Letters, numbers, and racial equality

A look inside the minds and hearts of the Sesame Street (1969) creators, artists, writers, and educators who, together established one of the most influential programs in television history. Based on the book by Michael Davis. We learn how "Sesame Street" came into existence in 1968 and '69, inspired by the Civil rights movement and growing out of live-action series shows conceived to sell products to latchkey kids. Its focus was on preparing 3-5-year-old American children for school and to that end teaching them the numbers and the alphabet through songs, skits, and jingles.

The founders' main concern was that they might somewhat reverse the learning imbalance between white kids and children of color, mainly black ones, so a large set was built of a New York street where such kids live. “Sesame Street" producers had the chutzpah to set the show in a semi-realistic locale that suburbanites might then have uncharitably called a ghetto. One of the main live human characters was Gordon, who was black (who played Gordon changed from the first one, Matt Robinson, partly as a result of a "black" Muppet he created, "Roosevelt Franklin," being taken off due to objections from middle class black people for allegedly being too stereotypically black). The long running Gordon was the less edgy Roscoe Orman.

The film features cofounder and director Jon Stone, who it seems was never adequately acknowledged and died in his fifties, a man who loved the work on the show but suffered from depression. We hear recent interviews from founder Joan Ganz Cooney, and from Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, another major figure of the show who died early.

At first we learn it was hard to tune in to the show, because Channel 26, educational TV, was UHF, a frequency hard to tune in to, and the founders had no idea if it would fly. They needn't have worried. It made Kermit the Frog, the Grouch, and Big Bird became superstars, like the Beatles for preschoolers - though the Beatles may not have been so friendly, since a song about the letter "B" based on "Let It Be" led to a $5 million lawsuit. On the "Dick Cavett Show," which is excerpted several times, we see Orson Welles say "Sesame Street" was "the best thing on television."

We glimpse some of the endless celebrities who appeared, Johnny Cash, Odetta, James Earl Jones, Paul Simon, Jesse L. Jackson, even Dizzie Gillespie. We learn how a Mississippi eduction official tried to keep "Sesame Street" off educational TV in the state, but commercial TV put it on, and the local government later relented. You just could not resist "Sesame Street," even in the South.

There is an immense amount of information to be covered, arguably more than for "Mr. Rogers'' Neighborhood," another recent documentary to which this provides a companion piece, but the HBO doc does a reasonable job of balance between mission, content, and personalities that all must be acknowledged. It is remote for some of us, like myself, who had no experience of it: television was not required or available to teach me or my sister numbers and letters and I am not a fan of Muppets, which all look alike to me. Here, I learn how much a real child - the ones used on the show being ordinary, more or less, and not child actors - could fall in love with a voiced puppet that has become a daily reappearing personality. Certainly whatever the "educational" importance of this forever-running show, it has played a part in American culture and in the hearts of American TV viewers.

Debuted Jan. 30, 2021 Sundance; also at Seattle and Hot Docs. US release Apr. 23, 2021 in theaters, online May 7.