‘Street Gang’ Director Marilyn Agrelo On All The Secrets She Learned About ‘Sesame Street’

Marilyn Agrelo’s Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street contains many, many surprises. Well, first of all, before we get to that, this is a documentary about Sesame Street, so for a lot of people this is going to come with a lot of baked-in emotions, whether a person realizes it or not. It’s in there. But there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes drama explored in this film: from the original Gordon, Matt Robinson, an activist at heart, creating a Muppet for Black kids and the untimely end for both Robinson and his creation; then there were the Southern communities who were against Sesame Street; also a rift between creators over who was getting enough credit, which involves a man named Jon Stone, a driving force of the show that people don’t know much about today. (Yes, maybe he had a point he wasn’t getting enough credit.)

Also, Agrelo’s film dives into how the show handled the death of a cast member – Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper – which, for a lot of kids (this one included), was one of the first honest conversations about the topic we’d get at such a young age. And something we’d remember long into adulthood.

Your movie brought back a pretty emotional reaction to Mr. Hooper dying. I remember that vividly when that happened.

So I mean, to me, that is such an extraordinary thing that these visionaries that made Sesame Street did for kids. Honestly, to confront something so real and so painful and find a way to bring it to preschoolers, to me was a little miracle. And that’s really what those creators of Sesame Street were so good at doing. They took the world and they made it palatable. They interpreted it for children. And, honestly, when I first started this project and started doing research for it, I was so blown away by the fact that these were … they were activists, is really what they were. They came out of the civil rights movement. They wanted to do something for inner-city kids. You know, they were doing social commentary, they were doing satire, they were doing all of these things that were so brilliant and so ahead of its time.

And very weird.

And very weird.

On my own, I rewatched their short film about milk and with that weird song playing that just keeps saying “milk” — it truly is bizarre.

You know, they were really writing almost for themselves. It was a time when, in television especially, they could be so free because it was all so new, what they were doing. No one was clamping down on what’s right to present to kids and what’s wrong to present to kids. They were experimenting.

Your film dives into how Sesame Street brought Black neighborhoods into white suburban homes and how that affected children. The last thing I want to do is make this about me, but I am for just a second: It really hit me how, yes, I watched this show as a child in suburban Missouri, but always wanted to live in New York City and now do. I do think there’s a correlation.

Isn’t it amazing that they didn’t even talk about it? You know, they just threw this Harlem thing in.

Right, they weren’t trying to sell me on New York City, but they did by making it seem like the most amazing place in the world.

I mean, and I’m willing to bet, Mike, that most of the kids that watched Sesame Street in the era that you’re talking about, most kids lived in segregated environments. You know, you lived in the suburbs with all white kids, or maybe you lived in the cities with a lot of kids of color, but I don’t think there was a lot of crossing over. And here you had this world on TV where nobody even made a big deal about it. They just were all together. They were in this brownstone. But I think there’s something to that because I think the reason we all still love Sesame Street is because it showed us a world that was so, I don’t know … so ideal. It was so perfect in its own imperfect way that we all yearned for it. And I think that’s stayed with us and still lives within us. You know, this world, we still kind of yearn for.

Your movie also gets into what happened to Matt Robinson as Gordon. Most people know Roscoe Orman as Gordon, but I remember every now and then they’d show reruns and a different actor played Gordon and I didn’t know that story at all.

I do love the story of Matt Robinson. I’m glad you talk about that. I mean, one of the things that blows me away about how forward-thinking the people behind Sesame Street were is that Matt Robinson was this guy who works in a TV station in Philadelphia. He had a talk show that was all about Black culture and Black life. And he was sort of a radical, almost. He was really aligned with Black power movements and all this stuff. And that Sesame Street, a show for preschoolers, picks this guy? I mean, that that even happens is kind of amazing. So they turned him into Gordon and he really, really wanted to make this show resonate with kids of color in a way that was even beyond what Sesame Street was doing. And the whole story of Roosevelt Franklin. I love it so much.

It’s a sad story though, that he created a Black Muppet, but it didn’t get to continue.

It didn’t get to continue. And you know, as I was researching Roosevelt and everything, obviously the white parents were freaking out about this. This was too much for them maybe. But it was the Black parents. And I find that so interesting. The Black parents didn’t want to have a stereotype for their kids. And Matt Robinson felt like, no, this is reality. This is how kids talk. This is how it is with Black kids. Why are we sugarcoating it? And so, you know, maybe he was a little too, I don’t know. Maybe his vision was a little bit more than they were ready for.

Yeah maybe 50 years ahead of its time…

But how daring and how bold a move that it was so ahead of its time and they said, sure, let’s do it. You know, let’s make a Muppet for you. And they did it. It was really quite something. It is sad that it ended the way it did, but, you know, I applaud Sesame Street, them, for being so willing to go there in every respect.

Well, to that point, too, you get into how a lot of places in the South didn’t want to show Sesame Street. In retrospect, I find that both surprising and, now, especially with what we’ve seen even recently, not surprising.

It’s really unbelievable. Yes. How could any community react that way to this show that’s teaching kids how to read and how to count? But, yes, you have this normalization of people of color living together with white people and I guess that was too much for them. And, in a way, you want to say to yourself, wow, things were so backwards then. But you are absolutely right, look at what we just lived through. And 50 years later, we just went through a whole year of Black Lives Matter and episodes of police brutality and you wonder how far have we moved the needle? It’s quite something, isn’t it?

So how much of the friction between creator Joan Ganz Cooney and head writer Jon Stone were you aware of before making this?

Very little.

He was upset he wasn’t getting the credit and media attention she was getting?

Yeah. But, you know, I had never heard of Jon Stone…

Right, I think that’s what he was mad about.

And whenever I’ve talked to anybody about this project in the last few years of making this film, I’ve spoken to people and they’re like, “Oh my god, that’s great, Jim Henson started Sesame Street, I remember it so well.” Most people assume that Jim Henson was behind Sesame Street. And it was not, it was this man named Jon Stone that nobody heard of. And all of these things were his idea. He brought Jim Henson in. He saw that PSA on TV and decided it should be fashioned after a street in Harlem. All of those creative things came out of Jon Stone’s head. And so, for me, it felt like almost a mission, you know? To tell his story and put him in the center of this piece. There was a thing between him and Joan. I mean, they loved each other to death, but Jon always felt hurt that he wasn’t ever getting the recognition. And Joan, in that time, who became the head of this enterprise at a time when women had no power in television whatsoever, it was her vision to combine TV and education. No one had ever thought to combine education with television. I mean, it seems kind of simple to us now, but no one had ever done that before. So all of these people were breaking ground at every turn. And that’s what I love. The gang, you know, I love the title Street Gang because it was this gang of visionaries.

This is one of the most famous TV shows of all time. It almost feels like if we didn’t know who Norman Lear was. Maybe he has kind of a point that he doesn’t get a little more credit for this.

Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, when I met his daughters and started to talk to them about their family, about their father, they said, “No one has ever approached us to tell our father’s story before.” I don’t really know why he slipped through the cracks but I’m so happy that we have the opportunity to bring him out into the forefront. To his credit, he never took it out on the show. He remained. You know, some people would have said, “Well, if I’m not going to be appreciated by the public for this, maybe I should move on,” and never did. He stayed with it. He stayed with it until the end. Jon Stone died of ALS in the late ’90s. And until he could not work anymore, he stayed with that show. And it was the love of his life, for real.

‘Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street’ is currently in theaters and available via VOD this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.