For cast member Alan Muraoka, it’s an honor to be a part of the history of the long-running children’s TV show.
By Connie K. Ho, Contributor
‘Oh you can be what you want to be, be what you want to see, believe in yourself, just believe in yourself. Go where you want to go, do what you want to do, believe in yourself.” Dressed in a purple sweater and dark-colored pants, Alan Muraoka sang the opening lyrics of the upbeat “Believe in Yourself.” He was joined in the song by Muppets Elmo, Abby Cadabby and Cookie Monster, with the trio bopping and swaying along to the music. With a wide smile and charisma to spare, Muraoka made a mark at his first White House Easter Egg Roll earlier last month in Washington, D.C., with the gang from PBS’ “Sesame Street.”
A cast member for the past 17 years, Muraoka has performed with “Sesame Street” at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, outreach performances in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
“It’s amazing to be a part of that legacy,” Muraoka said. “A generation of children have grown up with me and my character, so that’s pretty amazing and awe-inspiring when you think about it.”
Along with performing with the Muppets, Muraoka also had the chance to do a few book readings with younger kids at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Those in attendance at the event included First Lady Michelle Obama as well as celebrity chefs Chris Cosentino and Aáron Sánchez.
“‘Sesame Street’ has been invited several years to do this, but this was the first time that I was invited to join, so it was a great privilege to do that,” said Muraoka, who is based in New York City and films the show there. “It’s always so flattering and humbling, and they’re always so appreciative of the work that we do on the show. Because it’s an educational program and an entertainment program, parents feel very, very familial with us in the best possible way. There’s a lot of hugs, there’s a lot of thank you’s and it’s always so gratifying to know that I’m on a show that educates as well as entertains.”
According to Muraoka, when “Sesame Street” started in 1969, it was the only show at that time that dealt with educating preschool kids — the program was initially created to help inner-city kids feel prepared for school. “Sesame Street” has won accolades over its 30 years on the air, and this year, it was awarded five Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards. The honors include outstanding writing in a children’s or preschool children’s series, outstanding original song and outstanding costume design/styling.
“I think what sets us apart is the writing, and ‘Sesame Street’ has always played to two levels — it plays one level to kids, but there’s always a level of social satire that the kids may not get but the adults definitely get and appreciate. So, that’s why I think adults and children can watch the show together, and they can each get something out of it,” Muraoka said. “For instance, this year, we have a take on ‘Game of Thrones,’ we have a take on ‘Homeland,’ on ‘Star Wars.’ If you’re watching as a kid, you’re not going to get all of the sort of subtleties of the humor, but if you’re an adult watching, you’ll absolutely get it.”
Part of the magic of “Sesame Street” are the segments that feature guest celebrities. A Who’s Who list of Hollywood’s brightest stars have appeared on the show, including comedians such as Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, musical acts such as Janelle Monáe and Pentatonix and award-winning actors such as Jamie Foxx, Anne Hathaway and Lupita Nyong’o.
“I’ve been on the set before with celebrities who have grown up watching the show, and when they walk on the set, it’s like they’re coming home again,” Muraoka said. “It’s a place where people have always felt safe, and so there’s something very heartfelt about seeing something that you grew up with as a child.”
It was no easy feat for Muraoka to win the role of the proprietor of Hooper’s Store. In 1997, Muraoka was performing the last Broadway revival of “The King and I” in New York and he received a call from his agent, who told him that “Sesame Street” was planning on introducing a new character who was going to take over Hooper’s Store. He auditioned for the role, ultimately going through four rounds before being offered the part.
“As it pared down, I thought, ‘I think I might actually get this’ because it was such a great fit for me,” Muraoka said. “I had graduated from UCLA with a theater arts degree, and I did a lot of children’s theater when I was at UCLA. There are rules about children’s theater, and one of them is don’t talk down to the kids, don’t try to overplay — kids are smart, kids get it. And so I took that with me to the audition, and it was absolutely to my benefit that I had.”
Muraoka’s character was still TBD (to be determined) about a month before the crew and cast were going to begin filming. When he went into the writers’ meeting, Muraoka expressed hope that the writers would be able to look beyond his ethnicity in developing the character. They ended up keeping the name “Alan” for his role.
“At that time, in the ’90s, if there was an Asian on TV, even if you were completely Americanized, they were called names like Toshi or Yoshi — like the audience wasn’t smart enough to observe their ethnicity, they had to hammer it home,” said Muraoka. “And for me, I’m a fourth-generation Japanese American who grew up in the [San Fernando Valley], and all of my friends and family members were not named Toshi or Yoshi — they had names like Steve or Alan.”
When he’s not onstage acting or filming, Muraoka takes on directing projects and is also currently working on a book highlighting his experience on “Sesame Street.”
“I really wasn’t interested in writing a pure autobiography — the idea is to do something about Hooper’s. I’m the third owner of Hooper’s Store, and there is a great legacy and history that needs to be told about the store as well,” Muraoka said. “It’s sort of the central meeting place of the neighborhood. It has all of these core values of community that I think sort of represents a microcosm of the world at large, the idealized world at large that we all hope a community should be.”
Muraoka treasures his multifaceted experience on “Sesame Street” as the show ramps up production on a new season.
“We’re filming season 46 right now, and it’s great to be an Asian American representative on a show that’s all about inclusion,” Muraoka said. “I feel very safe here because it’s not like they’re saying, ‘Alan is an Asian character, so we have to write him a certain way.’ They write for me as a human being with foibles and intricacies and humor and heart — it’s just a great, great joy to be a part of.”