The secret stories behind Sesame Street

Street Gang
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The story behind Sesame Street coming to life is told in a new documentary, and we’ve been chatting to some of the people behind it.

The very first episode of Sesame Street premiered on 10 November 1969 and television was almost instantly a far better place. That first episode opens with stop-motion animation. It depicts the show’s title and two clay figures moving erratically to a pulsing, electronic sound. For just those twenty-something seconds, the episode feels quite alien – this is the kind of thing normally seen in the show’s interstitial sequences, and maybe not the best of them.

But then there’s a hard cut, and it’s anything but unfamiliar. We’re now in a playground in the shadow of tall, New York buildings, and this is when Joe Raposo’s indelible theme song, Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?, kicks in. At this moment, the first magic spell is cast and there hasn’t even been a hint of a Muppet on screen.

How did this miracle of late-60s media come about? Michael Davis’ 2008 book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street first brought the story behind the show into the public eye and now, some years later, that story has been retold, expanded, and made more first-hand and immediate by a new documentary film, also called Street Gang.

I spoke to the film’s producers, Trevor Crafts and Ellen Scherer Crafts, and director, Mad Hot Ballroom’s Marilyn Agrelo. You can read more from our conversations in the next issue of Film Stories magazine, but in the meantime, here are a few excerpts about Jon Stone, the semi-secret genius behind Sesame Street.

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Marilyn Agrelo, Director: It took years to make this film and I would talk to people and tell them I was making a documentary about the origins of Sesame Street and everyone – and I mean everyone – said “Oh, yeah, Jim Henson, he invented it.” That is the perception. It gave me a strong goal, really solidified the mission to make Jon Stone the emotional centre of the movie, to really tell the world who he is. Without Jon Stone, Sesame Street as we know it would not exist, maybe it would not exist at all. This guy has been an unsung hero.

Ellen Scherer Crafts, Producer: What people will find very surprising is how big a role Jon Stone had in creating this show we all know and love. This show would not have been set on a city street, on a stoop, without Jon. He really comes with the heart and soul. He was the original director, showrunner, and along with many others, writer.

Marilyn: [Stone] bought Jim Henson in. They used to make experimental independent films together… This is a story about this rebellious group of activists who wanted to do something very experimental, very deep… not exactly counter cultural… None of them were really that interested in kiddy television but they wanted to subvert the system and it they did it brilliantly, bringing their different aspects of genius to the table. I know that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot but in the case of Jim Henson and Jon Stone, Joe Raposo, they bought a very sophisticated sensibility to make a real change.

Trevor Crafts, Producer: It’s almost like Joan [Ganz Cooney, Sesame Street producer] created the Why, Jon created the Where and the What, and the How of this show, and Jim created the Who, the Who is going to live there.

Ellen: [Jon Stone] had a vision from the very beginning about what this show could look like and what that would mean in teams of how it would fulfil the vision they had of reaching children. He stuck to this and he was amazing.

Marilyn: [It can be hard] looking for archival pieces and finding that one perfect thing, like Send Your Kid to the Ghetto, this public service announcement that Jon Stone saw in 1967 or so, and he said “This is what the show is going to look like.” To find that thing took years, to track that piece of footage down.

Ellen: We thought we really needed to focus on the origin story, this idea of the band coming together, this group of amazing individuals that formed this incredible group of pioneers in media, and certainly in children’s television. There’s something inspirational in that and we hope that audiences take away a lot of laughs – there are some great, funny moments in here, and also some tears – but that they also take inspiration away. You can use your creativity and joy to make good in the world, no matter what your talents are.

Amen to that.

The full interviews touch on the show’s music, Muppets and powerful social messages, and dig into the craft behind making a documentary like this so please look out for that feature in the print magazine. Meanwhile, the film comes fully recommended. It’s a wonderful tribute to one of the greatest endeavours in TV history and the many brilliant minds that made it happen.

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street releases on Digital Download from 31st January.


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