Sesame Street Ep #276

Maria and Big Bird

Maria and Big Bird

As Sesame Street‘s third season premiere begins (it originally aired November 8, 1971 and is available on the Sesame Street: Old School Volume 1 DVD set), the voice of one off-screen child is introducing another one to the street where he lives along with all of its inhabitants, and I have to say that, after being briefly away from Sesame Street myself with Muppet specials for the past few entries, not to mention posting less due to my being away in London at the moment, it feels like a warm welcome home. There’s Ernie and Bert, and there’s Bob, and there’s Susan and Gordon! I missed you guys! Well, some of you, anyway (looking at you, not-the-Gordon-I-grew-up-with!).


But in addition to reuniting us with familiar faces, this opening narration actually serves to introduce us to a slew of new characters, all of whom joined the street at the start of the third season. Although the first two seasons’ human cast represented both white and black adults–two key demographics in New York City at the time–it was curiously missing another culture crucial to the Harlemish area in which the fictional street resides, namely Hispanic. They rectified this issue in the third season by bringing on three Latino actors/characters, one of whom, Rafael–played by the legendary actor, Raúl Juliá (best known today as Gomez in The Addams Family movies)–only stayed the one year, but the other two of whom remained on the show until only very recently when one retired. I am, of course, speaking about the legendary-in-their-own-rights Maria (Sonia Manzano) and Luis (Emilio Delgado), and who are among the TV people who I consider to have helped raise me. Especially Maria. You guys, I loved her so much when I was little. And when she began, she was only 19 years old (well, Maria was; Sonia was 21)! And Maria’s romance with Luis was still years away.


In addition to Maria, Luis, and Rafael, this opening also introduces us to Mr. Hooper’s new helper, a bald Caucasian guy named Tom (Larry Block). Well, introduces me, anyway. Apparently Tom was a recurring character in 10 episodes of the previous season. Like Rafael, he was also only a regular in this season and, as this is the only full episode I have of it, it’ll probably be all I’ll see of him. Same goes for Molly the mailwoman, a rather (and, for Sesame Street, surprisingly) lusty lady played by Charlotte Rae, most famous for being Mrs. Garrett in the late ’70s and ’80s on Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life a bunch of years down the line from this point. The final new character, David (Northern Calloway), Sesame Street‘s second African-American guy after Gordon (or third, if you count the different Gordon from the pilot, also!), however, actually stuck around until 1989. Although it isn’t touched on in this episode, he either does at this point or will go on to also work part-time at Mr. Hooper’s store and eventually takes it over after Mr. Hooper’s death in 1983.


For now, we only get small glimpses of these new characters, and it’s actually kind of surprising just how small they are. I’m still scratching my head as to when the show began to feature more fully developed plots. If evidence from this episode is correct, the street scenes still seem to be composed of mostly disconnected standalone sketches. None of the human characters really feel like fully fleshed-out people yet–which is funny because the Muppets all do–although to be fair, it is possible that I’m missing some character development in the episodes I haven’t seen, but given that every person I’ve seen from the show’s first two years hasn’t done much besides teaching lessons either directly to the audience or indirectly, via a Muppet or child, or reacting incredulously to a Muppet’s behavior, my educated guess is that they’re still thought of more as teachers than as people. And I really don’t think that the show becomes as interesting to watch until they “become” people.


Bert teaches Ernie how to use a straw.

Bert teaches Ernie how to use a straw.

As great as individual classic sketches, cartoons, songs, and pieces might be, the show at this point is lacking in connective tissue. Any street scene not centering on Muppet interaction is still the weakest, least entertaining part of the show. When I was a kid watching in the ’80s, I actually looked forward to the street scenes because that’s where the story was. The cutaways were all fun in their own rights but I saw them more as intermissions from the main action vs. all of the early episodes I’ve watched so far, where the street scenes feel like the interruptions. Before, I pointed mostly towards the lack of plot at this point being the main reason, but this episode finally crystallized for me the more pressing issue. Even with a whole bunch of new faces added, we get little time to meet these people, nor do we discover anything about them other than their names. And that’s when I put together that we know just as little about the people who’ve been there for the two full seasons before this episode! Which is the main reason that, even three seasons in, Sesame Street still feels primitive at this point.


But, anyway, after a split-second scene of Luis walking by and buying fruit, we cut to a longer sequence at Hooper’s Store. Tom is there but he doesn’t say much, and neither does Mr. Hooper. Our primary focus is actually Bert and Ernie, who are sitting at the bar, a glass of soda in front of each of them. The following scene is one in which Bert, as usual, gets the short end of the stick, however it’s also one of those cases where it seems that Ernie actually isn’t trying to bother him, but as I’ve discussed in previous Bert and Ernie posts, there are times that he’s so subtle about it (I know, right? Ernie subtle?!) that it’s difficult to tell if he actually doesn’t understand something or if it’s part of a prank on Bert. Sometimes he laughs to indicate the truth, but this is one of the times where he doesn’t.


Basically, Mr. Hooper gives Bert and Ernie straws for their drinks, but Ernie says he has no idea what a straw is and is worried that he won’t be able to figure out how to use it. Bert then actually very sweetly encourages him. “You have to be patient with him,” he tells Hooper and Tom, particularly when Ernie has trouble even placing his straw in his drink correctly. And then Bert tells Ernie that he can practice on his drink, a really understanding, generous moment from Bert. And Ernie does, sucking up all of Bert’s soda. Bert is so happy for Ernie doing such a great job and Ernie so pleased by his praise that it’s really heartwarming to see. It isn’t until Ernie, who has now gotten the hang of it, then drinks all of his own soda also and leaves, refreshed, that Bert even processes what’s happened and that he’s now left with nothing for himself. But again, the tone seems to indicate that this is more of an Ernie-being-somewhat-of-a-kid moment than an Ernie-being-deliberately-mischievous moment. Unless that was his plan all along!


Then, we cut to Rafael teaching a few kids how to count cards in Spanish. Susan walks by and says hi, before going off to visit a sick Mrs. Robinson, who, although she doesn’t explain it here, has to be Gordon’s mom, because that’s their last name, although I’m fairly certain it never came up in any of the episodes I’ve watched thus far. And then, we’re in a far more interesting scene where David asks Oscar to borrow some string to wrap a package. Oscar responds, “I’ll do a favor for you if you’ll do a favor for me,” handing him some string, and then answering David’s query about said favor with, “The favor you can do for me is take your string, get out of here, and never come back and bother me with any dumb favors again!” SLAM! Aw, Oscar, I’ve missed you. And while we don’t learn a whole lot about David here, the way he brushes off Oscar’s rudeness indicates he’s meant to be a pretty cool guy. Which is basically a full character study compared to Rafael and Luis, who we know speak Spanish…and that’s it.


Mrs. Garr--I mean, Molly, hits on Bob.

Mrs. Garr–I mean, Molly, hits on Bob.

Next up, we have Molly, delivering a letter to Bob and indicating to him that it’s “from a very good friend of yours” and that that friend is a lady and that that lady friend has invited him to a party, practically batting her eyelashes and stopping short of utterly throwing herself at him the entire time. Bob gets super squirmy and for a moment, I assumed that he just wasn’t comfortable with her advances, but then it turns out that the real reason is that he assumes the only way she could know all this is if she read his mail, which he scolds her about. Paging Oblivious, party of one! Finally, she tells him the obvious truth, and he changes his tune, although I could swear I caught a glimpse of fear lurking behind his eyes at her interest in him. This is probably why she didn’t last long on Sesame Street, where true love is allowed (awwww, future Maria and Luis!), but casual hook-ups would definitely be frowned upon. Even more so, it’s such a strange, surreal experience to see a brunette, slightly younger Mrs. Garrett hitting on Bob from Sesame Street while she’s dressed in a postal uniform of all things that my brain almost refused to accept it.


Next, we have Maria’s very first scene, and I love that it’s just her and Big Bird together, because their friendship was one of the most iconic elements of my television-watching childhood. Though this can’t have been the case in every scene, given none of the adults believed him about Snuffleupagus (who actually makes his debut in this episode; more on that later!), I remember her always being so overall gentle, kind, and patient with him that I always considered her his surrogate mom of sorts. Though all of the adults had their moments with him, the two of them always felt so special together, so although this isn’t necessarily the best scene, it’s lovely to see them together from the very beginning. In this scene, Big Bird is holding up an M, not sure what letter it is, and Maria gives him a hint: it’s the first letter in her name, and after some encouragement from her, he gets it right! Awww. Bestill my heart!


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