(Editor’s note: The subject of this story, Michael Davis, is southern region manager for Solutions Journalism Network and led the formation of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is backed by several major media companies, including The Charlotte Observer.)
When Michael Davis started mapping out plans for a book about the origins of one of the most iconic, most influential and most groundbreaking children’s television shows of all-time — “Sesame Street” — he had a clear vision for how he wanted the narrative to unfold.
“I thought of it in acts,” he says, “and I thought about where the climax would be, and a resolution to that climax. So I always thought about it cinematically. It helped me as a storyteller.”
This could be a movie, Davis thought. This should be a movie.
Yet, despite the fact that he poured a full year of hard work and exhaustive research and interviewing into just the writing of a proposal for what eventually became the New York Times bestseller “Street Gang: The Complete History of ‘Sesame Street,’” he was extraordinarily laissez-faire when it came to getting someone to purchase the film rights.
“I let the game come to me,” says the 69-year-old Davis, smiling, as he sits in the office of his and his wife Debra’s Davidson home.
His eventual realization?
The game can unfold very, very slowly.
On Friday, roughly 17 years after setting out to write his first (and so far only) book, a feature-length documentary that is based on it — “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” — will be released in select theaters nationwide. The film is arriving on a wave of significant buzz: An audience favorite as an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter, it garners a glowing 98% “fresh” rating on the review website Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing.
And it may well all have happened simply because Davis volunteered to take an unpopular job.
‘Because no one else wanted to’
Davis enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1970s and declared his major as psychology. But joining the staff at the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, would ultimately end up altering his career path.
“I thought I was gonna be a school psychologist,” he says. “But after undergraduate life, I delivered pizzas for Domino’s and taught at a preschool for Project Head Start and had a part-time job at a newspaper in Ithaca, New York. And I decided that the thing that I enjoyed most was working at the DTH. (I thought), ‘Why don’t I keep doing that?’ So I applied to Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern and got in.
“Then I was off and running.”
Over the next two-plus decades Davis worked in editing and sports-writing jobs at newspapers in Louisville, Kentucky, Clearwater, Florida, Chicago and Baltimore before landing in 1998 at TV Guide, where as a senior editor one of his area’s of coverage was children’s television.
“I did it because no one else wanted to do it,” he says, “and I was only too happy to grab it, because I’ve always loved it, and I’ve always been interested in it, and as a kid I absolutely loved television.”
In 2004, Davis was assigned to write a story about the 35th anniversary of “Sesame Street,” and he was only too happy to do that, too, “because I’d been a Muppet fan all my life and a ‘Sesame Street’ fan since (the show debuted in) 1969. ... I tend to over-report, over-stress, over-worry about making sure I understood the story, so I worked on it right up until the last moment, right up to deadline.
“As I was writing the final paragraphs, I had tears in my eyes, and my co-worker in the next office came by and said, ‘What’s with you?’ I said that working on this project brought me back to the time when my daughters were pre-schoolers and we would watch ‘Sesame Street’ on the couch together. I was realizing how great a debt we as parents owe to this show, that it touched so many people in so many ways.”
Not long after the original TV Guide article was published, on April 3, 2004, he began realizing there was still quite a lot more to be said about all of that.
A book? Yes. A movie? Hmmm.
Everyone knew Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover and Oscar the Grouch.
But no one, Davis would come to learn, had ever told the definitive story about how “Sesame Street” was conceived, about how the series was launched, and about how it evolved in its approach to presenting educational concepts and entertainment to children who were in their formative years during its own formative years.
He saw the opportunity to write a book encompassing those origins as low-hanging fruit.
“And in doing the research,” he says, “it became clear to me that the evolution of ‘Sesame Street’ was an untold story of the civil-rights movement. That’s what really got me deeply involved in the project: When I realized that (this was a) group of people who came together after the assassination of Martin Luther King, who decided that they needed to do something, to utilize their gifts as creators to make the world a better place.”
His hard work on the proposal paid off: After a dozen of New York’s top publishers showed eagerness to get their hands on the story, Davis struck a publishing deal with Viking Penguin in 2006.
Then — after he over-reported, over-stressed and over-worried about every aspect of his book — “Street Gang” was published at the end of 2008 alongside an audiobook version narrated by Carroll Spinney, the puppeteer who brought Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life for nearly five decades.
In the year or so that followed, he was routinely called upon whenever someone needed to talk to a “Sesame Street” expert.
Davis received just one call, though, about turning it into a movie.
There was interest, he says, in adapting his book into a feature film (not a documentary, but something along the lines of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the 2019 movie about Mr. Rogers). So he wrote what in Hollywood is called a treatment — basically an outline — that started with Kermit the Frog going through a scrapbook of memories with his nephew, Robin.
The idea went nowhere beyond that.
“It was just one of those things that can happen with people in Hollywood,” Davis says. “He was interested for five minutes and then wasn’t interested.”
After that, he stuck to his plan to just sat back and wait for the game to come to him. And on a random day in early 2015, when he was working as the executive editor for Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, it finally did.
‘You really have to read this’
In 2014, Trevor Crafts and his wife Ellen Scherer Crafts were trying to gain traction for their small start-up production company, Macrocosm, which at the time was mostly focused on indie films and TV series.
But Trevor was also “a bit of a ‘Sesame Street’ nerd,” and Jim Henson — the genius who created Sesame Street’s Muppets — was a longtime personal hero.
“As Ellen and I were looking for some additional projects and some things to sort of expand into documentary for Macrocosm, we came upon Michael’s book,” he says. “I read it, and I think what struck me so much was just how much I didn’t know ... and just to learn so much about how it was done. So I said to Ellen, you really have to read this, because I think this is telling not only an amazing story of the show, but I think it’s also telling something that’s a lot bigger. Which is often how the best documentaries are made.”
“For me,” Scherer Crafts adds, “what really resonated was this whole idea of coming out of the 1960s with this desire to do something to address education for preschool children and children going to school, and also to make sure that it addressed children of color that were living in the city. ... I thought, That’s a really interesting story to tell.”
Their people talked to Davis’s people, then Trevor made a call to Davis. The producer’s passion for the project was evident to the author. Shortly thereafter, Davis sold the film rights to Macrocosm.
Davis, who was brought on as a co-executive producer of and a consultant to the film, introduced them to all of his key contacts — those who were integral to the creation and evolution of “Sesame Street,” or, since several of those are no longer living, their children or spouses.
Davis also turned over all of his reporting to the filmmaking team, led by the Craftses and director Marilyn Agrelo, who previously had directed the 2005 documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom.” That reporting included a massive trove of recorded interviews, transcripts and photographs. And, of course, there was the 349-page book itself.
“One of the challenges working with Michael’s material is it’s such an embarrassment of riches,” Trevor Crafts says. “It was very challenging to try to find the right stories to put a documentary together.”
“But what we tried to do,” chimes Ellen Scherer Crafts, “is take the core — like, the gem that was Michael’s book, which was telling something that many people didn’t know about this program that is an institution in our culture, and in our media landscape — and having people look at it again in a new way.”
It looks, very clearly, as if they were able to overcame those challenges and accomplish what they were trying to do.
An ending worth the wait
The film version of “Street Gang” took more than six years to complete, but in the past 2-1/2 it has built an impressive head of steam.
First, HBO acquired U.S. streaming and broadcast rights in the fall of 2018, meaning it would get tagged with the prestigious “HBO Documentary Films” label. Then, after going somewhat into limbo in the late stages of production due to COVID, it was announced in December that “Street Gang” would be among the 72 full-length movies debuting at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Just days later, Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment’s company Screen Media acquired the North American rights to put the film in theaters.
And so far, it is overwhelmingly a critics darling. But does the movie pass muster with the man whose work was the inspiration?
“I had a little notebook next to me, but I didn’t need the notebook at all, because ... I just fell into it,” Davis recalls of seeing the finished film for the first time on his computer in his home office, from which does the day job — southern region manager for Solutions Journalism Network — that brought him to Davidson from Oregon in 2018.
He recalls the experience as “extremely emotional,” in large part for selfless reasons.
“What welled up were the feelings of gratitude to the production team for persevering. It was such hard work. Getting the funding for a documentary is hard, and finding your way to get to the story and making decisions about what not to include is so hard. So that’s where I was on that. Just immense gratitude.”
“It’s true to the book,” he adds, “and true to the original intentions for writing the book. But it is its own thing, too, and I’m so pleased about that. That Marilyn found a way to make it her own.”
Though he initially tries to deflect taking much credit for what’s on screen, when pressed, he admits that Friday’s release of the movie is an enormous deal for him personally.
“A lot of water has passed under that proverbial bridge,” says Davis, whose 69th birthday was Thursday.
“I’m Jewish, and there’s a prayer in Judaism called the Shehechiyanu prayer. It’s basically one where you say thank the almighty for allowing you to live to see this day. And that’s how I feel.
“I’m just so grateful to be here for this.”
Where to see ‘Street Gang’
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is in limited release Friday. It does not reach the Carolinas until next week.
The film opens April 30, at Alamo Drafthouse Raleigh in Raleigh and Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines. On May 7, viewers can get it on-demand at home. “Street Gang” opens May 21 at a/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem. There are currently no plans for it to be screened in theaters in the Charlotte area.
In December, the documentary will premiere on HBO and HBO Max.