The story of Sesame Street is told in a new documentary
Many TV shows are highly rated and hugely popular, but few can claim to have changed the world. Sesame Street did – and continues to do so more than 50 years after it first aired.
Yes, it’s a silly puppet show for preschoolers, but once you know the incredible story behind how and why it was created, you’ll never watch Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar again. the Grouch and Kermit the frog. again the same way.
Street Gang, a new documentary out later this month, takes us back to the beginning of Sesame Street in the late 1960s, when an experimental child psychologist named Lloyd Morrisett pondered two concerns.
One was the fact that many African American children, who often had two working parents, started school with their knowledge of the alphabet three months behind their peers.
The new Street Gang documentary reveals the start of the hit TV show Sesame Street, which first aired in the late 1960s. Pictured: Cookie Monster and friends
The second was how obsessed her then three-year-old daughter Sarah was with television. She knew all the advertising jingles, especially since at that time children’s shows were often designed around advertising.
Then, over dinner, Lloyd met Joan Ganz Cooney, an idealistic ex-teacher who now produces TV documentaries, and they discussed the possibility of using the small screen to educate preschoolers.
“It was clear they loved the medium, so why not see if we could educate them?” says Joan, now 92, in the documentary.
It was the era of the civil rights movement, and change was in the air.
Joan and Lloyd secured funding to research a report titled The Potential Uses of Television for Early Childhood Education, which stated that the show would use the techniques used in advertising – repetition, jingles and humor – to create a program that would inspire children and their parents watching.
Not everyone was convinced. “Joan was one of the first female producers,” says Ellen Scherer Crafts, who produced the documentary with her husband Trevor.
“At one point, they found themselves in front of a fundraising committee that said, ‘How can this show be successful if a woman is running it? and Joan replied, “They can’t make it work without me, it’s all in my head.”
Lloyd and Joan managed to raise a sum equivalent to £30million today to start work on the show. They embarked on a two-year project that remains the most extensive audience research work ever done before a show begins.
Ex-teacher Joan Ganz Cooney (pictured) and experimental child psychologist Lloyd Morrisett have carried out the most extensive audience research work ever done before a show starts
Teachers and psychiatrists were consulted to create something that would capture a child’s imagination and teach them, without them realizing they were being taught.
Joan recruited another idealist, Jon Stone, to produce and write the series. He in turn recruited an ex-colleague, Jim Henson, who at the time was using his felt puppet designs to do goofy commercials.
Jim, a father of five who went on to direct the more adult Sesame Street spin-off The Muppets, says in the film, “I loved the idea of taking business techniques and applying them to a show for children. We were trying to sell the alphabet to children.
Inspired by a Harlem documentary, Jon came up with the idea that the show should take place on a grimy downtown street. “I didn’t know how it would be with suburban parents,” Joan recalls. “But I trusted his judgement.
The format is a mix of live action, animation, and puppetry, and research has shown that puppets are going to be the stars. But how do you keep the kids on set from being distracted by the puppeteers? Enter Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, both played by Caroll Spinney from inside the costumes.
At first, Big Bird was just an awkward adult, but Spinney nudged him into becoming a child trying to learn. “He was a peer for the public,” Spinney later said. “A character young enough to make the same mistakes as a four-year-old.”
Jon Stone, who recruited puppeteer Jim Henson (pictured), said each of the puppets had a particular role – from annoying friend to ordinary reporter trying to stay sane
Each of the puppets had a particular role and Oscar, who lived in a garbage can, was the boring friend. “Oscar is everyone’s dark side,” Jon says.
“It’s what kids are told they shouldn’t do. Don’t answer, don’t be rude. Cookie Monster was the kid who wanted everything to revolve around him, while Kermit was the everyday reporter who tried to stay sane when everything around him was going crazy.
Sesame Street – named after “open sesame”, the entrance to a magical world – was the first American television show to have such a diverse cast, and was broadcast across America on local public broadcasters.
It was a hit everywhere since its first screening in November 1969 – except in Mississippi. The people who ran the station there didn’t like the fact that several actors were black and boycotted it.
But they were forced to change their minds when a local commercial station aired it and it garnered huge ratings.
By Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary, there were over 4,500 episodes and it had won 11 Emmys and 11 Grammys. Pictured: big bird
The show has been sold to other countries including the UK and by its 50th anniversary in 2019 there were over 4,500 episodes, 35 specials, 200 home videos and 180 albums and it had won 11 Emmys and 11 Grammys.
Although its original purpose – to improve the literacy of disadvantaged children – was certainly achieved, the researchers found it impossible to quantify how much because it became so difficult to find children who had not seen it to use it as a comparison. .
The 1983 death of Will Lee, who played beloved shopkeeper Mr. Hooper, presented a challenge to program makers.
But they decided they should use tragedy to teach children about death, Big Bird not understanding why Mr. Hooper would never return. This scene is shown in the documentary. It’s heartbreaking in its simplicity, with many actors in tears for real.
Today, there are many knockoffs using Sesame Street values, as well as local versions of the show such as the BBC’s Furchester Hotel. But the original continues its innovative quest to change the world – it’s as simple as ABC.
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is available for digital download starting January 31.