Street Gang Gives a Comprehensive History on the Beloved Sesame Street Series
Film: Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street
Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Category: Feature – U.S. Documentary
Where do I even start with Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street? This is likely the most comprehensive telling of the history and making of one of the most beloved children’s television shows of all time. Marilyn Agrelo dives deep into the backstory behind the creation of Sesame Street with creator Joan Ganz Cooney and the rest of the cast and crew. From the show’s catalyst, its reason for being, to its character choices to the reason why Sesame Street is on a street unlike any other kids TV show at the time, Street Gang gives you the history and the heart behind the show.
Street Gang is a total nostalgia trip, including clips of iconic Muppets and having the curtain pulled back to see archival footage of Jim Henson and Frank Oz operating the Muppets on the show. The film also asks and answers questions you probably never thought of but are critical to how Sesame Street functioned. Have you ever thought about how adult-sized human people operated the puppets from behind the set? Because I never did so I never put together that the sets were built up off the ground about four to five feet so the puppeteers could stand under and behind the sets while bringing the Muppets to life. It’s like getting to see the inside of a Disneyland ride with the lights on, it’s so exciting and neat. Have you ever wondered why Sesame Street takes place on a street? Because the show was created to help bring early childhood education into the homes of Black and Hispanic/Latino families living in inner cities. Children’s Television Workshop cofounder Lloyd Morrisett, a children’s psychologist focused on childhood education, found that minority children in inner cities weren’t receiving an equal education to their white suburban peers and they were falling behind. He joined forces with Joan Ganz Cooney to try to help level the playing field for them. To help make the show feel familiar and welcoming to those kids, the creators decided to make the show take place on a street, like an inner city neighborhood.
Children’s Television Workshop and Sesame Street were groundbreaking for the time. Cooney and Morrisett took their ideas to the U.S. Department of Education and received an unheard of $8 million grant to launch their children’s educational television program. The task then became combining the tenets of early childhood education with a kid friendly TV show. Cooney enlisted the help of a variety of creators and educators to figure out the best combination. Sharon Lerner took over the show’s research and curriculum, creating a guide for the show’s writers to understand education concepts that needed to be incorporated into the show, while Norman Stiles took on the role of headwriter and Jon Stone became the show’s director. While many of those who worked on the show have since passed away, their families were present to speak on their legacies, including interviews with Lisa and Brian Henson, Jon Stone’s daughters, and son of the show’s legendary composer Joe Raposo. This helps contexualize the archival footage filmed during the making of the show with stories from those who remember the crew and their work the best.
Through Sesame Street’s inception to its years on air, not once did the showrunners let the core tenets of diversity and progressive values fall to the way side. While the show was well received with the groups it was made for (with the help of a massive marketing campaign to help families find the show on their antenna TVs because the channel varied in each area), there were plenty of white suburban parents who weren’t exactly happy with the show’s diverse cast. In 1970 Mississippi, state officials banned the show for featuring a diverse cast and a neighborhood that would be considered “offensive” to the people of Mississippi. To fight back against these obviously racist ideas, the show went to children across Mississippi and asked them what show they wanted to see. The kids overwhelmingly said Sesame Street. With enough pushback from Mississippi families, the ban was lifted and Sesame Street aired on PBS in Mississippi once again.
This documentary is also shows how this beloved program taught kids concepts from education to life skills. While there was the letter of the day or counting with The Count, the show had a critical teaching moment when Mr. Hooper actor Will Lee passed away very suddenly. Instead of shying away and recasting Mr. Hooper, the show’s education and creative teams decided to use the moment as a learning experience. The producers and writers did in-depth research to make sure they could talk about death at the level their audience of children would understand. The documentary shows the thought process and care taken with such a sensitive topic and the experience the cast and crew had filming that day. That level of care and dedication is taken with every aspect of Sesame Street, to make sure that it provides education through quality entertainment for the kids who needed it the most.
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is such a wonderful documentary. Marilyn Agrelo does a wonderful job weaving together a touching story with the creation of the show, the incredible creatives and educators who made the show happen, and the show’s reason for being. Sesame Street is a critical part of American television history, and Street Gang give us the story behind the story. When this comes out on HBO Max, take an afternoon and find out how to get to Sesame Street.
Review Score: 5/5
Where Can You Watch: Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is an HBO Documentary. You’ll be able to stream the film later this year on HBO Max.
Bonus Content: Check out the Q&A with director Marilyn Agrelo and the film’s producers on the Sundance Youtube Channel. Watch here (link: https://youtu.be/3BjvPL9JMKo)