As someone who was part of the very earliest wave of Sesame Street‘s core audience, part of the appeal of the documentary Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is certainly nostalgia. The documentary is full of classic clips from the earliest days of the iconic educational television series and one can easily be forgiven for smiles of recognition at psychedelic cartoons that taught us to count to twelve or short slapstick live action pieces featuring a pastry chef, a set of stairs and “One! Wedding! Cake!”
But the real thrust of the story being presented here is how a group of maverick educators and television creators came together to create one of the most influential children’s television programs of all time – Sesame Street. The show was the initial brain child of Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney who saw children responded to advertising that was aimed at adults, humming jingles and remembering ad slogans. Realizing that it might be possible to take those advertising techniques, she teamed with television director John Stone to start developing a new type of television series for pre-school children that would not only entertain, but educate them. The addition of puppeteer Jim Henson and his troupe of characters and performers known as the Muppets was the final foundational building block that the show’s success would be built on.
Sesame Street was not without its birth pangs however. Some were innocuous, such as the original design and characterization for Big Bard. The latter was fixed by muppeteer Carol Spiney, who suggested making the character more child-like, making him a character that the children watching could relate to. A redesign of Big Bird’s look to reflect that change in demeanor followed, and history was made.
But some of the show’s earlier issues were a little darker. When the show was offered to Mississippi Educational Television, the choice was made locally not to air it there. Even though segregation had been officially abolished fifteen years earlier, it seems clear that the reason behind their refusal was the show’s integrated cast, especially in the news clip where the spokesman for Mississippi Educational Television tries his best not to state that while being interviewed by a local newsman. (A local commercial station would step in and begin airing the series and when it proved its popularity in the ratings, Mississippi Educational Television finally took over.)
Now, I have to admit that even though I have been a lifelong Muppet fan, I have always had something of a small aversion to behind-the-scenes peeks at Henson and associates performing the characters. Most likely, it is just because I want to preserve the magic of the characters. But there is still something both heartwarming and interesting seeing Henson and fellow Muppeteers, most notably his closest collaborator Frank Oz, working to bring the show and such classic characters like Burt and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover and of course Kermit the Frog to life.
One early criticism leveled at Sesame Street was that it’s fast pace and production style could conceivably over-stimulate its youthful audience. But were these kids over stimulated? If there is an argument to be made – and I suppose it is fair to point out that that first generation of Sesame Street viewers did go on a decade or so later to become accused of being overstimulated by music videos as part of the first MTV generation – director Marilyn Agrelo is not interested in making it. If anything, the film approaches its subject’s legacy somewhat modestly. Some of the participants recognize that their work has had a profound impact around the world, but it isn’t something that they crow about. It seems more that they were just happy to have had the opportunity to have done the work and that it touched others lives.