Remembering Sammy and Kermit: When Entertainment Was the True Reality Television

I wish I could take credit for this post, but instead, it’s a guest post from my husband. 

How is it possible that 20 years have passed? It is simply inconceivable to me. I can remember the day as though it was just a week ago. The double-whammy. One you knew was imminent, the other was a punch in the gut. 20 years. May 16, 1990. On that day, 20 years ago, we lost two of the greats: Sammy Davis Jr. and Jim Henson.

What I can’t remember, however, is whose death I learned of first [Henson died first, early on the morning of May 16th]. I want to say it was Sammy’s, but that may have more to do with the inordinate amount of media coverage it garnered compared to when word of Henson’s death was released. Sammy had been in deteriorating health from throat cancer. When he was admitted to Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in early 1990, doctors told him they might be able to save his life with a radical new procedure that included the removal of his vocal chords. Perhaps apocryphal, the story goes that Sammy looked at the doctors and said, “I’m not leavin’ [this Earth] without my pipes, man.” True to his word, Davis discharged himself from the hospital in mid-March 1990 and went home to die. For weeks, a morbid vigil developed in front of Davis’ California home as reporters seemingly eagerly awaited word of the entertainer’s death.

It was that preparation and expectation that may explain the way Henson’s death was – at the time – overlooked by many. The mainstream media was ready for Davis’ death. True, Davis was also a larger ‘star’. But Henson’s death at any other time would have been the lead story. Instead, it was largely overlooked at the time. It was only as days passed – particularly the moving memorial tribute to him by Big Bird at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on May 22nd – that the reality of Henson’s death began to sink in. I defy anyone to watch it and not be moved to tears.

Being of the same age as Sesame Street, I grew up with Henson – although I was probably about 10 when I first heard his name. My favorite Muppet was always Kermit the Frog. I enjoyed the others, but to me Kermit was the star.

Humble, funny, sarcastic without malice, and above all: an entertainer. That describes both Henson and Sammy Davis [not to mention Kermit]. That was another factor that made their deaths so ironic and sad: there are too few nice people in the world; to lose two in one day sucked.

Unlike Davis’ terminal illness, Henson’s death was completely unexpected. The entire episode took less than four full days. On May 12th Henson traveled to visit his father in North Carolina. The next morning he awoke not feeling well. Surprisingly – considering his Christian Science religious background – he sought out a doctor for consultation that day. The doctor found nothing to indicate pneumonia and simply told Henson to take aspirin and try to sleep. Henson decided to fly back home to New York. Henson was visited at home by his wife – from whom he was now separated – where they talked long into the evening. He fell asleep but awoke at 2 am on May 15th coughing up blood and having difficulty breathing. He uncharacteristically told Jane he thought he was dying. Around 4 am he consented to being taken to the hospital. He was admitted at 4:58 am at roughly the same time he became unable to breathe on his own at all. He was placed on a ventilator and pumped with an aggressive series of antibiotics. It was no use. Twenty hours later, at 1:21 am on May 16th, he died. The cause of death was organ failure due to a streptococcal infection.

While Henson was extremely influential on my childhood memories, so was Sammy. I first saw him singing The Candyman somewhere. He appeared in an episode of All in the Family a little later [this was, no doubt, a re-run, as the original episode aired in 1972]. I saw him in old clips. Singing, dancing. Laughing. Sammy was the real deal, and I knew it even as a kid. As much as I loved Michael Jackson as a kid, I scoffed at comparisons between he and Davis when it came to entertainment and dancing. While Davis had almost as bizarre a personal life as did Jackson [although I knew about neither man’s peccadilloes until much later], Sammy had charisma and charm. Jackson had surprisingly almost no personality at all.

There was something endearing about Sammy. He’d appear on a sitcom [I seem to remember a recurring character on Diff’rent Strokes] throughout the 1980s and I came to truly love his music and his persona. To me, even as a kid, Sammy Davis was cool.

So, today, on the 20th anniversary of their deaths, I remember these two great men. I sit here in wonder that it has been 20 years. Today, had they lived, Henson would have been 73 and Davis 84. Over the past twenty years many of their collaborators and contemporaries are gone. Indeed, the last person with whom Sammy recorded a song – Lena Horne – died just the other day [the song, by the way, is phenomenal: I Wish I’d Met You].

They were part of an era when ‘entertainment’ meant more than watching some fat bastard try to lose weight, some chick with enormous tits and not-so-enormous talent try to win a karaoke contest, or some incredibly dysfunctional psychopaths try to raise eight children on television in an attempt to become famous.

It meant real talent. Real magic.

Sammy Davis and Jim Henson. They were the ultimate and true reality television. RIP gentlemen, 20 years later you are still sorely missed.