Last night, I watched something that made me cry. Easily one of the most powerful pieces of television I’ve ever seen, it reached into my childhood and brought forth my latent four-year old self. This show deserved a “Best Drama” Emmy far more than any of the now-dated shows which were considered. Is anyone really watching “Hill Street Blues” box sets? “St. Elsewhere?” “Cagney and Lacey?” However, I’m pretty sure somebody somewhere is watching “Sesame Street” right now. Either on DVD, You Tube or in another country, “Sesame Street” has been a constant presence in our lives since its debut in 1969. “Sesame Street” has never been associated with gut-wrenching, heart-stopping moments like those regularly seen on cop, law and medical shows – except for one time. In 1982, Will Lee, the actor who played storeowner, Mr. Hooper, died of a heart attack.
The show’s creator, Jim Henson, never believed in talking down to children and chose to address Mr. Hooper’s death through the show’s eternal three year old, Big Bird. In a rare scene featuring all of “Sesame Street’s” human characters, they support Big Bird through the three stages of grief: denial, anger and acceptance. All of the actors gave strong performances in this segment with Sonia Marzano as “Maria” and Bob McGrath as “Bob” being particularly moving. Both actors were able to combine skill and actual emotions, unable to hold back tears as they delivered their lines. The result is a moving mediation on what death means without identifying with any specific culture or dogma.
My son, Shane, is 3 ½ years old, approximately the same age as Big Bird. He is discovering the concept of dying, picking up on its never-ending presence in the media and daily conversation. I guess that was inevitable. Like many boys, he makes little robots with his Legos and engages them in imaginary battle. As one of them is destroyed, he shouts, “They died!” My wife and I asked him not to say the phrase and Shane asked “Why? Why not die?” This was a much tougher question to answer than why the sun rises or why it gets cold in winter. It was clear Shane did not understand the meaning of his words or at least what the words mean to adults.
I was stumped. Maybe it’s the video games. They’re easy enough to blame for children’s problems. Shane had started to play a platform game based on the cartoon “Ben 10”, which resembled the classic Castlevania games on the old Nintendo. He’s so proud of himself when he completes a level: “Da-Da! Da-Da! I win! I got the bad guys!” When he loses, he sadly states, “I died.” It’s definitely a “Cat’s In the Cradle” situation. Shane has seen his Daddy play tons of video games in the basement. Too small to master the controls of an Xbox or Wii, he wanted to play a game he could be good at, too. I have been playing video games since I was his age, spending every quarter I had on “Pac-Man, “Space Invaders” and “Asteroids.”
As I struggled on how to explain death to Shane, I was watching my You Tube playlist of educational videos with my 23-month old, Romana. I named it “Romana’s Playlist” after my little girl who loves music and words. The playlist mostly consists of classic “Sesame Street” clips, ones my 34-year old brain still remembers. While Romana and I were watching the comedic exploits of Ernie, Grover and Cookie Monster, I noticed a “related video” link to the “Sesame Street” episode addressing the death of Mr. Hooper. I had never seen this clip. When it aired, I was nine years old and in the third grade. My PBS viewing habits had switched to afternoon viewings of “Doctor Who.” As I watched it, I felt like the TARDIS had taken me back in time to a place long forgotten in my subconscious. Unable to interfere, I watched the drama unfold and wept.
My mother probably remembers Mr. Hooper’s death better than I do. When we were unboxing my old toys for Shane and Romana to play with, we found the “Little People” figure of Mr. Hooper. While looking at it, Mom said, “There’s Mr. Hooper. He died.” Her voice was sad, yet reassuring. She knew Mr. Hooper better than I did. My mom stayed home and raised me until I started school. We watched countless episodes of “Sesame Street” together. She identified with the human characters as well as I did, if not better. Mr. Hooper, Bob, Maria, Luis, Olivia, Susan, Gordon, David and Linda shared an hour with us five days a week. They were not just your neighbors. They were your friends. They exemplified the good in us all. Possessing unending optimism, humor and compassion, these were people you wanted to live in your neighborhood. Losing Mr. Hooper felt like losing a close friend. My mom never watched soap operas. If she escaped into another world, it was the utopia created by Jim Henson: a place without prejudice or conflict.
Shane came home today from swimming lessons in one of his cute, goofy moods. My wife, Andrea, was trying to get his coat and shoes off while Shane made jokes. Making his fingers into play guns, he shouted “Psheww! Psheww! You died!” at Andrea. I chose this time to show what I learned from “Sesame Street”:
Do you want Mommy to go away?
Then you don’t want Mommy to die.
Shane didn’t mention dying for a while after that.
It was not just the sensitive empathy for Big Bird that made this episode of “Sesame Street” exceptional, but its reaffirming hope, trust and belief in the circle of life at the episode’s end. The juxtaposition of Big Bird hanging Mr. Hooper’s portrait in his room as he is introduced to a newborn child is as profound and affecting as any piece of literature ever created. With death, there is also life and when there’s life, there is hope. This hope is inherent in the human race and defies the specter of death. It is in the hearts of children everywhere: in their imaginations, on a street filled with friendship and in the memories of all us Big Birds.