A profile in puppetry
Street Gang goes behind the scenes on iconic kids’ show Sesame Street
“Sunny days, sweeping those clouds away, on my way, to where the air is sweet!” If you’ve started singing the next two lines of this familiar ditty already, then you probably grew up in the 1970s or ’80s, watching Sesame Street on PBS (or on CBC if you grew up in Canada like me).
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (available on Amazon Prime and other streaming services) chronicles the fascinating early years of the influential and sometimes controversial kids’ show.
Alarmed at low literacy rates among inner city children who were watching dozens of hours of television weekly, producer Joan Ganz Cooney began discussions with donors and the federal government to use TV for educational good. The newly formed Children’s Television Workshop received combined grants of $8 million and began a new series that would use Madison Avenue techniques to “sell” youngsters on reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Street Gang director Marilyn Agrelo moves on to the artists, writers, and actors whose combined talents made the early years of Sesame Street funny, entertaining, and popular, with a smattering of learning along the way. Jon Stone wrote scripts, directed episodes, and composed some of the music. His adult daughters recall that their dad had three children in his life—the two of them, and the show into which he poured so much energy and passion.
Stone assembled a cast of actors that reflected America’s diversity with stories representing whites, blacks, and Hispanics. As a kid, I wondered why one of the main human characters, Gordon (originally played by Matt Robinson), looked different in later years. It turns out that Robinson (who also voiced the puppet Roosevelt Franklin) didn’t think the show was pushing hard enough to give positive messages for black children, so he resigned. Roscoe Orman played the role from 1974 to 2017.
The secret sauce began to simmer when puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz brought zany energy and ad-libbing to characters that became part of so many kids’ routines: Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster, Kermit the Frog, and Grover. The documentary shows the physical contortions they endured to make the magic happen: Henson, Oz, and others operated the puppets above their heads while watching the characters on monitors.
The Children’s Television Workshop pushed more and more liberal messages in later years, but this documentary about its early history is delightful and filled with lesser-known stories about the actors and characters: The creators of Sesame Street loved their work, their art, and the children with whom they interacted. A smattering of foul language and mild adult humor makes the documentary (rated PG) less suitable for younger children.
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