Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street – Review

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

It feels like Sesame Street has been around forever (for Spanish speaking kids like me it was Plaza Sésamo).  Director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary Street Gang:  How We Got to Sesame Street lays out the origin story of the celebrated children’s show.  Street Gang focuses on the idealistic and indefatigable men and women who brought the show to life in the late 1960s.  Agrelo effectively lays out Sesame Street’s genealogy from fuzzy idea to fully realized touchstone show; and it is precisely when focusing on producer Joan Ganz Cooney and producer/director Jon Stone’s role in establishing that early vision of the show that Street Gang shines.  

Sesame Street was built on a foundation of progressive principles.  In the pre-Sesame Street era, children’s shows were mere advertising vehicles for toys and sugary snacks.  The emphasis was less on education and more on capturing a market.  Marketers were fully aware that there was something powerful in the synthesis of human memory, images, and jingles that drove the desires and behaviors of viewers, especially children.  Cooney and Stone—whose backgrounds were in television—set out to subvert the idea that television’s sole purpose was commercial.  As Cooney put it, she wanted to create television that “loved people and was not trying to sell to people.” 

Cooney and Stone figured that if kids were already in front of a television from the moment they were born, absorbing jingles from beer commercials, they might as well meet the children where they were—the television screen.  Their goal was to apply the techniques used in commercials to sell letters and numbers to young viewers.  Cooney and Stone were adamant in wanting to appeal to inner-city children of color with limited access to education resources.  Cooney and Stone assembled educators, television people, African American and Hispanic actors, children, and two young puppeteers—Jim Henson and Frank Oz—to cook the pottage that eventually became Sesame Street.

Street Gang fulfills its role as a genealogy; it recovers what was lost by memory.  We may have forgotten that there were educators and child psychologists involved in the show.  Educators, psychologists, directors, and actors had to work together in producing a beautiful alchemy on screen.  It was the writers that perhaps faced the thorniest challenges.  Writers had to work with educators in creating content that was both entertaining and pedagogically sound; in other words, Sesame Street’s secret sauce was comprised of jokes and curriculum. 

We also forget just how progressive Sesame Street was.  The show’s setting was the inner-city and it used actors of color—some of the earliest examples in American television of actors of color not playing stereotypical roles.  Street Gang does a wonderful job of reminding us just how threatening Sesame Street’s progressiveness and spirit of integration were to large segments of the American public.  The state of Mississippi refused air the show for a while.  Some viewers complained that some Muppets—Roosevelt Franklin—were “too black” for their taste.  Street Gang also exposes us to the workaholic tendencies that ran through those that worked on the show.  The irony is that many times their own children missed them while they worked long hours on a children’s show.  If there is one tiny flaw in Street Gang, it is its glossing over of critiques from educators who claimed that the show was overstimulating and contributed to declining attention spans in children.  

Street Gang deals with serious subjects.  It covers Joe Stone’s struggle with depression, Carroll Spinney’s—who played Big Bird and was the voice for Oscar the Grouch—therapeutic channeling of his emotions through his characters, the difficulties involved in the craft of puppeteering, and how to talk about the real-life death of a cast member in a children’s show.  What gives Street Gang its charm is its balancing the serious with the light.  Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s chemistry as both puppeteers and comedians is incredible, Joe Raposo’s songs for the show are clever; and above all, the improvised moments between actors, puppeteers, and non-actor children remind us of why Sesame Street holds such a special place in our collective memory. 

The “gang” in Street Gang gives us proof that when you put together an eclectic group of talented individuals on a project, a project whose goal is not selling a product, we become richer as a society.

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A Cuban-American obsessed with documentaries and anything by Kubrick, Haneke, Breillat, or McQueen. If he is not watching films in his hometown of Miami, he is likely travelling somewhere in Asia enjoying okonomiyaki or pho.