Sesame Street has been educating — and entertaining — children for over 50 years now, but the makers of the show have had their own learning curve as well. The new documentary, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, provides a revealing account of the show's early years, when Jim Henson and the rest of the pioneering creative team sought to revolutionize what kids' programming could look and sound like. Adapted from the book by Michael Davis, the film pays particular attention to the experiences of Matt Robinson, a Black actor and activist who originated the role of longtime Sesame Street resident, Gordon Robinson.
"It was very interesting to bring someone like Matt Robinson into the fold," Street Gang director Marilyn Agrelo tells Yahoo Entertainment. "As his wife Dolores [Robinson] says in the film, 'What does Mr. Black have to do with a kiddie show?' He was really quite involved in the struggle with Black rights and his own programming that he had done on TV was very centered around Black culture and promoting that." (Watch our video interview above.)
As the film illustrates, Robinson wanted to use Sesame Street as an avenue to promote Black culture as well, even though Henson and the creators set out to adopt a largely color-blind approach to both the human and puppet characters. While he agreed with the show's emphasis on multi-racial diversity, he also wanted to ensure that Black children watching the series at home could see themselves represented onscreen. With that in mind, Robinson created and voiced the show's first Black Muppet: Roosevelt Franklin — whose name was an homage to America's 32nd president.
Introduced during the show's first season, Roosevelt was a student at the all-Muppet school, Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School. But he had no trepidation about leading his class in lessons about the difference between here and there, as well as the achievements of prominent Black Americans like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson. Even though Roosevelt departed from Sesame Street's color-blind approach, Agrelo says that the show's producers gave Robinson the space to pursue his vision. "The people on Sesame Street were very much behind Roosevelt Franklin, they were supporting Matt all the way."
While Roosevelt was embraced by the cast and crew, he didn't prove as popular with viewers at home. According to Agrelo, Black parents, in particular, took issue with the character. "They didn't want this stereotype to be present for their kids to emulate. They wanted their kids to be on equal footing. You can see the argument on both sides of that really: it's a very complex issue… and it's one we're still grappling with today."
Even as controversy swirled around the character, Robinson continued to voice Roosevelt onscreen, in public appearances and on record albums like The Year of Roosevelt Franklin. But producers eventually acquiesced to the audience's concerns, and the character was retired from the Muppet line-up in 1975. "I think the pressure came from the Black audience, and it was one of those decisions," Agrelo explains. "Sesame Street was so experimental in every way and not every idea succeeded, not every idea lived to its fulfillment because they were tackling so much through the lens of a show for preschoolers."
The loss of Roosevelt also led to the loss of Robinson: the actor had already retired as Gordon in 1972 — Hal Miller and Roscoe Orman inherited the role — and fully departed Sesame Street following his signature character's dismissal. Robinson went on to write for such TV comedies as Sanford and Son and The Cosby Show, before dying of Parkinson's disease in 2002. As for Roosevelt, he never completely vanished from the larger Sesame Street family: he's made non-speaking cameo appearances in subsequent episodes, as well as big-screen features like The Muppet Movie.
In recent years, Sesame Street has made a point of continuing to emphasize inclusivity, while also celebrating different cultures and backgrounds. Muppet characters as diverse as Rosita, Kami and Julia all have their roots in what Robinson hoped to achieve with Roosevelt. And the series recently welcomed two new Black Muppets to the cast: father and son, Elijah and Wesley. "I happen to know that in the next season of Sesame Street, the curriculum will be around the subject of race," Agrelo says, noting that the show has already been actively addressing the issue via special events like last summer's CNN town hall following the death of George Floyd.
And Street Gang producers Trevor Crafts and Ellen Scherer Crafts point out that Robinson's family continues to be associated with Sesame Street as well. "Matt's daughter, [actress] Holly Robinson Peete, is still connected with the show. She's an ambassador for autism awareness, and was very involved in the roll-out of Julia," Sherer Crafts says.
Adds Agrelo: "I think they were disappointed that Roosevelt went away… but the overall feeling is that they're so proud that their father and husband was this seminal figure in television."
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is currently playing in theaters and on demand services including Amazon
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