‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street’ Review: Making of a Sunny Day

The New York Times /

Carroll Spinney, right, with Oscar the Grouch in the documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street.” (Credit Luke Geissbühler/Screen Media)

After more than 50 years, "Sesame Street" still has something to teach us --- at least those of us plopped in front of it as preschoolers who never had a sense of how it came to be. The author Michael Davis presented that history in the 2008 book "Street Gang: The Complete History of 'Sesame Street,'" and now the director Marilyn Agrelo ("Mad Hot Ballroom") has made a documentary version, which takes full advantage of clips, outtakes and interviews, recent and archival.

Even those resistant to easy nostalgia will find plenty to think about. As told here, the show's strategy --- using television's methods for teaching children beer jingles to teach them the alphabet instead --- could only have come together through a combination of figures: Joan Ganz Cooney (a creator of the show and the first executive director of the Children's Television Workshop); Jim Henson, who brought Muppets and just the right amount of irreverence; and the workhorse director-writer-producer Jon Stone, whose daughters say he treated the show as his third child. The show required the input of educators and psychologists and owed some of its freedom to experiment to federal investment.

The movie "Street Gang" never shakes the sense that much of this story has been told elsewhere, but it feels close to comprehensive, and the visual component --- watching characters explain the death of Mr. Hooper to Big Bird, after hearing the show's makers explain how they approached the death of the actor, Will Lee --- is crucial. There are also great flubbed takes involving Muppets.

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