"Sesame Street" turns 50 this year, and in honor of the milestone, TODAY caught up with two of its most beloved human cast members to reflect on their most cherished moments.
Sonia Manzano (who played Maria for 44 years before retiring in 2015) and Alan Muraoka (who joined in 1998) weighed in on the show's popularity during the recent grand opening of the new Sesame Street Neighborhood at Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.
"I think the show has lasted 50 years and will continue to last for 50 years because it always changes to address the needs of the current crop of children," said Manzano. "And, of course, you have to know that the Muppets are the heart and soul of the show. There's an irreverence to them. We love it when Cookie Monster goes nuts and eats all the cookies. We think it's zany. And I think children like to see that kind of out-of-controlness. It makes them feel superior because they're not going to do that."
Muraoka added, "I love the idea of educating kids and making them smarter, stronger and kinder, which is sort of our mission statement. And you know, you get to play with Muppets and monsters all day. And so the core lessons that we teach are something that I think everybody should have, to move on into life for both education and emotional purposes."
Both said diversity was one of the show's most important hallmarks.
"The (more) younger people are exposed to different people living different lifestyles, the more comfortable they are with it," said Manzano. "I have been to places in the Midwest where there aren't hardly any people of color. And they'll say, 'You were the first Puerto Rican I ever saw.' And I'm thinking, 'Not possible.' And I'm thinking, 'Maybe I was the first Puerto Rican they saw as a full human being.' And I think that that's what the power of 'Sesame Street' was."
"To be able to see so many different types of people represented is super important," said Muraoka. "So for me, being Japanese American, you know, to be sort of the Asian American representation on the show is so important, and I've had so many Asian American parents come up and say how much that meant to them. But I feel like I'm just another person in this beautiful fabric that we've woven and created."
The two actors have had many memorable meetings with young viewers.
"The most touching one was from a fan who revealed that she was raised in a tumultuous household and she said that her one hour of 'Sesame Street' a day was her one moment of peace," said Manzano. "And probably my funniest anecdote is when I asked a kid what his name was and he said, 'You know my name!' And he also asked me what I thought of his new sofa because he assumed that I could see him as clearly as he could see me."
Muraoka said some of his favorite fan encounters have involved the show's introduction of Julia, a Muppet with autism.
"I get to do a lot of interaction with her, and I just think it's so important that we have her represented on the show," he said. "I've had so many parents and kids and adults on the spectrum come up to me and just let me know how much they appreciate being represented on the show."
On the show's longevity, he added, "I think why it's still around is that we still have many things to say, that society is constantly changing, and issues that arise for kids are constantly changing. And so we try to be on the forefront of that, and create shows around those topics, like autism, like foster care. So as long as there's a need to bring up these subjects, I think that's why 'Sesame Street' has been around and will still be around, hopefully for another 50 years."
For more from the interviews, including Manzano's and Muraoka's favorite moments from "Sesame Street," and their favorite guest stars, watch the interview above!