New Sesame Street documentary looks back on more than 50 years of radical children’s shows born out of the civil rights era

It’s been over 30 years since Jim Henson departed for that grand Muppet workshop in the sky, but hardly a moment seems to pass without a reminder of his legacy: in the enduring appeal of his showbiz menagerie; in the creative charm cast by his peerless puppet; or in the memes of his iconic character – and alter ego – Kermit the Frog who delivers Internet punchlines every other day. It’s hard to think of another bearded American dreamer whose designs have had a more lasting impact on generations of Western children, except perhaps his former collaborator George Lucas.

Henson’s genius was integral to the success of the groundbreaking children’s series Sesame Street, but as the new documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street shows, he was part of a community of artists, writers and television creators who helped bring together the Immortal Kids program – which continues to air in some 140 countries around the world – in the late 1960s.

Sesame Street was an almost quintessential vision of the ’60s. Led by children’s television workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney, the show was galvanized by a progressive and racially integrated notion of society informed by activism. of the decade, and set out its mandate to reach inner-city children and minorities underrepresented by mainstream children’s programming. .

First airing in 1969, the show ran for 52 seasons and won more Emmys than any other – 97 in total.(Supplied: Universal)

Cooney and Jon Stone, the idealistic television producer who would become the show’s driving force, worked closely with child psychologists and educators to reach a generation of toddlers spending unprecedented hours parked outside the boob tube; the children watched the television, which could recite advertising jingles as if they were nursery rhymes.

Cooney and Stone believed that if they held the attention of this audience, they could also help them learn.

It was Henson who provided the magic spark. A beatnik to TV executives, Henson enjoyed late-night TV and publicity success with his antique Muppets, whose anarchic humor and counter-cultural daring – encouraged by the talents of his frequent felt partner, Frank Oz – imbued Sesame Street with a quirky sensibility the kids couldn’t resist.

Henson had no intention of making children’s television – among other things, he had dabbled in experimental shorts, such as 1965s time piece – but his knack for combining avant-garde sensibilities with imaginative humor and quirky monster mayhem proved perfectly in tune with children’s sense of boundless play.

Three white, bearded men with dark hair look at the camera smiling.  Two are holding puppets and all are wearing button up shirts
The show was commissioned in 1968 following a Carnegie Foundation study which found that children between the ages of 3 and 5 watched television 54.1 hours per week.(Supplied: Universal)

Debuting on the American network PBS in November 1969, the resulting show was something television had never seen: a show that was somehow deeply, intuitively educational but never condescending; one whose experimental tendencies, surreal animated interludes and barely contained madness spoke to children like a playground peer.

“It was chaos,” says longtime Sesame Street musical composer Joe Raposo at one point in the film, “but it was chaos dedicated to a true ideal.”

“Sesame Street is the greatest thing that has happened to television,” said filmmaker Orson Welles, a man who knew what was going on, while chatting with talk show host Dick Cavett.

Rewatching some of the series’ early clips from the movie, you’re again struck by the gonzo spirit of so much on screen – the bouncing ball count countdown that seems to come from a waking hallucination, the maniacal slapstick of Henson’s Muppets, James Earl Jones solemnly intoning the alphabet like a black monk. It sounds less like a children’s program and more like a sibling to its Anglophile contemporary, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (No wonder American college kids are fans of both.)

An older black woman with short black hair and a beaming smile, wears a purple and green shirt and sits at home with bookshelves.
“‘Sesame’ is a place where kids come to understand complicated things in a safe and loving way,” producer Ellen Scherer Crafts told the NY Post.(Supplied: Universal)

Sesame Street’s existence is even more miraculous when you consider the mud that television continues to shovel onto child audiences. In an early pitch reel for the program that parodies this kind of thinking, one of the characters jokingly suggests that – since the show is for kids and kids are stupid – it should be called “Hey, Stupid! “, a title that could also be the raison d’être of so many lesser children’s shows.

Director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary is based on TV critic Michael Davis’ 2008 book of the same name, and while it’s not an adventurous film, it manages to bring those who were there in the beginning together. – alongside some thoughtful archives. footage – to keep the story focused on the show’s core creative engine.

As in Davis’s book – and unlike the recent star-studded love-in Sesame Street: 50 years of good days – Street Gang focuses on the show’s sociological genesis and the formative era of the 1970s and early 1980s, situating the development of Sesame Street as an outgrowth of 1960s activism and examining how much c It was a radical experiment in merging education and entertainment at the time.

A scruffy green puppet monster with big eyes and a brown single eyebrow sits next to a white-bearded man in a checkered shirt.
Puppeteer Caroll Spinney (pictured) rose to fame for playing Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird.(Supplied: Universal)

Sesame Street was unique, and not just in the United States, where its vision of a racially integrated way of life caused pearl clashes in some southern states; Around the world, outer suburban kids suddenly had a window into New York’s downtown neighborhoods, not to mention an unbeatable list of guest musical stars (the list is endless, but the documentary alone offers glimpses of Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Paul Simon playing with the Muppets on the block).

Yet, as Street Gang notes, the show’s take on post-racial harmony wasn’t without a hitch. When black radical performer Matt Robinson, the actor who played Sesame Street patriarch Gordon, introduced the talking puppet on Roosevelt Franklin Street as a way to give black children a sense of their distinctive identity, parents worried wrote decrying the character as reinforcing racial stereotypes. A frustrated Robinson would eventually leave the show.

At the same time, Joe Raposo’s account of writing the classic Kermit lament It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green – a heartfelt ballad for the dispossessed that was widely seen as a racial analogy – is dramatically moving, as is Carroll Spinney’s recollection of his interpretative duality as both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and writer Norman Stiles’ story about the farewell episode of Mr. Hooper, who dared s attack about death.

Three white men hold colorful puppets above their heads on a television set as a cameraman films in the foreground.
“[Sesame] continues to be the experience of children’s television, which is rare,” producer Trevor Crafts told the NY Post.(Supplied: Universal)

While Henson is generously represented via archival footage (Big Bird’s performance of It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green at his funeral in 1990 always brings down the house), it’s a shame the doc doesn’t have access to Frank Oz, the Bert to Henson’s Ernie, and such a pivotal figure in the show as any. (Oz was interviewed for Davis’s book, though perhaps — after wisely avoiding ill-conceived The Muppets movie reboots — he just decided he needed a well-deserved rest.)

In one of Street Gang’s best moments, a handful of non-actor kids playfully interact with Oz’s Grover and Henson’s Kermit as if they were — as they indeed are — real. Watching these kids riff and walk away with their hushed companions like they’re best friends even thawed that frozen heart – a reminder of the power of Sesame Street and the inimitable gifts of Henson (and Oz).

As Street Gang points out, the show was a place where all ages, races, and monsters could peacefully co-exist; where a guest star Reverend Jesse Jackson could lead a group of kids in a power chant of “I may be young, but I am somebody”. If that sounds fanciful, even naive, 50 years later, then it’s a vision worth preserving.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is streaming now.

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About Monty S. Maynard

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