Saturday, June 14, 2008

What happened to Susan?

Loretta Long (b. June 3, 1940), or Dr. Loretta Long Ph.D., is an actress, singer, and educator who has played Susan on Sesame Street since the show's debut. In the earliest seasons, she also lent her voice to Muppet segments, including Roosevelt Franklin's Mother and the mother in "Five People in My Family"), amongst others.

Born in Paw Paw, Michigan, Long's father was a welder and her mother worked for Mary Kay Cosmetics. Her ambitious parents enabled her to attend Western Michigan University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in education and took theater classes on the side. After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she continued to take acting classes while teaching English as a substitute in the city and Yonkers. [1]

Long began her television career in 1967 on the variety series Soul!, which was produced at the New York public television station WNET. The series combined musical variety with frank talk on political and social issues affecting African-Americans, and played host to such performers as Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle.

In 1969, Long found Soul! set decorator Charles Rosen preparing a model of a street, and learned it was for a planned educational children's show. He encouraged Long to audition. She recalled the experience:

So, I never could get Charlie Rosen to admit it, but he left out an essential piece of information. They wanted a Joan Baez-type folk guitar player. ...I looked more like Angela Davis than I looked like Joan Baez... I had big hair, short skirt, and show tunes. Well, I show up, and they said, 'Where's your guitar?' I said, "What guitar?' They said, 'Everybody here plays the guitar, so stand over there.'
Now, see, I always tell kids these are defining moments in your life. See, I could have got huffy and puffy and went back up to the Bronx, but I came all the way downtown in a cab to keep my Afro together, so I stood over there. So, I waited and waited and waited, and they were getting ready to leave. And I said, 'Uh, could I give my music to the piano player so I can sing for you?' They said, 'We didn't hire a piano player. Everybody here plays the guitar.' And I said, 'What?! But I came to sing for you.' So, very unenthusiastic, they said, 'OK, so sing.' So my audition was I laid my music down... I started patting my foot, clapping my hands... [singing] 'I'm a little teapot, short and stout, here is my handle here is my spout.' And I looked right at the camera, and I said, 'Everybody sing.' And the little kids in the daycare, when they played the tape--I said, 'Everybody sing, they all stood up and started to sing. So that--I have some 4-year-olds to thank for a career. [2]

While playing Susan on Sesame Street, Long also commuted to the University of Massachussetts on her days off, pursuing a doctorate in Urban Education. She received the Ph.D. in 1973, with a dissertation specifically examining the educational model used on the TV series, "Sesame Street": A Space Age Approach to Education for Space Age Kids.[3] She also recorded several albums under the "Susan" label. As the seasons progressed, Long's portrayal of Susan changed, affected by the scripts and complaints from NOW, so she was no longer merely a dispenser of milk and cookies, but playing a working woman as well as a wife.

Outside of Sesame Street, Long has taught courses and served as a guest lecturer on such issues as women in the media and the relationship between children and television:

I think 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. Don't turn it on because you are busy. I would like to see much less violence on TV cartoons; that really affects kids. But on the other hand, it can be a wonderful learning tool, as with Sesame Street.[4]

As a performer, Long has appeared in summer stock versions of Guys and Dolls and Sweet Charity and sung in The Vaudeville '80 tour. In film, she appeared in both Sesame Street movies, Follow That Bird and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, and had uncredited parts in Cotton Comes to Harlem, Husbands, and The Out of Towners. TV appearances, often accompanied by Big Bird, include The Dick Cavett Show, The Flip Wilson Show, You Bet Your Life, and The Today Show.

Susan has seen a lot of sunny days on Sesame Street--3,900 of them to be exact! In her 31 years on the show she has touched the hearts and minds of millions.

Before that, she appeared on the public television program Soul, and in summer stock productions of Guys and Dolls, Milk and Honey and Sweet Charity. She is a distinguished former schoolteacher with a doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Long is a published author, visiting scholar and educational consultant. She plays Susan, Gordon's wife and Miles' mother. Over the years, her character has evolved from housewife to nurse to working mother.

Loretta Long, Ph.D., is one of the few original cast members still on the Street. We first met her character, Susan, in 1969 as the wife to Gordon and the maternal figure for Big Bird. Over the years, Susan's character has grown and grown.

"In the beginning, all I did was bake cookies," says Dr. Long. "I was tired of burning my apron!" So, the show's creators had Susan hang up her apron and return to a career as a public health nurse. This shift offered a positive model for moms--at home and in the office--and for children, too. "Having the traditional maternal figure go to work showed youngsters that women can be more than mothers," she adds.

In the show's seventeenth season, Susan made another big change. She and Gordon adopted a son, Miles, and their family became one of few adoptive families on television. Dr. Long recalls a favorite Sesame episode in which Miles learns that family is about more than blood relations. "What was especially poignant was that we showed Miles' insecurities about how he fit into the family," she says.

Although Dr. Long and Roscoe Orman (Gordon) are not family in real life, Dr. Long is much like the character she plays on TV. For one thing, she and Susan both grew up on a farm in Michigan. That's no coincidence, though, since she and the other original cast members wrote "biographies" for their characters. "I'm from a farm in Michigan, so I made Susan a Midwest country girl," says Dr. Long.

Susan has taught kids and Muppets their ABCs, 123s, and other important lessons. Similarly, Dr. Long, who earned her degree in Urban Education in 1973, was a teacher in the Detroit, Yonkers and New York City school systems, and continued to teach through her first season on Sesame Street. "I thought I was leaving the education business to get into show business!" she says with a smile. Fortunately, she found a way to do both! Dr. Long continues to educate and entertain kids as the author of a series of children's books (the newest one is Courtney's Birthday Party).

No matter where she goes, Dr. Long takes her Sesame Street life with her. "I always get stopped by kids. I love talking to them--though it has almost caused me to miss a few airplanes!" says Dr. Long. " I feel really blessed to do what I do."

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