Street Gang for kids

B+ show business documentary
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

I was born too early to experience Sesame Street as a child, but I enjoyed the show with my son in the late 1980s and early 1990s. So, I was delighted to watch this documentary about the show.

Marilyn Agrelo’s Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a joy to watch. It tells you how the show came to be, from the original concept – giving inner-city, pre-school children a lap up before kindergarten – through testing, the coming of the Muppets, and all the way to Jim Henson’s far-too-early death in 1990. Of course, rural and suburban children watched it, too.

When I watched the show with my young son so long ago, I realized that the fictitious Sesame Street neighborhood was a fantasy urban utopia, clearly based on Manhattan. Kids of all colors could play on the street, with many friendly and responsible adults to help them – along with loveable monsters. Maybe that’s why my son eventually moved to New York.

Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney got the idea for Sesame Street in the late 1960s. Writer and director Jon Stone helped creating such characters as Big Bird and Cookie Monster. A lot of testing went into the format. For instance, the original concept had scenes with people and scenes with Muppets. But when studies showed that children paid more attention to Muppets than people, characters of flesh and blood soon shared the screen with characters of felt.

Another discovery showed that children retain what they learned when their parents were watching, too. And so came such adult-targeted sketches as Monsterpiece Theatre (hosted by Allister Cookie, of course).

The documentary suggests that there were no good children’s TV shows before Sesame Street. That’s not true. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood
preceded the Street by years (this documentary quickly mentions Mr. Rogers’ once).

The documentary always tried to teach while entertaining. For instance, when actor Will Lee died (he played Mr. Hooper), the writers and producers decided to make this a teaching moment. The fictitious Hooper died with the actor that played him, and millions of children got their first experience with mortality. The adult, human characters explained to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper will never come back.

And then, of course, there are some wonderful musical clips starring Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Buffy Saint Marie and other big names. In fact, Paul Simon performs over the documentary’s closing credits (making them worth watching). Outtakes show us how the Muppets worked. Several of the people who created the show are still alive, allowing for interesting interviews.

Today, Sesame Street episodes are half as long as they used to be. They use more animation and less Muppets. The Street now looks upscale. Episodes play first on HBO, so the wealthier kids get to watch them first. I can understand why the documentary ignores the modern Sesame Street. Who wants a sad ending?

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street opens Friday and the Embarcadero Center, the Shattuck, and the Rafael.