Back during my brief flowering as a writer of comedic songs–Kitchen Utensil Love, Gay Squirrels, etc.–I wrote a song about Sesame Street, the lyrics of which evade me now, other than “Mr. Hooper is Dead, Grover is a Alcoholic.”
I thought about that song when I came across this passage in The New Yorker in the story How We Got to Sesame Street:
For Kamp, “Sesame Street” peaked in 1983, after the death of Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, the neighborhood grocer. Lee, a former member of a radical theatre troupe, had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the nineteen-fifties and been blacklisted from television; “Sesame Street” had become his theatrical home. He was much admired by the rest of the cast, and the writers decided to reckon, on air, with grief. Big Bird, told that Mr. Hooper is dead, wants to know when he’s coming back. “Big Bird, when people die they don’t come back,” a cast member says, softly. Big Bird tilts his head, yellow feathers fluttering, and whispers, unbelieving, “Ever?”
I remember that episode of Sesame Street like it was yesterday: the stunning absence of Mr. Hooper, Big Bird uttering that line. I’m pretty sure that Mr. Hooper cum Will Lee’s death was the first time I remember “death” being a thing.