Sundance 2021: Street Gang

A still from Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street by Marilyn Agrelo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Luke Geissbühler.

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is a nostalgic look at the beginnings of one of the most iconic children’s TV program.

It’s honestly surprising the Sesame Street story has not been told before as a documentary.  What we get in the film’s run time barely touches the surface.  I’m not saying that this is a bad thing because it certainly is not.  What I am saying is that there is so much more to the story.  Fans know the names of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Carroll Spinney.  But what fans do not know are names like Jon Stone.  Stone is a big reason as to why Sesame Street worked for many years.  Stone was a writer and director until in 1996 when ALS forced him into retirement.

Lloyd Morrisett once asked media executive Joan Ganz Cooney about using television to educate children.  The rest, as they say, is history.  But more than just education, the series took things further with where the Civil Rights movement was at the time.  It’s integrated cast meant that the public TV stations in Mississippi refused to air the series.  A shame.  Think about where the racial gap was at the time in terms of education.  A series like Sesame Street would prove to be very beneficial at the time.  They were able to recruit Jim Henson and his Muppets and pop culture would never be the same.

The series gets into the character of Gordon–portrayed first by Matt Robinson and later Roscoe Orman.  Matt Robinson would turn Gordon into a role model for Black viewers and other people of color in the first few seasons.  He would also voice the Black muppet, Roosevelt Franklin.  Roscoe Orman took over when Robinson left the series.  Orman would stay there for more than 40 years.

Jon Stone and Jim Henson only appear via archive footage.  Similarly, Frank Oz only appears in archival footage.  He’s tremendously represented on screen in that footage but there is no contemporary interview with the legendary puppeteer.  It would be great to have a contemporary interview but we’ll have to make due with what’s available.  Henson and Oz had their different personalities and it certainly shows in the footage.  Even with performing puppet characters, the duo can be ranked up there with the great comedy duos of all time.  It’s only a shame that their partnership was tragically cut short with Henson’s death in 1990.

I learned during the post-premiere Q&A that Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, was blacklisted as an actor. He later became an acting coach where he taught James Earl Jones among others.

Street Gang runs just shy of two hours but the story of Sesame Street can be told in a longer documentary series.

DIRECTOR:  Marilyn Agrelo
FEATURING:  Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Jim Henson, Joe Raposo, Joe Raposo, Lloyd Morrisett, Sharon Lerner, Norman Stiles, Christopher Cerf, Roscoe Orman, Sonia Manzano, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, Matt Robinson, Caroll Spinney, Frank Oz

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street holds its world premiere during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres program. Screen Media will release the film in theaters in Spring 2021 while HBO will air at a later date.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.