C Is For Contract: Longtime Actors In Grown-Up Dispute With 'Sesame Street'

Aug 3, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 12:03 pm

Sesame Street has been a constant presence in children's entertainment for nearly 50 years. In addition to Big Bird and Elmo and Oscar the Grouch, the program also has human characters who ground the show, teaching the muppets big life lessons and helping them on their zany adventures. But over the past few weeks, there have been some issues with the grown-ups of Sesame Street.

Last month, Sesame Street actor Bob McGrath — who has worked on the show since 1969 — told a convention in Florida that he and two other original cast members, Roscoe Orman and Emilio Delgado, don't have contracts for the next season.

"I completed my 45th season this year," McGrath said, "and the show has done a major turnaround, gone from an hour to a half an hour. HBO is being involved also. And so they let all of the original cast members go."

McGrath, Orman and Delgado have been longtime regulars on the show — McGrath's character, Bob, was introduced in Sesame Street's very first season — and the news didn't sit well with Sesame Street fans.

"They're part of the family," says Corazon Gambino, a 29-year-old parent of two who runs a child care facility in New York. "You know the ... muppets — they're really no different than like a stuffed animal you place in [your] children's bedroom."

But the people on the show are different. To Gambino, it's less about waxing nostalgic for old cast members and more about kids watching people grow old on TV.

"We're never going to see Big Bird age, right? We're never going to see Elmo be in college, right? All they see is someone who's active and ready to go and play. But that's not the case," she says. "You know, these are the people that are really sitting on the porch ... and reading the stories and telling the stories of the past."

Sesame Workshop couldn't give an interview in time for this story, but CEO Jeff Dunn put out a statement saying, "We apologize for the misunderstandings around the changing cast roles at Sesame Street. ... I have been in touch with each of them to meet in person about how we best adapt their talents to the current content needs and preschool media landscape, in a way that honors their historic contributions."

He also said the move has to do with the fact that the show is now 30 minutes long instead of a full hour. (The company says that decision was based on research and testing.)

And then there's this part of the story: This season, Sesame Workshop teamed up with HBO, which means episodes will air there first and show up later on your local PBS station. Sesame Workshop has stressed repeatedly that editorial changes have nothing to do with the HBO deal, but to parents and viewers like Gambino it's a sign that things are changing in the neighborhood.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"Sesame Street" has been a constant presence in children's entertainment for nearly 50 years. And while the most popular characters - Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar - are muppets, there are also human characters. They're the ones who ground the show, teaching the muppets big life lessons and helping them on their adventures.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

EMILIO DELGADO: (As Luis Rodriguez) Hi Zoe, Elmo.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elmo) Elmo can't talk, Luis.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Zoe) Yeah, we're looking for red apples.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elmo) Yeah.

CORNISH: Well, Luis and a couple of his grown-up friends, Bob and Gordon, have been upset. Sesame Workshop CEO Jeff Dunn called it a misunderstanding yesterday. NPR's Andrew Limbong tells us what's been happening on "Sesame Street."

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: As much as "Sesame Street" can seem like a childhood utopia it, too, can get caught up in the very adult world of contracts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB MCGRATH: As of this season, I've completed my 45th season this year.

LIMBONG: You're hearing the voice of Bob McGrath, who plays the character Bob on "Sesame Street." He spoke at a convention in Florida last month. And he's about to tell the audience that he, Roscoe Orman and Emilio Delgado, who play Gordon and Luis respectively, do not have contracts for the next season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCGRATH: And so they let all of the original cast members go.

LIMBONG: All three have been regulars on the show for a long time. Bob was introduced in 1969, "Sesame Street's" very first season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

ROSCOE ORMAN: (As Gordon Robinson) Hi, Bob.

MCGRATH: (As Bob Johnson) Hi, how are you today?

ORMAN: (As Gordon Robinson) Say hello to Sally. She just moved into the neighborhood.

MCGRATH: (As Bob Johnson) Hi, Sally.

ORMAN: (As Gordon Robinson) That's Bob.

MCGRATH: (As Bob Johnson) It's nice to see you.

LIMBONG: The news didn't sit well with "Sesame Street" fans.

CORAZON GAMBINO: They're part of the family.

LIMBONG: This is Corazon Gambino. She's a 29-year-old parent of two who runs a child care facility in New York.

GAMBINO: You know the puppets, they're muppets. They're really no different than, like, a stuffed animal that you place in a children's bedroom. But these - the people that are in the show, you know, these are who you're making the interaction with.

LIMBONG: And to Gambino, this is less about waxing nostalgic for old cast members and more about kids watching people grow old on TV.

GAMBINO: We're never going to see Big Bird age, right? We're never going to see Elmo be in college, (laughter) right? All they see is someone that's active and, you know, ready to go and play. But that's not the case. You know, these are the people that are really sitting on the porch, sitting on our laps and reading the stories and telling the stories of the past. That's like a lost art now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

ORMAN: (As Gordon Robinson) This is the story of Stan and Dan.

LIMBONG: Like Gordon used to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

ORMAN: (As Gordon Robinson) Once upon a time, there was a man named Stan.

RICHARD HUNT: (As Stan) Hi there. I'm Stan.

LIMBONG: Sesame Workshop couldn't record an interview in time for this story, but CEO Jeff Dunn put out a statement saying (reading) we apologize for the misunderstandings around the changing cast roles at "Sesame Street." He says he's been in touch with the actors to figure out how to work together in the future, and that this has to do with the fact that the show is now 30 minutes long instead of a full hour. The company says that decision was based on research and testing. And then there's this part of the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Grover) Hello there.

LIMBONG: That's the HBO signature sound followed by Grover. This season, Sesame Workshop teamed up with HBO so episodes would air there first and show up later on your local PBS station. Sesame Workshop has stressed repeatedly that editorial changes have nothing to do with the HBO deal. But to parents and viewers like Gambino, it's a sign that things are changing in the neighborhood. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elmo, singing) Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away. On my way to where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street? Come and play, everything's A-OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.