“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” – Very street smart [MOVIE REVIEW]

Ernie, Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jon Stone. Photo courtesy of Robert Fuhring/Sesame Workshop

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” directed by Marilyn Agrelo based on the book by Michael Davis entitled Street Gang, answers so many of those questions that you didn’t know you should have asked. Like, whose brilliant idea was this and how did they get it off the ground?

At a fateful dinner party, two people began a discussion on a topic they had both been thinking about. Joan Cooney, a producer, and Lloyd Morrisett, the Vice President of the Carnegie Institute, mused about how to use the medium of television to entertain and teach young children. Cooney was particularly interested in finding a way to interest minority preschoolers who were behind in school even before they started. Cooney produced a “white paper” for the Carnegie Foundation that attempted to address the following: What do children watch and what is good for them to watch? Out of this report came a grant proposal to create a new children’s program and establish what became known as the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW). With an initial $1,000,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, and additional funding from the Federal Government, as well as a few other non-profit organizations, they went to work. They hired educational professionals to establish a curriculum and then their television producer, someone Cooney always considered the backbone of the program.

Jon Stone, an established television writer, producer, and director was through with the medium. But then Cooney enticed him back with her description of television as a teaching tool for children, especially those from minority and disadvantaged families. He was intrigued enough to help establish the program and stay with it. It was Stone who brought in Jim Henson and his puppets. Up to then, Henson’s Muppets could be seen on late night television in comedy shorts and in hip commercials aimed at a college audience. Henson believed he could take his commercial technique to kids and began experimenting by studying children’s reactions to his material to see what worked and what didn’t.

Launched in late 1969, “Sesame Street” was an immediate hit. Set on an urban street set, Stone felt it was extremely important to have a very integrated cast of adult characters. Originally the Muppet segments were separate from the adult interactions. Child psychologists recommended that the animated and puppet action sequences that were used to teach numbers and letters would confuse children if the puppets were integrated with the human characters. But Cooney and her staff soon learned that it was the Muppets that drew the most attention, so they integrated them into the street. And thus were born Oscar, Kermit, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and the other members of the gang.

Introduced on PBS, they were at a disadvantage for viewership because of the relatively poor reach and reception of most PBS channels across the country. To advertise their show, the producers took it on the road in a series of live performances around the country.

The initial support was overwhelming. Early guest performers were Stevie Wonder singing his own Sesame Street number and James Earl Jones teaching the alphabet. Stone, Cooney, and Henson were regular guests on the national talk shows. “Sesame Street” was the talk of the town and that first year garnered a host of awards, winning three Emmys for Children’s Programming. (To date they have won 189 Emmys, more than any other television series.)

Of special note is their greatest failure that turned into their greatest success. Because of the highly integrated cast, the Mississippi state commission, which controlled the state’s Public Broadcasting System member station, refused a license for it to be carried. Local broadcast stations vowed to carry it if the state didn’t allow it. Succumbing to the pressure, the commission caved and “Sesame Street” was soon seen. So in addition to everything else, they were ground breakers in civil rights.

A major factor in the success of the show was the decision early on to write something parents would want to see with their children. This approach would increase viewership and, as educators pointed out, would enhance the learning experience of the targeted pre-school audience.

Carroll Spinney and Oscar The Grouch. Photo courtesy of Luke Geissbühler.

Carroll Spinney, the subject of an earlier documentary (“I Am Big Bird”), was both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, some would say two sides of the same coin – the optimist and the pessimist. Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the two primary puppeteers, were like a Vaudeville comedy team. A highlight of the film are the many outtakes of their work.

Stone also hired in-house composers. Christopher Cerf could riff on established melodies and turn them into songs for the characters, like “Barn in the USA”. Joe Raposo was a true star. As Stone pointed out, he could go to him with a specific demand for an upcoming scene and Raposo would be back, sometimes in 5 minutes, with a song and lyrics that fit the story perfectly. Although he wrote for Broadway, created the theme songs for “Three’s Company” and other productions, he is probably most famous for two of his (many) songs written for “Sesame Street” —“Sing” (later a hit for The Carpenters) and “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

Norman Stiles, head writer on the show for many years, raved about the almost unfettered creativity that existed. For many, it was the most exciting period of their lives. As he pointed out, it was extremely difficult to write for the show because the comedy had to follow the curriculum. The jokes had to teach something.

Significant also was the use of real children in the episodes. Stone insisted on non-actors. The spontaneity of the children in their interactions with both the adults and the Muppets was priceless and sincere. Even if they went off in an unexpected direction, the adult actors were trained to go there with them.

The film footage and interviews are insightful and incisive. The archival interviews seem to have been made for a film that was never produced. We are lucky that they were kept and used for this priceless documentary. There is joy in every scene.

Yes, the various criticisms of the approach at the beginning are discussed. But having lived the era, the criticism that “Sesame Street” pandered to a short attention span is sour grapes. Has anyone come up with anything even approaching the success or importance of this show that gave minority children their first glimpse of themselves on screen or made learning fun? You would be so lucky to have these people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood (riffing on the song written by Jeff Moss, another of the inhouse composers).

Cooney and Morrisett succeeded. They made television socially relevant for children. But be prepared. Your jaws will ache by the end from smiling.

Opening Friday April 23 at The Landmark and On Demand May 7.

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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