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New Documentary Explores The Controversial Early Days Of 'Sesame Street'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When I was a kid in the 1970s, "Sesame Street" was appointment TV. Mom would adjust the rabbit ears on top of the set, and I would sit glued to Big Bird and Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. Now the wild thing is, a kid in the '80s would have had pretty much the same experience. Same for a kid in the '90s. By 2000, most of us had lost the rabbit ears, but kids were still watching. It's been on air more than 50 years now, and a new documentary explores Sesame Street's controversial, even radical, early days. Marilyn Agrelo is the director of "Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street."

Welcome.

MARILYN AGRELO: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: We are also joined by actor Sonia Manzano, who played "Sesame Street" resident Maria for 44 years.

Hey there. Welcome to you, too.

SONIA MANZANO: Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

KELLY: So let me take you back to the beginning. "Sesame Street" launched - this was November of 1969. Marilyn, explain what was on TV then for kids and how this was in fact radical, revolutionary.

AGRELO: Oh. In 1969, what was on TV for kids was a very dire landscape. Basically, the programming was geared to sell children toys, Tootsie Rolls...

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) All of the kids in the neighborhood say Tootsie Roll Pops are triple good.

AGRELO: ...And breakfast cereals.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

CHUCK MCCANN: (As Sonny the Cuckoo Bird) Coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs.

AGRELO: And there was no thought of educating them in any way.

KELLY: And also, not a quiet moment in American history. Did that shape how the show came to be and what it would be?

AGRELO: The people that started the show were intent on harnessing all of the energy that was around the protest of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement. They wanted to explain the world to children, but their bigger goal was to reach inner city children of color who were not getting the same educational opportunities as white children in the suburbs were getting.

KELLY: Sonia, let me let you jump in here. Because going back and watching the early episodes of the show, it is so striking. The whole idea was this is going to look like a realistic city street. Oscar the Grouch is going to totally plausible...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...Live in a trash can...

MANZANO: Right.

KELLY: ...Because there's, like, trash blowing down the street.

MANZANO: It was a stunning image. I remember being stunned when I saw the show for the first time. I was a college student at Carnegie Mellon University, and there was James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet. And then, they cut to Susan, the African American actress Loretta Long, on this urban street. And I was stunned because I am Puerto Rican, from the Bronx, and I was raised in the '50s, loved television, never saw anybody who looked like me. And I began to feel on some level that I was invisible. I didn't know what I would contribute to a society that was determined not to see me. So when I saw that show, I was absolutely thrilled.

KELLY: And how did that inform how you played Maria?

MANZANO: I became Maria and never lost sight of myself as a little kid watching television. I watched television to find comfort and order in what seemed to me a tumultuous world. So when I became Maria, I never forgot that. And I always assumed that some kid was out there watching me, looking for the same comfort that I looked to find on "Leave It To Beaver" except this is going to be better (laughter) because I was one of them.

KELLY: You have this show that set out to intentionally feature a diverse cast of kids and adults. Marilyn, talk about how that went down. There was some pushback.

AGRELO: So in 1969, "Sesame Street" unveils, and there is a African American couple who live in the same neighborhood with their white neighbors. Yes, with Big Bird and several other Muppets, but it's a very integrated cast, the first time this is ever seen on television. In Jackson, Miss., the public television station received a lot of complaints, and they stopped airing the show. Miraculously, a commercial station in Jackson said if the public station won't air it, then we will. This is just an example of how groundbreaking this was. It's quite something.

KELLY: Muppets, the nonhuman characters on the show, connected so much with people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

FRANK OZ: (As Cookie Monster, singing) C is for cookie. That's good enough for me.

KELLY: I mean, I know as a kid, I was not remotely aware of a lot of the nobler advancement of social justice and racial equity that y'all were grappling with. I just thought, this is really funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

JERRY NELSON: (As Count von Count, singing) You know that I am called the Count because I really love to count.

KELLY: (Laughter) The Count and Oscar the Grouch had me rolling on the floor.

AGRELO: There were other shows with puppets on television, but there was something about the writing on "Sesame Street." You know, some of those Muppet skits had really sophisticated social satire. And this was all geared to bring the adults in.

KELLY: Writing on two levels, knowing that parents...

AGRELO: Exactly.

KELLY: ...Would connect at a different level than the kids.

AGRELO: Exactly. A perfect example of that is Alistair Cookie.

KELLY: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

OZ: (As Cookie Monster as Alistair Cookie) Good evening. Alistair Cookie here again. Welcome to Monsterpiece Theater.

MANZANO: Certainly another example of how the show worked on two levels was "It's Not Easy Being Green."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

JIM HENSON: (As Kermit the Frog, singing) It's not that easy being green, having to spend each day the color of the leaves.

MANZANO: Kermit the Frog singing that wonderful song with Lena Horne, the great jazz singer, activist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

LENA HORNE: (Singing) Green can be big like an ocean or important like a river.

MANZANO: And I walked into the studio that day, and I said, gee, are they singing about what I think they're singing about? Are they singing about race? Well, to me they were. And that's an example where it works on so many levels. If that's what's in your head and your mind and your experience, you would imbue that piece with that sensibility. And certainly, kids did. Or they just thought it was about what a drag it was to be a green Muppet. I mean, it worked on that level as well (laughter).

KELLY: So a show that started out radical, political, is it still do you think? Where have we landed five decades later?

AGRELO: I think "Sesame Street" is addressing the world as it is in the same way that they did then. I know that they have started writing moments where they're explaining what a protest is. Certainly, every child in America has seen the Black Lives Matter protests in the streets and sort of the upheaval that's happening in our society again, like it did in 1969. So "Sesame Street" continues to try to interpret the world with authenticity to really help explain to them what is happening around them.

KELLY: We've been talking with Marilyn Agrelo, who directs the film "Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street"; also with Sonia Manzano, who played Maria. The film's on demand today, and it's in theaters right now.

AGRELO: Thank you so much.

MANZANO: Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sunny day sweepin' the clouds away. On my way to where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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