Sunny days emerge inside this charming doc about the legendary PBS Kids program.
The new documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is the best one to focus on children’s entertainment since “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” Both these movies are about the joys and sadnesses of their conceptions and impacts on children of all ages, as well as the adults influenced by them.
The long-running educational puppet show “Sesame Street,” first aired in 1969, was created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but credit must also go to the late Jon Stone for developing its world and tone. He brought Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, and Big Bird, among other characters, to fruition, and he was praised for being one of the best writers for children’s television. He wanted to make the neighborhood look authentic and real, and they still hold our attention spans today. And this doc reveals to us the depression he was suffering from, and how he wanted things to go his way.
The legendary Jim Henson was invited by the writers (under the label Children’s Television Workshop) to use his talents to bring these Muppets to life, and for those of you tykes who are learning about them, Kermit the frog came from the show. My buddy wishes Fozzy or Miss Piggy did a guest appearance on the show, but we’ll talk about that another time.
Both Henson and Frank Oz worked together well on the set, as they performed Bert and Ernie, even if they both come from different worlds. They also pondered on how it would turn out if they got a female puppeteer, one of whom happens to be Fran Brill.
And the late Matt Robinson was the first actor to portray Gordon Robinson on the show, and was among the writers. Being considered a “black Johnny Carson,” this was an example on how the show was beginning to provide diversity. By the way, he also played and created the first African-American puppet Roosevelt Franklin, because he wanted children of color to be recognized back in the days. Although the parents of those children were less than enthusiastic about him, so Roosevelt went off the show.
Like “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” the show took risks by teaching kids the truth about their realities-racism and death-without being too mature. They kept those themes on a steady tone, and gave them important messages about life. I haven’t seen all the “Sesame Street” segments, but I have caught one some valuable lessons, like when Mr. Hooper passed away (as did his actor Will Lee), and when they introduced us to the first autistic character on the show-Julia.
“Street Gang” reminds fans about how it teaches kids about the harsh realities without being too extreme, how the late Carroll Spinney portrayed Big Bird and changed him from a goofball to a giant with a personality, and how it resonates with the viewers and creators. It has a strong sense of humor and emotional truth inside that keeps the older crowd in check. And be advised that one of the interviewees-the cameraman Frank Biondo-says: “Who’s gonna watch this sh*t,” when Big Bird’s early look was unattractive, and Grover says: “Open the damn door” during the show’s bloopers, so this movie is more for older kids and adults than for the really little kids. Let them watch the show, while you examine the making of that.
Just like the show, this doc provides some important messages and strong insights, and I still find myself in tears every time I see the segment when Big Bird learns about Mr. Hooper being dead (“when people dies, they don’t come back”). And like most shows, it’s one with characters, who can never be erased from memories, and live on for generations.
Now Playing in Select Theaters and Streaming On Demand