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Sesame Street's Maria Coming To Pensacola

Richard Termine

A pioneer in children’s television is coming to Pensacola to talk about the future of the medium, and share stories about life on one of the most famous streets on Earth. Sonia Manzano knows exactly how to get to Sesame Street. Beginning in 1971 she starred as the character Maria in the classic children’s series. She says the role defined her career. "I grew up on the show. I finally retired last July (after 44 years)."

Sesame Street was not the only famous road in Sonia Manzano’s career. Early on she starred on Broadway in the original cast of the musical Godspell.  "I attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg as an undergrad and Godspell was a senior project that was actually done at the school." Manzano says no one had any idea the show would be a hit that eventually landed on Broadway. "The show came to New York, and we filled it out with more actors and got the wonderful Stephen Schwartz to do the music. And it was a big hit and I got my first auditions to be on Sesame Street from being in that show."

When Manzano joined the cast of Sesame Street it had already been on the air for 2 years. It was one of the few shows at the time that had had people of color in starring roles. Her character, Maria, was brought on to appeal to Hispanic children. She said the show had respect for children’s intelligence. "that was one of the most remarkable aspects of the show. They really drummed into our heads 'do not look down to the kids. This is not a kiddie show in the old style of kiddie shows where they're syrupy and children live in Never-never Land.' that's why the show was set in an inner city. In the place where children lived."

After a few years, Manzano wanted to have a bigger voice on the show, so she began writing. "I really, really wanted to contribute more to the show and being an actor you can contribute [just] so much. I noticed that the writers and directors were having even more fun than me, if you can imagine that. And also I questioned the Latino content of the show. there were no Latin writers, there were no female writers at that time. And the [producer] said 'why don't you try writing some of your bits yourself?' And that's how I started to write." She ended up winning 15 Emmy Awards for her writing on the show.

Sonia Manzano is coming to Pensacola to talk about her time on Sesame Street and the general state of children’s television. "I will talk about how the landscape of television has changed so profoundly. When we started the show it was geared towards preschoolers, kids that were five years old. These were the days when kids didn't even learn the alphabet until they were in first grade, if you can imagine that. And now, kids pick up so much more information so much earlier than we taught then." Manzano says she will also tell stories about fellow cast members, human and otherwise, from her life on Sesame Street.  

The WSRE Public Square Speakers Series presents Sonia Manzano on Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. in the Jean & Paul Amos Performance Studio. Reservations are requested at wsre.org/speakers

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.
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