Sixteen years after her debut feature, 2005’s crowd-pleasing documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” showed us how the art of dance transformed the lives of elementary schoolers throughout New York City, filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo has returned with the definitive cinematic portrait of the most beloved children’s television show in history. Based on the book by Michael Davis, “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” chronicles the early years of the groundbreaking series while illuminating the essential work of various key people, many of whom lack the recognition they deserve. From Joe Raposo’s creation of the extraordinarily layered song, “Bein’ Green,” to the warmhearted community built by longtime co-stars such as Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath and Roscoe Orman, Agrelo’s picture delves deeply into what made this program so transcendently entertaining, phenomenally popular and supremely soul-cleansing for the entire planet. It is, quite simply, one of the year’s best films.
Agrelo recently took time to speak with Cinema Femme about the inimitable appeal of “Sesame Street”’s golden era and the vitality of such trailblazers as Jon Stone and Matt Robinson, not to mention the unforgettable day she spent with the late Caroll Spinney (a.k.a. Big Bird).
One of the original Muppet performers, Frank Oz, believes that your film truly captures the spirit of “Sesame Street” in its early days, and I cannot imagine a more meaningful endorsement than that. How would you go about defining that spirit?
The reason the show resonated so much with kids is because it felt authentic. It felt like it was really mirroring the world to them in a way that was unexpected. I would guess that most of the kids who watched “Sesame Street” when it first came out in those early years didn’t know what a New York City street environment looked or felt like because they didn’t grow up in an integrated neighborhood. Most kids probably lived either in a neighborhood with people of color or in the suburbs of white kids. The fact that this show just presented an integrated community so naturally made everybody feel like this is a place that they’d love to be, and I think that’s what has stayed with everyone through the decades.
The people who grew up with the show in its early years, myself included, are all adults now, and I think we still have this little yearning to be in this wonderful place where you see Big Bird and the Muppets walking around. Who wouldn’t love that? It created a reality that kids wish they could inhabit all the time and that is really what made it so resonant. The best thing about the show’s portrayal of integration is that it was never spoken about. It was never turned into some sort of lesson. They just showed it, and that was the power behind their message.
That exact viewpoint is articulated so beautifully in the film by “Sesame Street” director Jon Stone, whose enormous contributions to the show are all-too-often overlooked.
Once I started researching and understanding what Jon Stone contributed, it sort of became my mantra to really get his name out there. The show has been on for over 50 years, but hardly anyone is aware of his existence. When I’ve talked about this film to people in the last few years while we were working on it, people would invariably say, “Oh yeah, Jim Henson started ‘Sesame Street.’” That’s what people believe because he’s the recognizable name and the creator of the Muppets, but what they don’t know is that Jon was behind every decision. Jon was such a creative force and a fantastic talent. When I spoke to his daughters, they said to me, “No one has ever approached us before to ask about our father’s story,” which was just amazing to me. It was so important to make him the centerpiece of this film because he was “Sesame Street.” He lived it and he gave his whole life to it.
Stone directed the astonishing segment where Big Bird learns of Mr. Hooper’s death, which is one of many indelible moments that you and editor Ben Gold allow the film to linger on. How did you go about structuring this film, which so easily could’ve devolved into a mere series of nostalgic clips?
For me, the emotional core was everything. I know that with subject matter like this, the temptation can very easily be to do a clip reel featuring all these fantastic examples of great comedy and great writing. But to make this piece be a little deeper and more special, it was a big joint effort for my team and I to hit a certain emotional resonance. We wanted to focus on the stories of these adults who left home for days at a time, and left their kids behind, because they were so consumed by this quest to make “Sesame Street.” As for Mr. Hooper, there’s honestly so much we could’ve said about the man who played him, Will Lee. He was a very respected theatre coach who was unable to find work after he had been blacklisted, and “Sesame Street” welcomed him with open arms. There was so much to say about everyone, and so much was left on the cutting room floor as a result of our priority to illuminate the journey of these adults.
Our goal was to make a movie for adults about adults and not to tell the story of “Sesame Street” per se. It was really about this band of idealists and activists and what they wanted to do for society, as well as what they sacrificed along the way. I’m happy to see that our approach has found a footing with audiences and they are appreciating learning these things. I wanted to pull back the curtain a little bit and go deeper into this small group of people. It was such a hard task to cut this story down, but two decisions were made early on. One was to structure it around the three characters of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson and Jon Stone and then branch out from there. The second decision was to limit our focus to the first twenty years of “Sesame Street” so that we could go in deeper, and yet, so much had to be left out because the story is vast.
One of the great gifts of film is the invaluable interview you conducted with Caroll Spinney, who appeared so frail on “Sesame Street”’s 50th anniversary special in late 2019, and passed away a month after it aired.
My interview with him took place in late 2018, and it was fantastic. We went up to Caroll’s house in Connecticut, and he was such a sweet, wonderful man. His life was “Sesame Street,” and there were tributes to Big Bird all over his house. He really is Big Bird, and he was so lovely and charming. Of course, he was frail and wasn’t as sharp as he was in earlier years. I believe that conversation I had with him was probably his last big interview before he passed, and I’m so grateful that we were able to spend the day with him. He took us down to his studio and showed us his artwork. He even made some art for us and reminisced about so many things. I asked him if he would play Oscar the Grouch for us, and it was fantastic that he did.
And he was able to use language that he could never utter on “Sesame Street.”
[laughs] Yes, that was really quite a highlight.
To what extent did director Victor DiNapoli and producer Arlene Sherman’s unused behind-the-scenes footage, which they shot in the early 80s, assist you in your research?
First of all, can you imagine the gift that receiving that footage was? It was unbelievable. Virtually no one had seen that footage in all these years. Victor was part of the crew, so he was in the studio every day with those people. In everything he captured with his camera, you see how at ease everyone is. They are fooling around with him and are completely relaxed because he is one of them. That was a major part of what makes that footage special. As we were going through it, we’d find these moments with Jim Henson and Frank Oz where you could see them working out scenes together. You could feel the love everyone had for each other. Seeing everyone sitting at the table in the writers’ room provided us with a great opportunity to get inside the mechanics and the creative juices that made this show flow. About three days ago, I got a note from Victor thanking me and saying what I consider to be such a high praise. He said, “Thank you for making the film that I wanted to make all those years ago.”
You show how comedy writers worked with educators in order to make the series appeal to audiences of all ages as opposed to only little kids.
This is what I love the most especially about that era in the evolution of “Sesame Street.” The writers were creating such sophisticated material. They were making social commentary, they were doing satire and the writing was very, very sophisticated because they wanted adults to watch it and like it. It’s something that is not done on children’s television today. It was so bold and so daring and so experimental, like nothing that had ever happened before and frankly, like nothing that has ever happened since.
I appreciated how you delved into the story of Matt Robinson, creator of Roosevelt Franklin, a Muppet character who emerged decades before the Black father and son puppets showcased in ABC’s recent documentary, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days.”
Matt Robinson is one of my favorite characters in this whole piece. He had a talk show in Philadelphia and was very aligned with the Black Power movement. The fact that “Sesame Street” even contacted him to write on their show makes me laugh. They’re making a show for preschool kids and they hire a man who is kind of a borderline radical voice in the Black Power movement. It’s that sort of decision that makes me admire what they were doing so much. I love all the Roosevelt sketches. I think they were brilliant, as was the whole idea of the character. When I heard that parents had objected to Roosevelt, I assumed that it was white parents, so I was surprised when I found that it was actually Black parents, which is fascinating. Their argument was that they didn’t want their kids to grow up with stereotypes.
So much of what happened around the development of “Sesame Street” in those days was reflective of the times. I love that era in American history with the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the war in Vietnam and the generation gap. Everything was bubbling up, and it was the perfect time to start a show like this. They jumped on the opportunity and made the most out of it. I think “Sesame Street” is doing a good job today of reflecting what the world is right now with storylines about topics such as what a protest means. Kids now, especially with the internet at home, are seeing all of this stuff. There isn’t a kid in America who didn’t see the Black Lives Matter movement unfolding in front of them, and they have questions about it. “Sesame Street” is doing a good job of trying to explain a very complicated world to kids.
There’s nothing wrong with TV being careful and correct in its messaging to kids. That’s very important. But what I love about “Sesame Street” in 1969 and in the early 70s is it just happened to exist before these standards of correctness had been set for children’s programming. They slipped in under the radar and threw something completely experimental against the wall before they were told not to. Telling the story of this little band of rebels that set out to change the world is what interested me.
Is there a through line you could draw between “Mad Hot Ballroom” and “Street Gang” in how both affirm the importance of education and creative expression, particularly in communities that have been underfunded?
Oh my god, absolutely. Listen, art in all its forms—whether it’s ballroom dancing, songs, filmmaking or puppets—can be a force to change the world and when you expose children to the arts, profound things can happen. I think both of these films express that in spades, and I could not be more proud or feel more lucky to have had the chance to tell both of those stories.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is now playing in select theaters and will be available on VOD platforms on Friday, May 7th. For more information, visit the film’s official site.