“Sesame Street” is the most iconic children’s television show ever created, and a new documentary proves that it’s also one of the most important shows ever aired.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” streams on demand starting this Friday.
“This group of individuals came together with a shared purpose and intention to do good in the world,” Producer Ellen Scherer Crafts told WTOP. “It’s such a positive and affirming message. We think audiences will really respond to and enjoy looking at something they think they know very well, understanding it from this perspective.”
Based on Michael Davis’ 2008 book, the film shows how “Sesame Street” was sparked by social change in the 1960s as an educational series for inner-city kids watching a diverse cast of human and puppet characters that was groundbreaking in 1969.
“We’re in a similar place in society [today],” Director Marilyn Agrelo told WTOP. “People are becoming aware of certain things, there’s protests, movements, race awareness, all of the things that ‘Sesame Street’ came out with in 1969 to help children of color in the inner city integrate with others and present a world that people wanted to live in.”
It opens with Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett founding the Sesame Workshop.
“Lloyd came downstairs one morning and saw his daughter, Sarah, staring at the test pattern of a television, just waiting for television to start,” Producer Trevor Crafts told WTOP. “He was struck by that. He was a psychologist and he thought maybe there was a way to harness the addictive nature of television and do something good with it.”
Soon, Morrisett presented the idea to colleague Ganz Cooney at a dinner party.
“He asked the question, ‘Could television be used to teach children?’ Joan’s reply was, ‘I have no idea, but I would love to find out,'” Trevor said. “Joan was a television documentary producer, very socially conscious, interested in the Civil Rights Movement. This was the jumpoff point [for] the Children’s Television Workshop.”
The film details the founders’ initial meeting with the “hippie-looking” Jim Henson, who invented his own puppetry track locally at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“We were thrilled to be able to show this incredible footage of ‘Sam & Friends,’ this five-minute, late-night comedy show he had [in D.C.],” Agrelo said. “You had coffee commercials with Muppets beating each other up. He was a very edgy guy, he did experimental films, he really had a vision that no one else had presented before.”
The film also features interviews with head writer Jon Stone, music composer Joe Raposo and puppet masters like Henson, Frank Oz and Carroll Spinney, who created such beloved characters as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Elmo, Grover, Cookie Monster, The Count and others.
“The design of characters all comes from Jim,” Trevor said. “He was a creator that was always thinking, sketching, doodling. … His vault of characters was enormous. Kermit was something he developed for ‘Sam & Friends’ as his alter ego. … Oscar came out of a lunch … at a little restaurant called Oscar’s by the Sea right down the street.”
These muppets — and their human friends — created one of TV’s first diverse casts.
“Emilio Delgado, who played Luis, talks about how this was his first chance as a Mexican American to play a normal, hardworking, decent person,” Agrelo said. “The same with Sonia Manzano, who’s Puerto Rican. … Gordon is a hardworking Black man in a stable marriage, they owned the brownstone. This was a real sea change.”
The show subversively tackled social issues of race (Kermit singing “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”), LGBTQ issues (Bert & Ernie) and mortality (the death of Mr. Hooper). When it was pulled off the airwaves by nervous adults in the Deep South, young audiences demanded that it return, proving that loving entertainment always wins in the end.
“It really speaks for itself on the air,” Stone says in the documentary. “We’ve never beaten that horse to death by talking about it. We simply show it.”