Movie Review: “Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street”

We may all come from different places and have different thoughts and feelings and points of view, but there are some things that feel more universal; there are some things that virtually everyone knows. Although I have not run a scientific experiment to test the hypothesis, I firmly believe that if you put 50 people raised in the United States in a room (masked and socially distanced, naturally), and said, “Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away,” at least one person amongst those 50 would take up the next line of the song and no fewer than 40 would have a smile on their face or a warm glow in their heart.

This knowledge we all have about how to get to Sesame Street, and the warmth we feel remembering our time there, is a testament to the work of Joan Ganz Cooney, Lloyd Morrisett, Jon Stone, and so many more people individuals who put a television show on the air more than 50 years ago and made it into something that has stayed relevant since. The new documentary that looks at the history of “Sesame Street” and the people who developed and produced it, “Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street” (based on the book by Michael Davis) is in theaters this weekend and on demand May 7th and is full of both nostalgia and some eye opening moments.

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo, there may not be anything particularly groundbreaking about the movie—there are in fact moments when it feels overly sanitized—but it is entirely fascinating. Starting with, as one might expect, the origins of the series and how and why it stood out from other shows of the era in which it began, Agrelo offers up a plethora of interviews, old and new, to tell the tale. It is, essentially, the story of how a television producer, Cooney, teamed up with a psychologist, Morrissett, and brought in many others, including the man who went on to direct so many episodes of the show and was one of its first producers, Stone. It is the story of how they made something magical. “Street Gang” goes through Jim Henson coming aboard, some of the cast changes, and some of the losses the series suffered along the way.

Amazingly, in separate interviews, Cooney, Morrissett, and Stone, all kind of pass the buck on responsibility for making “Sesame Street” the force it became. Yes, they are happy to take some credit, but they are also thrilled to share it. It is the perfect embodiment of one of the many lessons “Sesame Street” has provided through the years. What’s more, it feels real – this setting aside of egos to focus on the collaboration that made the series work feels real.

As with the above truth, much of the movie will put a smile on one’s face. Two of the areas where “Street Gang” truly shines is in its discussion of how songs and the various characters (human and Muppet) were developed. It is in these moments that we see lofty goals set and (sometimes) achieved.

That said, not everything they did was universally loved and we learn some of that as well, including how one audience response led, at least in part, to the departure of the show’s first Gordon, Matt Robinson. This is clearly an important tale, its very inclusion shows as much, but it isn’t as tied into the larger history as it might be.

Robinson had his falling out with the show, at least partially due to the dismissal of a Muppet character he created, Roosevelt Franklin. Roosevelt, was a black Muppet and became the subject of a letter writing campaign that saw African Americans tell the producers that they were unhappy with the specifics of the portrayal including the way Roosevelt spoke and acted. Race is no small part of the history of “Sesame Street” as the show was specifically intended to be viewed by minorities in the city as way to help close the education gap. “Street Gang” tells us as much and tells us about Robinson’s leaving, but doesn’t quite link the two, and there is something disjointed in that. As much time and import as the story is given, it still feels like part of it is being glossed over.

This sense is only enhanced by the fact that, a cursory google search indicates that Robinson was succeeded by Hal Miller as Gordon. In turn, Miller was followed by Roscoe Orman, but one gets the impression watching “Street Gang” that Robinson fed almost directly to Orman. It is a missing piece of history.

This aside, one of the things the documentary regularly does do brilliantly is moving from one story to the next (far better in fact than I did in that transition). There is an incredible flow to the tales being told. It can be hard to figure out exactly where one ends and the next begins, it just happens.

Also crucial to the documentary, and one of the many elements in the series’ history we hear about, is the show’s discussion of death. We witness some truly powerful moments as they were covered on “Sesame Street” and in the real world when Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) and Jim Henson each passed away. It is difficult to imagine any viewer who had a relationship with the series when they were young not finding a tear in their eye during these moments.

More than anything else, what “Street Gang” does is offer up the reasons how and why “Sesame Street” became the show we all know, as well as providing the basics of some of the series’ early battles. We hear, for example, how “Sesame Street” was not shown for at time on public television in Mississippi and how an early idea for the series had the Muppets not exist on the Street itself but rather only in separate segments. While all the stories are fascinating, they are not all delivered equally. Using the just offered examples, the documentary does better looking at the latter than the former, and there is a again a sense of pulling punches in that the documentary does not definitively call what happened in Mississippi racist, it merely implies it.

Even if all the darker aspects of the history of “Sesame Street” are not explored as much as they might be, it is made clear that the show has been a multi-dimensional series, one that has pushed for a greater understanding of our world, from the start. “Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street” is too short and perhaps at times too varnished, but it is also incredibly engrossing.

photo credit: Screen Media Films

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