. It was the emotion and sincerity of the lyric that would get to me as a 5-6-year-old and tears would often come as I listened; “There are too many folks I’ve never seen who could be friends of mine. And I’ll shake their hand, break bread with them, even though they’re not your kind. I am not old but I am wise. Too wise to hurt some other guys, some guys who will not live like you just because you want them to.”
Side Two starts off with Baby Ray putting down “The Skin I’m In”. “I know you can see I’m happy to be a bright-eyed, smarter black young man…if we stop all that foolishness I have a feeling we win…I love the skin I’m in”. (Check out the Chairmen of the Board’s fantastic 1974 album Skin I’m In) “A Bear Eats Bear Food” celebrates people’s differences and “Halfies” encourages sharing. To drive home the fact that Roosevelt was sharing with someone from a different culture than his, Robinson may have made A.B. Cito stereotypically Latino. “Me and You” celebrates the positive results of working together – “we must’ve cooperated” – and “Old King Midas” warns against greed. The album’s closer in another classic. “My mother’s gonna find me as sure as a moose likes moose juice”. On “Roosevelt Franklin’s Alphabet”, running through the ABC’s has never been more jubilant. Roosevelt is proud to have learned his alphabet and can’t wait to share his knowledge with his mother. “Did somebody somewhere summon me?” is something I still say to this day. Throughout the record, we learn that Roosevelt is confident and proud and he pursues learning. He has self-esteem and is willing to help others.
The record was produced by one Thomas Z. Shepard who won 12 – count ’em, 12 – Grammy awards for producing albums of Broadway shows. The “Project Director” was Arthur Shimkin, who had previously founded the Bell Records label (The Box Tops, Solomon Burke, Al Green, the O’Jays, Barry Manilow, the Partridge Family) and also Little Golden Records, a series of stories read (by Bing Crosby, Johnny Cash and others) on two sides of a 45 and that were meant to accompany Little Golden Books. Shimkin oversaw the production of over 3,000 records including Sesame Street Fever, an album I had on 8-track.
Roosevelt Franklin would soon fall out of favour for a variety of sometimes conflicting reasons. It was said that his rowdy behaviour in the classroom set a bad example for children and this would have likely been enough to result in his role being reduced. Additionally, Roosevelt – and by extension his creator Robinson – was criticized for being “too black” – and for not being “black enough”. In 1973, an article published in the literary digest Black World took aim at Sesame Street and Roosevelt in particular. The article claimed that producers of the show “attempt(ed) to eradicate” the way the magazine perceived black people to speak and that “only a token effort is made to acknowledge that some Black people speak differently than white people and that this effort, in fact, constitutes a gross misrepresentation of Black Language”. So, the article asserts, the show does blacks a disservice by having the black actors and Muppets speak “correct” English without inflection. The article went so far as to say African-American characters using the term “right on” is now invalid because its significance has been “destroyed” due to the fact that whites have “co-opted” it. Also, this: “It becomes apparent that it is unreasonable to assume that any educational program devised by the oppressor can do anything other than serve his interests…The only effective educational program for the majority of Black children in this country must be one devised and controlled by Blacks”.
“On Sesame Street I’m in a lot of trouble because I try to retain as much of the vernacular as possible. 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 judgements… 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, inflection, pacing. I think we should communicate with children in whatever way they understand.” – Matt Robinson
Voices from the other side claimed that Roosevelt’s rowdy behaviour reflected poorly on African-Americans. It was argued that the character portrayed an “overly excessive black image”. Matt Robinson’s widow though, has said that Roosevelt Franklin was her husband’s vehicle for expressing his black pride and his hatred of racism. It was his weapon. I fear that, looked at in hindsight, Roosevelt Franklin may seem too stereotypically black. He seemed to have rhythm and liked to dance and he often spoke in rhyme. On his record, he employs scat and he does indeed utilize what could be described as “black lingo”. Add to this a reference to collard greens and you may have those who watch out for this sort of thing analyzing Roosevelt Franklin and declaring him politically incorrect. But a lot of this criticism would come from today’s mentalities being applied to a record and sketches on a show made over 40 years ago. At the time, perhaps to avoid even the possibility of being looked at askance, Sesame Street reduced Roosevelt’s presence.
Matt Robinson would go on to write episodes of Sanford and Son, The Waltons and Eight is Enough and eventually join the crew of The Cosby Show as a producer and writer. I remember seeing his name in the credits of The Cosby Show and thinking “I know that name from somewhere”. Robinson’s daughter is Holly Robinson Peete. Matt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1982 when he was 45 and he battled the disease until he succumbed in 2002. He was 65.
When I recently reviewed my fourth-favourite album, Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses, it occurred to me that I had been exposed to soul music – at least the type presented by Matt Robinson, Joe Raposo and Roosevelt Franklin – at a very early age. I mean, look at that little white kid in the picture above. It’s kind of gratifying to me that the little guy I was back then understood that there were different types of people – and music – in the world. Don’t lets argue right now about the way Roosevelt or A.B. Cito were presented. Keep in mind this was 1971 and we are somewhat more enlightened today. But Robinson and Sesame Street were making a sincere attempt to present different cultures living in harmony. Is A.B. Cito and his song “Halfies” stereotypical? Maybe but with Matt’s depiction of A.B. Cito it is made clear that he was different than Roosevelt Franklin, that he was from a different culture – and yet they were sharing. THAT’S what that little kid up there in the picture heard. I liked these characters so much and they made me believe in what they were putting down. It made me want to understand all types of people, it made me want to learn about different cultures. It made me want to be A PART of different cultures. I did – and to this day I still do – sometimes want to speak with an accent, pretend to be English or make like I’m from the American South. To this day I wear a dashiki suit jacket and wish I could wear a turban like Nick Cannon or John Phillip Law back in the day. It’s why I listen to Hawaiian music and mariachi and want to learn different languages. Because I want to appropriate other cultures? No, because I appreciate other cultures. They fascinate me. I’ve learned lately that ever since I was a young boy I’ve been sensitive to others, tolerant and accepting. And I can trace that back to – my Christian upbringing – and this Muppet and his 50-year-old record. I’m realizing now that I’ve spent my life with Roosevelt Franklin. So, is he “wrong” or inappropriate? If the result of my exposure to him is that I respect other cultures and I’m sensitive to the feelings of others, how can he be wrong?
“Making an effort…traffic safety, and not drinking poison.” Oh man that’s hilarious and great. I’d forgotten all about Roosevelt Franklin! Great post.
I had to chuckle at that, too! Thanks for reading.
Also, wasn’t there a second “Gordon?” Or did the original shave his head at some point?
Yes, you’re right. The bald Gordon is the one most folks remember. He was there a long time. Still there??