By Theresa Evans
The Rider community gathered for a conversation with Loretta Long, an original cast member on “Sesame Street,” who shared her journey toward stardom in the Cavalla Room on Oct. 30.
The Breaking Barriers: Pioneering Voices in Educational Television event served as Tapestry’s, a co-curricular initiative in the department of communication and journalism, first campus event, according to Shawn Kildea, associate professor and chair of the department of communication and journalism.
Kildea presented a video produced and narrated by a Tapestry member that highlighted Long’s journey to becoming Susan Robinson, an African American woman educating America’s youth on “Sesame Street.”
“I was awed by the conversation with Dr. Long as well as with the presentation,” said Patrice Hrabowskie, a junior musical theater major. “As a rising young black female artist, her story struck me because there are not many women who look like me that I have personally met or heard, who unknowingly set a path for me to walk.”
Long received her doctorate in urban education from the University of Massachusetts while she was pursuing her acting career on “Sesame Street.”
Totalling nine years, she taught English and social studies in Michigan and New York.
Long graduated from Western Michigan University as a first-generation college student.
“I wasn’t supposed to pursue music,” said Long. “I was suppose to be a teacher, a history teacher, who was going to be a lawyer.”
Long highlighted the importance of not only acknowledging, but analyzing one’s hopes for the future.
“Her history and experiences allow us to achieve our goal—blending different people together through their experiences and culture,” said Caleb Holt, a junior behavioral neuroscience major. “ I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. Her ideology of occupying your dreams is one that I can relate to and have taken to heart.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in education in 1960, Long wanted to pursue music.
“I went immediately to Detroit to be a singer and the singing part wasn’t immediate,” she said.
Long moved from Michigan to New York.
“I was an actor, singer and dancer who happened to be teaching. I was so committed to my acting career that I voluntarily became a substitute teacher teaching in the Bronx on purpose.”
Her first job in the television industry was “Soul!,” a local PBS program where she befriended the set designer who happened to be working on the set of “Sesame Street.”
The set designer got Long an audition for “Sesame Street” where she unknowingly needed to play the guitar.
Long was not well-accepted at the audition, but she persevered and auditioned anyway.
Singing “I’m a Little Teapot,” Long demonstrated her audition, consisting of rhythmic hand-clapping and foot-stomping, for the audience at Rider, encouraging them to chime in.
The audition tapes were shown to children at local daycares who chose Long’s audition tape as their favorite. The kids listened to Long’s encouragement to dance and sing along and participated.
“What it did was make the people designing the show understand [“Sesame Street”] could be interactive if we design it properly and invite the kids to play along,” she said.
Long recalled that families were touched by the show’s messages. Particularly, when her character Susan and Susan’s husband Gordon adopted their son Miles. The show gained a wider audience who related to the storyline.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we had a full-blown research part of the show that really didn’t victimize kids,” she said. “They really researched what the outcomes of our show would be.”
Long made an impact on the children who watched “Sesame Street,” along with Rider students.
“As Dr. Long spoke about her experiences and gave advice to everyone about occupying their dream, it was hard to not get choked up because, as students who are trying to always do their best in school and maintain a job as well, it was nice to hear from someone who is so wise, that sometimes we need to ‘take a breath and count to ten,” said Elizabeth Curcio, a sophomore film, TV and radio major. “Everything will fall into place at one time or another. Hearing that was so meaningful.”
Juanita Carroll, tapestry advisor and administrative associate in the department of communication and journalism, presented Long with an award recognizing her for her work in the fields of communication, education and community outreach.
“Tapestry’s mission is to expose the campus and public at-large to persons from under-represented populations who have made an impact in the area of media,” said Carroll. “The fact that Dr. Long, an icon in television, would be so giving of her time means everything. She was so giving to Tapestry students and takes care to ensure that she teaches what she’s learned in her career and experiences every time you meet her.”
Queenie Jones, director of Rider’s TRIO program, offered Long an honorary member pin.
Long collaborated with Scott Alboum, the video technologies coordinator in the department of communication and journalism, on a book titled “My Best Friends Call Me Susan.”
The book discusses Long’s life experiences, including her role as Susan on “Sesame Street,” her educational background and her musical role in “Guys and Dolls.”
“She reminded everyone how important it is to be yourself, help others to achieve their goals, and recognize the ‘spark’ in people when that person may not believe they have it in them,” said Curcio.