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Inside the controversy and success of ‘Sesame Street’

Inside the “most groundbreaking, most experimental period” of “Sesame Street”

A still from “Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street,” by Marilyn Agrelo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Robert Fuhring via Sundance Institute

In one episode of “Sesame Street,” Big Bird draws pictures of all his grown-up friends. As he visits with his friends and hands out the drawings, he notices he still has one of storekeeper Mr. Hooper to give away.

“I can’t wait until he sees it,” Big Bird says.

A long pause follows. All of his friends look at each other knowingly.

“Don’t you remember, we told you? Mr. Hooper died,” Maria eventually says. “He’s dead.”

“Oh yeah, I remember,” Big Bird responds.

“Oh well, I’ll give it to him when he comes back.”

From there, an emotional scene unfolds as Big Bird gradually comes to learn from his friends that people don’t come back after they die. He can, however, stay close to Mr. Hooper by keeping his memories alive, his friends tell him through tears.

The emotion in that scene was real, according to the documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which premiered Jan. 30 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The actors were mourning the loss of a real friend, Will Lee. Rather than recasting the character of Mr. Hooper or avoiding the subject of death by saying he retired, “Sesame Street” opted to do what it had done from the beginning: teach.

That groundbreaking scene reflects the overall idea of the show — “What television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people,” “Sesame Street” director Jon Stone says in an old interview featured in the documentary.

With a 107-minute runtime, ”Street Gang,” based on Michael Davis’ extensive “Sesame Street” history, covers the show’s first 20 years — what director Marilyn Agrelo called the show’s “most groundbreaking, most experimental period” during a post-screening Q&A. It shows a diverse cast clearly having a blast on set, but it also dives into the struggles many people behind the scenes endured to bring this show to life.

Here are some takeaways from “Street Gang,” which will have a theatrical release in the spring and come out on HBO Max at the end of the year.


‘Sesame Street’ started out as an experiment

In the 1960s, many children could recite beer advertising jingles and point out the product in the store because of the countless commercials they were exposed to — clearly they were retaining information, whether or not their parents wanted them to, “Sesame Street” creator Joan Ganz Cooney recalls in “Street Gang.”

“Kids adored the medium, so why not see if it could educate them?” she says.

And from there, the strategy behind “Sesame Street” developed: Find out what kids like to watch and what would be good for them to watch, and then combine the two.

It was relatively simple on paper, but a lot went into that effort.

“Sesame Street” writers and producers consulted regularly with educators. Although there was underlying humor in “Sesame Street,” everything written for the show had to have teaching value. It wasn’t just about telling jokes.

The show also did a substantial amount of community outreach to determine what interested kids and what kind of characters should be featured on the show. For example, the humans and the Muppets weren’t originally going to mingle on “Sesame Street,” but early on, a test audience quickly revealed that kids were more interested in the clips with Muppets than they were the segments on the street that only featured humans.

A still from “Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street,” by Marilyn Agrelo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Luke Geissbühler via Sundance Institute

And thus “Sesame became a New York City neighborhood that happened to have an 8-foot-tall yellow bird walking around,” Kate Stone, the daughter of “Sesame Street” director Jon Stone says in the documentary.

“Street Gang” emphasizes how Cooney gave puppeteers like Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Caroll Spinney’s Big Bird freedom to try different things in order to figure out what worked and didn’t work — for example, after a couple of months, Spinney changed his Big Bird character from being a “big, dumb, goofy guy” to taking on the persona of a child who is learning and making mistakes.

In the documentary, Henson’s son, Brian Henson, recalls how his dad would leave for work and return home four days later. Nick Raposo, son of “Sesame Street” composer Joe Raposo, recalls sleeping at production meetings that would go until 3 or 4 a.m.

It was chaotic, but, as composer Raposo says in an old interview clip in the documentary, it was “the chaos of people dedicated to a real idea.”


Reaching inner-city life

One thing that took “Street Gang” director Agrelo by surprise was that the core target audience of “Sesame Street” was Black inner-city children.

“We don’t think of ‘Sesame Street’ as being at all political or earth-moving, but it really was,” the director said during the post-screening Q&A.

“The creators of ‘Sesame Street’ were doing something in response to the civil rights movement and the disparity in education among children of color,” added Ellen Crafts, a producer for the “Street Gang” documentary. “And I thought that was an incredibly important story that we needed to tell.”

The idea for setting the show on a street to reflect inner-city life, though, came from “Sesame Street” director Stone, who the documentary paints as somewhat of an unsung hero whose efforts were overshadowed by Henson and the show’s other popular faces. Stone got the idea after watching a commercial for the Urban Coalition, which was shot on a Harlem sidewalk.

This was a revolutionary concept since, at the time, children’s shows typically had a fairyland or treehouse setting. In the documentary, Cooney admitted having doubts about the urban setting but said she trusted Stone, adding that he never got the credit he deserved for his contributions to the show — including bringing Henson aboard.

With an initial budget of $8 million, “Sesame Street” debuted Nov. 10, 1969 — about a year after the civil rights movement. Immediately, the show attracted high ratings.

But it also created controversy.


Diversity brought controversy

From the start, “Sesame Street” was a ratings success and a Woodstock of sorts for kids, who knew the eclectic characters as well as their parents knew Bob Dylan or Frank Sinatra, “Street Gang” explains.

Big-name artists like Odetta Holmes, Loretta Lynn, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Dizzy Gillespie sang with the Muppets. Kermit the Frog sang “Bein’ Green,” a simple but profound song that tackles race, depression and self-acceptance.

“Sesame is a neighborhood where people of all races, kids and adults, and monsters lived together,” says Christopher Cerf, a major “Sesame Street” contributor.

For example, Oscar the Grouch was created “to show that even somebody with a completely different point of view than yours could be your friend,” Cerf said.

But for all of its immediate success, “Sesame Street” also got pushback for its multiculturalism. In the show’s early days, a public broadcasting station in Mississippi refused to air “Sesame Street” after a number of people expressed discontent with the integrated cast.

“If that’s our worst sin, I’m happy to be a sinner,” Cooney says in an old interview clip.

Footage in the documentary shows Mississippi school kids speaking out in support of the show — inspiring another local station to put it back on the air.

Another controversy involves a Black puppet named Roosevelt Franklin, who was introduced by Matt Robinson, the original Gordon on “Sesame Street.”

The character quietly left the show after a few seasons, but to the surprise of “Street Gang” director Agrelo, the criticism that led to the removal largely came from Black parents who believed Roosevelt Franklin perpetuated stereotypes. Roosevelt’s exit eventually led to Robinson departing from “Sesame Street.”

“For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth,” his wife says in “Street Gang.” “He knew they meant well, but it was the beginning of the end for him.”


A ‘ragtag’ group

“Street Gang” doesn’t go beyond the first two decades of “Sesame Street,” choosing to end with Jim Henson’s death in 1990 — a clear end of an era for the show.

But “Sesame Street” carried on over the years and continues to evolve. In 2017, the show introduced the character Julia, who has autism, and introduced a Muppet named Lily in 2018, who experiences homelessness. In a post-screening Q&A, Agrelo says the show continues to do extensive research, always having teaching and humanity in mind.

But her goal in bringing “Street Gang” to life was to show how the beloved “Sesame Street” started with a “ragtag” group of people — from Stone, a director who was fed up with the direction the TV industry was going and struggled with depression, to Henson, who was doing edgy comedy on late-night shows before bringing his Muppets to the children’s show.

The unlikely group of people who united to create “Sesame Street,” Agrelo said, makes the success of the show more remarkable.

“I was really hopeful to tell the ... struggles and the hopes and the dreams of these people that came together,” she said. “For me what’s special about this movie is the opportunity to tell a story that people think they know so well.”