Ode to a Forgotten Muppet: Roosevelt Franklin

Monday, December 27, 2010

Muppets have come and gone during the history of Sesame Street, so I wonder how many folks remember Roosevelt Franklin? Roosevelt was supposed to be the show's first African American puppet (even though he was purple.) He appeared on the famed children's program for five years, from 1970 to 1975. Rarely seen without his trademark striped shirt, he taught children the days of the week, history lessons, and not to drink poison. He was so smart he had his own elementary school named after him. There was even an LP released that focused solely on Roosevelt: The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, which was later reissued as My Name is Roosevelt Franklin.

Matt Robinson, who played Gordon on Sesame Street, was the voice of the Roosevelt Franklin puppet. Thanks to him, Roosevelt scatted and rhymed his way through many fun skits. However, I get a kick out of Roosevelt Franklin's mother, whose name was billed as just that on the record: Roosevelt Franklin's mother. How many times have you seen such a groovy looking muppet putting her hands on her hips?

One perplexing thing about Roosevelt was his age. He clearly looked like a little boy, and attended school and lived at home. But he had a grown up voice and he also sometimes filled in as a substitute teacher at his own elementary school.

So why did the producers eventually can the puppet? Roosevelt was a victim of too much political correctness. Viewers wrote in complaining that the character was either stereotyping black culture, or that his dialogue was not black enough. Perhaps the fact that Roosevelt appeared to from a one-parent home (we don't know if he had a father) set some critics off. Considering that children don't see racial stereotypes unless they are taught to do so, it seems kind of silly to take aim at a puppet - especially one that Sesame Street used as a good role model for children.

That wasn't the only criticism, however - apparently the other muppets at Roosevelt's school were unruly and therefore, not setting a good example. I guess they have a point with this "Loud and Soft" clip I found on YouTube. 

Roosevelt was phased out of the show by the mid-70s. Long live Roosevelt Franklin!


  1. Wow! That was terrific. I so loved Sesame Street and it played a really big part of my early life, but you're right, as a kid you don't know the background things - nor do you even think about it. Its kinda like when you see your school teacher at the grocery store and discover they have a life away from school!

  2. Awesome! I totally forgot about this cat!! Like me.. it seems like you have lotsa cra... er... "stuff" popping around in your memory banks. Nice post!

  3. I remember him! I had to watch Sesame Street like 4 times a day when my boys were little! Then again when my daughter came along, but not the same characters! Zootsuitmama

  4. I loved Roosevelt. I remember a few years ago, OK, probably over 10 years ago, someone wrote a book about Sesame Street and there were some tidbits on this character. Honestly, I had forgotten about him, but he was so adorable. I am sorry they got rid of him.

    Great article! Keep Roosevelt alive! :)

    Happy New Year!

  5. Gotta be honest, folks, I only vaguely remember him! I was mostly fascinated by the controversy I read about him not long ago. Glad everyone liked the post and that they remember Roosevelt, though.

    1. Yeah, Roosevelt is not 'forgotten', he is well-remembered by many, and now kept alive on YouTube. I was wrong about his father never being mentioned, he is mentioned in the counting song.

      For me, the definitive Roosevelt Franklin performance is his alphabet:
      My name is Roosevelt Franklin (yeah, yeah, yeah)

  6. I remember Roosevelt! Wow, that really brings me back! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Until now, I had no idea that Roosevelt Franklin was supposed to be black. As far as I know, he was a purple muppet. Go fig.!

    1. Hmm, that's hard to believe. He was basically a black stereotype in the way he routinely danced about and also bobbed his head while opening his mouth wide while talking. His mum had a definite African-American accent, was a strict mom who talked in a black style, and there were clues in her dress. I believe her voice was supplied by Loretta Long.

      If you missed all of that, Roosevelt clearly sang and scatted soul-style in a Barry White/Levi Stubbs-style deep voice that sounded amusing coming from a small boy. He sometimes rushed back and forth from background to foreground like Harry Belafonte singing 'The Banana Boat Song'.

      By the time Matt Robinson left SS, I think Roosevelt's image had become a little out-of-date, and African-Americans of that time were no longer interested in the old custom of having the names of old white Presidents. Never a reference to Roosevelt having a father either, let alone his father appearing on screen.

      Still, as a small black child in the 'mid-70s, I liked Roosevelt, and had no difficulty in recognising him as an African-American boy.

  8. 1/6/11
    RobGems.ca wrote:
    Actually, the real reason that Roosevelt Franklin was discontinued was the fact that the late Matt Robinson left th show in 1974, & no one bothered to to find a new voice for Roosevelt, not even another African-American Muppeteer that was hired in 1977, Kevin Clash bothered to revive Roosevelt (I think Matt Robinson personally had a copyright of ownership/creation on the Muppet, & just simply settled an agreement with Jim Henson when he decided to leave the show.)

  9. The REALLY bizarre thing about his age was that in his counting song with his mother he stated that he was two years old...which is all the more bewildering because in the sketches with his mom he sings in a deep bass voice, whereas in the Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School segments, where presumably he's older, his voice was considerably higher.

    Oh, and he did have a father though he was never shown. He was mentioned in the aforementioned counting song.


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