How a ‘Gang’ of rebels and civil rights activists created ‘Sesame Street’

More On:

sesame street

P is for Perv: Home inspector allegedly pleasured himself with Elmo doll

‘Sesame Street’ adds black Muppets to teach kids about race

‘Cookie Monster’ rock could be worth more than $10,000

‘Pile of s–t’: Ex-Jets coach relives angry ‘Sesame Street’ experience

The revolution will be televised — on a kids’ show, no less, according to a new documentary.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” in select theaters nationwide on Friday and inspired by a Michael Davis book, explores how a team of “rebels” had the wild idea to educate kids through the democratizing medium of TV — and create a world inspired by the civil rights movement that still resonates nearly 52 years on.

“It was like a ripple effect: pulling people in until they got a dream team of individuals who used the power of television and creativity and really purposeful intention to do something that had never been done before,” Ellen Scherer Crafts, who produced the documentary with her husband Trevor Crafts, told The Post.

Added Trevor: “We still have a show that pushes those boundaries and continues to experiment and try new things, and be very socially relevant.”

Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop), the organization that debuted “Sesame Street” in 1969, was co-founded by Carnegie Foundation psychologist Lloyd Morrisett and television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, now both 91.

At times of greater racial and socioeconomic divisions in the late 1960s, the two set their focus on disadvantaged children — primarily inner-city black children.

“We found that those children would enter school three months behind, and by the end of first grade, be a year behind — and get further and further behind,” says Morrisett in the film, which will be released on video-on-demand platforms on May 7, then on HBO in December. “And I wondered whether there was a possibility that television could be used to help children with school.”

Morrisett later approached his friend Cooney — who had produced documentaries with Channel 13 in New York and had supported the civil rights movement — at a dinner party she hosted and asked whether this possibility could be made a reality.

“I knew the answer right away,” says Cooney in the film, adding that American children had nothing else to watch on television but commercials, to the degree many memorized the song lyrics from a popular Budweiser ad.

“To me it was clear the kids just adored the medium, so why not see if it could educate them?”

What followed was a Carnegie Foundation study that found children between the ages of 3 and 5 watched television 54.1 hours per week — only the hours they slept exceeded that total.

In 1968, the show got an initial budget of $8 million ($59.45 million today), the bulk of which came from the federal government, for about 130 hours of television per year.

There was a need for a staff, and Cooney tapped Jon Stone, who died in 1997 at age 64, to be its director, producer and head writer. Not only was he credited for developing the style and vision of “Sesame Street” and enlisting the help of late Muppets creator Jim Henson, but he also identified with Cooney’s values.

“I think what drew Dad in really had to do with her political vision — and I think when she started talking about inner-city children and the amount of time that kids are spending watching bad television with nothing to do because the parents are working, that’s what pulled him in,” says Stone’s daughter, Kate Stone Lucas, in the film.

The television professionals teamed up with educators, a first-of-its-kind partnership, to form the Children’s Television Workshop.

But beyond a young James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet and animations teaching children how to count, the show also aimed for diversity in its casting — notably including Matt Robinson, an African-American actor and writer who played Gordon.

“They sold him on what this show could become: something revolutionary,” his ex-wife, Dolores Robinson, says in the film of Robinson, who died in 2002 at age 65.

“Equally important, maybe even more important, was the fact that ‘Sesame’ was a neighborhood where people of all races, kids and adults and monsters live together,” says composer, lyricist and writer Christopher Cerf in the documentary.

Stone’s vision was to present an integrated cast without making any specific overtures to the viewer.

“We’ve never beaten that horse to death by talking about it,” Stone says in an interview for the show’s second season. “We simply show it.”

Later, in 1971, Sonia Manzano — a Puerto Rican — and the Mexican-American Emilio Delgado joined the cast to play Maria and Luis, respectively.

There were, however, divisions over how to approach diversity when it came to the show’s puppets.

In 1970, Robinson advocated to have “Sesame Street” introduce Roosevelt Franklin, a purple-colored Muppet whom he created to represent a black child.

“I think Matt created Roosevelt Franklin because he was tired of pretending that everybody blended in together,” his ex-wife Dolores says in the film.

“He loved the message of ‘Sesame Street,’ but he wanted children of color to be recognized as children of color because, in real life, those children knew they were different. They knew they were brown, so why couldn’t they be brown? Why couldn’t their difference be recognized?”

Robinson wanted Franklin to speak like young black kids, according to 2020’s “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” using slang such as “Be cool.” 

Still, critics — including African-American show advisors and staffers — believed the character represented someone “simplistically black,” according to that book.

In the film, Dolores details how black parents complained Franklin reinforced attitudes that blacks are more musically inclined and whites are more intellectual. Despite the Muppet’s popular appearances, the character vanished after 1975.

“For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth,” she says. “He knew they meant well, but it was the beginning of the end for him. And then he left ‘Sesame Street.’ ”

Of this progressive schism, film producer Ellen Scherer Crafts told The Post: “I think that would be natural for anything that’s lasted half a century.”

In recent years, the show has once again embraced representation. 

“I think what ‘Sesame’ did, and continues to do well, is be a place where children can come to understand very complicated things in a very safe and loving way,” said Ellen. “They set that up from the very beginning.”

Last month, for instance, Sesame Workshop — as part of a social-justice initiative — announced it would teach children “The ABCs of Racial Literacy” with two black Muppets, Wes and his father, Elijah. One conversation shows Elmo asking why Wes’ skin is brown.

Last June, “Sesame Street” and CNN held a 60-minute town hall for children and families to discuss racism — aired in direct response to the May 2020 death of George Floyd, who was killed when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes — to discuss prejudice, empathy and embracing others.

“Sesame Street,” in an online-only 2019 segment, even addressed the opioid crisis with a foster-care Muppet who revealed her mother is battling a drug addiction.

“It is continuing to be the experiment of children’s television, which is rare,” said producer Trevor Crafts. “Everything changes about ‘Sesame Street’ and that’s the amazing part — is that they continue to push the boundaries of what they thought was right, and then they change because the world changed.”

Share this article:

Source: Read Full Article