Thankful for a Beloved Feathered Friend
You might think that Big Bird would make himself scarce at Thanksgiving time. After all, he could be mistaken for a holiday feast!
However, it was on a Thanksgiving Day that Big Bird was front and center in one of the most powerful programs that the groundbreaking series Sesame Street has ever produced.
The year was 1983. The broadcast aired during the first week of a new Sesame Street season–on the holiday, so that parents were home with their children to discuss the program.
Our tall feathered friend helped children to understand death and grief.
The episode was called “Farewell, Mr. Hooper.” Will Lee, the actor who played the gruff but good-hearted store owner, had died of a heart attack. They’d grown to love the grumpy grocer through his many chats with Big Bird, who came in to buy birdseed milkshakes.
The question for show producers was: How do we explain Mr. Hooper’s absence? Had he gone on vacation, never to be seen or mentioned again? Had he moved away?
No. Producers said they followed their instincts to “deal with [death] head-on.” First, they researched how preschoolers react to death. Experts advised them to stay away from how Mr. Hooper died and provide their young viewers with a sense of closure about Mr. Hooper’s passing.
Head writer Norman Stiles is quoted as saying: “We decided to say that while Mr. Hooper was not here anymore, we will always have that part of him that lives within the heart, that we have our love, and that it will always stay.”
The episode ends with a tearful Big Bird saying he’s going to miss Mr. Hooper and hanging Mr. Hooper’s picture near his nest. Then he leaves to see a new baby visiting the neighborhood.
Like many children’s shows scattered over the TV universe, Sesame Street entertains. And, like other PBS children’s shows, it has always done something deeper and lasting: it teaches.
So, at Thanksgiving, we at PBS Hawaii toast a dear, not-for-eating “big bird” who has brought new dimension to young lives!