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Long, Loretta

Loretta Long

1940–

Actress, educator

Known to millions of children and their parents as "Susan" on Sesame Street, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television program for preschoolers, Dr. Loretta Long also holds a doctorate in urban education. Long has been a regular on Sesame Street since its debut on November 10, 1969. Various forms of the program are broadcast in some 140 countries, making it the most widely viewed children's series in the world, with more than eight million weekly viewers in the United States alone. Sesame Street has won more Emmy awards than any other television program. In addition to her nearly four decades on television, Dr. Long has worked as a college professor, an educational consultant, a motivational speaker, and the author of a children's book.

Isolated by Her Race

Loretta Long was born on June 3, 1940, in Paw Paw, Michigan, near the city of Kalamazoo. She grew up picking cucumbers on her parents' farm. Although she did not experience overt racism, Loretta felt isolated and ignored. In the fourth grade she was not allowed to go out and play with the other children at lunch time. She didn't tell her parents because she thought she was being punished. Long told Ken Weingartner of the Princeton Packet OnLine: "As a little child, you can't quite process what's going on. But I knew that for some strange reason, people avoided me. They didn't come right out and say it was because I'm black."

After graduating from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo with her teaching credentials, Long passed up a Woodrow Wilson law school fellowship so she could study to become a professional singer. She first taught school in Detroit, Michigan. Subsequently Long moved to New York where she taught in public schools in New York City and Yonkers. In her spare time she studied singing, drama, and dance.

In addition to filming commercials in New York, Long worked in clubs and television in Australia and in summer stock productions of Sweet Charity, Guys and Dolls, and Milk and Honey. She also appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, the Flip Wilson Show, and the Today Show.

Broke into Show Business

Long's first big break came when she was named co-hostess of Soul, a local all-black variety program in New York. Her then husband Peter Long, a producer at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, had recommended her for the job. She sang, conducted interviews, and reported local news. In an interview on PBS's Tavis Smiley Show on November 9, 2004, marking the 35th anniversary of Sesame Street, Long talked about her early days on Soul: "I taped on Sunday, and I went to my school up in the Bronx on Monday, and it was very confusing to my children 'cause they would see me on TV, and then they'd see me in their classroom."

Sesame Street was the product of a 1968 study that examined how poverty limited children's educational opportunities. The program began as an experiment in preparing young children for school. The Children's Television Workshop (CTW), the producers of Sesame Street, began auditioning for a young woman who related well with children. Long told Tavis Smiley what happened next: "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 … They said, 'Everybody here plays the guitar, so stand over there' … I came all the way downtown in a cab to keep my Afro together, so I stood over there." She waited for a very long time. As the auditions were ending, Long asked if she could sing for them, but they had no piano player, only guitars. "I started patting my foot, clapping my hands. Here's my audition: 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…. I have some 4-year-olds to thank for a career."

Sesame Street was the first children's television show set in the inner city rather than in the suburbs, and Susan and her on-screen husband Gordon, a science teacher, were TV's first black family. They "owned" 123 Sesame Street and the muppets were their tenants, with Susan playing the mother figure to Big Bird. Long told the New York Amsterdam News: "Representing the first Black family on TV was a big responsibility, but a happy one. In dealing with the producers, I was blessed with people who did take my word for it. I said, 'I've been Black longer than you, trust me,' and they did." Long continued to teach public school during the show's first year and she kept her teaching license for the next nine years, never dreaming that the show would be such a tremendous success.

Susan Changed with the Times

Long created the character of Susan, making her from the Midwest. The National Organization for Women complained that Susan was always in the background. Long told Sesame Street Beat: "In the beginning, all I did was bake cookies. I was tired of burning my apron! Having the traditional maternal figure go to work showed youngsters that women can be more than mothers." She told the Washington Post: "I (Susan) was talking to the character Maria about careers and I said when I was going to school I really think I would have liked to have been a doctor." Instead Susan became a public health nurse because "in the '60s, it was important that a black woman and a black man did not outflank each other. So now we're a two-career family." In a 1986 episode Susan and Gordon adopted their son Miles, played by Gordon's real-life son. It was one of the first television portrayals of an adoptive family.

Long earned her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in 1973, with a dissertation focusing on Sesame Street as a model for using television to teach preschoolers. She told the Princeton Packet OnLine: "Nothing goes on that show without finding out what the kids like, and then they build the educational aspect into that … We were talking about the letter 'A' in so many different ways it became less abstract … if you notice, most of the voice-overs are children or puppets. We all know kids don't listen to adults very long, they tune us out. They'll listen to other children." Although Sesame Street's focus remained preschool education, increasingly it stressed inclusion and cultural diversity, what Long has referred to as its "hidden curriculum."

At a Glance …

Born on June 3, 1940, in Paw Paw, MI; married Peter Long (divorced); Education: Western Michigan University; University of Massachusetts, EdD, 1973.

Career: Public schools, Detroit, MI, Yonkers, NY, Bronx, NY, teacher, (?)–1970; WNDT, New York, NY, TV co-host, 1968; Children's Television Workshop, New York, NY, actor, 1969–; U.S. State Department, Africa, visiting scholar; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, East Stroudsburg University, PA, State University of New York, Brockport, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Marshall University, Huntington, WV, visiting professor and scholar, 1990(?)–; lecturer and workshop leader, 1990(?)–; Afro-Bets Kids, East Orange, NJ, consultant, 1996; children's book author, 1998; VTECH Industries, spokesperson, 1999; Upromise, spokesperson, 2004.

Memberships: Center 4 Positive Change.

Awards: Sage Colleges, Honorary Doctorate of Public Service, 1997; University of Massachusetts, Eleanor Bateman Scholar; Western Michigan University, Distinguished Alumni Award.

Addresses: Agent—American Entertainment International Speakers Bureau, 214 Lincoln Street, Boston, MA 02134.

Courtney's Birthday Party, Long's picture book for young readers, deals with racial prejudice. Courtney plans to invite all of her classmates to her seventh birthday party. However her mother fails to send an invitation to her best friend who is black. While conducting diversity workshops for parents and educators around the country, Long often used the book to initiate discussions. She told NEA Today: "I thought I was writing a book about black and white relationships. But people tell me that what's at the core of the story is being left out. And that's a universal experience dealing with inclusion." Just Us Books, a black-owned publishing company, developed a teaching guide to accompany Courtney's Birthday Party.

Became a Professor and Consultant

Long used her talents in many different ways. In 1999 Long narrated a video on the prevention of childhood lead poisoning for the Lead Industries Association. As a visiting scholar or professor at various universities, Long has taught numerous graduate and undergraduate courses on education, multiculturalism, and diversity. At the University of Tennessee in 2000 Long introduced Black History Month to preschoolers, read to elementary school students, discussed literacy with middle-schoolers, and taught applied linguistics to university students. She worked with the University of Scranton to produce a book and video, Family Values Series: Diversity. Long also trained teachers in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and Zambia as part of the U.S. State Department's American Visiting Scholar Program.

Long has been much-in-demand as a speaker and consultant in the fields of media, education, literacy, and cultural diversity. Her speaking topics, in addition to Sesame Street as a model educational tool, have included teaching in the inner city and parenting. The New York Beacon quoted Long in January of 1999: "The mother is the first teacher, and home is the first school. Parents need to make a learning laboratory out of their home. This means creating a positive, stimulating environment where kids are exposed to learning in a way that forms the association that learning equals fun, thus affecting their attitude toward school. Every room in the home can be a learning environment. For instance, when you're doing the laundry, matching and folding socks teaches children something."

Long's program "The ABC's of African-American History" is a dramatic and interactive multimedia presentation for young children. She has also conducted motivational workshops for adults. The New York Beacon quoted her in July of 1999: "We can steer our lives in the direction we really want to go if we are willing to make changes motivated by our desires."

In 1996 Long became a consultant to Afro-Bets Kids, a new club to promote self-esteem and encourage kids to read, sponsored by Just Us Books. She developed programs and activities and served as their spokesperson. In 1999 Long became spokesperson for VTECH Industries, a manufacturer of educational toys and electronic learning products. In 2004 she helped launch a new partnership between Upromise, a college-savings service, and America Online, to help families save money for college. As of 2005 Long was associated with the Center 4 Positive Change.

On the Tavis Smiley Show, Long said of Sesame Street: "Our legacy is that we're still experimental. We don't just have a concept and ride it off into the sunset…. Our research is current. We're addressing … I like to call them the audio-visual-digital hip hop new millennium learner, and we documented … the multi-intelligences, that we don't all learn the same way. So by the time the letter 'A' sang, danced, flipped over, changed color, and invited you to make something on your body into a letter 'A,' you had addressed a lot of different learning styles, and I think that's … our legacy."

Selected works

Albums

Elmo's Favorite Sing-Alongs, 1995.
A Sesame Street Christmas, 1996.
Silly Songs, 1996.
Sing Along Travel Songs, 1996.
Sesame Street: Platinum Too, 1997.
Sesame Street: The Best of Elmo, 1997.
Songs from the Street: 35 Years of Music, 2003.

Books

Courtney's Birthday Party, Just Us Books, 1998.

Films

Peter's Chair, 1971.
Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird, 1985.
Sesame Street—Put Down the Duckie, 1988.
Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, 1999.

Television

Soul, 1968.
Sesame Street, 1969–.

Video recordings

Kid to Kid: Staying Safe, 1999.

Sources

Periodicals

NEA Today, March 2000, p. 23.

New York Amsterdam News, March 8, 1997, p. 21.

New York Beacon, January 13, 1999, p. 18; July 7, 1999, p. 34.

Washington Post, November 13, 1988, p. y.05.

On-line

"Archive. Tuesday November 9th. Transcript," Tavis Smiley Show, www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200411/20041109_transcript.html (July 8, 2006).

"Catching Up with Susan," Sesame Street Beat Newsletter Archive, www.sesameworkshop.org/aboutus/newsletter_article.php?contentId=99200&type=sesame (July 8, 2006).

"Dr. Loretta Long," American Entertainment International Speakers Bureau, Inc., www.aeispeakers.com/speakerbio.php?SpeakerID=630 (July 8, 2006).

"'Sesame Street' Character-Turned-Author Wows Kids, Parents," Princeton Packet OnLine Education, www.pacpubserver.com/new/news/education/4-15-00/sesame.html (July 8, 2006).

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