Movie Review: 'Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street'

Jim Henson (left) and Frank Oz (middle) behind the scenes at Sesame Street. (Screen Media Films)

The children’s program is the one great thing accomplished by the Great Society.

Sesame Street, you may not be aware, was created with a not-insubstantial 1969 federal grant of $8 million to the Children’s Television Workshop, or $59 million in today’s dollars. This brings up to one the number of actually great things ever accomplished by the Great Society. If the government had been wise enough to retain equity in the venture, though, maybe the resulting profits would have paid for all of the not-great-to-disastrous Great Society programs.

Sesame Street had its genesis in a problem: A civil-rights activist and documentary producer named Joan Ganz Cooney worried about the development of inner-city children, particularly black kids. Studies showed preschoolers were watching more than 50 hours a week of TV, but children’s television at the time was almost strictly commercial, vapid, and depressing. The idea of making a television program that was a kind of preschool was novel. Meanwhile, “every child in America was singing beer commercials,” Cooney notes in the effervescent new documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. But what if you could stealth-educate kids using the colossal memory force of dumb TV jingles?

Cooney co-founded Children’s Television Workshop with Lloyd Morrisett, imagining “what television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people.” She hired a writer-director named Jon Stone who had experience in children’s television but had grown despondent about its lack of progress. Stone in turn called in a friend who was making a name for himself with a crew of comedy puppets and who in the early 1960s appeared on late-night television doing short comedy sketches (Punsmoke) and had branched out into wacky but dark commercials. “People who don’t drink Wilkins Coffee just blow up sometimes,” one puppet is seen telling another in one spot. (An explosion duly occurs.) Stone’s friend Jim Henson and his band of hippie puppeteers signed on for the new program, and Stone helped them develop the slate of fuzzy neurotics, goofballs, and freaks we love today.

Street Gang homes in on the contributions of Cooney and Stone, who with their focus on inner-city children were determined to go off in a completely different direction from the fairyland settings of other kids’ shows by anchoring the show in an environment that would feel familiar to the target audience. The title “Sesame Street” was meant to join together the urban feel to a magical quality, as in “Open, sesame.” It was to be a street where anything might happen.

The doc reviews how special the show was at the time: A bald young actor named “James Earl Jones” is seen precision-reciting the letters of the alphabet, and we encounter Seventies Jesse Jackson, a large medallion resting on his sweater, as he leads a group of children of all races to chant, “I am somebody. . . . We are beautiful, . . . right on.” From the beginning, the show would feature minority characters front and center, notably bringing on a Philadelphia talk-show host named “Matt Robinson” to play Gordon (the actor’s own small children, mesmerized, used to wonder “how he got in the box,” they later recalled) and a young Puerto Rican named “Sonia Manzano” to play Maria. Black and brown children could relate, and white children who might not have known many people of color grew up thinking of the diverse cast as their own neighbors. A public-TV station in Mississippi initially refused to run the show, and when an executive of the day is shown being asked whether it was because Sesame Street is so thoroughly integrated, he answers, “That’s an extremely difficult question to answer.” Which means “Of course.” Soon, 12 million kids were watching the show, some of them even in Mississippi.

Fun interviews with the surviving children of Henson (who died of cancer at 53), plus key creative personnel such as songwriter Christopher Cerf and the late actor Carroll Spinney, form a tableau of a hard-working shop bound together by a sense of genuine purpose and strange imaginations. Cerf was the guy who mastered writing pastiche tunes that were different enough from the originals not to get sued, at least in most cases. After playing us “Letter B” — a spoof of “Let It Be” — he notes dryly, “That was a $5 million lawsuit.” Spinney played both the childlike Big Bird and the Street’s critic-at-large Oscar the Grouch and seemed to enjoy exercising both ends of his personality. “I think Carroll Spinney saved a lot of money in therapy,” notes Manzano. “I use my insecurities to understand the Bird, but Oscar has no such insecurities at all,” Spinney chimed in before his death in 2019. Meanwhile, Henson’s children, who lived in the suburbs, got used to not seeing Dad for several days at a time. When her lawyer came to her to discuss contract negotiations with the Muppet man, Cooney said, “Give him anything he wants.”

Though the doc, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, is marred by clichés — just once I’d like to see a show about a culturally important item that doesn’t give us argle-bargle about being “revolutionary” and “changing the world” — its spirit is luminous. These people loved what they did, and it shows. They may not have changed the world, but they did give us Cookie Monster.

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