‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street’ Review

Kermit the Frog. Bert and Ernie. Big Bird. Cookie Monster. Abby Cadabby. Grover. Oscar the Grouch. Elmo. Count Von Count (The Count is my personal favorite). What a lineup of characters…each with their own personality and look, and every one designed to appeal to kids and help educate. It’s been more than 50 years since “Sesame Street” first hit the TV airwaves, and filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo (Mad Hot Ballroom, 2005) uses Michael Davis’ book, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street as a guide to this personal peek behind the curtain and a look at the folks who made the show such a success.

The four main drivers responsible for the show were Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, Jon Stone, and Jim Henson. Ms. Cooney and Mr. Morrisett co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop, which led to the research and funding necessary to kick off “Sesame Street,” the show. Ms. Cooney brought on Mr. Stone to develop and produce the programming, and of course, Mr. Henson, the creator of the Muppets and “Fraggle Rock” was the master puppeteer who was with the project from its inception in 1969.

The background information is quite interesting. Morrisett recalls hearing his 3-year old daughter singing beer jingles she had memorized from watching TV. He instinctively knew TV was making an impact and could be better utilized. Cooney talks about her initial business plan and how, at the time, a woman wasn’t going to be accepted as the face of an innovative program – risky for investors and networks. We also see many clips of Stone and Henson at work on set, and numerous people offer perspective on the creativity and effort that went into those early years. In fact, the film opens with a look at the 1981 New York City set as an episode is being filmed. Some of the cast members interviewed include Roscoe Orman (Gordon), Sonia Manzano (Maria), and Bob McGrath (Bob).

With an early emphasis on providing educational programming for minority and inner-city kids, we hear of Mississippi’s refusal to air the program due to minority cast members. The focus on 3-to-5-year-olds was revolutionary at the time, and the societal benefits of injecting fun into learning was immense, though brilliantly, the creators made it interesting for adults as well. Filmmaker Agrelo has much to cover here and does a nice job segmenting so that each piece of the Sesame Street puzzle is clear. The focus is on the early years (pre-Elmo). The dynamics of Frank Oz and Jim Henson as master puppeteers is a joy to behold, while Joe Raposo and Christopher Cerf offer perspective on the frantic pace to generate the music necessary for each episode…including the “lawsuit” involved with “Letter B.”

As with any educational efforts, but especially those with an entertainment push, addressing the difficult and uncomfortable issues is critical. We hear about the iconic segment where the characters deal with Mr. Hooper’s death in the 1980s. Even today, it’s held up as the standard for helping kids deal with death. Jim Henson’s unexpected death at age 53 in 1990 is also discussed, and clips from that funeral will likely bring a tear to your eye. Big Bird singing Kermit’s signature song, “Bein’ Green” got to me. There is a bit on Carroll Spinney (Big Bird and Oscar), who passed away just over a year ago, and all of the key characters get their moment.

This is an HBO Documentary and Chicken Soup for the Soul production, and it’s an enlightening ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at the visionaries responsible for this groundbreaking, Emmy and Peabody award-winning show that probably saved public television. So my advice is to “Put down the Ducky” and give this documentary a watch. It’s sure to take you to where “the air is sweet.”