Review: ‘Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,’ starring Sonia Monzano, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Rosie Perez, Steve Youngwood, Kay Wilson Stallings and Sherrie Westin

May 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ryan Dillon (Elmo puppeteer), Bradley Freeman Jr. (Wes Walker puppeteer) and Chris Thomas Hayes (Elijah Walker puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days”

Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.

Stacey Gordon (Julia puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.

In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.

But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.

Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”

David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”

One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”

Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”

As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.

Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”

Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.

“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.

However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.

The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.

Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.

Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”

Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.

According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.

Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.

Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.

All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.

And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”

Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”

Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”

LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.

Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”

In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”

And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.

The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.

Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.

Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.

The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”

Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.

There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.

“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”

Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.

Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Oscar the Grouch muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.

The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”

The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.

ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.

Review: ‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,’ starring Joan Ganz Cooney, Sonia Manzano, Caroll Spinney, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman and Lloyd Morrisett

May 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jon Stone in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Robert Fuhring/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

Culture Representation: The documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African American and Latinos) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and some TV stations initially refused to carry the show because of this racial diversity.

Culture Audience: “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the history of “Sesame Street” from 1969 to the early 1990s.

Caroll Spinney in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Luke Geissbühler/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”(directed by Marilyn Agrelo) is a documentary that is very much an “origin story” of “Sesame Street,” because it focuses so much on what the show was like in the 20th century. The movie gives a very good and comprehensive overview of the behind-the-scenes work and conflicts that went into making this groundbreaking children’s show, which has been televised in the U.S. on PBS since 1969. (“Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, began airing first-run episodes on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020.) What’s missing from the documentary is more current information about “Sesame Street,” including muppet characters that were introduced in the 21st century, and a contemporary context of why the show is still impactful today.

The ABC documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a more modern look at the “Sesame Street” phenomenon and how the show has adapted to a global audience and a more diverse culture. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is pure nostalgia for a bygone era when the Internet didn’t exist, and kids’ on-screen entertainment options at home were mainly to be found on television, until computers and video games became household items in the 1980s. “Street Gang” (which was produced in association with HBO Documentary Films) is inspired by Michael Davis’ 2008 non-fiction book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is so rooted in the past that it’s impossible not to notice a huge racial disparity between who appeared on camera for “Sesame Street” and who was running the show behind the scenes. In “Street Gang,” several of the original “Sesame Street” staffers say that the show was conceived to have a target audience of “inner city” African American children, with cast members who were African American, white and Hispanic. Later, a few Asian cast members were added.

But for the longest time, the only people making decisions about the show were white. The head writers and executive producers were white, almost all the puppeteers were white, and even the crew (camera operators, editors, etc.) were all white. It’s all there to see in the archival footage.

And it’s a sign of the times. When “Sesame Street” was launched in 1969, it was only five years after the Civil Right Acts went into law, and much of the United States was still unofficially racially segegrated. Therefore, the racially integrated cast for “Sesame Street” was very groundbreaking for a children’s show at the time.

The show’s setting also broke traditions in children’s television: It took place in an imaginary urban location called Sesame Street, where humans and a variety of puppets (also known as muppets) co-existed and learned from each other. Almost everyone agrees that the muppets were the real stars of the show.

“Sesame Street” puppeteers/writers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who both created and voiced several muppet characters (including best friends Ernie and Bert), get a lot of praise in the documentary for being the show’s driving creative force. Joan Ganz Cooney and Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Lloyd Morrisett are credited with coming up with the “Sesame Street” concept, with Ganz Cooney being largely responsible for putting together the show’s original team. And longtime “Sesame Street” director/writer Jon Stone (who died in 1997, at age 64) is singled out as having the most to do with keeping the show’s proverbial engine running for decades. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the “Street Gang” documentary.

Ganz Cooney explains in “Street Gang” why it was so important to her for “Sesame Street” to be racially integrated, at least on screen. She says that she was “heavily involved in the civil rights movement. I was not focused on children though.” That changed when Morrisett attended a dinner party hosted by Ganz Cooney in the late 1960s.

Morrisett remembers, “I was a psychologist at the Carnegie Foundation, and we were heavily influenced by the national dialogue in the [racial and economic] gap that was being created in schools. I wondered if there was a possibility for television to help children with school, but television was not very popular with the Carnegie staff. Academics weren’t interested in television.'”

At this fateful dinner party, Morrisett asked Ganz Gooney if television could be used as a way to educate children. The Carnegie Foundation then hired Ganz Cooney to do a feasibility study, where the bulk of the study’s original $8 million budget came from the U.S. federal government’s Office of Education. The study revealed that because children were spending more time watching TV than children did in the 1950s, and because more children than ever before had mothers working outside the home, television had become an electronic babysitter for a lot of kids.

And so, the idea of “Sesame Street” was born to be a show that would both entertain and educate pre-school-age children, in a racially integrated setting that had puppets with distinctive personalities. And, for the first time in American TV history, television writers and children’s educators would collaborate on episodes. At first, the idea was to have the humans in episode segments that were separate from the muppets. But test screenings shown to kids found that the kids responded best to the show when the humans interacted with the muppets.

Ganz Cooney says in “Street Gang” that even though she came up with the concept of “Sesame Street,” she experienced sexism from certain people who didn’t think a woman should oversee the show. However, Ganz Cooney says that because the entire show “was all in my head,” TV executives needed her to bring her vision to reality. They had no choice but to give her the top leadership role for “Sesame Street.”

One of the first people she recruited was Sharon Lerner, who had a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. Lerner was hired to be a research and curriculum coordinator for “Sesame Street.” Lerner says it was “unprecedented” to see educators and TV writers teaming up to help create a TV show for children. Other staffers from the early years of “Sesame Street” who are interviewed in the documentary include camera operator Frank Biondo and composer/lyricist/writer Christopher Cerf.

Based on the research studies, economically disadvantaged non-white children in urban areas, especially African American children, were getting inferior educations in public schools, compared to their white counterparts. And so, the idea was to target these “inner city” kids with a TV show that could help bridge the gap in their education. In an archival TV interview, Stone describes why an urban street was chosen as the “Sesame Street” setting: “To the 3-year-old cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street.”

Ganz Cooney admits that at first she wasn’t convinced that the show should take place on an urban street because “I didn’t know how it would play to suburban parents.” Translation: “I didn’t know if it would alienate white people who live in very white neighborhoods.” Jon Stone is given credit for the urban street idea, which turned out to be the right concept, because “Sesame Street” soon developed a reputation for not shying away from real-life topics that are often tough to discuss with kids, such as death, bullying and loneliness.

In “Street Gang,” Ganz Cooney says she enlisted the help of an African American consultant named Evelyn Davis to do outreach work in African American communities before “Sesame Street” was launched. Although having this inclusivity was certainly necessary and thoughtful, it’s clear that in those early “Sesame Street” years, the decision makers at “Sesame Street” didn’t want African American input to include hiring any African Americans in leadership positions for the show.

The closest that “Sesame Street” had to an African American creative executive in the show’s early years was Matt Robinson, who was the first actor to portray the character of Gordon, and he was a writer on the show. Robinson (who died in 2002, at the age of 65) came from a TV background of hosting, writing and producing. Before joining “Sesame Street,” he was the host of the Philadelphia talk shows “Opportunity in Philadelphia” and “Blackbook.” In addition to portraying Gordon on “Sesame Street,” he created and voiced the show’s first African American muppet character: Roosevelt Franklin, which was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975.

Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson’s widow, remembers her late husband’s contributions to “Sesame Street” as being part of the era when the Black Power movement was blossoming. “These were revolutionary times,” she says. Matt and Delores’ children Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson Jr. have different perspectives, since they were in “Sesame Street’s” target age group when their father was on the show.

Robinson Peete says, “Back then, if your dad was Gordon on ‘Sesame Street,’ that was a big deal.” Matt Robinson Jr. adds, “We looked at the TV, and it still wasn’t registering, like, how did he get in the [TV] box?” Dolores Robinson says of the Roosevelt Franklin character, “For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth.”

The documentary mentions that the Roosevelt Franklin character wasn’t well-received by many African American parents and educators, who felt that Roosevelt Franklin represented too much of the negative “ghetto” stereotype used by racist people who think black people are inferior. “Sesame Street” got enough complaints about Roosevelt Franklin that the character was removed from the show in 1975, without any explanation to the audience. Matt Robinson stopped doing the Gordon character in 1972, but had stayed on with the show behind the scenes as a writer and to voice the Roosevelt Franklin character. The removal of the Roosevelt Franklin character was apparently one of the last straws for Matt Robinson, and he exited “Sesame Street” in 1975.

After Matt Robinson stopped portraying the character of Gordon, Hal Miller stepped into the role from 1972 to 1974. Miller was replaced by Roscoe Orman in 1974, who has been doing the role of Gordon ever since. Orman says of “Sesame Street” writer/director Jon Stone’s contributions to the show: “Jon was the guy who really created the reality of it—the style, the vision of the show.”

Sonia Manzano, who portrayed the role of Maria on “Sesame Street,” comments on Stone: There were a lot of shows that really talked down to kids. And he didn’t really want that. Jon Stone thought that you could have a kids’ show where adults wouldn’t run for the door as soon as it’s on.” Manzano also recalls that Stone didn’t want her to wear too much makeup on the show, because he wanted Maria to look like a real person, “raw and unpolished.”

Manzano and Emilio Delgado (who portrayed Maria’s boyfriend-tuned-husband Luis) talk about the importance of Hispanic representation on “Sesame Street.” Delgado says that as an actor, “Sesame Street” was the first show in a long time where he wasn’t cast as a criminal or a menial servant, and he was grateful for doing a character that wasn’t about those stereotypes. He says of the Luis character: “He was a regular person! He was part of the neighborhood and he had a business.”

During the first season of “Sesame Street,” the cast members did a 1969 U.S. tour with the muppets and life-sized characters from the show. It was a big success. Bob McGrath, who portrayed the character of Bob on the show, remembers the tour this way: “It was a madhouse.” He gushes about his “Sesame Street” experience: “It was a dream come true to fall into this job.” Ganz Cooney comments on “Sesame Street’s” instant popularity: “I was stunned by the overwhelming support for what we were doing. It was if the world had been waiting for us.”

Well, not everyone was so welcoming. The documentary mentions that certain TV network executives in Mississippi were so outraged about “Sesame Street” having a racially integrated cast that these executives refused to televise the show on their local PBS affiliates for a brief period in 1970. In archival news footage, one of these TV executives (who is unidentified in the footage) denied that the decision was racist and blamed it on community standards. Apparently, these “community standards” were offended by a children’s show with people of different races getting along with each other.

Bob McRaney, the general manager of the NBC affiliate WJDX-WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, broke away from this racist mindset and decided to televise “Sesame Street” anyway. “Sesame Street” got such great ratings for WJDX-WLBT that eventually all the racist TV executives who thought their communities would be ruined if they saw “Sesame Street” suddenly changed their minds and wanted “Sesame Street” on their TV stations. Sometimes greed trumps racism.

Behind the scenes of “Sesame Street,” things weren’t as harmonious as they were presented on screen. Ganz Cooney says that she and Stone clashed with each other. In the documentary, she implies that he might have been envious that she got most of the attention for “Sesame Street’s” success. Ganz Cooney describes Stone as “a very sensitive, difficult man.”

Stone’s daughter Kate Stone Lucas says that her father “battled depression all of his life … ‘Sesame Street’ was the love of his life.” Stone Lucas and her sister Polly Stone say that their father, whom they describe as a civil rights activist, initially wasn’t sold on the idea of doing a children’s TV show because he had become disillusioned with television at that point in his career. Stone Lucas says what convinced him to be involved in “Sesame Street” was Ganz Cooney’s “political vision” to improve the quality of children’s TV, especially for inner city kids whose parents were working while the kids were at home.

Stone Lucas says her father’s personality was that he “saw the world in black and white … You were either a good guy or a bad guy.” He was an iconoclast at heart who resisted being too corporate. One of the anecdotes mentioned in the documentary is that there was an office “push pin” bulletin board that had the words “Children’s Television Workshop,” and Jon Stone would rearrange the letters so that they would spell “Children’s Porkshow.”

The documentary doesn’t have much screen time that gives insight into the creation of the most iconic muppets, such as Kermit the Frog (originally voiced by Henson), Grover (originally voiced by Oz), Cookie Monster (originally voiced by Oz), Ernie (originally voiced by Henson), Bert (originally voiced by Oz), Oscar The Grouch (originally voiced by Caroll Spinney) and The Count (originally voiced by “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles, who is one of the people interviewed in “Street Gang”). “Sesame Street” puppeteer Fran Brill says of Henson and Oz: “Jim and Frank were a comedy team … The dynamic between these two guys was magic.”

Off screen, Henson and Oz were described as opposites who weren’t really friends, but they worked well enough together that they had a special chemistry that translated well on screen. Ironically, Henson’s workaholic ways in children’s entertainment (he was also a key creator of “The Muppet Show”) meant that he didn’t spend as much time with his kids as other fathers did. Jim Henson’s children Lisa Henson and Brian Henson are interviewed in “Street Gang.”

Brian Henson says that it was normal for him as a child to not see his father for three or four days in a row because his father was so busy working. He also says, “My father was a pretty quiet, shy person, but he wanted to be hip. He wanted to be cool. And he wanted his company Muppets Inc. to have a very cool reputation. Children’s entertainment wasn’t what he had in mind.”

Ganz Cooney remembers the first time she saw Henson in a staff meeting, she thought he looked like a hippie and she wasn’t sure how he would fit in with the more conservative-looking employees. But she says that Henson became one of her favorite “Sesame Street” people. “He was terrific,” she says adoringly. The documentary has some archival clips of Henson and Oz, separately and together, behind the scenes and doing interviews.

Spinney (who died in 2019, at age 85) was famously the man inside the Big Bird costume, and he was interviewed for this documentary, which has footage of him with his Oscar the Grouch puppet during the interview. Big Bird was originally conceived as a klutzy character with the intelligence of a teenager or young adult. But it wasn’t long before the character of Big Bird was changed to have the innocence of a child in “Sesame Street’s” target age group of 3 to 5 years old.

In 1982, the real-life death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street,” was written into the show as Mr. Hooper dying off-camera. Big Bird’s denial about the death was one of the more memorable aspects of this tearjerking episode. In the documentary, “Sesame Street” people who were involved in this episode say that they wanted to keep the show honest by not lying to the audience about why Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back to “Sesame Street.”

Music has always been a big part of “Sesame Street,” which features the human characters and muppets performing original songs and cover tunes. Joe Raposo, who composed the “Sesame Street” theme song and many other tunes for the show, is fondly remembered as a larger-than-life character. His son Nick Raposo says that his father didn’t want to talk down to children in his songs.

Kermit the Frog’s melancholy “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” is mentioned as a song that could be interpreted as a metaphor about racism. The documentary also includes clips from several music stars who made guest appearances on “Sesame Street,” including Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Odetta Holmes. There’s also footage of Jesse Jackson’s well-known “Sesame Street” appearance where he leads a group of kids in a pep talk chant that starts off with repeating “I am somebody!”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” certainly has plenty of heartwarming moments. The movie also has many good anecdotes and archival footage. But the documentary is very American-centric because it doesn’t really acknowledge the impact that “Sesame Street” has had worldwide. If you believed everything that’s presented this documentary, Americans are the only people worth interviewing about a global show such as “Sesame Street.” (“Sesame Street” is currently available in about 150 countries.)

And the “Street Gang” filmmakers didn’t seem to bother asking Ganz Cooney or any of the other white people from the original “Sesame Street” executive team why a show that they wanted to be aimed at urban African American kids had no African Americans making major decisions about the show in its early years. The documentary doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that the groundbreaking racial integration on “Sesame Street” was just in front of the camera only. Behind the camera, it seems that the hiring practices for the “Sesame Street” original production team weren’t reflective of progessive civil rights after all, even though these are the same people who claim to be passionate about civil rights and racial equality.

“Sesame Street” has a long history, and this documentary’s real focus is what “Sesame Street” did up until the 1990s, when Jim Henson and Jon Stone died. Therefore, the “Street Gang” movie will probably be best enjoyed by people who are old enough to remember “Sesame Street” before the 1990s. It’s a meaningful nostalgia trip for “Sesame Street” fans, but not a completely thorough one for people who want more of “Sesame Street’s” history after the 1990s.

Screen Media Films released “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in select U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is July 6, 2021. HBO and HBO Max will premiere the movie on December 13, 2021.

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