Mark Saltzman keeps a modest house. Tucked in the foothills of Los Angeles, the cozy cottage doesn’t betray the pedigree of its owner…except for maybe the seven Emmy Awards tucked high on a shelf in the corner.
Saltzman shows me to his living room, where a pair of leather couches await our presence. I’ve come to chat with him about his career. His work has encompassed everything from stage musicals like Tin Pan Alley, to telefilms like Mrs. Santa Claus to family features like The Adventures of Milo & Otis. I had in mind a special emphasis on the source of his seven Emmys: a 15-year tenure with The Muppets, including writing scripts and songs for Sesame Street.
So how did you come to land on Sesame Street?
That was interesting. So I wound up being one of the writers on a revue called A, My Name Is Alice. The concept of it was that it was going to be a musical theatre review and an all-women cast, and all-women writers. But as they were working on it—I don’t think they thought it through that if it meant all women, it meant no gay men. And you’re going to do a musical? [Laughs]
So I think they realized that along the way, and that all-women writers had to go. It’s musical theatre, it’s a revue. So when the doors opened, I auditioned. And that was sort of my getting over the wall. The show was a hit; it still plays. But most significantly, a woman in the cast was Alaina Reed [later billed as Alaina Reed Hall]. She was the original Olivia on Sesame Street. I really connected with her. I’m really grateful to her for my career.
So what year was that?
So by that point Sesame Street was already legendary. So were you out by the time you joined the staff ?
Well, it’s more levels. I already had my life partner, the love of my life. We weren’t living together. All our friends knew, but I don’t think I was professionally out.
[Saltzman pauses in thought. I don’t have to ask why. The “love of his life” was acclaimed editor Arnold Glassman, who edited films like Frailty and The Celluloid Closet. The two were together more than 20 years before Glassman’s death in 2003.]
I think I was cautiously out. I remember not inviting Arnie to the first Christmas parties, you know. But then I have memories of bringing him to beach house parties with everybody. I think during Sesame Street was when I came completely out. By ’86 we had an apartment together. My father knew. There was no hiding it.
So were there other out writers at that point? Performers?
There was Richard Hunt (the Muppet performer of Scooter, Janice, Beaker and more). Oh, and Judy Freudberg (noted writer of An American Tail and The Land Before Time). I think as I got out-ier I was the only male writer who was out. I think even being out, I was sort of…the straight guys, you know, are sort of non-inclusive. Even when everybody knows, it’s not a casual discussion discussing my boyfriend with the guys. You also have to remember, all our friends were dying.
This is the mid-80s…
That was the worst of it. I met Arnie like the day before the first case…October 31, 1979. So I think the New York Times story was…
July 3, 1981. That’s pretty close. You’re talking about a year…
Oh yeah, yeah! It was a miracle we found each other then. We hadn’t been exposed. And everybody gay that was alive then remembers that article. Because we knew nothing. There’s a cancer that’s catching? Everything was so mystifying and in the meantime, there’s another funeral next week. Thinking about being out at that time, it’s hard to extricate that from living in the middle of an epidemic.
Sure. And that was a big part of your social life then?
Yeah. You kind of went from one to the next. People just vanished, and everyone was in some kind of panic.
All this—when I talk about that era of my life, it’s all under that shadow. It was nice being there with the Muppets. And until Richard Hunt, I don’t think there was an AIDS death. (Hunt died of AIDS in 1992, age 40).
What was the attitude like among the cast, the crew? When something like that is going on, is there discussion about how the show should address it? Was there homophobia you encountered?
It didn’t seem like anything we could touch on the air. There’s a curriculum at the beginning of every season, and a lot of lobbying from the outside to get on that curriculum. I mean, what can you tell a preschooler about AIDS? Practice safe sex?
I can remember pitching to the education department, the gatekeepers of the curriculum, gay content, just to get it off my conscience. And I can remember being stonewalled in a way that it made me think it was a lost cause. My activism isn’t a hit the streets variety, and what Sesame Street was doing racially, you certainly don’t want to denounce it. I would have liked to have been the first writer to do the “two mommy” episode. I don’t know if they’ve ever gotten to it. I’m thinking of the Bert & Ernie New Yorker cover…
Ok, so we have to address—that’s the big question, right? In the writer’s room, you’re all adults. Were you thinking of Bert & Ernie as a gay couple? Did that question ever come up?
I remember one time that a column from The San Francisco Chronicle, a preschooler in the city turned to mom and asked “are Bert & Ernie lovers?” And that, coming from a preschooler was fun. And that got passed around, and everyone had their chuckle and went back to it. And I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them. The other thing was, more than one person referred to Arnie & I as “Bert & Ernie.”
Yeah, I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.
So you’re saying that Bert & Ernie became analogs for your relationship in a lot of ways?
Yeah. Because how else? That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” But those two, Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience. And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too.
The secret friend…because at that point Snuffy was Big Bird’s secret friend. It was later on he came out and everyone realized he actually existed.
That happened while I was there, yeah. But they haven’t…the New Yorker cover was kind of vindication, but there’s not a Bert & Ernie float in the Pride Parade.
And because it was always diversity, diversity, it’s a shame [Sesame Steet] wasn’t leading the charge. Here’s a story about pushing the gay envelope of Sesame Street…
Are you going to say the “Sublime Miss M?”
Yes. I created her based on Bette Midler. I mean, what could be gayer? That’s the gayest Sesame Street ever got. I think that was Fran Brill [performing her]. The only way it would have been gayer is if it had been Richard Hunt.
So you’re there, working with a crew and a group of performers for 14, 15 years. Do you have any great guest star stories? Fanboy moments?
Here’s my favorite. I’d written a bit for a trumpet player, and Sesame Street being Sesame Street, the musician cast was Dizzy Gillespie. I was, as usual, tongue tied and star struck in front of a legend of this magnitude, but I stayed close during shooting. Mostly trimming lines; he was not comfortable acting. But when he played on screen for a group of kids, they were mesmerized. The sound! The cheeks! When we were done, the trumpeter, as trumpeters do, emptied his spit valve. One of the kids was fascinated, riveted to the falling thread of drool. She said with a pre-schooler’s sneer “What’s THAT?” Dizzy said, “That’s jazz.”
Wow. And what about Patti Labelle?
Arnie loved her. I even brought him to the set that day. This brings back a third-degree memory cringe…this must have caused by XGFS (Xtreme Gay Fanboy Syndome) but that day was the only time in my TV career that I ran in front of a live camera and ruined a take. It was during one of the insert segments of “Miss My X” so at least I didn’t do it while Patti Labelle was in full throat.
Wait, how did you do that?
Oh it’s easy when you’re all enfabulated by a diva. You forget where you are and forget to check which camera is taping – there were several on the floor. I tell you this as a cautionary tale — scoff all you want, but this will happen to you some day. Come on. Who will that diva be? Confess…
I don’t know. Does Bill Condon count as a diva? Or has Courtney Love done Sesame Street? She should.
All right then. I know you understand the syndrome!
Actually, I went back and looked, and it actually amazed me how many of those original cast & crew were there from the beginning and stayed until they either dropped dead or retired. People like Jim [Henson, creator of the Muppets], Richard Hunt, and Jon Stone, the show’s director. What was it like working with Jim?
I don’t feel I did [on Sesame Street] because he was only there a few weeks a year. I got to know him better on The Jim Henson Hour, but he was hard to know. A lot of times with the puppeteers, they’d figured out how to be introverts and on stage. So with a lot of them, the puppet was the communicator. With Jim, his reactions would always be “hmm.” They even did a riff on it in The Muppets Take Manhattan. We’d say to him, “did you like it?” And he would say “hmm.” And we’d be like…did it go up at the end? Did it go down? [Laughs]
The one time I worked side by side with Jim was recording “Caribbean Amphibian” (one of Kermit’s most popular Sesame Street songs, which Saltzman penned). I’d written triplets in the music, which is, you know, a little harder than just singing it. There was a calypso rhythm. And he wasn’t exactly a calypso guy. We tried it once, we tried it twice, and I could see he wasn’t getting it. And he said “you know, Kermit can sing, but I really can’t.” And I thought, let’s leave it at that.
I knew I wasn’t especially detached from him; I wasn’t the writer he didn’t like. He didn’t feel that way. He was like that with all the writers. I think that with the puppeteers he could be closer, then the designers, then, I think the writers.
You mentioned the Muppet performers. Did you get to know them at all?
Not that close. While we were working, I don’t remember any differences of opinion. I should have been friends with Richard Hunt, you know… There was something gay and yet not bonding about it. Maybe Richard had to be the only gay one, but I didn’t feel that. Certainly not Carroll Spinney [performer of Big Bird]…they were all friendly and we had a good working relationship. But I can’t remember going out for a drink with anybody. And this could have been me…this could have been me being timid. They were actual stars. I’m not that way now, but I couldn’t imagine imposing myself and making a date.
Were you flirty with Richard, when you met?
It was the opposite. He was flirty. You know, I put the blame on myself. I don’t think I knew how to respond to gay flirting in the workplace. And I mean healthy flirting, not #MeToo ass grabbing. My suspicion is Richard may have perceived me as someone who rebuffed him. At that time, sex was so free and so everywhere that I couldn’t deal with it in the workplace.
You wrote some characters for Richard. He was Placido Flamingo, who you created. What was he doing to flirt with you?
Well, we were in a dressing room, and he was getting into his costume for [Sweetums, the full body Muppet costume]. And I think when I realized when I was in the room…and here I am, closeted. And nobody can freak out about a gay pass like a closeted man. Like, a straight guy can roll with it, even back then. It’s just part of your survival skills, so you come up with kind rebuffs. And I didn’t have a kind rebuff. Like I say, I don’t think Richard did anything wrong. He was just showing interest. And being at work, and here he’s a star… I was incapable of just regular “are you interested” kind of stuff. I was too immature, even to find a gay buddy.
When he died I found out we were almost exactly the same age, and born within blocks of each other. And all this…we should have been closer.
You didn’t create Bert & Ernie the way you created Sublime Miss M and Placido. Who were your favorite characters to write?
Oscar. Snuffy. Bert & Ernie. Prarie Dawn…that’s an oddball choice, but there was something when I wrote her…I’d be thinking of Jack Benny. She was reactive; the sensible human in a world of chaos. There was enough authority or something, but I look back now, and some of my favorite things I look back on now were for her. I loved the pageants [Prairie’s frequent Muppet talent shows]. That’s where you could put Bert in a dress. He just would have to come out in the Queen Elizabeth costume, or whatever Prairie put him in and recite his lines
Did you write Elmo sketches?
I did, but he was never one of my favorites.
So did you get to know Kevin Clash? [The famed Muppet performer of Clifford and Elmo, who was outed and charged with sex with a minor in 2012.]
I did. I got to know him on Jim Henson Hour. I liked him. He wasn’t…whatever that thing was, where I got star struck…I didn’t have that with Kevin.
He was approachable?
So here’s the other question…was Kevin out?
No. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard. You know, my gaydar is not exceptional, it’s not fine tuned. I was definitely fooled. There was just so much about Kevin—he had a real artist kind of way into the whole thing. He’d have frustrations about not improvising, but I think part of that was perfectionism. He didn’t seem to be as loose and playful like Richard. He was more internalized, which now, looking back, might have been closeted. With Kevin, he had so many facets; he wasn’t a simple person. He had a wife, and that seemed to be the end of it. At that point, it might have been somebody I could have helped along. I was certainly already cohabitating with Arnie, which, to me, was like the biggest marker in my emerging life. Richard didn’t need any help, but as it turned out, Kevin did.
It upsets me so much that guys felt they had to stay in the closet for so long.
I can only imagine this was hellish; to sort of be living the life, but as a black guy commuting to the Upper West Side, he had to get stopped all the time. It’s just this garden variety racism getting through the day. You know, it’s the YouTube of the black woman in a swimming pool. You just get stopped. How could he not? We were in an Embassy neighborhood. The Muppet Mansion was a former Embassy. White privilege, you can walk up and ring the bell. Kevin, I would imagine, or any other black person, is given the side eye.
So all of this with Kevin—it’s sad, because I did like him. I liked working with him. And I’d say, of that crew, I had the most connection with Kevin. I can’t say I knew him, because it turned out, I didn’t.
There’s a cruel irony in that. For the record, three courts cleared him of any wrongdoing after those charges emerged.
Oh, that’s good. I didn’t know that.
Which is sad…he lost a lot when that happened. It’s interesting that all that happened a year after that documentary Being Elmo, where suddenly, his face is plastered up there, sort of like this is the guy who’s Elmo. There’s been speculation that that’s when he became a bonafide celebrity, and so that’s when people were going to take advantage of him.
I’m glad to hear this. He seemed like a person you’d want good things to happen to.
So what are you working on now?
A Sunset Blvd. project.
This is your musical biopic of Gloria Swanson?
That one, and I have a play about George Bernard Shaw visiting MGM that got optioned. It’s such a Hollywood story. And I have another stage musical opening in September, Another Roll of the Dice. So that keeps me busy.
[Saltzman shakes his head, as if trying to wrap his own mind around the memories he’s just shared.]
It’s interesting. That was some of the happiest time of my life, except everybody kept dying.
[We both sigh, contemplative.]
It’s not easy being green…
[That song] is almost like a jazz improv. What’s it doing on a children’s show and not in some smoky dive with Billie Holliday? But it’s great American songwriting. And Ray Charles sang it on Sesame Street, and I remember sobbing in the control room. You couldn’t bear it. Ray Charles had so many obstacles, and he’s singing about being green?
That’s the power of the song—it’s not about literally being green. It’s about being different, and how you want to be something else so much of the time, even if it makes you special. And that’s so much of the Muppet philosophy. I think we all know what that’s like.
Listen to Mark’s song for Kermit, “Caribbean Amphibian:”