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For generations, Sesame Street It was a mainstay of American children’s television. But when the show premiered more than 50 years ago on November 10, 1969, it was considered controversial, and even radical.
Says Marilyn Agrelo, director of a new documentary entitled Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street.
Courtesy of Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street
“The programming was primarily aimed at selling children’s toys, Tootsie Rolls and breakfast cereals, and there was no thought to educate them in any way,” she says.
Sesame Street Appearing for the first time on the airwaves at a turbulent moment in US history, the larger forces that transformed American life played a huge role in shaping how and what the show was.
“The people who started the show were intent on harnessing all the energy that was going around the Vietnam War protests, which is the civil rights movement,” says Agrelo. “They wanted to explain the world to the children, but their biggest goal was to reach children of color in the city who did not have the same educational opportunities as white children in the suburbs.”
Based on the book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street By Michael Davis, the film weaves archive footage and interviews with the show’s longtime crew and crew. Street gangs The show’s creators – Joan Ganz Connie, John Stone and Jim Henson – follow as they design a new way to bring educational programming to kids’ homes across the country.
Agrillo and actor Sonia Manzano, who played Sesame Street Mariah, a 44-year-old resident, spoke with NPR All things considered About why the show was so groundbreaking, and why the public has reached out to muppets like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and their constant strength, five decades later. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for a transcript of the interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mary Louise Kelly: Going back in time and watching the early episodes of the show, he’s just so amazing. The whole idea was: This would look like a realistic city street. Oscar the Grouch will live fully and reasonably in a trash can because there is like trash blowing in the street.
Sonya Manzano: I remember being shocked when I first saw the show. I was an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and there was James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet. Then they cut on Susan, African American actress Loretta Long, down this urban street. I was shocked because I’m from Puerto Rico, from the Bronx, I grew up in the 1950s, and I love TV, [but] He hadn’t seen anyone like me. On some level, I began to feel invisible. I didn’t know what to contribute to a community determined not to see me. So when I saw this show, I was overjoyed.
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How did this know how Maria played?
Manzano: I became Maria, and I didn’t lose sight of myself when I was a little girl watching TV. I watched television to find comfort and order, in what seemed to me, in a troubled world. So when I became Maria, I never forgot it. And I always assumed there was a kid watching over me, looking for the same comfort I was looking for Leave it to Sammur. Except that would be better because I was one of them.
You have this symptom that’s meant to show off a diverse group of children and adults on purpose. Marilyn, talk about how it happened. There was some pushback.
Marilyn Agrelo: In 1969, Sesame Street It’s revealed and there’s an African-American couple who live in the same neighborhood with their white neighbors – yes, with Big Bird and many other marionettes – but it’s a very integrated staff. This is the first time [was] Ever on TV in Jackson, Miss, the public television station received a lot of complaints and stopped broadcasting the program. Miraculously, a commercial station in Jackson said, “If the public station doesn’t broadcast it, we will.” This is just an example of how groundbreaking this is.
The dolls, the non-human characters on the show, bonded a lot with people. I know as a child, that I was not remotely aware of so many of the noble advances in social justice and racial equality that you had all been grappling with, I just thought, ‘This is really funny.’ Count and Oscar the Grouch made me roll on the floor.
Agrillo: There have been other shows with dolls on TV, but there was just something about the writing on them Sesame Street. As you know, some of this marionette drama had a really sophisticated social satire, and it was all geared towards adult attraction. A good example of this is Alistair Cookie, host of Monsterbis Theater.
Manzano: Sure, another example of how two-tier rendering works is:It is not easy to be a vegetarianKermit the Frog is singing that amazing song with Lena Horne, the great jazz singer and activist. And I went into the studio that day and said, “Gee, are they singing about what I think they’re singing about?” Do they sing about race?
Robert Fuhring / Sesame Workshop
Well, for me, they were. This is an example where you work on many levels. If this is what is going on in your head, in your mind, in your experience, then you will give that piece that feel. And the kids definitely did, or they just thought it was all about what a green doll should be. I worked at this level, too.
So the show that started was radical and political: still, do you think? Where are we in five decades?
Agrillo: I suspect Sesame Street He addresses the world as it is in the same way they did back then. I know they are starting to write moments explaining what a protest is. Surely every child in America has witnessed the “Black Lives Matter” protests on the streets and some kind of upheaval happening in our society again, as happened in 1969. So Sesame Street He continues to try to interpret the world authentically to really help explain what is happening around them.
Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street In theaters and it is now broadcasting.
Sam Gringlas produced and Sarah Handel edited this story for broadcast.