In 1971, actor Emilio Delgado landed in New York City to take a job on a small, unique children’s show. Having primarily done stage work in California, Emilio thought that the job would only be for a couple of years. However, when Emilio found his way onto Sesame Street, he had found an important place in the hearts and memories of multiple generations of viewers as Luis Rodriguez, the friendly and hard-working owner of the Fix-It Shop.
As the longest and most successful children’s show in the history of television, Sesame Street has been on the air for over half a century and is shown in 120 countries worldwide. A beloved franchise of children around the world, the off-beat humor, and multi-layered subtext of its sketches, have also made it a favorite of the adults who grew up watching it as well. However, it was a much different time for the franchise when Emilio joined the show. Still in its infancy, Sesame Street was in its third year, and Emilio was one of the first brand new human cast members introduced to the show in an effort to introduce a Spanish curriculum to the show and include Spanish-American characters to the multicultural neighborhood, which was the hallmark of the program. Emilio’s addition to the program was successful, and he stayed on the program until 2016 – an astonishing 46 years.
In recent months, as I’ve been exploring my own personal cultural and political concerns, I have suddenly become extremely aware of the important role that Sesame Street had in opening my otherwise culturally sheltered life to a world where people were from different backgrounds and cultures, but still lived together as friends and neighbors in an inclusive street where everyone was welcomed. As a child, I never questioned race, because that’s what people looked like on Sesame Street. Thus, it meant a great deal to me when Emilio Delgado agreed to talk to me when I reached out to him over social media. Not only is this Emilio’s 50th year associated with Sesame Street, but his character, Luis, has also always been one of my favorite human characters on the show, and an important television icon throughout my entire life.
Sam: It’s such a thrill for me to be talking to you today, because in recent months, as I’ve been working on some personal projects, I’ve began to realize how many of the social lessons taught through you and your castmates on Sesame Street help define many of my personal worldviews.
Emilio: I think that’s terrific. Your generation that watched it seem to have the same reaction to the show. You learnt a lot of stuff, and it’s great to hear the feedback.
Sam: Prior to Sesame Street, you were working as a stage actor in California. How did they find you and bring you out to New York?
Emilio: That’s a good question. I’ve often wondered, myself. Of course, you know that the show originated in New York City, and that’s where they originally cast it. That’s where they found all the people for the show, like Bob and Mr. Hooper. Well, the show quickly spread from the East to the West Coast. At that time there weren’t too many Mexican-Americans acting on television and they were a bit of a non-entity as far as people from the East were concerned. Well, after a few years of Sesame Street being on the air, and seeing what a big deal it was, Mexican-Americans and Chicanos on the West Coast started clamoring for inclusion. So, the producers started looking for Mexican-Americans for the show. I think what happened, and I’m not exactly sure, is that they sent someone out to the West Coast to try to find out if there was anybody out there and I happened to be one of the young Chicano actors who was working at that time. I had done several things, but one of them, specifically, was a local children’s show called Maggie’s Garage, which was around the time they were searching. I think it was out of that that they saw me.
Sam: Was New York a culture shock to you when you first came in for the show?
Emilio: Yeah. I had never been to New York in my life. Up until that time I had never given that much thought to going East to try to make it in New York. I was a Hollywood actor. So, when I arrived in New York it was a totally different world to me.
Sam: When I was growing up in Canada, the city I lived in was predominantly full of white people. There wasn’t a lot of cultural representation around me. However, I found that through watching Sesame Street, I became used to the fact that in the world that there were people who were white, black, Indigenous and Mexican and that we were all friends and neighbors. I saw different races on television, so that became normalized to me even if it wasn’t in my own neighborhood.
Emilio: Yeah. Up until that time, the inclusion of people of color on television was very minimal. There was some success in integration on some of the networks, but there was not a concerted effort to go out and find people of color to be on shows. So, when it came around that time that Sesame Street happened, the people who created the show were very liberal and saw that there was a need for inclusion, and especially for children. Initially, Sesame Street was directed at African American kids in a neighborhood in New York, and from there it spread across the country. It was one of the first television shows, and especially children’s shows, which showed people of all different colors and backgrounds together on television. Sesame Street was like an explosion of culture. The show was created by Joan Ganz Cooney, and then there was John Stone who was the producer, writer and director on the show, and who was the main person who wanted to show inclusion on the street. He wanted to make it a neighborhood with all types of people living together with different colors and languages and who dressed in different ways, which was being broadcast to children, who are seeing the world the way that it was.
Sam: It was extremely radical, without being radical at all. It is like they acknowledged race and culture, but in a way that was so normal. When I was growing up, Sesame Street was on three times a day. We watched the Canadian version on CBC, but we also watched the American version on two other channels. The Canadian version took a lot of the Spanish segments out and replaced it with French segments.
Emilio: I remember when we were doing the alphabet, we would have to do it twice for Canada, and replace “zee” for “zed.”
Sam: It was actually later in life that I realized that the human actors were playing characters on Sesame Street, and that you were not really Luis, nor was there really a Maria, Gordon, Susan or Mr. Hooper. I don’t know why it took me so long to come to this realization like it did for other shows, which I knew were actors playing characters. I guess because the characters just seemed a bit more real and normal. Was there crossover in your own personality with the character of Luis?
Emilio: Well, what every actor will do when they are playing a role is bring an aspect to themselves to all the characters that you play. Of course, the scripts that we were doing were so fantastic that viewers might not have realized that there was a curriculum within them, be it about numbers or social interaction. But they were never directed towards saying black people will do this or white people will do that. It was very inclusive. Every one of us actors had our own personalities, and parts of our personalities became part of the characters that we played.
Sam: But when Luis married Maria, I think a whole generation of us thought you and Sonia Manzano really got married.
Emilio: I know. People really thought that happened for real. Everywhere we went people would stop us and say, “Oh, how’s Maria?” and “How’s Luis?” Then, of course, once Luis and Maria had a baby it was even more so, now that there was a family. People would say, “How’s the baby?” People really thought it was a real marriage on television. Sonia and I would look at each other and kind of go, “Oh boy, should we tell them?” We didn’t want to burst their bubble.
Sam: Of course, we need to talk about the Muppets. As a young actor coming to New York, what was it like working with Jim Henson and his group for the first time? Is it true that they had a way to make you forget that there was a human under the puppet and that you would connect with the actual Muppet instead?
Emilio: Oh yeah. Those guys were so talented. They could make the Muppets come alive like real people with real personalities. We were really interacting with those puppets. Now we knew it was really Jim Henson or Frank Oz manipulating these things, but those guys were so unbelievably talented. They could come up with a hundred voices and manipulate a piece of cloth and make them come alive. We were lucky, as performers, to be working with them. When I came to New York, I had never worked with puppets in my life. I had just been an actor on stage and on film and television. But being that I had a vivid imagination, when I first interacted with a Muppet on Sesame Street I just kind of ran with it. I just let it go and there it was.
Sam: Just like you would enjoy working with certain actors and find you have a better chemistry with some than others, did you find that you enjoyed working with different Muppets in the same way?
Emilio: Well, all the puppeteers were so talented. For me, personally, who I worked with very well with was Jerry Nelson, who played the Count, Herry Monster, Sherlock Hemlock, the Amazing Mumford and lots of other characters. He was just so talented as a singer, performer, musician, actor and he could do a thousand different voices. Same thing with Richard Hunt, who was so far out that you never knew what he was going to come up with, comedy wise. And that’s without saying, of course, that Frank Oz and Jim Henson were the expert masters of the whole thing and they kept it rolling along in an expert way, comedy wise. It was a delight working with all of them.
Sam: When I look back at some of those old Muppet sketches now with adult eyes, I realize just how cutting edge some of the comedy was on that show. I recently rewatched an Ernie and the Salesman sketch and I saw an entirely different context in it than I did when I was a kid, and it was even more hilarious to me. There is a second layer to everything.
Emilio: Well, that’s what we hear from you guys that grew up on it as a kid. You are always coming up to us and telling us about the things that you saw and remember and that’s just terrific. What we were doing at the time seemed very daunting, but it’s good to see that you learnt from the things we put out there. We helped expand your mind and it was like a window into the whole universe that was out there.
Sam: Do you remember when you realized that this show had taken off, and that kids knew who you, or more so Luis, was?
Emilio: I don’t remember the first time, but a part of doing the show wasn’t just doing it on television. Around the late seventies and early eighties, some of us went out and started doing live shows. It was then that I realized the full importance of what we were doing when you saw all those kids. It also opened up a whole new thing for us, doing those live shows and being out there with all the people. We realized the full effect of what we were doing.
Sam: Celebrity cameos have always been a part of Sesame Street, and even more so in recent years. I remember when Stevie Wonder did the show, and although I didn’t know who he was, I thought he was cool. I also remember the excitement when R2-D2 and C3P0 were on the show.
Emilio: Well, initially when we had guests on the show, it was probably the case that a lot of the kids didn’t realize who these people were, but it didn’t stop them from enjoying what they were doing. But the producers were always thinking about including the celebrities that maybe the parents would recognize, thereby bringing in the parents themselves. The producers were always saying that the parents should watch television with their children in case the children had any questions, like “Who’s that?” or “What are they doing?”
Sam: Now I know everybody must bring this up to you in every interview you do, but possibly the most powerful moment on Sesame Street was the time that the adults on the street explained to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper had died. I rewatched it recently and it still holds up as a powerful and heartfelt moment in TV history. What was your memories of filming that episode?
Emilio: That was a fantastic episode. Yes, Mr. Hooper, or Will Lee, which was his real name, had died about nine months before. The producers, the writers and the directors all deliberated over if it was something that needed to be shown on Sesame Street. They did some research, and they put their feelers out about how people felt about doing something like that. The reaction from everyone was that it’d be a good thing to do. The subject had never been handled like that before on a children’s show. When Will had died, we, the performers on the show, had been deeply affected by it as well because he was a dearly beloved character and personality. We had all loved him so much. So, when we were told that we were going to be doing this, we thought it was a good way to pay tribute to him. We got the script, and we were very much affected by it emotionally. It was complicated not to break down when we were filming the actual show and it hurt to tell Big Bird that when somebody died, they were not coming back. It was very emotional for all of us. As I remember, Jon Stone directed that particular segment, and he knew exactly what we were doing, and he let us do it. I remember the cameras went on, someone said “Action” and we started doing it and everything was working out perfectly. We did it only once. In only one take. When we finished, there was a couple of seconds of silence, and everybody was looking at each other as if to say, “Wow.” We were supposed to do another take, but Jon Stone said, “We’re not doing another take. That was perfect.” That one take was the one that went out to the world. It was perfect. All the emotions in it, what you saw was the real thing.
Sam: Now Sesame Street fans often talk about the difference between “Old Sesame Street” and “New Sesame Street” and there is a nostalgia for the original stuff, but some fans don’t like the new era. Do you think there is really a division in the show’s message, or is it just an evolution? What do you think the difference between the show’s original vision in the 70’s compared to what they’ve done in the last ten years is?
Emilio: That’s a good question. It’s a subject that does come up often. When we were doing the show back in the 70’s and the 80’s it was a different world out there. Television was different, and the show was an hour long. We had the time to do a full story. The times were different, and the technology was different. So, we were doing things of that era, in terms of what the content was. But today it’s still the same thing, and billions of kids are still out there enjoying the show now like you were then. But it has changed. It’s a different show now because none of the people who were on the show then, except for Alan Muraoka, are on it now. It’s a different cast. The subject matter might be different in terms of what kids are learning now so it’s a different show in that respect. But the kids that are watching the show now are probably going to think the same thing about it that you do when they see it in the future.
Sam: Well, one thing I’ve learnt in studying the history of media is each generation of TV viewer processes the way television is made differently. I’m glad to hear you don’t blame it on Elmo. That’s really nice.
Emilio: (Laughs) Kevin Clash was able to take that red piece of cloth and make an entire world from it.
Sam: I know you’ve been off the show for a number of years, but you are still affiliated with the show. Are you doing any other acting or projects?
Emilio: I’m still a professional working actor. I’m preparing for an audition right now, but I can’t mention what it is. I was in a theater piece a year and a half ago that was very successful. We took it on the road for a few weeks and it did great. The show was called Quixote Nuevo and the character I played was the best role I’ve done in my theatrical career. I was very satisfied with what I had done, and with the director and the playwright and the cast, and it was a great success. The show was a retelling of Don Quixote in the modern day, taking place on the border of Texas and Mexico. Everybody involved was great. It was a marvelous experience.
Sam: When you are doing live theatre, you must still have that audience who is coming out to see Luis.
Emilio: Of course, and it’s great to meet people afterwards who remember seeing me on television in something they liked from when they were kids.
Sam: You still live in New York, right?
Emilio: Yes, I do.
Sam: When you go out to a restaurant, or on the street, do you still have people recognize you?
Emilio: Not so much now. Of course, when I was on Sesame Street the recognition factor was greater. Usually what happens now is when I’m ordering a coffee, or say something in public, the moment I open my mouth people recognize my voice. But these days, the people who do recognize me are the guys that watched the show when you were watching. It’s people your age.
Sam: Well, speaking for myself, you and your castmates on Sesame Street were very important social icons for me and an army of fans from my generation. You came into our home, you were our friends and neighbors, you made us laugh and learn, and had so much to do with shaping our worldview and affected the way I took in information in ways I continue to recognize today. You are so important to us, and we love you.
Emilio: Well, we think a lot about you too, and consider you to be a big part of what our show was.
In recent years I have been rediscovering the history of classic Sesame Street through a number of great groups via Facebook. Not only is it often a fun and nostalgic way to watch cartoons and sketches long buried in my memory, I also find it surprising just how clever, radical, and cutting edge a lot of the humor is – especially when featuring the work of Jim Henson and his players with the Muppets. However, amongst all the different Sesame Street groups on social media, you can also connect and follow Emilio Delgado at his own Facebook page, Emilio Delgado Luis on Sesame Street. It’s like a little corner of the web where you can hang out at the Fix-It Shop and catch up with Luis, which is truly a great thing. Whether you are a kid, or an adult all grown up, there is still a place for you on Sesame Street.