In the 50-plus years since it first aired, on Nov. 10, 1969, “Sesame Street” has remained television’s most innovative and influential children’s show. Marilyn Agrelo’s comprehensive, engaging, and nostalgic documentary, “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (inspired by Michael Davis’s book of the same title), explores the unique synchronicity of factors that produced a program that combined hipness and innocence, learning fundamentals and topical relevance, and the kind of irresistible appeal that still entertains both preschoolers and their parents – who probably watched the show when they were preschoolers themselves.
The show sprang from the activism of the 1960s, and it’s unlikely that such a concept would have emerged from any other period. The counterculture had yet to have much impact on a medium that Newton N. Minow, chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, had famously described in 1961 as “a vast wasteland.” Perhaps no other genre epitomized that wasteland as much as children’s programs, a point Agrelo supports with a cringe-worthy montage of snippets that include Soupy Sales mugging and a joyless clown selling Tootsie Rolls.
Where others saw a wasteland, producer Joan Ganz Cooney saw an opportunity. Noting that every child in America knew the lyrics to beer commercials (I confess that when Agrelo inserts an ancient Budweiser ad I knew every word of the jingle) she thought the same power could be wielded to teach. A veteran of the civil rights movement, Cooney also was aware of the huge discrepancy between the educational opportunities of Black and white children. So she and producer Jon Stone and other collaborators met with educators and came up with a proposal that had a budget of $8 million (almost $60 million today). The federal government sprang for most of the funding (another reason why initiating such a show would probably not be possible today).
Financial backing secured, all the creators had to do was come up with a show that combined education, entertainment, and social outreach while appealing to a 3-5-year-old audience and their parents. A first brainstorm was to enlist Jim Henson and Frank Oz and the Muppets, without whom it would be safe to say the show would have gone nowhere (an early audience test to determine whether kids were more interested in adults or Muppets had predictable results). Then, instead of setting the program in a fantasyland overseen by a benevolent white father or mother figure and inhabited by winsome puppets (pace Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers) they created a gritty city block with a diverse population of adults, children, a frog, a grouch, and an 8-foot-tall bird. The format was spontaneous and full of surprises, with cameos by stars including James Earl Jones, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Dizzy Gillespie.
It was a hit. Kids loved it, parents did, too, and no less than Orson Welles declared it “the greatest thing on television.”
Is it still? Many of the original contributors are gone, including Jim Henson, who died in 1990 at 53. Much of the documentary is in the past tense – the most recent clip seems to be Paul Simon singing “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to a bunch of bopping preschoolers in 1977. As for its goal of narrowing the educational gap between minority and white children, that remains as far off as ever. But “Sesame Street” might still be the best kids show around and the most relevant. Maybe Agrelo can follow up this film with an up-to-date sequel.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” opens at Kendall Square on April 23 and is available On Demand starting May 7. Go to bit.ly/3xe7bJV.
Home and away
Like Charles Kuralt long ago with his “On the Road” segments on the CBS evening news, journalists James and Deborah Fallows decided to travel the country in search of overlooked communities, flyover towns outside major urban centers that persevere despite economic and other challenges. Based on the Fallows’s book of the same name and directed by Boston-based filmmakers Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, “Our Towns” ranges from James’s own hometown, Redlands, in California’s Inland Empire, regarded by those zipping by on the Interstate as a “sunblasted hellscape,” to Charleston, W. Va., known mostly for its collapsing coal industry and the plague of opioid addiction. But like the other towns the Fallowses visit these communities show signs of resilience, resourcefulness, and rebirth.
The film doesn’t shy from some of the darker aspects of these locations – they relate histories that include the genocide of Native Americans and pass by Confederate flags flying from homes and monuments. But the stories they tell are inspiring, hopeful, and appeal to the values and experiences of all Americans. It’s also visually lush -- even the lots piled with shipping containers are beautifully photographed. But the Fallowses know their investigation has limits. “We have a few rules,” says James. “We never ask about national politics. Because that conversation goes nowhere.”
“Our Towns” can be seen on HBO. Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/our-towns.
Maine filmmaker Alan Kryszak blithely covers a lot of ground in his hour-long, limpid and lyrical “Privacy & the Power of Secrets.”
Loosely true to the title, the subjects touched on in this deceptively meandering documentary include a Passamaquoddy hitchhiker who talks about a posse set up by the tribe decades ago to defend community women from white predators; a visit to an interracial settlement dating back to the Colonial era whose last inhabitant died in the 1960s; descendants of the Massachusetts governor who put an end to the Salem witch trials; a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Canada who doesn’t at all resemble the characters in Robert Eggers’s 2019 film “The Lighthouse”; another member of the Passamaquoddy people who recreates a 130-year-old tribal dance from a song preserved on a 130-year-old Edison wax recording; and activists seeking to end inhumane experiments on dogs in a Texas A&M lab.
Artful and engaging, it’s the way a movie like this should be made.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.