As a kid growing up, I remember getting excited when Joe Raposo’s piano-driven Sesame Street theme hit the airwaves signifying the opening of another episode. There I was singing along, Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away in anticipation of spending another hour with my television friends. Some human, Gordon, Maria, Mr. Hooper, and some Muppets, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and of course odd couple Ernie and Bert, all living in a diverse Harlem neighborhood that felt as real as my own. Little did I know, my afterschool highlight was actually another hour of school and I thought I was just being entertained.
STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET (2021)Directed by Marilyn Agrelo
In Marilyn Agrelo’s enjoyable documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street we are taken behind the scenes of the education children’s show that began in 1969 when a group of writers, artists, and educators came together with a vision to use the medium that so many children were addicted to, especially in the inner cities, and turn into an educational tool for young children to prepare them for elementary school. It became a cultural phenomenon that spread to over 140 countries while amassing 189 Emmy Awards and 11 Grammys.
Adapted from the New York Times bestseller, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis, the documentary opens in 1981 on the set of the show as we watch puppeteers produce a Muppet skit featuring Grover as a singing and dancing waiter in a Mexican restaurant. His handler, Frank Oz speaks into a microphone attached by a headband as Grover begins to list the four specials in Spanish, Numero Uno, Numero Dos, meanwhile Carol Spinney walks around reading a script while donning his Big Bird legs before putting on the rest of the costume, and wait, there’s Maria (played by Sonia Manzano) who runs The Fix-It shop with her husband Luis (Emilio Delgado) — the two characters got married on the show — we are behind the scenes watching the magic happen in a fictionalized neighborhood visited by 12 million American children per day according to the Nielsen ratings.
It just hit me, 50 years after first watching the children’s show, Maria and Luis were not really married. I’m devastated. Yet as an adult I should have known better. I just always imagined everyone on the show was real. These were not actors, Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) actually ran a grocery store. For most kids, the characters on Sesame Street were real people, and as in real life, people pass away. That’s why in 1982 when Will Lee passed away, so did Mr. Hooper.
As writer-director Jon Stone explained We decided Will would really like to have his death used in an educational way to help children deal with that and so on Thanksgiving Day 1983 the show dealt with the subject in a scene where Big Bird was reminded that Mr. Hooper had died.
Street Gang features interviews with Stone and television executive Joan Ganz Cooney who together with Lloyd Morrisett, brought their vision of an educational show into fruition that began with a goal of attracting inner-city youth who were falling behind in the school system. The diverse show highlighted kids of all races coming together to learn more than the alphabet and counting to 10, it dealt with real issues facing kids, plus there was an emphasis placed on creativity, music, and opening your heart to new experiences.
The key to the entire show was Jim Henson and his Muppets. They brought in the kids, while the writers lured the adults by incorporating parodies of songs by The Beatles and Masterpiece Theater. Research proved that children learned more when parents watched the show with them.
I’m proud to say that I remember most of the skits featured in the archived footage. Anyone who grew up watching the show either as a kid or with their children, can’t help but smile while watching Agrelo’s documentary which manages to cram a plethora of footage and interviews in the 1hr 47m running time.
Sesame Street continues today now in its sixth decade with new episodes premiering on HBO Max before airing on PBS stations. The show, a product of the Children’s Television Workshop is now seen in over 150 countries including the Middle East where the show is known as Ahlan Simsim (Welcome Sesame in Arabic). Street Gang is a heartwarming and fascinating look at an icon that became a great educational tool for children around the world.
(3 ½ stars)
Opens Friday, April 30 at the following theaters
Landmark Inwood Theatre (Dallas)
Angelika Film Center & Café (Dallas)
Cinergy Cinemas (Granbury)
Angelika Film Center & Café (Plano)
Cinemark Legacy and XD (Plano)