In 1970, cast members of Sesame Street, still in its first season on public television, traveled the country to gauge interest in the iconoclastic new show and its strange, magnetic array of puppet characters. The program was, at the time, an experiment, both as a madcap mosaic of creative talent, especially puppeteer Jim Henson and his cast of singularly endearing Muppets – and as a test of television’s potential as an educational medium, with eight expert-designed learning objectives measured in test groups of small children.
It was also wildly popular. Footage from the tour, collected in the new documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, could at first glance be mistaken for Woodstock. Performers, some black and some white (plus the 8ft tall Big Bird), hold court on an outdoor stage, mics in hand, revving up a crowd that screams with delight. The adoring fans are mostly children (accompanied by parents), who until Sesame Street viewed children’s programming, if they encountered it all, that talked down to them, or assumed the lowest denominator of entertainment. It’s easy to forget now, given the show’s 52-year ubiquity, that the original program was a shot in the dark – the first show aimed explicitly at childhood education, a combustible attempt to meld learning fundamentals with jingly bits and skits kids enjoyed to watch. The results, as evidenced by the tour, were electric, like “a swish of a hurricane coming in through a window”, Joan Ganz Cooney, the show’s co-creator, says in the film.
That hurricane became the longest-running, and arguably most recognizable children’s program in the country, with international co-productions assisted by the Sesame Workshop in 170 more. The show is now as much of a television institution as they come, and a deep well of nostalgia; the familiar voices and googly eyes of Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch, and the helium-aired vocals of its theme song – “sunny day, sweeping the clouds away” – are, for millions of American former children, a portal to a soup of early childhood memories soundtracked by the TV. But widespread fondness for the show, as well as its proliferation into a universe of toys, spin-offs, and other merchandise, can obscure the radicalness of its early mission and its roots in America’s civil rights movement.
As Street Gang, based on the 2008 book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis, succinctly and richly recalls, the show was designed by a felicitously timed collaboration of education researchers and committed creatives to address a double conundrum: the gaps of public education, especially in poor neighborhoods, and the proliferation of television sets. Sesame Street was “truly an experiment in teaching children using the new medium of television”, Ellen Crafts, a producer on Street Gang, told the Guardian. At a time when the oft-derided “boob tube” was reaching near-universality in American households, “these incredible people came together and were responding to a shared social consciousness, and were going to use television and creativity to ultimately try to change the world”.
Street Gang revisits the first 20 years of the program, which first aired in November 1969, through three of its most influential off-screen figures: Cooney, producer and director Jon Stone (who died at 64 in 1997; his daughters participate in the film), and Henson (who died at age 53, of bacterial pneumonia, in 1990, and whose widely attended funeral serves as the film’s endpoint). It was Cooney, a public affairs producer for New York’s Channel 13 in the 60s, who led the charge to use television as a tool in public, accessible education. “To me, it was clear that kids just adored the medium, so why not use it to teach them?” she recalls in the film. At the time of the show’s development in the late 60s, half of the nation’s school districts did not have kindergartens, according to Jill Lepore in a New Yorker survey of the show. But “more households have televisions than bathtubs, telephones, vacuum cleaners, toasters, or a regular daily newspaper”, wrote Cooney in a Carnegie-funded study called The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education which offered justification for Sesame’s eventual $8m in mostly public funding.
The educational mission, numerous cast and crew recall in the film, was borne directly from the civil rights movement, an aim marketed to and underscored by early cast members such as Matt Robinson, who previously hosted the talk show Opportunity in Philadelphia aimed at African American audiences, and Emilio Delgado, who played the Spanish-speaking Latino character Luis. The program explicitly sought to reach black children in the “inner city” (then, as now, a euphemism for black poverty), and messaged racial equality through a diverse cast set in a urban neighborhood styled around the “New York energy” of an Urban Coalition commercial filmed on the streets of Harlem. The show retained outreach coordinators to bring the program to connect to elementary schools, YMCA centers, daycares, and community associations as possible, to reach children, particularly black and Latino children, disproportionately left behind in underfunded schools.
The reactions were a mixed, complicated bag; the show responded to criticism over lack of representation for Latino characters with the hiring of Delgado and, later, Sonia Manzano as Maria. It also abruptly phased out a Muppet who spoke in black vernacular named Roosevelt Franklin, designed by Robinson (who left the show shortly thereafter in 1972) after complaints from both white and black viewers. Mississippi Educational Television, meanwhile, initially removed Sesame Street, with its cheerily diverse neighborhood, off the air until public pressure and the demand forced the network to reverse course.
The fights over representation, tokenism, and designing universal programming for children growing up differently under systemic racism feels, watching Street Gang, depressingly familiar. “Right now, in the spring of 2021 feels very similar to the summer of 1969, when they were on the verge of launching this show,” director Marilyn Agrelo told the Guardian. “We’re still talking about race, the Black Lives Matter movement, all these things, it’s almost like the consciousness is raising again, and the awareness is raising. And maybe we’ve moved the needle, but I don’t know how far we have moved it. It’s almost like we’ve lost our way a bit.”
The film also delves deeply into the personal, all-consuming work environment within the burgeoning institution’s walls, from the riffing musical genius of Joe Raposo (composer of the Kermit the Frog classic “It’s Not That East Being Green,” a subtle ode to feeling marginalized) and Christopher Cerf to the puppeteers who pulled off masterful feats of performance day in and out. “This was so experimental – they were throwing things against the wall to see if they would work,” said Agrelo. “It was a very loose time. These comic geniuses were allowed to just run with their creativity.”
Fifty-plus years on, Sesame Street remains a beloved cultural institution, even if its current arrangement differs from the egalitarian mission of 1968 to deliver a childhood educational program as a public good. In what Lepore called a “staggering betrayal of the spirit of the show’s founding philosophy”, Sesame Street’s 2019 fiftieth anniversary special aired on the paid subscription service HBO before public broadcasting; new episodes of the show now air on its streaming service HBO Max.
Street Gang reveals both the enduring resonance and infectious energy of that founding philosophy, one that expanded the imagination of entertainment’s scope, content and capacity for public service, especially in the face of under-valued, inequitable public education. “It’s a period that maybe people have forgotten a bit,” said Agrelo. “It gives us a lot of joy to show these magical little moments that were so daring and so out there.”
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is now out in US cinemas and will be released digitally on 7 May with a UK date to be announced