Believe this: Muppet Bert isn't dead, isn't dying

December 07, 1997|By Susan Reimer

BERT, ERNIE'S roommate on "Sesame Street," is not dead. He isn't even ill.

Bert is healthy and he is going to stay healthy. Got that?

Because after you are done reading this, all you are likely to remember is that you read in the newspaper something about Bert dying, and that's what you will say to a friend, and the kids will overhear you and go to school and tell their friends that "Sesame Street" is going to kill off Bert, and, hang on, because we will be off to the races. Again.

The "Bert is dead" rumor, which first circulated a couple of years ago as "Ernie is dead," has come back to life. It survives in the face of hard evidence to the contrary, because the believer heard it from an absolutely reliable source, like a friend at school.

"Oh, no. Not again," says Lisa Sherman-Cohen, senior publicist for Children's Television Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street."

"What city this time?"

The "Bert is dead" rumor has surfaced in Pittsburgh, I tell her, where I visited during the Thanksgiving holiday and found my niece inconsolable. Elizabeth refused to believe me when I told her it could not be true. She said her brother told her it was true, and he's in high school; and her cousin came home from college, and he said he heard it, too.

She offered as proof the fact that there is no "Sleep and Snore Bert" toy out this Christmas -- Ernie sleeps and snores alone.

"Right, Elizabeth," I said impatiently. "And Paul is the only Beatle on the 'Abbey Road' album cover in bare feet."

She looked at me blankly, so I said I would call the people who produce "Sesame Street" and prove that Bert was still communing with pigeons.

"Bert is alive and well, as are all the Muppets," said Sherman- Cohen for perhaps the millionth time. " 'Sesame Street' is a children's show. We certainly wouldn't kill off one of our Muppets."

Much like the "Paul is dead" rumor of 30 years ago, the "Bert is dead" rumor is what is called an "urban legend." It is a mistake or a misunderstanding or a joke or an out-and-out lie that takes on a life of its own.

Diane Goldstein, head of the folklore department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, studies such urban legends. She has followed the "Bert is dead" rumor back to where she believes it began: with another rumor that Bert and Ernie are gay.

She says that rumor can be traced to a book, "The Real Thing," published in 1980 by Kurt Andersen and purported to be a guide to fact and fiction in American popular culture. In discussing recurring rumors of homosexuality among the rich and famous, Andersen made an oblique reference to Bert and Ernie:

"Bert and Ernie conduct themselves in the same loving, discreet way that millions of gay men, women and hand puppets do. They do their jobs well and live a splendidly settled life together in an impeccably decorated cabinet," Andersen wrote.

"What I think happened," says Goldstein, "is that it became a joke in the gay community. Then it drifted out of the gay community and was taken seriously by others. That is eventually what happens with urban legends."

In 1993, the story exploded in a series of letters to the editor published in TV Guide. A grandmother wrote to complain that Bert and Ernie were gay and her grandchildren would not be allowed to watch "Sesame Street." It became so overblown that Children's Television Workshop was forced to issue a denial.

"Bert and Ernie do not portray a gay couple and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. Bert and Ernie are characters who help demonstrate to children that despite their differences, they can be good friends," Children's Television Workshop said in a 1993 statement.

In January 1994, the Rev. Joseph Chambers attempted to get the puppets banned from North Carolina television under an anti-gay law.

"Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom. They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics," Chambers said on his radio show, according to research done by the International Society for Contemporary Legends.

From there, the "Bert and Ernie are gay" rumor took off until it was whispered that they were getting married on a future episode or that they would marry during the tour of "Sesame Street Live." From there, Goldstein says, it was a short jump to one of them developing AIDS and dying.

"That seems to be tied to the death of Jim Henson," Goldstein theorizes. Henson was the creator of the Muppets, who died of pneumonia in 1990. "His death was sudden and a shock. People don't usually die of pneumonia, and the disease has come to be associated with AIDS and HIV," Goldstein says. "The fears about what happened to Jim Henson began to be mirrored in his Muppets."

She thinks what began as a joke in the gay community escaped into the general population and "came to express our fears about AIDS and illness and sexuality."

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