"When people die, they don’t come back - ever?" - Big Bird

Actor Will Lee played Harold Hooper, the kindly proprietor of the general store on Sesame Street and a fixture on the show. Mr. Hooper was responsible for the most poignant moment on the show that I remember from my childhood. Bert and Ernie were shopping for Christmas presents but were low on cash, as puppets often are. So Ernie traded in his beloved rubber duckie for a display case for Bert’s paper clip collection while Bert traded in his precious collection for a soap dish for Ernie’s duckie. Isn’t it ironic? On Christmas Day, Mr. Hooper saves the day. His gifts to the pair were the rubber duckie and paper clip collection! I was too young to know that it was one of thousands of rip-offs of O. Henry’s short story "The Gift of The Magi" – at one point every show on TV had a Magi rip-off episode – and I loved the touching sentimentality.

When Will Lee died in 1983 (several years after I was too old and cool to watch Sesame Street), the producers of the show had a dilemma on their hands. Death is a sensitive subject to present to kids, but to their credit they rose to the challenge. Instead of Hooper disappearing from view or being quietly replaced without explanation – the fate of most secondary characters on TV – the show tackled the issue head on. They heavily promoted a special episode to give parents as much warning as possible, and aired it on Thanksgiving weekend, so the whole family would be home to discuss what had happened. The episode never aired again (I have not seen it) so unprepared kids would not stumble across it in reruns by accident.

Mr. Hooper’s character became the first indication to me of the generation gap. As I get older, the gap gets wider and more obvious, but it was a shock to me at the time. Kids who watched Sesame Street post-1983 had no idea who Mr. Hooper was, and I first learned this when I casually mentioned him (I have no idea why) to my high school girlfriend, who was a grade or two lower. "Who?" she asked. I was stunned. I was also stunned by another bit of news. "Who the hell is Elmo?" I wanted to know.

Little did I know of the horror that was to come years later: Tickle Me Elmo.
This show was brought to you by the letters J and M, and by the number 5.

No, it really was. Oddly enough, I just watched this episode -- it was on at 4AM on some random cable station. Watching this episode as an adult I appreciated how well the writers handled it and how many subtle things I never picked up on when I saw it as a child.

For instance, in the same show, parallel to the Mr. Hooper story line was a story about Mr. And Mrs. William's new baby, perhaps suggesting the continuity and cyclic nature of human life.

At one point in the show, Big Bird insists on walking around with his head between his legs -- and when asked why he was doing this he could only say it was "Just Because." Later on the grownups have to tell Big Bird about Mr. Hooper -- and he has all of these questions that children must have when somebody dies, "Is he really gone?, When will he be back? Do you mean forever?" When Big Bird wants to know why, they tell him, "Just Because". He understands this -- but more important is that the children at home could understand this, could begin to understand what it means for a thing to be inevitable, for a thing to be forever.

If you watched carefully, you could see that at the end the grownups crying just a bit, and you could see that none of them were acting.

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