Birthday documentary review: Street Gang – How We Got to Sesame Street

(courtesy IMP Awards)

When you’re a kid, and you really love something, you assume without thinking about it (because kids are nothing if not instinctive) that it’s always been in existence.

After all, when you switch on the TV and a program you love is always on when it’s supposed to be, you accept that it’s simply a part of the fabric of your life; this was especially true of Sesame Street, the groundbreaking children’s educational show that began broadcasting in 1969, and which, for one young boy in the very early 1970s, newly-arrived home from overseas, was integral to the way he learnt numbers, letters, being part of a group and even what TV, something largely foreign to him at the time, could do to make your life a better place.

If that’s what Sesame Street meant to one young boy (spoiler alert: this reviewer), then mission accomplished because if there’s one thing key figures in the story of the show – television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, Carnegie Foundation vice-president Lloyd Morrisett and Cooney’s boss at New York City educational television station WNDT, director and creative guiding hand Jon Stone, Lewis Freedman (thanks to Wikipedia for those titles), composer Joe Raposo who gifted us with many of the show’s iconic songs and, of course, Jim Henson who gave us Bert & Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and this reviewer’s eternal favourite, Grover – set out to do it was to educate people while entertaining them, and their parents.

This middle class Aussie kid though wasn’t necessarily the target audience.

Set in a New York on a street that looked like a familiar neighbourhood to many American children, Sesame Street was aimed squarely at inner city kids, an audience who traditionally hadn’t been served well by highly-commercial children’s TV programming which, quite apart from its high ad load, was a reflection of comfy white middle suburbia where kids were already well served by a robust and more than adequately funded educational system.

Driven by a need to bring together clever writing with educational goals that understood, as Ganz Cooney observes at one point, that education equals power and access, the team who have birth to Sesame Street had their hearts very much in the right place, as Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street illustrates in its taut, wholly informative and often affecting 107-minute running time.

What emerges again and again in this show that often doesn’t feel long enough – because who doesn’t want to spend more time with just about everyone on this landmark street? – is how passionate everyone was about making Sesame Street a place where learning and fun could come together in equal measure.

Listening to key people involve speak with eyes lit up passion is one of the things that makes Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street such arrestingly immersive and emotionally resonant viewing; this wasn’t just another TV program to these people, it was everything and they devoted themselves to it mind, body and soul.

It’s that wholehearted devotion to the cause, and a commitment to producing quality, curriculum-bolstered programming at every turn, that made Sesame Street such an influential program.

Never talking down to their audience, Sesame Street, with a cast of familiar adult faces like Gordon and Susan Robinson (Matthew Thomas Robinson Jr then Roscoe Orman and Loretta Long respectively), Luis and Maria (Emil Delgado and Sonia Manzano respectively), and Bob (Bob McGrath), to name just some of the familiar faces, reinvented children’s television by treating entertaining children as a holy mission of sorts, all too aware what was fun now would be vital to life prospects later on.

One important thing that emerges in this near-perfect documentary is that from the beginning, everyone involved took its production super seriously.

They had fun, yes, and it’s clear they became a close family of sorts – watching the warm, sparkling friendship between Ganz Cooney and Jim Henson, who sadly died in 1990, is one of Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street many’s great pleasures – but every last facet of the show was bolstered by research and by understanding how kids saw the world.

After all, if you were going to simultaneously educate and entertain kids, you had to know what they like and why, and so Sesame Street did just that, bringing cutting-edge educational insights and and child psychology into creating a program that didn’t seek to exploit kids for commercial gain but rather make their lives better places with more opportunities to become the special people they could be.

That mission was helped immeasurably by characters like Big Bird and Grover who, after testing showed kids loved the Muppets but were bored by the street scenes, became part and parcel of the life of the neighbourhood, a master stroke that ensured they watched the program but which also gave the show, which was racially integrated in a way very few programs were at the time (which led to temporary banning in some parts of the USA), a cultural relevancy that helped kids to see that the world was far bigger and more harmonious than their small slice of it might suggest.

Sesame Street was also smart and sensitive enough to deal with hard issues like death too, reasoning that they had committed to always being honest to their young audience and that should be observed, no matter the subject matter, and so when Will Lee, who played Mr Hooper (whose name Big Bird, a small child himself who was the kids’ representative on the show, always got amusingly wrong) died in real life, he died on the show.

It was tremendously sad and hard to watch, and the tears, as Manzano observes, were real for a man they all loved and who felt like family, but it kept to the ethos of the show which was always to ensure that kids were treated as important, no matter what was being taught.

Inventive, imaginative, and downright parodically silly at times – the show hired proper comedy writers who, though they had to stick to an educational formula, could bust loose and have some fun too – Sesame Street is given a significant moment in the TV sun to shine in Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (based on the book by Michael Davis) which recognises what a cultural force this show is (bloopers and all; they are a delight as is the working relationship between the irreverent puppeteers) and was and how to generations of kids now, including one young boy in Australia decades ago, it meant the world as well making life as we knew it infinitely better, not just then but well into futures that became so much brighter because of the passion and commitment of those behind the show.

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