Puppet Love

Puppeteer Sarah Thomson relives her childhood through the new Sesame Street documentary Street Gang, and recommends twenty more puppetry films for both felt novices and reticulated foam professionals.

To an Antipodean of a certain age, the brownstones of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing looked incredibly familiar. Not because we’d ever visited Stuyvesant Avenue, Brooklyn, or even New York, but because they looked like Sesame Street.

Such was the reach and power of the Children’s Television Workshop phenomenon. In making a concerted effort to connect with inner-city children in post-war America’s lower socio-economic neighborhoods, Sesame Street not only platformed and validated those same inner-city neighborhoods within American homes, but had also broadcast a version of them to the rest of the world.

I grew up in New Zealand with a version of that neighborhood as my kind-of babysitter, courtesy of well-worn VHS tapes of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. And, when I saw Lee’s aforementioned classic (at probably too young of an age), detailing racial tensions and police brutality, wondered whether Oscar the Grouch was in Mookie’s trash can. I also grew up to be a puppeteer. Funny that.

Trailblazing Sesame Street producer Joan Ganz Cooney and friends on set.
Trailblazing Sesame Street producer Joan Ganz Cooney and friends on set.

The notion that entertainment for children could be both educational and compelling; both targeted and of broad appeal, is a notion that has been core to all the children’s entertainment I’ve ever been lucky enough to be involved with. And as Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street lovingly shows, it was Children’s Television Workshop—and force-of-nature producer Joan Ganz Cooney—who really wrote that playbook. Making television with heart and attention to detail, but also with all the audience testing and social sciences usually reserved for Madison-Avenue clients, Sesame Street was, as one archival talk-show clip puts it, “what television would do if it loved people, instead of trying to sell to people”.

Not all felt and warm fuzzies, there’s also a bittersweetness to Street Gang. Interviews with the children of seminal figure Jon Stone, composer Joe Raposo, and the legendary Jim Henson lean more than a little into the idea that teaching the world’s children might often come at the expense of your own. And the permeating, unifying political ideology shown in its wonderful archival footage of the Street’s early days is a little lacking on modern Sesame Street, with Frank Oz (the original Bert, Grover and Cookie Monster, as well as Miss Piggy, Animal, and Yoda) dubbing it a “shadow of what it was”.

Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Sesame Street director Jon Stone. — Photographer… Robert Fuhring/​Sesame Workshop
Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Sesame Street director Jon Stone. Photographer… Robert Fuhring/​Sesame Workshop

But when it was great, god it was great: Stevie Wonder and Grover; Big Bird learning about mortality; Oz and Henson’s sublime Bert and Ernie comic interplay; The Pointer Sisters teaching you to count; hilarious parody; jaw-dropping guest stars; sensational music; and (don’t tell my Muppet family, but) Kermit the Frog’s personal theme isn’t ‘Rainbow Connection’, it’s Joe Raposo’s beautiful, multi-layered ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Streetbased on the book of the almost-same name by Michael Davis, and very much focused on the early years of a show now into its sixth decade—oozes with the same heart and care that the first decades of its subject are full of. Marilyn Agrelo’s film, produced by Trevor Crafts and Ellen Scherer Crafts, is a real love letter to the potential of creativity in education and state-funded content that prioritizes people over profit.

“I am somebody!” Reverend Jesse Jackson and kids on Sesame Street.
“I am somebody!” Reverend Jesse Jackson and kids on Sesame Street.

Before he appeared on Sesame Street in 1971, Reverend Jesse Jackson compelled the readers of his column not to miss the 1970 Sesame Street cast tour:

“Children shouldn’t miss this as it is one of the most creative and innovative education forms in mass media today. What ought to make you happy is that Black people are involved from the outset. They are everything from production editors and writers to actors and the message of Sesame Street is that children don’t live in a little lily-white world but on streets and in real neighborhoods, in cities as well as suburbs that all types of people are involved in making real.”

48 years later, in 2018, the Sesame Street gang came 8,944 miles to my neighborhood, with Oscar-winning ‘Man or Muppet’ composer Bret McKenzie as their human song partner (the show was in his hometown, handily). Performing live, the characters onstage had helped raise the adults in the audience, now present in great numbers, with their own enthralled children in tow. The gang’s a little different these days (most heritage characters are now in new pairs of very caring hands) but the song remains the same: one of laughter, inclusion and compassion.

In an increasingly fragmented world, with an ever-growing focus on the individual, perhaps the most radical thing we can continue to ask children might just still be: “who are the people in your neighborhood?”.

Not enough puppetry in your media diet? Whether you’re a felt novice or a reticulated foam professional, here is a list of twenty further places to travel into the magical realm of puppets.


Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street’ is screening in select theaters and is streaming now on VOD.

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