In Praise of Sonia Manzano (“Maria” on Sesame Street)


My family watches Christmas Eve on Sesame Street every year (because we all are obsessed with it. That obsession shows no sign of dying out any time soon). It’s the one that ends with Cookie Monster eating Susan and Gordon’s Christmas tree while their backs are turned and as the credits roll, we hear Cookie burping over and over again. And commenting on each burp. “Oh. That was a long one,” moans Cookie. This is a CHRISTMAS SPECIAL and that is how it ends. I can’t take it. Now Cookie Monster reminds kids to eat vegetables too. But is the world actually a better place because of it? I think just the opposite. I prefer my Cookie eating Telephones because they’re shaped like Cookies or devouring a Christmas tree, tinsel hanging out of his mouth. That’s the Cookie I know. And I eat vegetables, too. So there.

The main plot of the Christmas special is that Oscar tells Big Bird that Santa can’t fit in those tiny pipes that pass for chimneys on New York City roofs. Oscar does this just to have the joy of watching Big Bird go into a panic. Big Bird gets increasingly upset and finally decides to go up on the roof to wait out Christmas night, to see “how Santa does it.” Unfortunately, Big Bird doesn’t tell anybody that this is what he is going to do, and so all of the residents of Sesame Street flip OUT because he has vanished without a trace. There are some beautiful almost haunting crane shots showing all of Sesame Street, snow filling the air, and Gordon or Bob, Mr. Hooper – walking around down there calling out “BIG BIRD”, their voices echoing. It’s eerie.

Meanwhile. Big Bird sits on the roof, oblivious, with an icicle hanging from his beak.

The reason I’m writing all this in April (when it’s not Christmastime at all) is because of Sonia Manzano, who played “Maria” for 45 years before retiring last year. (Manzano has a permanent place on my annual Ladies I Love list.) Manzano is going to receive a Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy this year, and of all of the memories I have of “Maria”, this upcoming one from “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” was the first one that came to mind when I heard the news. (Fred Rogers won the same award, and just in case you haven’t seen it, his acceptance speech is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen.)

I have seen the Sesame Street Christmas special literally every year for most of my years on this planet. I know it by heart. The sign language version of “Keep Christmas with you”. Ernie and Bert having a “Gift of the Magi” plot, co-starring Mr. Hooper. Cookie Monster eating an entire telephone. Kermit and Grover interviewing real children about how they think Santa fits in chimneys (One little girl, about 3 or 4 years old: “He pushes the button … he steps on the big step … and then he goes in!” Long deadpan pause as Grover stares at her. Then he turns to the camera, and exclaims: “And THERE YOU HAVE IT.” My brother and sisters and I still say “He steps on the big step” when we are trying to explain something when we actually have no idea what we are talking about. “So how does gravity actually work?” “Come on, it’s totally obvious. He pushes the button, he steps on the big step, and then he goes in.” And we can all count on each other to then respond loudly: “AND THERE YOU HAVE IT.” Like I said, it is a shared obsession.)

But the moment I want to talk about is Maria’s big moment.

Maria is so worried about Big Bird, and she is upset, and she knows that Oscar was the one who told Big Bird that Santa couldn’t fit in those chimneys. So she stalks up to his trash can, opens it, reaches down into it, and yanks Oscar up. (Side note: Because she the actress believes the night is freezing cold, I believe it. They’re filming inside, on a studio set. It’s fake snow. It’s not cold at all. But I can feel how cold it is because of her behavior. This stuff MATTERS.) Oscar of course is grumpy and grouchy: “What’s the problem, skinny, leave me alone …”

She demands to know why Oscar did what he did. “I was teasing him,” cries Oscar. And then comes Maria’s emotional monologue. It makes me cry every year, and I feel like crying right now as I type this out. Maria lets Oscar HAVE it, and she’s everything at once: she’s furious, she’s scared, she’s upset, she’s also articulate about WHY she is all of these things (and also, let’s not forget, because she’s a good actress and details matter, she is clearly freezing cold). Maria is in tears by the end, because Big Bird is out there and he’s all alone and it’s cold and he needs to be back in his nest where he’ll know that he’s not alone.

It is this EXPLOSIVE monologue delivered by Sonia Manzano in the middle of a Christmas special for kids. Seriously. Her acting is Oscar-worthy.

Sonia Manzano has been in my life from before I can even remember. Sesame Street pre-dates my own personal memories. It was there before my memories are there.

The devotion and dedication of that original cast has always been very moving to me – especially once I got older and realized that no, Sesame Street was not real, and those people were actors. I was so excited when I was assigned to review I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story (and it’s a really good documentary).

My old co-worker Caitlin and I interviewed Sonia Manzano, when one of her children’s books came out. This was in the glorious days when we were placed (for some unknown snafu in seat assignment) on the 17th floor of 30 Rock with the cast of Saturday Night Live, and Caitlin and I interviewed all of these cool people for the joint venture thing we worked for with the Today Show. It was so exciting to get to communicate with Manzano, I felt like a little kid. I was a grownup but still kind of surprised that she was out there in the world, having a real life, that she wasn’t just “Maria.”

It was kind of like when you were a kid and you saw one of your teachers out and about during summer vacation. It was as though your teacher was breaking the fourth wall or something.

I admire Sonia Manzano’s career more than I even know how to say.

This monologue has been brought to you by the Letter S.

And so she’s getting a Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy. Sometimes the world works out right. There are so many elements of her persona on that show that meant a lot to me as a kid. She was like your cool Aunt. Your Aunt who still listened to cool records, and wore flared jeans, and fuzzy hats, and knew how to talk to kids and make you feel important.

But that moment where she’s freezing cold and yelling at Oscar, trying to hold back her tears? That’s a moment for the ages.

Congratulations to Sonia Manzano. Well-deserved and thank you thank you.

This entry was posted in Actors, Television. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In Praise of Sonia Manzano (“Maria” on Sesame Street)

  1. Tim says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a remarkable woman. Thanks!

    • sheila says:

      Tim – you’re welcome! I am so glad she is getting recognized for it – but I think the most moving thing about her career and the careers of the other actors on that show – is that doing good work and helping kids is all the recognition they need. It’s like the best gig ever.

      I’m very happy for her.

  2. Patrick says:

    Pertinent almost to nothing, but the bleakness is so funny, and where else can I put this, someone just retweeted this, from Werner Hertzog (Werner Twertzog), I don’t think you can link to these things, too bad, he has an accompanying picture of a blue muppet –

    No blue and fuzzy “Muppet,” cookies cannot cure your existential emptiness.
    Only death can.

  3. Lisa in Fort Worth says:

    Maria was so special to a lot of us. We even got to go to school early and sit on the stage and watch Sesame Street before school started!! I have never seen the Sesame Street Christmas special, now I’ll have to track it down. I can’t wait!

    And Mr. Rogers! What can I say about my Mr. Rogers?! He only helped me, when I was only twenty, to raise my two little ones. My son will be thirty five in a few weeks and he still eats bananas and cheese, as Mr. Rogers taught him. He was married two years ago and we danced to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, for the mom and groom dance. It started out as a joke then we decided, what the heck, it meant a lot to both of us. That man helped make my son the man he is today. And made my daughter feel like she could be or do anything. How wonderful is a person like that, that makes you feel you matter! All the way through a T.V. screen. It was a lovely time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.