Unseen Work of Jim Henson
treated to Muppet rarities at Henson seminar
October 22, 2003
Wednesday October 15, 2003, the Museum of Television and Radio in New
York City hosted a very special event, “Muppet Rarities: The Unseen
Work of Jim Henson”. The seminar was presented by the Jim Henson
Legacy, which was established in 1992 by the friends and family of Jim
Henson in response to the extraordinary interest in Jim’s life and
work. The Jim Henson Legacy is dedicated to preserving and perpetuating
Jim Henson’s contributions to the worlds of puppetry, television,
motion pictures, special effects and media technology.
mandate is to share the power of Jim’s art, imagination and positive
view of the world by making his body of work available to the public through
preservation and exhibitions, and this event was certainly in keeping
with those goals. Tickets were affordable (just $12 each) and when the
theatre sold out a week or so before the event, the Museum was kind enough
to open a screening room upstairs so that people who hadn’t been
able to buy tickets for the main room could watch a closed-circuit video
feed of the event.
of notable Henson and puppetry people were in the audience including Muppeteers
Joey Mazzarino and Eric Jacobson, legendary Muppet designer Bonnie Erickson
(who the audience quickly learned was a previously unannounced member
of the panel) and two of Jim’s children, Heather and John Henson,
whom Jane Henson referred to as “the east coast kids.” I also
spotted Bill Remington, a New York-based puppeteer and member of “Team
Twooey” in the current Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors
in the line-up for the closed circuit room on my way inside.
was divided in to two parts: first screenings of unseen material, followed
by a discussion and Q&A with a panel that included puppet designer
Bonnie Erickson, archivist Karen Falk, and historian-writer Craig Shemin.
Craig also served as host for the evening.
curator of the Museum of Television and Radio, welcomed the audience and
spoke briefly about the long association between the museum and Jim Henson's
Muppets, including some events in which Jim himself had taken part in.
He also noted that the Jim Henson Legacy had held a number of successful
events at the museum. He then introduced our host, Craig Shemin. Ron listed
Craig’s many Muppet writing credits and added mischievously that
Craig was “also the author of a book…Miss Piggy’s Cookbook”.
Craig quickly took the podium and joked, “the cookbook is actually
quite good. I’m sure you could still find a copy of it on a remainder
discussed the work of the Legacy and it’s ongoing efforts to preserve
Jim Henson’s work. He explained that although most of the Muppet’s
post-Sesame Street work has been well preserved and documented, much of
their early work from the `50s and `60s has not survived.
the early days of television most local TV programs - like the ones the
Muppets appeared on in the Washington D.C. area - were broadcast live.
Although some national TV shows were filmed, the costs associated with
filming were so high that few stations ever bothered to record their local
on the right, early Muppet programs from this pre-video-recording era
were recorded on kinescopes or “kines”, films made by setting
up a Kinescope camera in front of a black and white monitor and filming
a TV program as it aired live. Unfortunately, few kinescopes of Sam and
Friends (the first Muppet television series) and Jim’s other early
work have survived, purportedly because Jim rarely bothered to record
his programs, unless he was trying out a new technique or wanted to review
a particular aspect of his performance.
outlined for us the early career of the Muppets and their early appearances
in commercials and on the many variety shows of the `60s; likening that
era’s variety show craze to TV’s current explosion of reality
TV shows. He also assured the audience that although some of the footage
that was to be screened might be familiar to die-hard Muppet fans, everyone
in the audience was going to see something they had never seen before.
That was an understatement. Not only had we not seen most of this footage,
we never even knew it existed.
very first clip was of Kermit and Chicken Liver lip-syncing to “I
Have No Bananas.” They didn’t do much, but it was still
really funny. In the next clip, Kermit interviews Muppet versions of
Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, hosts of The Huntley-Brinkley Report,
NBC’s flagship news program of that era (which Sam and Friends
followed each weeknight on WRC-TV 4 in Washington, D.C.). In this skit
Kermit asks each of the newsmen a series of questions and each time
they answer with a portion of the phrase “I’m David Brinkley
from NBC Washington” (for David) or “I’m Chet Huntley
from NBC New York.” This was actually one of the funniest skits
shown and a good example of why Jim was such a television pioneer. Years
later the same comedic device would be used on Saturday Night Live’s
Fun with RealAudio and Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers among countless
other TV programs.
Muppets were frequent guests on the Today Show, doing local cut-ins
for the show from Washington. We saw the closing moments of “Old
Black Magic” with Sam and a blonde wigged Kermit lip syncing to
the music. Jim and Jane (who had performed the number) were interviewed
afterwards briefly. Unfortunately the interview wasn’t very revealing
– the interviewer was strangely obsessed with Kermit’s wig
and kept asking Jane what gender he was supposed to be – but it
was great to get a “behind the scenes” view of the Muppets
from the early 1960s. It was also surprising to discover that Jane performed
Kermit in the skit while Jim did Sam and that even in this early stage,
the Kermit puppet was built with rods in the back of his legs so they
could be crossed and manipulated.
dozen or so eight-second commercials featuring the Southern Colonel
followed Sam and Friends. The Southern Bread commercials are thought
to be the first examples of the Muppets filming on location and are
really just a series of eight-second, one-gag spots. Each of the commercials
featured a dapper Southern Colonel (Muppet) who would say “I’d
do anything for Southern Bread…” and would then proceed
to do something extreme like jumping out a window, driving to the north
or (horror of horrors) going to Yankee Stadium! Most spots also included
a twist at the end. Such as the Colonel deciding he likes Yankee Stadium
(because all the fans are yelling at the “Yankees”) or the
Colonel jumping out a window only to magically float back up (“because
Southern Bread won’t let you down”). The commercials are
quick, clever and as funny today as I imagine they were in the `60s.
Meats (Meeting Film)
next was an early “Muppet Meeting Film” produced for the
sales staff of Wilson’s Meats. During this period Muppets Inc.
were producing an ongoing series of popular commercials for Wilson’s
Meats featuring two Muppets named Scoop and Skip. This was the longest
single clip screened at the event and it’s filled with lots of
funny bits. It’s fascinating to watch this film because it’s
clear that even at this early stage of his career Jim was extremely
comfortable directing live action as well as puppets.
film is a pseudo-documentary revealing the “process” behind
the latest series of Wilson’s Meat commercials and begins with
Scoop and Skip assuring viewers that Muppets Inc. does not spend their
commercial shoots throwing wild parties. We then quickly cut to scenes
of a wild party featuring – who else – the employees of
Muppets Inc., Jim, Frank and Jerry drinking, dancing and having a wild
time in a TV studio.
meeting is seen next, with the Muppets Inc. employees (again Jim, Frank,
Jerry and someone who I presume was Don Sahlin) on one side and a group
of advertising “suits” on the other. The suits argue back
and forth with the Muppet folks about what kind of commercials should
be produced and how. Jane Henson later revealed that these were the
actual advertising executives on the Wilson Meats account and that they
had been thrilled to participate in the film.
no one in the film was a “professional” actor everyone put
in a great performance and the film has a wonderful campy feel to it.
Frank Oz is especially funny in a segment where he tries to go door
to door doing research only to be chased around and brutalized by an
angry housewife. Frank later reappears in the boardroom bandaged, bruised
and looking like he just came out of traction.
film also showcased Jim’s fascination with animation and experimental
filmmaking. It wasn’t clear whether or not this film followed
or preceded Jim’s Oscar-nominated 1965 short, Timepiece, but one
proposed “commercial” within the film is shot in a style
very similar to Timepiece. In another segment Jim and an assistant (again,
Don Sahlin I believe) animate a can of Wilson’s Meat using stop-motion.
The film finishes off with the ad agency executives exhausted and Muppets
Inc. going back to business as usual – partying in the TV studio
while Skip and Scoop look on with disgust.
of the Tinkerdee
we were treated to three short clips from the TV pilot “Tales
of the Tinkerdee”, which the Muppets shot in Atlanta in the summer
of 1962. The pilot featured Kermit, Tamanilla Grinderfall and King Gosh
Posh, characters who would all reappear a few years later in the Tales
From Muppetland TV specials. The longest of the three clips featured
Tamanilla Grinderfall scheming with a “human” Ogre played
by Jim (seen only from the knees down).
of the Tinkerdee
program was only recently discovered and one extended clip was shown
featuring a live actor who attempts to repair the watch of King Gosh
Posh. "Land of the Tinkerdee" was another Tinkerdee-themed
TV pilot, presumably featuring the same characters. It’s a notable
production because it featured probably the first real blending of Muppets
and actors; a technique later employed in almost every Muppet project
from Sesame Street onward.
Wizard of ID
another recently uncovered TV pilot, "The Wizard of Id". Shot
in 1969 (the same year Sesame Street debuted), the pilot was based on
the popular comic strip by John Hart and Brant Parker. This is believed
to be the first time Jim had ever built puppets based on someone else’s
designs and the then-fledgling strip’s Wizard and King were faithfully
adapted in Muppet form for television. A generic monster (who also appears
in the original Sesame Street pitch film) is featured as well. The Wizard
blows up the King at the end of the clip and tells the audience “it’s
a typical Muppet ending,” which it is. It’s really unfortunate
that this series was never produced. Even though the short segment filmed
for the pilot was obviously done on a small budget, it still looks beautiful.
The gags are great and the characters all seem promising.
clip of Jim performing Rowlf singing “You’re Just In Love”
with Jimmy Dean from the Jimmy Dean Show was screened next. Afterwards,
Craig Shemin explained that all the segments for The Jimmy Dean Show
were shot live, which meant that the puppeteers had to perform non-stop
with their arms in the air for over seven minutes. Joey Mazzarino pointed
out from the audience that seven minutes was an excruciating long time
to perform a puppet by Muppet standards!
revealed that the Muppets had been pitted against Jimmy Dean in a heated
bidding war for the footage, though they didn’t initially realize
who they were bidding against. When Jimmy offered the owner of the footage
substantially more money, Jim struck an agreement to buy the Rowlf segments
of each show (Rowlf only appeared in 15 minutes of each episode) with
his own money while Jimmy Dean retained the remaining footage from each
recently discovered footage followed the Jimmy Dean clips. "Our
Place" was a summer replacement series for The Smothers Brothers
Comedy Hour and was produced by Ed Sullivan, with whom the Muppets had
a warm working relationship. Two clips from this series were shown,
one of the classic "Boston Pops" Muppet sketch (seen later
on The Muppet Show) and the other a duet between Rowlf and a comedian
named Carol Burnette who was about to get her own variety series that
fall. Say, I wonder how she made out with that?
Dick Cavett Show
those funky puppets of Jim, Frank and Jerry that popped up on The Muppet
Show once and awhile? If you’ve always wondered what they were
built for now you know - this skit on The Dick Cavett Show. In it, puppet
versions of the Henson Trio sing "Mama Don't Allow No Country Music".
The Jerry Nelson puppet played guitar, while Jim’s puppet played
banjo and Frank’s played bass. The skit was followed by a nice
interview with all three performers still holding their puppets. Dick
seemed a little thrown throughout it and kept repeating, “that’s
so weird” as he compared the puppeteers and their puppet offspring.
Most interesting in this clip is that Frank is seen wearing a body brace
that supports the bass his puppet was playing. Jim also tells Dick in
the clip that Bonnie Nelson (now Bonnie Erickson) built the puppets.
the clip played, Bonnie addressed the issue of the puppet’s outrageous
bohemian clothes by telling the audience “I dressed them that
way because that’s the way they really dressed back then!”
Craig added that the forthcoming Palisades'
Jim Henson action figure is based on the Jim Henson puppet seen
in the clip. Palisades has done a lot of research on the puppet itself
to get the figure right. They even consulted with Bonnie to determine
what the Jim figure’s pants should look like since the Jim puppet
was only built from the waist up.
Mike Douglas Show
were clips from the Mike Douglas Show, a daily talk show the Muppets
appeared on several times and co-hosted for one week in the 1960s. A
number of sketches from this show were presented, including a sweet
number with Rowlf cheering up a sad little girl, who promptly leaves
him for the next boy who comes along.
sketch, “Idea Man,” featured a character named Idea Man
(a puppet sometimes referred to as “Nobody”); a ghostly
white face superimposed over a filmed background. In this sketch, Idea
Man ponders the nature of ideas – where they come from and what
they are. This is a good example of Jim’s lesser-known interest
in experimental forms of puppetry. In the interview that followed the
sketch, Jim and Jerry Juhl explained
that the puppet was actually made of white string, suspended in a black
frame about three feet high. Jim was able to animate Idea Man’s
face using gloves connected to it via invisible strings. Jerry Nelson
is also seen in the clip performing the character’s eyes (possibly
assisted by Frank Oz) using an airplane-style marionette control, which
makes sense as Jerry began his puppetry career working with marionette
legend Bill Baird.
experimental puppetry continued in the next sketch. In it three hands
listen to the radio and dance to jazz. They are soon joined by a fourth
hand that wants to listen to classical music. The channel on the radio
is changed. A battle between the hands erupts, which ends only when
the fourth hand uses a gramophone to blow away the other hands and resumes
listening to classical music. A classic Muppet ending.
discussed the Muppets’ work in commercials. A commercial for Aurora
bathroom tissue was screened. In it a tutu-clad hand frolics among rolls
of toilet paper. The commercial is so impressive and original that the
audience spontaneously applauded and Mike exclaimed “do you realize
we’re applauding commercials?!”
more sketches followed, including Jim (as Rowlf) playing charades trying
to get the show’s human guests to guess, "Look behind at
anger". In another sketch, a robot sang a few verses of “Anything
You Can Do, I Can Do Better", before being blown to pieces.
clip from the Mike Douglas show was a Muppet rendition of “Good
Loving.” Like the aforementioned “Hands” sketch, a
familiar Muppet theme is revisited - a small Muppet is bullied by larger
Muppets until he turns the tables on them at the last minute. The “Muppets”
in this case are singing feathers and the sketch is absolutely adorable.
The small feather is repeatedly kicked off stage by the larger feathers
until the smallest feather returns with a fan.
where this sketch went awry. Jerry
Nelson explained that the fan was supposed to blow the other feathers
away, but ended up taking his small feather with them, even though it
worked perfectly in rehearsal. As an ad-libbed cover, the other feathers
rushed back on stage at the last minute and danced out the rest of the
song while the stunned Jerry presumably tried to figure out what went
wrong. It made for an awkward ending to the sketch, but Jerry gave the
audience a great “behind the scenes” Muppet story!
A very brief
discussion and Q&A with the panel followed the screenings. When asked
if she thought Jim knew the Muppets would become as big as they did, Jane
replied, “I think he did.” She also joked that “it wouldn’t
have gotten as big as it did if it had been up to me.”
Falk told the audience that it had been remarkably easy to catalogue the
Legacy’s collection since Jim had always kept detailed notebooks
documenting what he was doing and what he was working on. Bonnie revealed
that the Jim Henson Legacy has approximately 2,000 puppets in storage.
Although many are not in very good condition (or are “toast”
as Jerry called them) she remarked it’s an interesting “science
experiment” to go in to the archives and see which puppets and building
materials have held up over the years. She also mentioned that the original
Kermit – made in the `50s from Jim’s mother’s coat –
is still intact and safe in the archives.
that it’s amazing so much of the early Muppet material exists, though
Jim always claimed he didn’t like to think about the past he still
managed to save almost all of his work including scripts, storyboards
and puppets. I was surprised to hear Craig tell us that most of the “undiscovered”
footage the Jim Henson Legacy finds is usually discovered in old boxes
in people’s attics and garages or things the organization’s
staff find on eBay. Craig encouraged everyone to “check their garages”
just in case. He then ended the evening by donating some of the Muppet
footage that had been screened to the museum’s archives.
All in all
“Muppet Rarities” was a wonderful event that provided a rare
glimpse at some of the Muppets’ earliest work. Thankfully for those
who could not attend, a video of the entire presentation will be edited
together and made available for public viewing at both the Los Angeles
and New York branches of the museum.
information on the Museum of Television and Radio and its many activities
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