Pleasure in Their Company

Nothing tells us so much about ourselves as the things in which we take pleasure. But, relentless categorizers that we are, we classify even these: Some we call harmless; others, guilty pleasures. A few are more special yet. Wednesday, two men died who have given us pleasures of that latter sort--the sort in which we can take pride.

Sammy Davis Jr., who was 64, described himself as “a saloon entertainer,” who had earned his audience’s respect “because people say . . . ‘he’s always going to give you your money’s worth.’ ” But, quintessential song-and-dance man though he was, he gave something more. He tirelessly brought his enormous gifts to bear on the struggle to force the American conscience to come to grips with the indignity and dishonor of racial discrimination. If that’s the sort of entertainment to be had in saloons, make ours a double.

Jim Henson, who was 53, took an ancient diversion, puppeteering, and turned it into an expressive art made wholly new by its wit and warmth. Since their debut in 1969, the characters he created for “Sesame Street” have fanned out across the globe to instruct and delight children in 80 countries. Henson’s sensibility married a child’s heart and an adult’s conscience. His puppets’ appeal transcended generations because they reminded us of the children we once were, and suggested to our children what they might hope to be.