Sesame Street's Sonia Manzano: 'We Wanted To Show Children Real Life' Actress Sonia Manzano is beloved by millions as Maria on Sesame Street. Her character on TV mirrored many of Manzano's real-life milestones, like marriage and motherhood (Elmo served as ring bearer for Maria's wedding on the show). She also wrote for Sesame Street in later years, and helped the show address diversity issues. In this special episode, Manzano reflects on her 44 seasons on Sesame Street, what she thinks was the show's most poignant moment — and which Muppet was secretly her favorite.
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'We Wanted To Show Children Real Life': Sesame Street's Sonia Manzano

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'We Wanted To Show Children Real Life': Sesame Street's Sonia Manzano

'We Wanted To Show Children Real Life': Sesame Street's Sonia Manzano

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ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

This is a special...

CORY TURNER, HOST:

Extra special.

KAMENETZ: ...Episode of LIFE KIT for parenting with Sesame Workshop.

TURNER: Yeah. We're going to talk with one of the most iconic humans from "Sesame Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SONIA MANZANO: (As Maria) Hi. Welcome to Sesame Street. I just fixed Mrs. Goosemont's (ph) toaster, and we're just checking to make sure that it works. Now, let's see. Make sure it's plugged in. And - oh, there.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (As characters) It's working.

KAMENETZ: Sonia Manzano played Maria on "Sesame Street" for 44 seasons. That's not just a career. It's a lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As minister) Do you, Maria, take Luis to be your husband in good times and bad, to love him and care for him always.

MANZANO: (As Maria) I do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As minister) I now pronounce you husband and wife.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yay.

MANZANO: (As Maria) Little baby, I want you to meet all our friends.

CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Hi, little - gee, what's her name?

EMILIO DELGADO AND SONIA MANZANO: (As Luis and Maria) Gabriela.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh.

TURNER: I loved Maria. She was totally my favorite, for real. She ran the Fix-It Shop. She was so kind, so patient. But she was also really fierce when she needed to be.

KAMENETZ: Totally. You know, meeting her at NPR studios in New York, it was kind of like reconnecting with an old friend.

TURNER: So we talked with Sonia about her time on "Sesame," including the Muppet she'd most like to have dinner with. I'm Cory Turner.

KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz. And this is LIFE KIT for parenting. We'll get to all of that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Of all her 44 seasons on "Sesame Street," the episode Sonia Manzano says was the most poignant for her...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Where is he?

MANZANO: (As Maria) Big Bird, don't you remember we told you? Mr. Hooper died. He's dead.

TURNER: That's Sonia Manzano as Maria breaking some tough news to Caroll Spinney as Big Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh, he's got to come back. Why, who's going to take care of the store? And who's going to make my birdseed milkshakes and tell me stories?

KAMENETZ: We drew on this piece of TV history quite a bit in our earlier LIFE KIT episode on how to talk to kids about death. And if you remember, Mr. Hooper, the character who ran "Sesame's" corner store, was played by actor Will Lee. And Will Lee the actor actually died in 1982.

MANZANO: I just remember, obviously, the whole cast was heartbroken that our beloved cast member Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper for so many years, was no longer with us.

TURNER: Manzano remembers Lee fondly as a deeply devoted actor and as a lifelong activist.

MANZANO: Will Lee was James Earl Jones' acting teacher.

KAMENETZ: Really?

MANZANO: Yes.

TURNER: Wait. Really?

MANZANO: So Will Lee came from this whole kind of method acting world. He was a political activist in the '30s.

TURNER: Whoa.

MANZANO: He would tell me about Kazan. And as you know, during the McCarthy era...

TURNER: Elia Kazan.

MANZANO: Elia Kazan the director.

TURNER: Oh, yeah.

MANZANO: Many people were blacklisted, and Kazan named names. And Will Lee would tell me about that time and how he saw Kazan on the street. And he crossed the street...

TURNER: Wow.

MANZANO: ...Because he didn't want to, you know, face him. And he would tell us about marching in the '30s for union rights. And I always loved the way he would deliver lines on "Sesame Street" because he'd go, (stuttering) Big Bird. I mean - oh, God. You know, and he would do all of this kind of behavior. And I said to the producer - I said to Dulcy Singer, I just love the way he delivers his lines with that - all that hesitation, coming back and - I want to do that. And she said, no. No, I think he just doesn't remember his lines.

(LAUGHTER)

MANZANO: But a key - he was one of those kind of method actors of that era. And, you know - and I loved him for that. Though, he always used to say - when we wanted him to be in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, he'd say, I didn't work this hard all my life to work this hard.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Will Lee's death wasn't just hard on the cast. It posed a real challenge to the show's writers.

MANZANO: We didn't know. And I heard through hearing this through the grapevine how to handle his departure. And, of course, everyone said, well, let's just say he retired. And let's do everything but say that Mr. Hooper had died. But a basic principle of "Sesame Street" was always that we wanted to show children real life - the way the world worked. So it was all the job of Dulcy Singer, who was the executive producer, who really fought back the sensibility of, let's say he went away or let's kind of gloss it over. She really wanted to face it head-on. And she did a remarkable job of it.

KAMENETZ: This is so important because it's something we also talked about in our episode, which is that we - so many times, you want to soften things for kids and beat around the bush and tell them, you know, their dog went to live on a farm or, you know, somebody passed away but really having the courage to be clear with kids.

MANZANO: Yes. And actually, you really comfort them more if you're straight-up with them and tell them the truth. I'll quote Fred Rogers, who said, why leave them to the mercy of their imaginings? Why not tell them exactly what's going on? And I remember as a kid having questions myself about life. And I - actually, my mother was pretty good about them. I asked her once why she went to work when other mothers stayed home because at that time, you know, mothers stayed home, and she had to go to work in a factory. And she said, look. If I didn't go to work, we could not make ends meet. We wouldn't have enough money. Of course I'd like to stay home with you, but I can't. So that's another straight-up answer because I was thinking that she just didn't want to be with us when she left every morning.

KAMENETZ: Do you remember anything about the response to the episode?

MANZANO: Well, it was absolutely groundbreaking. It was scheduled to be shown on Thanksgiving Day so that parents would be home with the child. And after the showing of "Goodbye Mr. Hooper," there was a beautiful little piece that was just classical music and no dialogue. So there was a moment to reflect. So it was set up very carefully. Of course, people said, oh - some people said, how could they do death? The - our culture cannot handle dying.

(LAUGHTER)

MANZANO: You know, and other cultures have certain rituals that they go through, but we have a particularly difficult time.

TURNER: Why do you think the - why are we so bad at death?

MANZANO: I - that's a very good question. And if I had the answer to that, I'd bottle it and sell it.

TURNER: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Manzano also began writing for "Sesame Street" in the mid-80s thanks to executive producer Dulcy Singer.

MANZANO: I would question some of the Latino content on this show. And then I would say, well, you should do this. You should do that. And she finally said, why don't you try writing some of this material yourself? Now, at that time, there were no Latino writers, so she challenged me. And I really backtracked, and I said, oh, my goodness.

TURNER: (Laughter).

MANZANO: You know, I'm going to put my money where my mouth is. And that's how I started writing the show. And, you know, at that time, I was able to write about falling in love, getting married on "Sesame Street" and...

TURNER: You had a baby.

MANZANO: ...Nursing on Sesame Street...

TURNER: Right (laughter).

MANZANO: ...When I was behind the scenes and put my own - but I still think that the "Goodbye Mr. Hooper" was the most poignant show that we did. I mean, it sounds like I'm talking about a reality show, right?

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

MANZANO: Marriage, birth, death.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: Well, it's life. Yeah.

MANZANO: Yeah (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Yeah, even though it's in this fantasy world.

MANZANO: Even though in this fantasy world, it was very true to the world. And it was a time where we weren't that concerned with teaching how a kid should go through school, through tasks of a certain generation. It was kind of the world in general and how things have always worked in the world.

TURNER: Well, this is really interesting because I know one of the things that Anya and I really wanted to hear about from you was - again, you spent - it was 44 seasons on the show, right?

MANZANO: Mmm hmm.

TURNER: How did you see the world change? You must have seen a lot of pretty big shifts.

MANZANO: I saw a lot of shifts. I saw a lot of the television landscape change...

TURNER: (Laughter).

MANZANO: ...Profoundly...

TURNER: Right.

MANZANO: ...In all of those years. And the show was first a magazine format inspired by variety shows and laughing. And now we've changed. Now there's more narrative because kids started watching "Seinfeld" and "Friends."

(LAUGHTER)

MANZANO: And they wanted a story line. And I think the show always took into account what was happening in television in general - didn't make a separate world for a kids' show. We had a producer Jon Stone. Well, we said, kids - they don't want to live in their own little world. Believe me. They want a piece of the action as soon as possible.

TURNER: (Laughter).

MANZANO: They want to participate as soon as possible. So this whole sort of "Peter Pan" - (singing) I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up - is a fallacy.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

MANZANO: Kids want to grow up. As you know, they want to take charge.

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

MANZANO: And "Sesame Street" always took that into account.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So we're at the very beginning of this journey of creating media for parents, so we can take advantage of your wisdom...

(LAUGHTER)

KAMENETZ: ...'Cause something that's come up a few times is thinking about - we're instructing parents. We're really - we're giving clear takeaways. But it does depend on your values sometimes. And sometimes, there's judgment calls. And how did you guys do that in the most inclusive way possible at "Sesame"?

TURNER: Without sounding preachy.

MANZANO: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: Which you didn't - you were funny and cool.

TURNER: No. No, absolutely.

MANZANO: Yeah. Well, being funny does a lot. And you'll get further, and people will understand you...

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

MANZANO: ...Better if you put the humor in. But I think we kind of reached out to, you know, the general consensus of people. We didn't get into specific culture, unless we did get into specific cultures. They kept telling me in the beginning that I should be myself, so I would use a lot of Spanglish. I was born in the United States, so I was raised on that. And I thought they were proper Spanish words.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

MANZANO: My mother would use them.

TURNER: Your...

KAMENETZ: Like what?

TURNER: ...Parents were both Puerto Rican.

MANZANO: Yeah, they came from Puerto Rico in the '40s and met here. And I was born here in the '50s. And they would - I would say words to Big Bird. Big Bird, let's go lunchar (ph) - for lunch.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

MANZANO: Well, that's not a word. Or I'll say, let's go to el roofo (ph) to - for roof...

(LAUGHTER)

MANZANO: ...Or park the car - parque el carro (ph) - you know, something like that. So...

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

MANZANO: You know, the research people would come down and say to the producers, you know, Maria's not using proper words. I'd say, how dare you say I'm not using a proper Spanish word?

(LAUGHTER)

MANZANO: My mother says this, and she lives - she came from Puerto Rico. Well, then I would talk to Emilio Delgado, who plays Luis - Mexican-American. And he'd say, you know, I got to tell you I never heard those words either.

(LAUGHTER)

MANZANO: So then that made me thoughtful about it. And, you know - and I realized that I was giving them a little bit of Nuyorican culture. They wanted real culture, and that was my real culture. So if anything, it showed me that if there's a problem, really face it. Use it as an opportunity to explore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Looking back now on your time on the show, I'm curious if one or two really intimate memories of yours stand out.

MANZANO: I loved getting married on the show. Maria's wedding was very popular, and kids had little wedding parties with little cupcakes at home to see me get married. And at the time, I was recently married. And I was able to put my own feelings about marriage in the show in a way that a child would be interested in - and also, of course, having the baby. And as you know, if you have a child - when you have a child, everything changes, right?

TURNER: Yeah.

MANZANO: Like, you see the world differently. And I felt that with - when I had my child. And so I wanted to say - I thought to myself, how do I put that in the show? And I made Oscar think that he was not going to be a grouch anymore because he was so interested in my pregnancy.

TURNER: (Laughter).

MANZANO: And he was so excited about meeting the baby. And he's worried. What does this mean? Everything's changing. I'm not a grouch anymore. I really want to - I really love the baby. And then I'm able to calm him in saying, don't worry, Oscar. Babies change everything...

TURNER: (Laughter).

MANZANO: ...But not your personality. Your personality will be intact. And I remember writing something where Gabi destroys the cassette tape. She's 2 years old, and she destroys a cassette tape. And Oscar says, aha - proof. She's a grouch.

TURNER: (Laughter).

MANZANO: Look how she destroyed that tape. And then I was able to give the parenting tip or to acknowledge 2-year-olds like to explore, and they're destroying that. But they're not really destroying it because they're grouches. They're destroying it because they are curious.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: So if you had to be stuck on a deserted island, what Muppet would you want to be stuck with?

MANZANO: Oscar the Grouch.

ANYA KAMENETZ AND CORY TURNER: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Really? Oh, throwing a curveball.

MANZANO: Really.

TURNER: Why? Why?

MANZANO: I mean, because I find that character nuanced. You're either talking to a kid or a 40-year-old.

TURNER: (Laughter).

MANZANO: And, you know, I could imagine Oscar and I going out to dinner. When you can imagine...

(LAUGHTER)

MANZANO: I mean, I could imagine all of them going - you know...

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

MANZANO: They were such fully formed entities. He was appealing. And that he had a whole world in that trashcan that we didn't see was fabulous.

KAMENETZ: So true.

MANZANO: He had a pool and an elephant. And it was a magical place that we never saw.

TURNER: Well, thank you, Sonia Manzano, for coming on and talking with us. We really appreciate it.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, thanks so much.

MANZANO: It's been a terrific time for me to be on the show. And I love to share stories about it, so thank you so much for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Actress Sonia Manzano played Maria on "Sesame Street" for 44 seasons.

KAMENETZ: And she's still in the children's media business, working on books and a new television show.

TURNER: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. We've got more guides coming every month on all sorts of topics, like how to buy a home or how to learn to love exercise. I'm working on that one. And here, as always, is a completely random tip, this time from our fellow LIFE KIT host Maria Godoy.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: All right, parents. If you want to go on vacation and actually enjoy it, here's a tip. Make friends with a family that has kids of similar age as your own, and then invite them to go on vacation with you. That way the parents get to hang out and play, and the kids entertain each other, so you actually get to relax. Trust me. This one is one I rely on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us. We're at lifekit@npr.org.

KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz.

TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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