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Roosevelt Franklin introduces the letter R.

Muppet with a Mission

Posted: 11/07/2013

His Name is Roosevelt Franklin

Roosevelt Review explores the early years of educational television and the history of Roosevelt Franklin, one of the most popular and controversial Muppets.


by Susan Muldowney

If you ever researched the life of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, there is a chance your search results included a picture of a little purple guy in a striped turtleneck. His name is Roosevelt Franklin, and he is a Muppet from the early days of the educational television program Sesame Street.

Matt Robinson, producer, writer and voice for Roosevelt FranklinAs a featured character on Sesame Street, Roosevelt Franklin appeared in dozens of episodes as well as in Children's Television Workshop books. He also was the first Muppet to headline an album, The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, (1971), re-released as My Name is Roosevelt Franklin. Perfectly described by one fan as "a soulful mix of Gil Scott-Heron (the musician and poet) and Mitch Hedberg (the standup comic)," Roosevelt Franklin taught children that there was more to learning than just letters and numbers.

Aside from the name Roosevelt, Roosevelt Franklin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Roosevelt University share some connections. Among them are a commitment to improving lives through education, and innovative contributions to television.

The start of regularly scheduled television broadcasting in the United States began on April 20, 1939 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the opening address for the World's Fair in Flushing, N.Y. The speech was seen by about 1,000 viewers from roughly 200 televisions sets that existed in the New York City area.

By the late 1940's, as televisions became more common and affordable, programs adjusted from being a rare event to a form of popular culture. Concerts and speeches were outnumbered by boxing, baseball, cowboys, game shows, and a great deal of advertising. Messages aimed at children were intended to sell everything from toys and candy to BB guns. The power of advertising to children was particularly noticeable in the radio and television program Captain Midnight's Secret Squadron sponsored by Ovaltine, a producer of malted milk headquartered in Villa Park, Ill. Each episode encouraged children to send Ovaltine labels to get a decoder ring, badge or other premiums. Demand for Captain Midnight merchandise was so high that Villa Park had to build another post office branch just to process the requests.

In 1952, Roosevelt University shared a connection to one of the first examples of educational television. Ding Dong School, produced in Chicago, was hosted by Frances Rappaport Horwich, the chair of Roosevelt's Department of Education. (See accompanying article.) Promoted as "The Nursery School of the Air," Horwich, or Miss Frances as she was known on the show, developed a child-participation format to appeal to pre-schoolers. Miss Frances spoke slowly and cheerfully, asking children questions about their day and leaving time for viewers at home to talk back to the screen and feel that they were being heard. Each episode included an inexpensive activity such as how to make a sandwich or how to blow soap bubbles.

Years before Ding Dong School or Sesame Street, Franklin Roosevelt believed federal funding was necessary to help states bring educational opportunities closer to their citizens. In his speech to the National Education Association in 1938, he said, "There is probably a wider divergence today in the standard of education between the richest communities and the poorest communities than there was 100 years ago; and it is, therefore, our immediate task to seek to close that gap – not in any way by decreasing the facilities of the richer communities but by extending aid to those less fortunate… Freedom to learn is the first necessity of guaranteeing that man himself shall be self-reliant enough to be free."

President Roosevelt called for federal support for school buildings and libraries – the physical structures for learning. In 1968 the federal government began supporting public television as a way to bring educational opportunities to children wherever they lived. Great hopes were placed on Public Broadcasting. It's poignant to read how many people expected this to finally eradicate the divide between rich and poor students. It was even viewed as a Cold War issue. Why can Ivan (the Soviet child) read, but Johnny can't? It was only in 1964 that the Civil Rights Act outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. TV seemed like the ideal way to reach populations that had long been isolated and deprived. Sesame Street, the most researched and vetted program in the history of children's television, was originally planned as the television supplement to the Head Start program, which provided support for education, health and nutrition for the poorest families. The goal was to help children adjust to a classroom and meet academic expectations.

In a film made to introduce the pilot episodes of Sesame Street, executive producer Joan Ganz Cooney explained, "Fast action, humor and animation have become established means of attracting children's attention to television and we are using the same techniques to motivate children to absorb the curriculum content of our series."

In 1968 the producers of Sesame Street asked Jim Henson to join the new program. Henson had started making puppets in 1954, his first being Kermit in 1955. Prototypes of Grover and Cookie Monster appeared in commercials and variety shows throughout the 1960s. This early work established Henson as one of the wittiest and most imaginative puppeteers in the country. The show's producers, Jon Stone and Cooney, hoped that the program's mission would resonate with him and he would want to be involved. While Henson had some concerns due to wanting to protect creative control and ownership of his Muppets, he was a father of five children, and wholeheartedly supported the educational and social justice goals. He rebuilt Grover and Cookie Monster in new colors for Sesame Street, and he created a number of new Muppets just for the program, including Big Bird, Ernie, Bert and Oscar. Kermit, a character often called Jim Henson's alter ego, was the only Muppet character that Henson used both on Sesame Street and other projects, like The Muppet Show.

When Sesame Street debuted 1969, it was the first children's series to include non-white characters in its regular cast. For many children, it was their first time to see "someone like me" or someone different from them on television. The integrated cast was so unusual for the time, the Mississippi State Commission for Educational Television banned it from the airwaves because they felt "Mississippi was not yet ready." (The ban was lifted after a few months due to complaints from the public , and Sesame Street was on the schedule in Mississippi in time the start of the second season.) 

""Matt Robinson, a writer and producer of African American-oriented public affairs shows for Philadelphia TV station WCAU-TV, took on the role of Gordon on Sesame Street and created the character of Roosevelt Franklin. The goal was to include black culture and relatable life, something that could resonate with children who had no other ambassador on TV. All children needed encouragement to respect each other’s differences, and just as importantly, black children needed to respect themselves in a world that was often hostile and discouraging.

In the liner notes for his album, Roosevelt Franklin described his own creation this way: "Now for myself, I was born on a train that Matt Robinson was riding and it was a Penn Central train coming from Philadelphia where Matt lived. Well, it was late – not the hour, the train – so Matt was just sitting there thinking about what Sesame Street needed most and the first thing I knew, I jumped out of his mind and was sitting there beside him."

Caroly Wilcox, the head of the puppet workshop that built the first Roosevelt Franklin, described the construction process to Karen Falk, the director of archives for the Jim Henson Company: "Roosevelt Franklin started out as the smallest size 'Anything Muppet,' a generic felt character used in crowd scenes. He was a reddish purple that later became a soft pink. His eyes and shirt were the standard ones for that size puppet and his hair was a tuft, sort of like Ernie's. Once Roosevelt became a more frequent character, his eyes, hair and shirt were 'bagged,' or made exclusive to him." As a featured star, he performed in skits with classmates and family, including other characters created by Robinson: Hard Head Henry Harris, Smart Tina, Baby Ray Franklin, Mobity Mosley and others.

When Roosevelt entered the room, he zigzagged across the screen to the sound of his own horn section. He taught concepts like the alphabet, the days of the week, the value of perseverance, geography, and safety. In the song “The Skin I’m In” Roosevelt’s brother, Baby Ray Franklin, sings, “Mostly Roosevelt, you taught me to love three things: Who I am, what I am, and where I am.”

While children loved Roosevelt Franklin and research confirmed that children absorbed the curriculum content from his appearances, the longer he was on the show, the more attention he drew. Adults were quicker to view him not as a Muppet, or as “one of the Muppets,” but as the black Muppet. His prominent role on the show had made him a strong influence on children and to some viewers his fun-loving, rowdy classroom behavior set a bad example, or worse, created a negative image of urban, minority children.

Roosevelt Franklin wasn’t the only Muppet to inspire complaint letters. Almost every element of Sesame Street was scrutinized. Cookie Monster was blamed for inspiring bad table manners. Some parents said Count von Count frightened small children with his bats, thunder and lightning. A Muppet named Don Music was a frustrated composer who never wrote a song without banging his head on the keyboard and shouting, “I’ll never get it, never, never, never!” Children loved to imitate him, parents wrote complaint letters. 

Roosevelt Franklin with some other Muppets from the Children's Television Workshop/Sesame Street

However, the internal discussion about Roosevelt Franklin became more urgent and serious. From the initial planning of Sesame Street, the writers, producers and curriculum team pledged to create a program that parents would want their children to watch. If parents objected to a character's behavior they would be less likely to reinforce their children's viewing. Despite the objections from the production crew, the producers removed Roosevelt Franklin from the show in 1976 after six seasons. Another factor in his retirement was that Matt Robinson had left the show years before and at that point was only occasionally writing scripts.

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Even though Roosevelt Franklin has been off Sesame Street for more than 37 years, and was just one of over a 1,000 Muppets who have appeared on the show, he is a fun memory for fans of all backgrounds who may not have even noticed he was a pioneering character.

FDR wanted to improve educational access and opportunities for all children. He could not have predicted a future of educational television with characters like Miss Francis and Roosevelt Franklin, but he likely would have been heartened by their success. Dr. Frances Horwich respected children’s intelligence and provided a fun, accessible pre-school of the air. Matt Robinson’s Roosevelt Franklin character loved to learn, which promoted a love of learning in the viewers themselves. This attitude stayed with children long after they outgrew Sesame Street. Considering the admiration and affection for this Muppet that still surfaces in books, album re-releases and on the internet today, as a student and teacher, Roosevelt Franklin was an over-achiever.

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Thanks to the University of Maryland Libraries and librarians: The Special Collections in Performing Arts, and the Children's Television Workshop Archive.