Puppets and I have a very sordid history. First with Disney’s The Lion King and most recently in the Broadway show “Avenue Q” but, it really all started with my love of puppet storytelling going all the way back to watching re-runs of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Paul Winchell, Willie Tyler and Lester and of course, the legendary core and heart of Sesame Street – Muppets creator Jim Henson. Today, more than 150 million children have been educated and entertained by Grover, Big Bird, Mr. Hooper, Bob, Maria, Gordon and Bert & Ernie. So, how did Henson get to Sesame Street, how was it born and why do generations of families still resonate with it today?
Based on Michael Davis’ best-selling book, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary explores how creator Joan Ganz Cooney, original series director Jon Stone, and legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson joined forces to create a children’s television show that became a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon.
1969 was a year wrought with social injustice, unrest, assassinations and the Vietnam war going full blast. The world had become very politicized and very little attention was being paid to the education of our children. Joan Cooney, who would become the most powerful woman in television, created the Children’s Television Workshop in response to being annoyed over “latchkey kids” watching bad television while parents worked to keep food on the table and shelter for their families. This visionary harnessed the power of the medium for good by offering learning rather than products to children. Today, more than 50 years later, this global childhood staple, reaches over 150 countries around the world, continuing to entertain while it educates.
Opening with a peek behind the taping magic, complete with a set overview of rehearsals, you get the sense that Agrelo is sharing a huge secret and you tingle with the anticipation of the reveal like a kid waiting to open presents Christmas morning. Like what happened to Franklin Roosevelt and it’s creator Matt Robinson, what inspired the set design and beautiful iconic moments like watching the Reverend Jesse Jackson with a full set of children engaging in a call and response of “I Am Somebody,” to groundbreaking multi-cultural casting reflecting the world we live in to a rousing all crew round robin of and “Put Down The Ducky…If you Wanna Play the Saxophone” written by their resident musical genius of Joe Raposo who cranked all of those songs that have permanently seared our brains like “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” A song that was less about Kermit’s color and more about embracing the differences of society with all the forms we inhabit.
It’s not a stretch to say the immortal, nostalgic appeal of Sesame Street will always emotionally resonate. This film is a stark reminder that globally we all need to get to a place like Sesame Street. A place void of prejudice, negativity and disrespect.