TAMPA — Two iconic furry characters that have touched generations of Americans came bounding into St. Joseph's Children's Hospital on Friday bent on bringing smiles to ill children. They came with blanketing hugs, peek-a-boo mitts and bright, googly eyes, disregarding their own mortality, having only recently learned that they themselves might be facing a deadly prognosis.
Elmo and Cookie Monster made a special hospital visit Friday in advance of Sesame Street Live's Elmo Makes Music shows over the next five nights at the University of South Florida Sun Dome. Twenty-four miles away, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was in Pier Park in St. Petersburg.
The coincidental intersection of politician and puppets in Tampa Bay would have normally been unrelatable had it not been for something Romney said on Wednesday night during the first presidential debate.
If elected, he told the nation, he would cut funding to Sesame Street's parent Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which got $445 million in federal funding this year. "I like PBS, I love Big Bird," he said. "But I'm not going to — I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for (it)."
Blogs exploded, comedic Internet memes backing the giant yellow domestic canary flooded Facebook and an @firedbigbird Twitter account quickly accumulated more than 30,000 followers. President Barack Obama stuck up for Big Bird at a Denver campaign rally, where he also wondered if Romney would go after Elmo, as well. The real Big Bird, at least one who chirped through Sesame Street's official Twitter account, flew above the fray seemingly unconcerned, saying he had slept through the debate.
But he wasn't at the hospital Friday. It was unclear if he was curled up in his nest or simply resting. Democrats and its DNC Rapid Response team said in a news release that Big Bird was on his way to St. Petersburg to confront Romney, though an imposter was suspected, given Sesame Street's nonpartisan stance on the controversy. Elmo and Cookie Monster certainly weren't talking. Instead, the towering puppets squatted down to 17-month-old Ariel Buie's level and coaxed the reluctant child into a hug.
They pulled a little girl around in a red Radio Flyer wagon, her mother tagging along with her intravenous cart. The puppets took turns coloring with a bald cancer patient. They stopped a girl with scarred legs and a surgical mask being rolled into surgery, engulfing her in hugs that swallowed her tiny frame.
"Bye," she said meekly, her hands clutching a stuffed cat.
The characters made underweight 1-year-old Maverick Leppan drop his pacifier in a giant grin, exposing the feeding tube that snaked into his nose. They drew a giant smile out of 6-year-old Jaime Rivera, who has been cramping the past few days with a compacted colon.
"I love his little cheesy smile," his mother, Melissa Rivera, 29, said of her son.
Kim McDowell hasn't been able to take her 7-month-old daughter, Jahlahna Washington, outside with an immune system struggling with sickle cell anemia. But the Sesame Street puppets gave the little girl with a swollen arm and leg the distraction she craved.
"It's laughter," McDowell said. "I don't think they should get rid of them or else these kids have nothing to do in their rooms."
Dave Clark, 35, and his wife, Carrie, 33, often play their 4-month-old son, Derek, a YouTube clip featuring Cookie Monster's C Is for Cookie song before bed. Friday, his gray-blue eyes danced in delight at the real thing. An IV needle protruding from the right side of his head bobbed up and down. Veins in his arms and legs are too scarred or sore from constant pricking.
"He's a pin cushion," Dave Clark said.
If it wasn't for Cookie Monster and Elmo, Xiomara Nunez-Conley, 5, wouldn't have gotten out of bed a day after kidney surgery, her mom, Leslie Gonzalez, 28, said. Instead, she sat happily sandwiched between the furry monsters, coloring at a table, while her mother wondered about their health and Sesame Street's future.
"If they cut that, what happens to the characters?" she wondered.
Sesame Street Live's performance director, Jerry Dumars, said he was unconcerned about funding cuts, confident generations of fans who grew up with the 43-year-old show would keep Elmo and Cookie Monster alive.
"We support both candidates," he said.
Soon, Dumars escorted the giant red and blue puppets down a hallway and away from the throng of children with bandaged arms and IV tubes who watched them bob away.
Khamani Walls, 2, wearing a Cookie Monster-shaped paper crown, looked up at his mom.
"Where's Elmo?" he asked.
Justin George can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3368 or on Twitter @justingeorge.