How did the phenomenon known as “Sesame Street” come to be? Well, according to the charming and informative documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” it started in 1969 at the New York branch of the Public Broadcasting Service, where Joan Ganz Cooney, inspired by psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, wondered if a TV show to educate children was possible. A feasibility study said it was.
Cooney then approached a New York TV director named Jon Stone, who brought in an artist named Jim Henson, who had created puppets known as Muppets. Stone also decided to create a set that resembled a New York City neighborhood and populated it with people from the same place.
The result was dubbed “Sesame Street.” It was the height of the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. The country was terribly divided. In the New York City area, the new show played on UHF at first and then Channel 13 and became a smash hit. Soon, it was airing on PBS stations all across the country, except in Mississippi.
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo (“Mad Hot Ballroom”), “Street Gang: How We got to Sesame Street” is a fascinating journey back to the birthplace of the beloved cultural icon. We are reintroduced to such artists as Carroll Spinney (Big Bird) and Frank Oz (Bert), whose collaboration with Jim Henson (Ernie) was legendary and who would go on to voice Yoda in the “Star Wars” films.
Sonia Manzano (Maria), Emilio Delgado and Matt Robinson (Gordon) had prominent on-camera roles in the groundbreaking show. The prolific Joe Raposo, creator of “It’s Not Easy Being Green (Kermit’s Song),” and Christopher Cerf provided the iconic “Sesame Street” music.
Agrelo has amassed reams of archival footage, showing us the scenes, mostly joyful and fun, behind the cameras. She also shows surviving members of the original cast and their children, including Holly Robinson Peete. Matt Robinson, the original Gordon, wanted to voice a Muppet character, who was identifiably black. The idea was rejected. Disappointed, Robinson left the show (his replacement was Roscoe Orman).
We also meet such characters as Wanda the Witch, cameraman Frank Biondo and Will Lee, who played shopkeeper Mr. Hooper. When Lee died, the writers decided to make Mr. Hooper die as well to teach children what it meant when someone’s life ends. When the child-like Big Bird wrestles with the idea that his friend Mr. Hooper is “never coming back,” it will probably bring a tear to your eye.
We see such guests as Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Paul Simon, Jesse Jackson, Johnny Cash and yes, Cab Calloway. Of course, we also meet Oscar, Bert, Ernie, Kermit, Big Bird and the other Muppets. In this moment in our collective miasma, it’s easy to wonder not only how we got to “Sesame Street” but if we’ll ever get there again.