“People always think of me as Maria and I think of me as Maria all the time.” –Sonia Manzano

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“I realized that I was going to end up being my own role model. I became what I myself needed to see growing up as a kid, and I think I succeeded as Maria by never forgetting that there was some kid out there, in the outer boroughs, stressed out maybe, feeling invisible, looking to me the same way that I looked at television, trying to find someone like me.”
–Sonia Manzano on getting the role of Maria on Sesame Street

Sonia Manzano played “Maria” on Sesame Street for 45 years before retiring in 2015. In 2016, she received a Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy. She is also a very successful author of children’s books. I am a child of the 1970s. I was a first-generation Sesame Street fan. Maria was part of the family.

Of all of the memories I have of “Maria”, her moment in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street is the one I want to talk about today.

 
 
I have seen the Sesame Street Christmas special literally every year for most of my years on this planet. I know it by heart. It is an O’Malley family ritual to watch it every year. We love our rituals. The sign language version of “Keep Christmas With You”. Ernie and Bert’s “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, 3 or 4 years old: “He pushes the button … he steps on the big step … and then he goes in!” Long pause, then Grover 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. “Wait, so can someone explain to me complicated-news-story?” “It’s totally obvious. He pushes the button, he steps on the big step…” And we can count on each other to 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.

In the Christmas special, Oscar tells Big Bird that Santa can’t fit in the tiny pipes that pass for chimneys on New York City roofs. Big Bird gets so upset he finally decides to go up on the roof to wait out Christmas night, so he can see “how Santa does it.” Unfortunately, Big Bird doesn’t tell anybody his plan, 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.

Maria knows that Oscar was the one who told Big Bird that Santa couldn’t fit in the chimneys. She is extremely upset. She stalks to his trash can, yanks it open, reaches down into it, and pulls Oscar up. (Side note: Because she the actress believes it’s freezing cold out, I believe it. They’re filming inside, on a studio set. It’s fake snow. But I can feel how cold it is because of her behavior. This stuff MATTERS, even on something like Sesame Street.) 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. Ah yes, the classic troll response.

And then comes Maria’s emotional monologue. It makes me cry every year. Maria lets Oscar HAVE it, and Manzano is everything at once: she’s furious, she’s scared, she’s upset, and 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 freezing cold). Maria is in tears by the end of it, 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 is safe and protected.

It is an EXPLOSIVE monologue delivered by Sonia Manzano in the middle of a Christmas television special for kids. 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 arrive.

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

About 10 years ago, my 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 like being a kid and seeing one of your teachers out and about during summer vacation.

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

There are so many elements of her persona on Sesame Street that meant a lot to me as a kid. She was your cool Aunt. Your Aunt who listened to cool records, wore flared jeans and fuzzy hats, and knew how to talk to you on your level, knew how to listen to you, and make you feel important.

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

This blog-post has been brought to you by the Letter S.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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