“We don’t play down to kids. We just have a very short audience.”—Joe Raposo, Sesame Street composer.
There are few more pleasurable strolls than the one kids take every day down Sesame Street. Since its debut on public TV on November 10, 1969, Sesame Street immediately put a new face on preschool education. Under the auspices of the nonprofit educational organization, Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop), its staff of visionary educators, programmers, writers, performers, puppeteers, filmmakers, designers and composers were encouraged from the start to experiment and redefine the scope of educational TV.
Thanks to director Marilyn Agrelo’s delightful new feature-length documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, we get a chance to travel back in time to witness the show’s seminal first two decades, meet its tireless creative team (flesh and felt) and bask in the sheer joy of their journey.
On the heels of its popular festival and theatrical release earlier this year, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, December 13, 2021, 10:00 – 11:47 p.m. ET/PT. (See below for complete screening and streaming info.)
Inspired by Michael Davis’s New York Times best seller, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, the film deftly incorporates vintage behind-the-scenes clips, interviews filmed specifically for this project and those culled from archival footage to introduce the players who tackled major roles in this wildly innovative experiment, from concept development through production.
Key to this story are Children’s Television Workshop co-founders: documentary film producer Joan Ganz Cooney and psychologist Lloyd Morrisett. Ms. Ganz Cooney quickly became the public face and driving force behind the project.
Joan Ganz Cooney recalls the early skepticism she encountered as she challenged tired, old-school perceptions of children’s TV. As a woman dodging sexism in the male-dominated field of broadcasting in the late 1960’s, she jokes that she couldn’t be sidelined because she carried the project’s entire concept in her head. She’s featured here at length, as are the pivotal contributions of the show’s dedicated producer/director Jon Stone and Muppets’ creator/puppeteer Jim Henson.
Others instrumental in originating the cast of characters and ambiance on the street were the actors and actresses, who discuss the importance of their racially and culturally diverse roles, as well as such prominent creatives as composer Joe Raposo, writer/composer Christopher Cerf, and puppeteer Caroll (Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch) Spinney.
“We all felt lucky to be a part of the exciting new adventure,” recalled Bob McGrath, the multi-talented performer who originated the beloved character of Bob on the show.
Originally earmarked for inner city preschoolers, ages 3-5, most especially children of color, Sesame Street had immediate cross-over appeal. Through the artful use of puppets, animation and live-action sequences, the show blurred ethnic, racial, gender and income barriers to encourage all children, no matter what their backgrounds, to develop the skills and attitudes they needed to live happy, productive lives.
Far exceeding anyone’s expectations, Sesame Street quickly set a new standard for children’s TV programming. Three months into its first season, studies determined that regular viewers were already testing higher than non-viewers, especially those who watched the show with their parents. Apparently, preschoolers were learning their letters and numbers and, consequently, how to read at younger ages due, in large part, to the innovative programming they enjoyed on Sesame Street.
According to master puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who originated the characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the show and played them for 49 years until his retirement in 2018, Sesame Street‘s appeal to parents was also key to its success from the start.
“I think that part of the genius of the creation of the show was that it was important that grown-ups enjoy it, too,” said Spinney. “Because if they liked it, it was more apt that the show was going to be turned on and not tuned to some other station.”
If you’re as big a fan of Kermit and the Muppets as I am, you’ll relish the chronicle of Kermit’s evolution and you’ll enjoy the hilarious repartee, on and off script, between Frank Oz and Jim Henson’s dynamic duo, Bert and Ernie. Sweet interludes between nonpro kids and the Muppets will touch your heart, as will Joe Raposo’s charming recollection of composing Kermit’s signature song, “Being Green.”
And you might want to keep a box of Kleenex handy as the film revisits “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” the 1983 Thanksgiving Day episode when Big Bird, age 6, learned of Mr. Hooper’s death, and seven years later when Big Bird sang a poignant rendition of “Being Green” during Jim Henson’s funeral.
From its initial broadcast on some 170 stations, Sesame Street has expanded its reach worldwide, now airing in more than 150 countries and embracing an ever-growing line of ancillary curriculum-based materials produced to educate, entertain and support the content of the show. Sesame Street‘s Website http://www.sesamestreet.org provides child and parent friendly activities, videos and games that extend the show’s shelf-life by engaging kids interactively.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street premieres on HBO tonight, Monday, December 13, 2021, 10:00 – 11:47 p.m. ET/PT. Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability on HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max. I encourage you not to miss it! –Judith Trojan