I can tell you how to get to Sesame Street. Nearly twenty years ago, I was there, standing on the stoop of Mr. Hooper’s store, watching on in awe as Elmo and Grover chatted excitedly. Beneath them were the outstretched arms of Kevin Clash and Frank Oz, who had been an idol of mine since I was no taller than Kermit. It was the summer I interned in Sesame Street’s office and so was granted a behind-the-scenes look of one of the most defining children’s television shows of all time. My job was not a glamorous one. I organized files, ran errands, and ordered lunches most days. But sometimes I got to answer viewer mail. Naturally, I did so in character, be it Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie, or The Count. Then, there was the day I got to go on set, which I still count as one of the greatest days of my entire life. Now, fans young and old have a chance to experience a bit of the thrill I had that summer with Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street.
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo, this in-depth documentary goes beyond the Jim Henson of it all to explore the true roots of Sesame Street. Credit is given to the activists, TV producers, and big thinkers who dreamed that television might be a tool to educate inner-city kids who society was letting fall through the cracks. Groundbreaking producer Joan Ganz Cooney ushers us back to the early brainstorming, while archival footage of seminal director Jon Stone lays the groundwork on which Henson and his Muppets would dance.
Nostalgia may have softened your memory of this kids’ show; Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is here to remind you how revolutionary and boldly political it was from the start. Sesame Street boasted an inclusive cast, who showcased and literally sang about their different cultures. Alongside segments on counting and a Beatles parody that got them sued, the show featured segments that normalized breastfeeding, spoke about race, and discussed death.
Of course, Henson is honored in the doc. Much attention is paid to his spirit, his imagination, and his collaboration. However, the broader message is about how Sesame Street was never just one man’s vision. It was bigger, more complicated, and more challenging because it was made by a gang of educators, artists, activists, and hippies who wanted to make puppets cool.
The doc offers a slew of interviews from the show’s makers, former stars (Sonia Manzano, Emilio Delgado, Fran Brill, Roscoe Orman), and in some cases their grown children (including Holly Robinson Peete, who is the daughter of Gordan #2, Matt Robinson). Classic clips from the educational series illustrate their recollections and tug at our heartstrings. Resurrected interviews sweep us back to Sesame Street’s early days in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Plus, behind-the-scenes footage demystifies the magic of the Muppets and reveals a more mischievous—but less kid-friendly side—to the Muppeteers, who rib each other in character in between takes.
It’s these last bits that took me back to the sunny day I spent inside on the street itself. Like the children captured on camera, I could see the men beneath the Muppets, but the playful monsters still felt real. I was feet away from Grover, the first Muppet who ever won my heart. I was a stone’s throw from Big Bird’s nest. I was in the doorway of Mr. Hooper’s store. When no one was looking my way, I knelt down to touch the sidewalk beneath my sneakers. I was pinching myself to see if this was a dream. The cameras and the crews, the joshing between Clash and Oz. I was on Sesame Street. It was real.
Being a grown-up didn’t spoil the magic, it only enhanced it. Likewise, the doc makes it fascinating to see the battles that producers had to fight to convince anyone that children would watch TV and could learn from it. Beer commercial jingles proved an unexpected point of evidence. From there, they built on the brand Henson was honing in late-night comedy sketches. They weathered the storms of controversy and naysaying. They moved from a janky early Big Bird to the lovable icon of childhood innocence that still inspires empathy and imagination.
If you cried during the Mr. Rogers doc, have tissues at the ready for Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street. It’s not just the nostalgia that might make you tear up. A segment about the death of Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) had me openly weeping. Then, any talk of Henson seems tinged with a storm cloud until they get to his funeral, where Big Bird sang in memorial. In these moments, the loss we feel is not just of these warm men who entertained and embraced us from afar. It’s also the loss of childhood so far behind our rearview mirror, a time before we—like Big Bird—didn’t know how mean the world could be, and how hard loss can hit.
If you don’t carry a deep affection for the Muppets, Henson, or Sesame Street, I’m not sure how engaging Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street will be. Favoring poised talking head interviews and vintage clips, Agrelo’s approach is respectful but rather dull, lacking the spirit and creativity of the show and creators it came to praise. Leaping about the timeline, there’s little sense of flow or progression. It feels more like a polite and prolonged panel discussion with an expertly arranged PowerPoint presentation. But, if you’re a sucker for all things Muppets—like I am—the lack of style isn’t a dealbreaker. Does it show Muppeteers in action? Does it display lesser-known fun facts? Does it have a feel-good message about the power of people coming together? Yes. Yes. Yes.
It’s not the rousing celebration I had hoped for; however, Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is well-researched, big-hearted, and high-minded, which makes it a pretty solid tribute.
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is now in theaters, coming to VOD on May 7.
Header Image Source: Screen Media