The director of the documentary “Street Gang” says that “Sesame Street” may be an institution today, but it faced a number of roadblocks on its road to staying on the air for the last 50 years. In the ’60s, the iconic show got pushback from white families, who objected to its integrated cast, but also from Black parents who didn’t like how one Muppet represented their entire culture.
In its early days, Mississippi’s public broadcasting station refused to air “Sesame Street” because numerous white families didn’t like that the show featured white and Black children and adults living on the same street. The documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which is premiering at Sundance this weekend, explains that local stations eventually caved because the show was so wildly popular on commercial networks.
But one of the lesser-known stories early on was about a character named Roosevelt Franklin, an unequivocally Black Muppet with purple felt skin that was created by Matt Robinson, the original Gordon on “Sesame Street.”
“I initially thought that maybe the white parents couldn’t handle Roosevelt because he was too Black, but it was actually the Black parents. It was the parents of the Black children who didn’t want that to be symbolizing their culture,” director Marilyn Agrelo said in TheWrap’s Sundance Studio presented by NFP and National Geographic. “We love that people think this is a story about ‘Sesame Street’ and we’re going to see the Muppets — and it is — but it’s a hundred other things you don’t see coming, and that’s what we love the most.”
Robinson and the other creators felt Roosevelt was a proudly Black character, but it too quietly disappeared from the airwaves after families objected. It ultimately led to Robinson’s departure from the show and was a blow to the creators who had from the beginning intended for “Sesame Street” to be a show for inner-city children. Even the stoop and street corner of the “Sesame Street” set was modeled off the look of New York City blocks that kids would see from just outside their windows.
“Street Gang” is loaded with such stories of the show’s early days, and the documentary demonstrates how it took a lot of risks and experimentation to get to where “Sesame Street” is today.
“There were so many stories that I was absolutely blown away [by], and as a bigger fan of the show, if I didn’t know these stories, that lots of other people didn’t know the struggle that it was to create this show,” producer Trevor Crafts said. “Now we see ‘Sesame’ as an institution; it’s like oxygen. But back then, it was this ragtag group of people that really were trying something truly experimental.”
Screen Media will release “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in theaters and into the home entertainment market in Spring 2021. The film will then have its TV debut on HBO through HBO Documentary Film and will be available to stream on HBO Max later in the year.
Watch the full interview above.