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On my way to where the air is sweet – ‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street’

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I grew up on “Sesame Street.”

Obviously, I’m hardly alone in that. Generations of children spent large chunks of their formative years engaging with that unique blend of education and entertainment that sprang onto the public television airwaves in the late 1960s. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone out there without at least a passing awareness of “Sesame Street.”

That kind of pervasive cultural omnipresence is a thing of the past now, with ever-increasing striation and stratification greatly reducing the potential footprint of any creative content. Still, there’s no doubt that “Sesame Street” remains an important touchstone for millions of people.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” a new documentary about the show, attempts to break down the origins of what would become a phenomenon. It’s a look into how the project came to be and features interviews – both new and archival – with some of the primary figures responsible for making it all happen.

Now, this film could easily have coasted on the nostalgia wave inspired in so many of us by the mere mention of the show. And one could argue that by ending the story when it does – with the passing of Jim Henson – it avoids some of the thornier aspects of the show’s later years. However, this is not a viewing of the show’s history through a rose-colored prism – the film treats those first two decades honestly, the deep-dive ethos of director Marilyn Agrelo focusing on embracing the positive and not-so-positive aspects alike.

It’s hard to believe looking back at the juggernaut it became, but the success of “Sesame Street” was far from a given at the beginning. It was only through a chance meeting between psychologist and academic Lloyd Morrisett and TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney that the show was even entertained as a possibility. These two people – each notable in their own field – saw the potential of overlapping their spheres. Kid TV had long been driven by commercial forces and suffered qualitatively accordingly, but what if those same commercial techniques were adapted to advance educational themes.

Basically – what if a TV show sold kids (the consumer) on educational themes instead of products?

It was such a novel idea that no one had any real idea how to actually do it. But through the collaborative efforts of people like Morrisett and Cooney – as well as veteran director Jon Stone, songwriters Christopher Cerf and Joe Raposo and, of course, a gentle weirdo of a puppeteer named Jim Henson – a half-century television mainstay was born.

Again, it seems so obvious in hindsight – kids absorbed so much information from commercials, so why not pattern information we want them to absorb in the same manner? Sell them letters and numbers the way companies sold beer and cars to their parents. And THAT’S why we got Jim Henson. Not out of any sort of educationally-oriented altruism – though Henson obviously cared about that stuff – but because he and his Muppets had proved talented at the creation of funny and memorable commercials.

“Street Gang” walks us through those early years, showing us the process through which the show gradually came to life. It’s a chance to hear from some of the pivotal figures from the show’s creation talk about the experience, what it meant to them then and what it means to them now. Folded in with the present-day conversations, we’re granted access to archival footage as well, which grants some insight from those who are perhaps no longer with us.

And there is a TON of behind-the-scenes stuff, glimpses of the making of the show as it was happening. We get to see the mastery of Jim Henson and his puppeteering pals – particularly the brilliant Frank Oz – as they create these iconic characters before our eyes. The evolution of the characters – both flesh and felt – is fascinating to watch. Conversations with the actors who populated the street are interspersed with clips that remind us of just how wide-ranging the guest performers have always been.

And while we do get moments of gentle nostalgia throughout, the filmmakers are a lot more frank than you might expect. There’s a clarity, a specificity when the producers speak about their intention to aim the show directly at inner-city youth. There’s also an unflinching willingness to address those times when well-meaning people’s earnestness with regard to social and racial differences winds up aimed in less-productive directions.

For instance, one story I’d never heard is the recasting of the role of Gordon, originally played by Matt Robinson before he was replaced by Roscoe Orman. Robinson was the driving force behind the creation of Roosevelt Franklin, the first specifically Black Muppet, in the early ‘70s – a character that proved controversial and was phased out … a phase-out that would ultimately lead to Robinson’s departure as well.

The highlights are legion, as you might expect. The story of how the iconic song “It’s Not Easy Being Green” came about. A tale of how execs in an early meeting though Henson was just some random hippie who wandered in off the street. Breaking down the Henson/Oz dynamic. The death of Mr. Hooper (where I learned that I’m apparently STILL upset about it). The list goes on.

Granted, by ending the story in the early 1990s, we don’t get the second half of the story. The staggering and often irritating ubiquity of Elmo. The corporatization of the show – particularly the shift to HBO, creating a divide between the haves who see the show’s first run on the pay network and those left to wait until the repeats make their way to PBS. Still, by focusing on those first two decades, “Street Gang” gives us a nuanced and thorough portrait of the show’s meteoric rise and its impact on the culture.

As a kid, I loved “Sesame Street.” And as an adult, I loved “Street Gang.” Telling the story of such an iconic and universally beloved institution can prove problematic, with the understandable temptation to veer into hagiography. But by treating its subject with honesty and accepting its imperfections, the film makes the glorious nature of “Sesame Street” shine out all the brighter.

Come and play – everything’s A-OK.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 10 May 2021 16:44


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