Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street (2021) - Reviewed

images courtesy Macrocosm Entertainment

"The most sophisticated people I've ever known had just one thing in common: they were all in touch with their inner children." – Jim Henson

A typical city street, dead-ended in an arbor with a tire swing across from a general store called Hooper’s. A Fix-It Shop, a brownstone building fronted by a stoop. An old, beaten-up metal trash can. An alcove containing a giant bird’s nest. A lamppost, bearing a green street sign. 

Chances are, you know exactly where it is, despite the question of how to get there having never quite been answered….until now.

Lloyd Morrissett, vice-president of the Carnegie Foundation, had begun to notice how fervently his children, like all others in the mid-sixties, loved television. They spent many hours watching countless cartoons and kiddie-fare, including commercials for all manner of products, and their exposure to these repetitive jingles and cartoon catchphrases had made kids miniature experts on products and services advertisers hoped they would insist their parents purchase. Television had become an institution in the lives of families in the 1960s, and Morrissett began to wonder whether it could be a key to early education.

He mused this with several friends at a dinner party held in the home of Tim and Joan Cooney one evening, turning over to fellow guests his notions that perhaps television could be used to an educational end, to help prepare small children – particularly those at marked disadvantages – for impending years at school. He had posed the question as a simple exercise in thinking out loud, but it was this question that began an experiment that would change the face of children's television forever, one that continues to this day.

Marilyn Agrelo’s brilliant new documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a love letter to those who came together to form the Children's Television Workshop. Determined to find out whether the addictive qualities of commercial television could indeed be used to a positive end for very young children, they took the question Morrissett had posed in 1966 as a basis for a two-year research project spearheaded by Joan Cooney, whose proposal was distributed to various funding sources so that their team could produce a television show and test their theories. 

The documentary details all the stars that had to align in order for Sesame Street to come into existence, and chronicles its inception, development, and production with loving reverence. With input from those most intimately connected to the show from its very beginning, it paints the picture of a media miracle in the making.

Sesame Street’s lasting creative, educational, and cultural impact – still a worldwide network of franchises and educational supplemental material for children everywhere – is examined in interviews with many of those most instrumental to its birth, including Cooney and Morrissett themselves. Interspersed with rare behind-the-scenes footage from the early days, Street Gang peppers its narrative with pontifications on the importance of the show’s revolutionary approach to an attempt to help specifically BIPOC children navigate educational concepts that would provide them similar advantages as other children their age would have. 

The reason Sesame Street has endured since 1969 is twofold; not only was it among the first in children's television to utilize a multi-media approach to engage children's interests, but it was built upon a solid curriculum of measurable goals which would carry the show's various themes and educational material. Never before had educators, businesspeople, and television production staff been forced to work together so closely to create a single product with such an important goal. Through modern music, diverse animations, interactive games, short films, and a fully integrated cast of characters including people of all ages and races as well as Jim Henson's Muppet creations, Sesame Street began to reach not only its target audience, but parents, teachers, and others who shared the thought that TV could be a positive influence early in life.

Racial integration on the show – a first for children’s television – is a key focus in Street Gang. Sonia Manzano, who portrayed “Maria” on the show from 1971 to 2015, talks about discovering Sesame Street for the first time while she was in college, being cast as Maria, and how deeply important it was for her to create the representation that had been sorely lacking in the medium. Both she and Emilio Delgado – who was “Luis” from 1971 up through 2016 – discuss the importance of the show’s depiction of Latinx people, not as mere stereotypes, but everyday friends and neighbors that were integral parts of ordinary American communities. The actors recall head writer, Jon Stone, often asking for their input on how their characters would act and speak, always respecting the feedback and suggestions he received from them. He wanted their characters to be as “real” as possible, and show Hispanic children that the people in their own neighborhoods mattered just as much as those anywhere else.

Similarly, the early involvement of Matt Robinson in Sesame’s development – and his role as the first “Gordon” in 1969, when the show premiered – gave it a Black perspective, including a fun, funky little Black Muppet character called Roosevelt Franklin, voiced by Robinson himself. Roosevelt used music, rhyme, and his wry sense of humor to teach not only counting and the days of the week, but that Black culture was unique and wonderful. He, and other Black characters that would join the cast, were meant to rejoice in diversity and help children who felt othered find a sense of community in a medium with which they spent much of their formative time.

Madcap and innovative, vigorous and outright genius, Sesame Street was built on the core foundation of the belief that all children, regardless of the color of their skin, or where they lived, or what languages they spoke, deserved a chance to learn and to love themselves. That children understood more complex subjects than many adults would give them credit for, and thus deserved a form of educational entertainment that spoke to them, rather than at them. That all children are somebody.

Street Gang, with its loving nostalgia and no-nonsense approach to the challenges and controversies surrounding the show during its nascence, could have told a thousand additional stories. But for anyone who loves the Street, it is a beautiful tribute to the once-in-a-lifetime series of events that led from a simple ponderance to a worldwide phenomenon still changing the lives of families half-a-century later. It is a celebration of all the things that beloved green lamppost street sign represents, and finally answers the question once and for all – how do you get to Sesame Street?

You get there with perseverance, passion, and people who dedicate themselves to continued excellence. 

Sesame Street was brought to you today, as it has been since 1969, by the letters L, O, V, and E. 

--Dana Culling