and Nostalgia really is king nowadays. But for all the calls that specific franchises have “ruined their childhood,” some shows and movies remain unsullied even after all these years. One of those, for many people, is Sesame Street, the groundbreaking public television program for kids which mixed the mad irreverence of Jim Henson’s Muppets with the desire to teach children, specifically inner city children of color. And the result was nothing short of a phenomenon. Because of this continued love, the new documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, feels like seeing old friends anew.
Director Marilyn Agrelo took Michael Davis’ nonfiction book of the same name, with its hundreds of pages of history, and tried to pare it down to a single feature. As a result, it flies through a lot of information. At the center, Agrelo attempted to focus on three people: the show’s creator, Joan Ganz Cooney; the original series director Jon Stone; and the mastermind creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson. It was really down to the creativity and the determination of these three that we the show became what it was.
We learn about the early roots of the series, the creation of the Children’s Television Workshop, and the specific intention to appeal to children of the inner city. That’s the reason the show takes place on a street to begin with; they wanted to reflect the real world outside the windows of kids in New York apartment buildings. Cooney’s initial idea, a real genius idea, was to use the concepts of commercials to “sell” the idea of learning to kids. And that’s where Henson’s Muppet’s came in. The Muppet crew made high concept local commercials; it was Sesame Street that made them household names.
Additionally, we meet some of the other pivotal players and stories from over the years. The film discusses Matt Robinson, the original actor to play Gordon, who left because he wanted to further the depiction of realistic Black characters but Black parents complained. It delves into the music of the great songwriter Joe Raposo who composed such hits as “Bein’ Green” and “Rubber Duckie”. We also hear about the decision to work in the death of actor Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) into the narrative of the series.
While nothing here is very deep, it all adds up to a lovely reflection on the early years of Sesame Street which I found absolutely charming. It elicited the same warm feelings in me as the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? did. That movie, obviously, had a single person to frame the documentary’s narrative around, and I think that focus ultimately makes it a more impactful piece. There are simply too many stories and people to explore in the Sesame Street sphere for it to be too specific about any one person.
If anyone comes out as the true protagonist of Street Gang, I actually think it’s Jon Stone, the original director of the series from 1969 to 1994. His vision really shaped the series’ aesthetic and pacing. We see behind-the-scenes footage and bloopers of him as both nurturing father figure and exacting taskmaster. When Frank Oz and Jim Henson would goof around too much, they’d have the Muppets say “Sorry Jon!” And the fact that more people choose to focus on Henson or Cooney as the creative drivers of the series was not lost on Stone, who always strove for recognition despite his 18 Emmy wins.
I really liked Street Gang. It’s not the best documentary ever made, but it is a very solid, wide-reaching look at one of the most important children’s programs ever made. It delighted me and really captured the Sesame Street vibe that was so important to so many kids for the past 51 seasons.
4 out of 5