When “Sesame Street” began on November 10th, 1969. It was the start of what is now a 52 year legacy of the most groundbreaking, influential, beloved and enduring children’s programs in television history. “Sesame Street” is that special timeless gift that will forever be in our heads, our hearts, within our memories and we’re all the better because of it. Like the show, it’s theme song is just as memorable. “Sunny Day”, which was sung by Bob McGrath and a choir of kids has been called “a siren song for preschoolers”. The theme songs lyrics asked the question: “Can you tell me how to get. How to get to Sesame Street?”.
Now that question has finally been answered, thanks to documentarian Marilyn Agrelo and HBO Documentary Films. The recently released “Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street” takes us back to the late 1960s and tracks the development of “Sesame Street”, following the experiences of producer, writer, director Jon Stone and co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney. Stone was a television veteran growing disillusioned with the business and looking for a different challenge with a new TV audience.
Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Cooney noticed that corporate companies started targeting children, with kids being sold on and memorizing beer jingles even before they knew their ABCs. This led to her idea of having TV be used as a tool for education, especially with youngsters consuming large amounts of programming. This inspired Cooney to start putting together “Sesame Street”, assembling a show that originally wanted to reach inner-city kids who didn’t have access to schooling opportunities. Stone’s job was to bring the show to life, where he selected a New York City setting and hired a cast of enthusiastic performers tasked with creating a lived-in world that welcomed anyone young and old to expose them to the power and fun of learning.
Director Marilyn Agrelo takes a traditional approach to documentary filmmaking, but does a fantastic job of shedding light on the many multiple village of talents that it took to build “Sesame Street”. Agrelo gives ample screen time to key people including songwriter Joe Raposo, who cranked out the iconic theme song and Kermit The Frog tune “Bein’ Green” and Caroll Spinney (who passed away in 2019), the puppeteer of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Of course Agrelo also focuses on the genius of Frank Oz who was the perfect comedic fit for Jim Henson; who brought so many characters to life, including best pals Ernie and Bert.
But Agrelo doesn’t forget the wonder of puppeteer Jim Henson, who was brought onboard after a career in edgy advertising and his live-action and puppet hybrid television show “Sam & Friends”. While Jim Henson’s puppets were already popular on late-night talk shows and variety programs, they achieved their true icon status when the idea was to have Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and the rest of the puppet characters interact with the humans right there on the block. This simple but genius idea of blending puppets with humans started with two different segments. One with the adults on the street talking and the muppets on a separate segment. But kids got bored and lost interest in the adults and so the blending of the two were born.
Ample screen time is given to the human side of the street featuring Interviews with original cast members: Sonia Manzano (Maria), Roscoe Orman (Gordon), Bob McGrath (Bob) and Emilio Delgado (Luis). Agrelo doesn’t forget to devote time to the original Gordon, played by Matt Robinson. His daughter actress Holly Robinson Peete (“Hanging With Mr. Cooper”) is interviewed in place of her father who is now passed. Matt Robinson championed the integration aspect of “Sesame Street” in creating a black Muppet named Roosevelt Franklin, who was phased out after criticism from Black parents that Roosevelt perpetuated stereotypes. It ultimately led to Robinson’s exit from the series.
“Street Gang” brings up the groundbreaking moments in “Sesame Street”; including the decision to make Big Bird into a 4-year-old that way he’d reflect the mindset of the young viewers. This was never more evident than in the 1983 episode that addressed the death of actor Will Lee (shopkeeper Mr. Hooper) by having Big Bird process his death. There is even a segment of a woman breast feeding on the show, while Big Bird asks “What are you doing?”, as the lady responds “My baby is drinking milk from my breast”. That’s just another example of the chances “Sesame Street” took that was way beyond anything ever done before on a kids show. And we’re reminded of the show’s long and admirable history in addressing the world’s social issues.
Filled with fascinating archival footage, still photos of pitch meetings, test videos and the building of the remarkable set. “Street Gang” ends on the death of Jim Henson in 1990, at the age of 53. “Sesame Street” has been produced in 70 languages, with new episodes of the 50 year-old children’s franchise currently appearing on HBO Max, the streaming app from Warner Media. For the first time, the enormous previous 50 seasons of “Sesame Street” is now available to watch on HBO Max. Original “Sesame Street” distributor PBS still airs the show free, with new episodes appearing on PBS roughly nine months after they premiere on HBO Max.
“Street Gang” focuses on the producing and performing forces that helped to establish the mission of the series. To launch a show that was about to achieve the impossible of changing the world. That’s exactly what they did and they showed that anyone can be accepted whether you were white or Black or Latino or a giant yellow talking bird.
“Sesame Street” is the finest, most creative television show ever produced that has remained a beloved staple in education and entertainment for over five decades. “Street Gang” is much like the show that it documents and carries tremendous heart, power and shows how important the show really was. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is not only a beloved tribute that anyone would want for such an iconic series. But most importantly, it’s a love letter to the talented people who built “Sesame Street” and the ones who grew up with it.
GRADE: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5)