For puppeteers, working for Sesame Street is the ultimate career achievement. Here, the women who bring the show’s fiery felt females to life reveal what it’s like working on the world’s most beloved block.
Visitors to the midtown Manhattan offices of Sesame Workshop are greeted by colorful Muppet-themed art. It’s everywhere you look: a life-sized Big Bird, murals, giant framed photos, TV screens. Even the light fixtures feature smiling Muppet characters. The place radiates cheerful energy throughout bustling rows of cubicles and offices. Clearly, making magic is serious business.
In 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney, a 37-year-old television producer, had the idea of bringing early childhood education into the homes of city kids who lacked access to traditional preschool. She partnered with educational research experts, funders, and an up-and-coming puppeteer named Jim Henson to develop a show for the fledgling format of public television. In 1968, Cooney announced the creation of Children’s Television Workshop (renamed Sesame Workshop in 2000) and a new show, Sesame Street, was born.
It was an instant hit, partly due to its fast-paced format of video segments, animation, puppetry, and multicultural human cast. Over the decades (five and counting), Sesame Street has been a powerhouse of children’s television. It is broadcast in 120 countries, with many international productions and new episodes now shown first on HBO. There’s also merchandise, books, singalong movies—Sesame is everywhere. And through the years, the series has been teaching kids around the world the alphabet, how to count, how to read, and even how to be a good person. In many respects, the show is held up as an example of what forward-thinking children’s programming should be.
So it is surprising, then, to consider that Sesame Street had very few recurring female Muppets in its cast until the mid-’90s. For such a self-aware and socially responsible show, created by a woman, Sesame Street had a gender equality problem for a long time. Just think about it: Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Grover, Ernie and Bert—all dudes. Thankfully, these days, there are more female Muppets, with nuanced personalities and ample screen time. And these newer characters are on full display as Team BUST sets up for its Sesame photo shoot.
The cozy studio assigned to us is used primarily for filming video segments for Sesame Street—a more important part of the show than ever, as Sesame is retooled for smaller screens and quick, online features.
Off to one side is a long table where Muppets are laid out, being groomed for the photos. A woman with a huge rolling toolbox of needles, thread, and fabric supplies tends to them while one of Sesame’s art directors works with BUST’s team. As puppeteers trickle in from the day’s shooting over on the main set at historic Kaufman-Astoria Studios, the room comes to life with jokes, shouting, and laughter.
On the table, there’s Grundgetta Grouch, Oscar’s longtime girlfriend. She wears the same gloriously tattered dress she has worn since 1986, when puppeteer Pam Arciero began bringing her to life. Grundgetta is old-school Sesame Street, sharp-witted and funny, giving kids (especially girls) license to let loose their grouchy sides.
Abby Cadabby, the pink, purple, and blue fairy Muppet who has been wildly popular since her inception in 2006, grins from an armature stand in a corner of the room. Abby’s character is the most recent addition, and is a good representation of Sesame’s current thinking. She is meant to represent someone from a different culture—in this case, the world of fairies and magic—and her whimsical spirit is shared by her puppeteer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph. Abby has interests (gardening), struggles, and a complex family life, including divorced parents and a stepbrother, Rudy.
There is Prairie Dawn, the sweet little pink Muppet with blond hair and big eyes. Prairie Dawn was the first featured girl Muppet in the cast, making her debut in 1971. She (and her lookalike, Betty Lou) mainly served to help sing songs and support male characters like Cookie Monster. But these days, while still sweet, Prairie Dawn has a new lively attitude, thanks to her puppeteer, Stephanie D’Abruzzo.
And finally, on the end sits Zoe, the fuzzy orange monster with baby barrettes. Zoe was introduced in 1993 in an effort to showcase more female characters. Her orange color was chosen as a complement to a then-rising star, Elmo. In the words of her first puppeteer, Fran Brill, Zoe was created to proudly “be a girl, with girl stuff.” Her pink ballet tutu and sparkly accessories are nods to that, and it is a tradition her new puppeteer Jennifer Barnhart is happy to be carrying on.
Prairie Dawn and Zoe are “legacy characters,” having both been passed down to their current performers by Fran Brill, the first woman puppeteer ever hired on Sesame Street in 1970, and who retired in 2014. In the ’70s, creating new female characters was a rudimentary process. Prairie Dawn was handed to Brill as a blank slate. “They had a little pink puppet, they put on a blond wig and a party dress and they asked me to create a very feminine, girly-girl,” Brill once told an interviewer. “I came up with an innocent, pretty sound. I developed the character by working with her.”
These days, however, new characters go through a creation process guided by researchers, producers, writers, and puppeteers, all with the goal of furthering gender parity in their portrayal. Today’s Sesame Street strives to keep gender, cultural, racial, and class equality at its core. And it is women like Pam Arciero, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Jennifer Barnhart, and writer/puppeteer Liz Hara who are setting that standard for the next generation.
For example, even though Oscar the Grouch has been with his green girlfriend Grundgetta Grouch since 1983, they are very much separate entities on the show, thanks to her portrayal by Pam Arciero. And when Arciero talks about the relationship, she speaks like someone who has literally been living it. “We like to make each other miserable and that makes us happy, so it’s a confusing little thing, as most interesting relationships are,” she says of her character’s rapport with Oscar. “Grundgetta is the grouchy side of me,” she explains. “I was raised as a nice Hawaiian girl, but Grundgetta just cuts right through it and tells you exactly what’s going on. The grouch is necessary. It’s a balance—the good, the bad, and the grouchy.”
When I ask the 66-year-old what it’s like to perform Grundgetta on camera, the process she describes is quite physical. “It takes a lot of years and a lot of practice to do what we do,” she says. “We work on the floor, so it’s a lot of sitting on these little scooters that are only three or four inches off the ground with wheels, riding yourself all over the set. With Grundgetta, it’s two arms over your head at all times because it’s a two-handed character. You’re scooting along, and you’ve gotta have a good core, and you’re using your legs to pull yourself. Sometimes you have to get even lower, and then you’re trying to produce the voice accurately. You cannot crawl on the floor all day long and not be flexible and strong. We keep our arms over our heads for 10 or 12 hours a day.
Along with being a puppeteer for the show, Arciero is also one of its directors, and she says her main goal is to make something that will entertain everyone, regardless of age—something Sesame Street has always been famous for. “I believe that the performance has to be entertaining for anyone. If you happen to be 3 or you happen to be 30, I want you to enjoy it. It’s really about a good performance and a good script,” she explains. “I direct the large walkaround characters for Sesame Place, the Sesame Street amusement park, and the Sesame Street Live shows that go out all over the country. It’s acting, puppeteering, and choreography all at once. Bert moves really differently than Ernie. And Ernie’s dancing is going to be way different than Bert’s.”
Arciero is also an enthusiastic feminist and she’s happy to bring those values to her work. “I’m very much a feminist, from the early days,” she says proudly. “The Equal Rights Amendment has not passed, and I fought for it in the ’70s. So yeah, I’m a hardcore feminist! [On Sesame Street,] we’re always pushing to have that equal representation of female and male. It wasn’t that strong in the early days. There were not very many female characters. But the writing team now is at least 50 percent women. That makes a difference.”
A more recent addition to the Sesame Street family is Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, the puppeteer for Abby Cadabby who first got her start on Muppets Tonight. “Abby is really heart-driven, like me,” the 57-year-old says of her most famous role. “I’ve had fairy gardens my whole life, and made gnome homes, and always was in touch with nature. Once I saw Abby…the things I love charged into this little…I call her ‘my little puppy.’ She’s so ready to jump in and be of service, and to spread joy, and to play. When she first came out, people were saying, ‘Oh, she’s in a dress.’ So? That’s her fairy culture. Or, ‘Oh, she makes mistakes.’ Girls make mistakes! She’s resilient. She looks at mistakes as opportunities. I was like, ‘I know who this character is.’”
While every day is special on Sesame Street, Carrara-Rudolph’s favorite part of her job is when the show does work in specialized communities, including military outreach and special autism initiatives. It’s work she’s especially suited for, because when she attended San Francisco State University, Carrara-Rudolph designed her own major in child development through the arts. “I was going to be a drama therapist or a special-ed teacher. But I really love theater,” she says. “On Sesame Street, we really rise up and are a tool for parents to be able to help their children express themselves. We can be an example. We can say, ‘I know what that feels like,’ or ‘Look, Elmo’s going through that. Abby’s going through that. Rosita’s going through that.’ And then kids don’t feel alone. When I’m out in public and I have my fairy on my arm and a child hugs me, like a soul hug, I’m so honored.”
Carrara-Rudolph has been making appearances with Abby on her arm for 14 years, and in that time, she has made a point specifically to connect with kids on the subject of loss. “It’s important for me because I lost my brother when I was 11,” she explains. “I wish I’d had something like [Sesame Street] to help my parents deal with it, and help me deal with it.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum from new puppet Abby Cadabby is Prairie Dawn. Played by puppeteer Stephanie D’Abruzzo since 2015, Prairie Dawn has been around since the beginning. “I inherited her from the great Fran Brill,” the 49-year-old explains. “But mostly the work I do on Sesame Street is as a utility player. I do right hands, and background butterflies, and monsters, and I play a myriad of talking letters and numbers and sheep and chickens and talking tomatoes and little girls and old women and what have you.”
Not all of D’Abruzzo’s characters have had the staying power of Prairie Dawn. For example, she was assigned a little girl character named Elizabeth in 1997 and the only stage direction she was given was “Loud.” “My line was…” (D’Abruzzo slips into a high-pitched, nasal voice) “‘Heeey Jerome! I’m heeeere!’” she recalls. “It was just loud and fun and brash. But there were people who didn’t like that, so they stopped writing her. I liked her, though, because she didn’t sound like other girls in preschool television.”
Preconceived notions about what female characters should and shouldn’t be is something D’Abruzzo has been pushing back against throughout her 27-year career. “I don’t like being referred to as a ‘female’ Muppet performer. Just call me a Muppet performer,” she says. “I am a happy, contented, cisgender, heterosexual female. But in my soul, I’m a male character actor—strictly for the roles. I feel like I’m constantly fighting to be ugly on a stage. I’m fighting to play male and female and gender-neutral characters. Sometimes I get tired of fighting, and of saying, ‘Well, the cricket doesn’t have to be a guy, I can just do it and it can be gender-neutral.’ I get tired of being handed a puppet that has eyelashes on it, which means it’s a girl. Just let me play.”
When it comes to creating Sesame characters with gender equity in mind, D’Abruzzo says one familiar stumbling block is the pressure on women and girls to be everything to everyone. “A lot of preschool television expects girls to be everything,” she observes. “There’s a danger in presenting a little girl who likes pink. There’s a danger in presenting a little girl who is just a tomboy. So, before long, you have a little girl who’s great at this and this and this and likes animals and likes art and plays soccer…oh my gosh, how can any little girl keep up with that?”
One Sesame puppet who was created to be unapologetically feminine is Zoe—the energetic orange monster who loves ballet, her pet rock, and “girl stuff”—played by Jennifer Barnhart since 2014. “My first day as a freelance puppeteer on Sesame Street was in Season 32 in 2001, so it took me 13 years to become an overnight success,” the 48-year-old puppeteer says of taking on Zoe. “Before that, I started out as Grandma Snuffleupagus. That was day one for me! I think there’s only one other woman who has ever been inside Snuffy. It was very challenging and exciting, and very heavy. I had a backpack and a metal harness sitting on my hips. It was amazing. I had bruises for a week and change, but I was very proud of those bruises.”
Barnhart is thoughtful about portraying female characters on Sesame. The classically trained actor begins by exploring gender expression inside herself. “I’m somebody who has always had a fairly healthy dose of yin and yang in me—a very masculine energy as well as a feminine energy,” she says. “When I was younger, that was something that I didn’t understand, and I thought that it made me odd or different. I felt like I had to conform, or like there was something out of step with me. Right now, though, I feel like I know this is entirely who I am and it’s great.”
When asked how she sees Sesame Street evolving in the future, Barnhart muses, “Every time we turn around, we’re playing with how the show is shaped,” she says. “I love that we continue to ask questions about how the show can improve. Screens are shrinking and becoming individual and handheld. People aren’t watching as families as much anymore. Sesame Street is going to continue to try to find ways to build bridges between different cultures and different people. But trying to teach the ABCs absolutely will remain, because at the core, that’s what the show is about.”
Someone else with her eye on the show’s future and how it can grow and adapt is Liz Hara, a puppeteer and writer for Sesame Street who started as a puppet-building intern in 2013 when she was just 19. “I began writing for season 47 in 2017,” she says. “There’s so much joy in writing for children, in knowing that the things you are showing them are helping guide the way they see the world. For me, that means making sure there is great gender and multicultural representation. For example, I got to do a food episode, and that was really important, to show foods from different cultures and to show how exciting that is. I do think about that with my writing for adults also, but it’s so much more important when writing for children, and more important to get it right.”
For Hara, intersectional feminism isn’t just a personal choice, it’s an ethos she brings to work with her every day. “Absolutely, I’m a feminist. It’s always been something I’ve been very passionate about, and very vocal about. And as a woman of color, I have always felt this responsibility to be very visible in my work—even though that is kind of the exact opposite of being a puppeteer,” she says. “Having seen other women of color succeed as puppeteers, as writers, and especially as women in comedy, I think visibility is one of the most important things that I can do. I think our voices and our stories are so important, in giving children the belief that they can do anything.”
By Phoenix Leigh
Photos by Shirley Yu
Top photo: Grundgetta Grouch with Pam Arciero
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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