How We Got To Sesame Street: Highlights From The Haifa Film Festival

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

The documentary is a smart, funny and entertaining film about the smartest, funniest and most entertaining series ever for young children. But it is also moving, because it tells the serious mission that animated those who created Sesame Street: to try to bridge the educational inequalities between black and white children and to try to prevent disadvantaged children from falling behind in school.

The documentary, which is aimed at adults, explores the perfect (and perfectly wonderful) storm of elements that came together to create the show. This is not a complete documentary on the entire history of the show, which began over 50 years ago and it does not enter into some controversy (the period it covers ends long before the scandal involving Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who played the role of Elmo and left after being accused of having sex with underage teens) and cannot fully cover all of the highlights of the show’s music, The Magic that many celebrities have brought to it or the indescribable popularity of its Muppet characters, which has led to some extremely lucrative merchandising deals, which have ensured that the show will never run out of funds.

But he gets into what made the show unique and important, as he explains how the idea of ​​merging an educational show with a highly entertaining show came about when television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and the vice president of the Foundation. Carnegie Lloyd Morrisett began brainstorming in 1966 for a show that would use Madison Avenue techniques to teach urban children. The show was created with funding from Carnegie in 1969.

Sesame Street designer Joan Ganz Cooney poses with some of the cast at a Street Name 40th anniversary celebration in New York City (Credit: SHANNON STAPLETON / REUTERS)

It was an instant and huge success for Cooney and his collaborator, director / screenwriter Jon Stone, whom the documentary presents as the unsung hero of the series, since Cooney, being the rare woman on television, got the lion’s share of The advertisement. They worked with education experts and seasoned comedy writers to create a show they hoped would appeal to the target audience.

STONE helped make the show what it has become in many ways, but two stand out. One is that he brought in his buddy, the genius puppeteer Jim Henson, and the other is that he realized that he should be installed on a city street to please city children, since all the rest of the children’s shows took place in suburbs of white bread. or generic fantasy lands.

Cooney and Stone learned from the kids they hoped to watch the show by doing extensive test screenings, which taught them that the Muppets couldn’t just be in separate segments, but had to be street residents. The fact that the street was racially and ethnically mixed was a given and later its cast was expanded to include characters with special needs. Another lesson that was learned was death and when actor Will Lee who played Mr. Hooper passed away Big Bird learned that meant he would never come back.

They realized, through research, that children absorbed the lessons of the show better when adults watched with them, to reinforce what they saw, and this prompted them to make the show more satirical and irreverent. But they always made sure that the gags that adults would enjoy were fun for the kids in one way or another.

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

Nick Raposo, son of Joe Raposo, who composed much of the series ‘iconic music (including’ Sing ‘, which the Carpenters turned into a top 40 hit), recalled:’ One thing I credit Joan Ganz Cooney is that she let these guys do what they can do. They had ideas and behaviors and concepts that stood out and they were allowed to do it and that’s what. that people loved, they felt the madness on the screen, the contained madness.

But the fun was at the service of the higher ideal of making education accessible to everyone, which pushed the creators to surpass themselves (their children remember that they often spent four days in a row in the studio). Joe Raposo said: “It was chaos, but it was the chaos of people dedicated to a true ideal, believing that something could be done and having the will to do it and it was the most exciting time of our time. life.”

Street Gang is a fascinating glimpse into one of the most innovative and imaginative shows of all time, but also one of the most significant. In the end, in addition to educating people, the creators brought a lot of joy to those who watch the show.

As Raposo recalled, “I remember Jim Henson and Frank Oz doing a puppet piece and everyone was hysterical and Jim was like, ‘What are we teaching? and Jon Stone saying: ‘Happiness is the ticket …’ ”


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Darcy J. Skinner

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