Big Bird is the Word — Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
If you didn’t watch Sesame Street going up, you either had a very deprived childhood, or you were born well before the 1960s. Just like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Muppet/Human hybrid show was a staple of the PBS lineup for pretty much all of us in our formative years. Whether your favorite was Big Bird, Grover, Elmo, or any of the others, pretty much every kid found something to latch onto with this quaint little public TV show that dedicated itself to teaching while entertaining.
But how did it all come about? Was there any drama behind the scenes? These are the types of questions that Marilyn Agrelo (director of the fantastic Mad Hot Ballroom) seeks to answer in the family-friendly documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. As one might expect given the subject matter, this isn’t exactly a hard-hitting exposé, and given that HBO — the current home for first-run Sesame Street episodes — is distributing the film, you know there can’t really be any controversy in the narrative. Still, the film does find a way to hint at a little bit of darkness in the show’s history, which allows for a somewhat layered approach to a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” production.
Now, this is nowhere near the quality level of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which is still waiting on the Oscar it very much deserved. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worthwhile to discover here, whether you’re a fan of the show or of TV history in general. When something like Sesame Street becomes so ubiquitous that you can’t imagine your own existence without it, it’s only natural to be curious as to the origins, and that’s where the film really delivers.
Most of the process is archival footage mixed with present-day interviews to chronicle the creation of not just the show, but the Children’s Television Workshop as a whole. It’s almost saccharine how much people like Jon Stone and Joan Ganz Cooney deflect praise from themselves and direct as much credit and kudos as possible to anyone else for the series’ success and longevity. But within that is a bit of insight, because the basic model was to create an educational program using commercial television techniques, particularly market testing. One particularly interesting anecdote details how originally the show intended to keep the human characters on the actual “street” separate from the Muppet segments, until test audiences showed that kids reacted so much more strongly to the puppetry and retained what they learned from them. This led, eventually, to the creation of Big Bird, a Muppet too large to be ignored, and who was fully integrated with the human cast.
The part that interested me the most was how the show committed itself from the beginning to portraying the inner city and reaching out to those kids who didn’t necessarily have the best educational or recreational opportunities. I grew up in the suburbs, and watched the show basically every day until I was at least eight years old, and this never occurred to me. But there it was, a New York-esque block, filled with diverse human characters of every race and creed, and empowered by guests like Stevie Wonder and Jesse Jackson. I guess I was lucky that this always seemed completely natural and normal to me, and I never questioned it. Seeing it now, I can’t believe the thought never crossed my mind, even as an adult. Now I can only imagine just how significant and necessary this show was for urban youth from a representative standpoint, and how crucial it was for suburban and rural kids to be exposed to this completely different sector of the population they wouldn’t have otherwise met.
But within that celebration of diversity, there were some speed bumps and dark moments, particularly as it pertained to Matt Robinson, the original Gordon. First off, I had no idea that he was Holly Robinson Peete’s father. That blew my damn mind. Second, I never knew that he created and voiced Roosevelt Franklin, the forgotten Muppet, introduced and then removed from the show essentially because he was “too black” and “talking jive.” I’ve seen the character in reruns, and I always found him funny and entertaining. It’s implied that the decision was at least the primary impetus for Robinson to leave the show.
And while it’s impossible to truly court controversy (Elmo is reduced to a cameo in a closing montage because there was no way this film was touching the Kevin Clash scandal, for example), that doesn’t mean the film was going to shy away from sadness. Jon Stone’s daughters talk about the producer’s longstanding battle with depression, we get the origin story for “Being Green,” and of course, they just had to tell the story behind the saddest moment in television history, the death of Mr. Hooper, Will Lee. I STILL cry when I watch that segment, and even though I knew it was coming, I couldn’t steel myself against the water works watching it here. I remember having this type of conversation with my mom after my great-grandfather died when I was six. Oddly, I didn’t understand it then, but when I saw it on Sesame Street, I not only got it, I was able to process it. I was able to cry for my lost relative because Big Bird and his friends were crying over Mr. Hooper. Because of them, I knew it was okay.
Where the film falls a little short is a slight lack of focus. A lot of stories are told about the original producers and cast, especially Stone, Cooney, Frank Oz, and Jim Henson with the Muppets. But what they don’t do is give a consistently proper epilogue for them. Matt Robinson died in 2002, but in this film, his story ends the moment he leaves the show. There’s no update on how the rest of his career went (he wrote for Sanford and Son and The Cosby Show before succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease), if he ever had involvement with the show again, or even the mention that the character of Gordon was eventually given Matt’s last name of Robinson as a tribute. Similarly, while Stone’s family discusses his depression, there’s no mention of the ALS that eventually took him in 1997, or the memorial bench he has in Central Park right next to Henson. We do get the sadness of Henson’s passing, and the famous scene of Big Bird singing “Being Green” at his funeral, but that’s it. My guess is that the filmmakers decided to end the story with Henson’s 1990 death, and therefore didn’t feel the need to go further forward just for more death, but given the threads they dangled, they should have resolved them.
In the end, the movie is very sweet, even if it doesn’t have the depth of its spiritual sibling about Fred Rogers. But that’s okay. The entire point of Sesame Street was to expose its audience to new environments and ways of thinking, to spark joy and imagination, and to educate while entertaining. That’s what this movie does. It tells you how the show originated, putting a new spin on something that’s always been a part of our lives. It makes us laugh, cry, and think about the possibilities of children’s programming. It teaches us a valuable history lesson while also being exceptionally fun to watch, especially the outtakes of Henson and Oz. What more could you really ask for, other than a hug from Oscar the Grouch, that is? But maybe that’s just me.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who is your favorite Muppet? Do you still laugh at the little girl who sings, “A-B-C-D-E-F-COOKIE MONSTER!”? Let me know!