Since 1969, children’s television has undergone radical changes. Yet, as the volume of educational television programs for young people has skyrocketed, their access to no-Kid-friendly content has also increased. A constant for families has been “Sesame Street,” the colorful puppet edutainment program that made Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch household names.
Before becoming a behemoth, he had humble beginnings, as recounted in the documentary film “Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street”, now available. via on-demand points of sale. Married filmmakers Trevor and Ellen Crafts, who spoke in an interview their five-year-old daughter briefly interrupted, brought in the lens of a stranger as they worked with Sesame Workshop and The Jim Henson Company to gain access to little seen archive footage.
“The show in its origins was really so revolutionary and groundbreaking,” Trevor Crafts said. “They combined the educational content with Madison Avenue techniques of what kids were experiencing on television. At the time, it was something that had not been done.
But how do you show this first spirit of experimentation? Celebrate the most studied show In the history of television, “Sesame Street” today has more than 30 international versions produced and broadcast in more than 150 countries. It’s hard to sweep decades of corporate PR to get to the heart of the story.
The filmmakers discovered a gold mine when they gained access to 16 hours of behind-the-scenes footage from the show’s longtime artistic director, Victor DiNapoli. “He just wanted to show his coworkers and friends what it took to put on the show,” said Ellen Crafts. “It really captures that energy and that excitement, how each has played their part in that sense of a bigger goal.
In a fast-paced 107-minute pace shaped by director Marilyn Agrelo (“Mad Hot Ballroom”) and the Crafts as producers, “Street Gang” explores how diverse creative talents came together to bring parents to talk with their children about learning concepts.
Street level experience on costumes
Working at WGBH in Boston, Joan Ganz Cooney believed that a show with clear educational goals and a multiracial cast could better serve a large audience of children. Early research revealed that many, especially in underprivileged households, do not connect with the gentler pace of Fred Rogers.
Alongside philanthropist-educator Lloyd Morrisett, who lined up the funding, Cooney took a friend’s advice to meet “the most creative guy in children’s television”: Jon Stone. With his knack for reading how to reach children, he envisioned an urban street setting, contemporary music, and short segments to keep them engaged in learning letters and numbers.
Bringing in his friend Jim Henson, who Stone had worked with on previous specials, formed the show’s creative triad. “Joan, Jim and Jon, the three J’s, (led) this gang of creative rebels,” noted Ellen Crafts. Another “J” they point out is Joe Raposo, a gifted songwriter who over the decades has written over 250 “Sesame” songs, including the show’s “Sunny Days” theme song.
“Street Gang” re-introduces these numbers in an authentic way avoiding third-party analysis of the talking head. “We really intended not to interview anyone who wasn’t part of it at the time,” Trevor Crafts said. “You were either one of the team that created the show or someone’s child there and you experienced it.”
The document features original interviews with Cooney (now 91), actress Sonia Manzano, who played “Maria” for 44 years on the show, actor Roscoe Orman (“Gordon”), l actor-singer Robert “Bob” McGrath, Muppet singer Fran Brill, Stone’s daughters Kate and Polly, Brian Henson, and several family members of African-American writer-actor Matt Robinson.
This approach contrasts with a recent one, notably poorly rated TV special entitled “50 years of sunny days”. Short montages of key moments were overshadowed by current Sesame Workshop talking heads, joined by TV host John Oliver, declaring “how brilliant (beep)” the show is. Unlike “Street Gang”, the founding trio received only a brief mention.
Comedy brings parents and children together
Since its inception, research on “Sesame Street” has found that children learn more when parents watch with them. “The conversations the (parent) had with their child on and after the show really improved learning,” longtime producer Sharon Lerner says in the film.
Years before conquering prime time with “The Muppet Show,” Jim Henson and his cast of Muppet performers perfected their comedic timing in Sesame sketches that advanced learning concepts. “We were all comedy freaks,” says veteran writer Christopher Cerf. “We all loved parody and satire. We wrote something that we knew we would like, that was the key. The show wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t.
As educators, hippie-looking puppeteers, and Broadway songwriters made family laughter a goal, it worked one way or another. “That initial group at the workshop were all very intensely comedy-aligned,” says Trevor Crafts. “When parents and children were together (laughs), they would retain more information. But creatives also used it because they wanted to. “
Newly unearthed blooper footage from “Street Gang” shows that off-camera Muppet performers could get discolored in their jokes. Carroll Spinney, who played Big Bird and Oscar for five decades, is heard in his last interview before his death in December 2019, including his grumpy green using the word ‘bastard’ among other lines for a comic effect. Despite the big-eyed puppet cameos, parents should be aware that the documentary is not intended for children.
Controversies and legacy
While many families enjoy “Sesame Street,” the show has its detractors. From the first season, famous singers and actors have been welcomed onto the show to sing the ABCs or highlight another lesson, an entry point into pop culture that some parents find too early for toddlers. .
Families seeking to instill religious values in their children will find that – as in most American studies – secular humanism underlying many teaching philosophies. “We don’t know what we are or what we can be,” composer Joe Raposo says in the film. “We know there is potential and achievement to be accepted. This is what “Sesame Street” is. The show also dealt many controversies during its decades.
Yet the universal appeal of the classic seasons of “Sesame Street” lies in the way they have adapted to the concepts of memorization, observation and basic learning, all embodied by a true ethnic diversity hitherto unknown to us. children’s television and saturated with lively humor. This means that many people involved in children’s ministry still find valuable lessons in the wildly creative show.
In December, “Street Gang” will land on the HBO Max streaming service, where it will join approximately 150 classic episodes of the edutainment show. Documentary producers say they hope for more classics to be released, even mocking a recent warning that early episodes “may not meet the needs of today’s preschooler,” added in some cases. “We have a five-year-old,” said Ellen Crafts. “As parents we always find ‘Sesame Street’ wonderful to watch with her.”
The legacy of the show will always bring laughter in learning, as puppeteer Jim Henson said in an early interview about the show: “Kids love to learn and learning should be exciting and fun.” . This is what we want to do. “
Rated PG for some thematic items, language and smoking, “Street Gang” is now available via on demand.
Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith and public policy for several media, including The Stream. His articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion & Politics, Faithfully Magazine, Religion News Service and Providence Magazine. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at the Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, DC area with their two children.