Prepare to be brought into the depths of nostalgia as the movie Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, part of the 2021 Hot Docs festival, takes you behind the curtain of Big Bird, Elmo, Kermit, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, Burt and Ernie, and more Muppets, to reveal secrets from one of the most popular television shows of all time.
Based on book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street” by Michael Davis, the documentary takes you through the first two decades of Sesame Street, including a number of fascinating interviews and some clips from the show.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street explains core aspects of the show, including how Caroll Spinney's approach to Big Bird was to play him like a child, even for tough episodes like managing the death of Mr. Hooper. This is all done in an effort to show how groundbreaking the show really was, while also addressing the challenges throughout the the show's initial years.
Director Marilyn Agrelo has actually directed segments for Sesame Street for a few years, including a music video with Ernie. It was a photo she posted on Facebook from that project that led producers Trevor Crafts and Ellen Scherer Crafts to reach out to Agrelo to join the project.
"I always felt that this would be a very fun film to do because it lives in everyone's heart, and everyone loves Sesame Street," Agrelo told Yahoo Canada.
"But when I started to research it and I came to the realization that Sesame Street came out of the civil rights movement, that Sesame Street was actually an activist endeavour to change television, to reach inner city kids, to change the face of education and that the people behind it we're all motivated by that,...this is what really got me excited, because it gave it such depth and gave it this whole other dimension."
'If that's our worst sin I'm happy to be a sinner'
While many people grew up with Sesame Street, there's certainly a ton to learn from the film.
"I never really understood how much the subject of work race had to do with Sesame Street, it was almost completely 100 per cent the reason that Sesame Street came into being," Agrelo said.
"I always thought Sesame Street was just out there for the masses, for everyone, but no, it was really aimed specifically at Black inner city kids, which is why it came to be on a street that was fashioned after a neighbourhood in Harlem."
In 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney's goal was was to use television as a way to fill the education gap for underserved preschoolers, particularly after she noticed children were memorizing and regurgitating slogans from TV commercials. She was also initially told that the show wouldn't be taken seriously with a woman at the head of the project, in advance of becoming one of the most powerful women in television.
Many associate Jim Henson with Sesame Street, the puppeteer who launched the Muppets, but Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street spends a lot of time telling the story of Jon Stone, the show's principal writer and director until 1996.
Actor Holly Robinson Peete's father, Matt Robinson, was the original Gordon on the show, revealing in an interview in the documentary that she would occasionally get jealous seeing her father spending time with other little girls her age on the show.
Robinson ended up creating a Black muppet calls Roosevelt Franklin. In the documentary, his wife Dolores Robinson explains that he wanted to create the character because he was tired of pretending that everyone is blended together, in the sense that he wanted children of colour to be recognized as children of colour.
But Robinson Peete explains in the film that a lot of Black parents didn't like the character, leading to Robinson leaving the show and Roosevelt Franklin disappearing forever.
The film also follows the time when Sesame Street was actually banned by the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television because of its diverse case.
"If that's our worst sin I'm happy to be a sinner," Cooney says in the documentary.
While those are only some of the aspect of Sesame Street explored in the film, one thing that is very clear is that the creators, writers and really everyone who worked on the show believed in its message and threw their lives into its development. Particularly Stone, who felt a sense of responsibility for Sesame Street to maintain a high standard, while rarely getting credit for much of his work.
"Yes, we all grew up with Sesame Street but these are adults who had a mission, who sacrificed a lot of things and they stayed away from home for days on end to do this, they didn't see their kids, they took chances with their careers," Agrelo said.
It's the complex history that really makes this documentary engaging, while also taking you on a walk down memory lane.
"I love films that are about one thing on the surface but underneath, it's really about something much more complex," Agrelo said. "I feel that this story, and Sesame Street in particular, is very much that, it's a message to our society, it's a message to the kids and it's an intergenerational message."
"That really attracts me and I think that's the thing that keeps Sesame Street so present."