How We Got to Sesame Street: Highlights from the Haifa Film Festival

One of the highlights of the Haifa International Film Festival will be a festive screening of the new documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, on September 25, that will feature an online conversation with the film’s creators, as well as a free outdoor event for children and adults with actors and directors from Israel’s version of the series, Rehov Sumsum, with puppets and music.Director Marilyn Agrelo, producer Ellen Scherer Crafts from Street Gang, senior Sesame Street producer Benjamin Lehmann and Alona Abt, one of the founders of the Hop! children’s media group and a producer of Rehov Sumsum in Israel will participate in the online event.

The documentary is smart, funny, and entertaining. It tells the story of the smartest, most entertaining, and most entertaining series for young children. It’s also very moving as it tells the story of the serious mission behind Sesame Street. This was to erase educational inequality between black children and white children.

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The documentary, which is geared at adults, explores the perfect (and perfectly wonderful) storm of elements that came together to create the show. It is not a comprehensive documentary about the entire history of the show, which began running over 50 years ago and it does not get into certain controversies (the period it covers ends long before the scandal involving Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who performed as Elmo and left after he was accused of having sexual relationships with underage teenagers) and cannot fully cover all of the high points of the show’s music, the magic that many celebrities brought to it or the indescribable popularity of its Muppet characters, that led to hugely lucrative merchandising deals, which insured that the show will never run out of funds.

It does get into the why of the show. The show’s uniqueness and importance was revealed when Lloyd Morrisett, vice president of the Carnegie Foundation, and Joan Ganz Cooney began to brainstorm ideas for a show that would use Madison Avenue techniques in teaching urban children. In 1969, Carnegie provided funding for the creation of the show.

Sesame Street creator Joan Ganz Cooney poses with some of the cast during a 40th anniversary street naming celebration in New York (credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS)

It was an instant and huge success for Cooney and her collaborator, director/writer Jon Stone, whom the documentary presents as the unsung hero of the show, since Cooney, being the rare woman in television, got the lion’s share of the publicity. They collaborated with both comedy writers and educators to create a show that would appeal to their target audience.

STONE WAS a key player in the success of the show in many ways. Two stand out. He brought in Jim Henson, his friend and genius puppeteer, to help him. The other is that he realized that the show should be set in a city street to appeal more to urban children than all the other kiddie shows that were set in suburban areas or fantasy lands.

Cooney and Stone learned a lot from the children who hoped to watch the show. They did extensive test screenings which revealed that the Muppets couldn’t be in separate segments but had to live on the street. It was clear that the street was mixed racially and ethnically. Later, it was expanded to include special needs characters. Another lesson learned was the importance of death. Big Bird was devastated when Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper in the show, died.

Research revealed that children learn more from the show if they have an adult watching with them. That led to them making the show more satirical, and even more irreverent. They also made sure that gags meant for adults would be entertaining to children.

Much of the fun in the movie comes from hearing the creators reminisce about how they came up with and worked on the best loved characters, such as Oscar the Grouch (“We wanted to show that not everyone is nice,” said Stone), Big Bird and, of course, Ernie and Bert. Frank Oz, who had a career as a movie director after he left the show, played Bert to Henson’s Ernie and it was a wild and wonderful scene to be a part of.

Nick Raposo, the son of Joe Raposo, who composed much of the show’s iconic music (including “Sing,” which the Carpenters turned into a top 40 hit), recalled, “One thing that I will credit Joan Ganz Cooney with is she let these guys do what they could do. They had ideas and behaviors and concepts that were just off the wall and they were allowed to do it and that’s what people loved. They felt the lunacy on the screen, the contained madness.”

But the fun was in service of the higher ideal of making education accessible to all, which is what drove the creators to push themselves so hard (their children recall that they would often spend four days straight in the studio). Said Joe Raposo: “It was chaos but it was the chaos of people dedicated to a real ideal, believing that something could be done and having the will to do it and it was the most exciting period of our lives.”

Street Gang is a fascinating glimpse into one of the most innovative and imaginative shows of all time, but also one of the most meaningful. The creators not only educated people but also brought joy to all who watched the show.

Raposo said that the show brought joy to many people. “I remember Jim Henson and Frank Oz doing a puppet bit and everybody hysterical and Jim saying, ‘What are we teaching?’ and Jon Stone saying, ‘Happiness, that’s the ticket… ’”

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