Today we honor and celebrate a woman who has been a key part of the lives of millions of children, Dr. Loretta Long. As Susan, Long has been a member of the cast of Sesame Street longer than anyone but two colleagues: Bob McGrath and Caroll Spinney (the puppeteer who portrays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch).
Born in Paw Paw, MI in 1940, Long pursued a degree in Education, determined to make a difference in young lives. She was also interested in entertainment, and began co-hosting the WNET show Soul! while substitute teaching. The show mixed musical variety (including performances by Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle) with frank political commentary, appealing to all Long’s interests. One day she saw the set decorator preparing scenes for a new program and asked for more information. The show was Sesame Street.
[It] wasn’t Dick and Jane’s old neighborhood with the picket fence. That intrigued me.
Impressed by the educational and multicultural goals of the program, Long went to audition. What she didn’t know was that the creators were looking for a “Joan Baez type” for the female lead. All the other performers were there with guitars; Long had expected a pianist. Improvising, she sang “I’m A Little Teapot” to the children in the test audience, engaging them to join in. Her infectious good humor and way with the kids won her the part.
So that–I have some 4-year-olds to thank for a career!
Long taped the show, substitute taught (much to the confusion of students who saw her in the classroom and on TV), and pursued her PhD in Education from the University of Massachusetts all at the same time. She wanted to be sure to have the tools to make education meaningful and fun both. Her dissertation was entitled “Sesame Street”: A Space Age Approach to Education for Space Age Kids.
While educating generations of children on fair play, diversity, and basic skills, Long has also been a strong voice for social justice. She is dedicated to creating true equity and challenges people to think outside their comfort zones.
In 1998, she wrote the children’s book Courtney’s Birthday Party, about two girls who are best friends, one white and one black. When Courtney, the white girl, has a birthday party coming, her mother doesn’t want to invite Dejana, her African-American friend. The girls work together to solve the situation, promoting diversity and cooperation. Long faced some criticism for the book because people felt it wasn’t realistic in 1998. She demanded otherwise (quite accurately) and provided kids, parents, and teachers with a marvelous tool.
We seldom know about the backgrounds of the entertainers who create educational programming. As Long observes,
TV is like fire. It’s good when it keeps you warm and bad if it burns your house down. TV is very popular and you need to be aware of what your children are watching.
The cast of Sesame Street were all dedicated to true educational and social justice principles (including the late Will Lee, better known as Mr. Hooper). Thank you Dr. Loretta “Susan” Long for providing your voice and passion for so many years.
(For a wonderful, lengthy interview with Dr. Long, visit the Archive of American Television.)