If you are starting to get a sense there’s a renaissance of sorts for Sesame Street, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
After all, the past few years have given rise to such devoted docs as I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story as well as the award-winning Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.
Capitalizing on the nostalgia, film producers Ellen Scherer Crafts and Trevor Crafts are now taking a broader look at the Children’s Television Workshop and its early years with Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street.
“I’m a Sesame Street kid like so many generations of people,” admits Trevor Crafts of the 52-year old show he rediscovered after reading author Michael Davis’ bestselling book — also titled Street Gang.
“The thing that struck me about Michael’s book was that there was just so much I didn’t know about Sesame Street,” adds Trevor. “Just the amount of people that put the show together, the struggle that they went through to get the show running and the intentionality of doing something that was new and different, and I thought maybe this is a good documentary!”
Going back to the origin of the groundbreaking kids’ show, the Crafts hired Mad Hot Ballroom director Marilyn Agrelo to track down show founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, former cast members as well as several others to recount the journey of, as the title states, how we got to Sesame Street.
In today’s climate, it’s easy to forget that Sesame Street began using advertising techniques to try to “sell the alphabet to preschool children” at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Surprisingly more clinical than elemental, the show’s origin was basically a government-funded experiment to help educate underrepresented kids from the ghetto.
“Coming out of the Civil Rights Movement with people that were motivated to make a change for the better for children of colour who didn’t have equal access to education, that just expanded my understanding (of the show),” recalls Ellen Scherer Crafts. “How fortunate we are that this incredible group of rebels found each other (and) formed this gang that was creative and wonderful, purposeful, intentional and so full of joy to make something that they thought would make the world better for children.”
Of course among that gang was famous Muppet-creator Jim Henson and iconic puppeteer Frank Oz. One of the joys of Street Gang is witnessing the pair improvise Bert and Ernie outtakes or simply riff a scene between Grover and Kermit the Frog.
Another eye-opening aspect of the film recalls the series’ first Black Muppet character, Roosevelt Franklin. Created by Matt Robinson (the show’s first Gordon character), Franklin only lasted for a few years in the early 1970s. Designed to be inclusive, it was shockingly Black parents who ultimately rejected the character.
“I think there was just a desire to not highlight differences to that level (even) while the show’s intention was to connect with an audience that they very much wanted to reach,” says Ellen. “(But) I think that’s one of the strengths of the show is that they were always researching, always trying to listen to communities.”
She points out that Sesame Street continues to work in that workshop-style, noting they have continually added more ethnic characters, hired more female puppeteers and most recently, created a Black father-and-son Muppet duo to teach kids about race.
“They are continuing to be incredibly relevant for our children, to continue these important conversations and to show representation and racial diversity because we have a lot of work to do still,” says Ellen, noting the doc reveals the impact of the long-running show has been extensive.
“Some of the best kinds of documentaries are not just what they obviously are about as a subject matter but they also look at a lot of different types of visions within one structure,” adds Trevor of Street Gang. “(So) it’s about us as a culture, it’s about how we try to change things for the better and how we move mountains when it’s done the right way.”
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is available on VOD/digital.