Part 2: The Presentations, Props, and Purchases
THE PRESENTATIONS (of the video archives)
OK, it was a bit of a stretch, but again, I had to keep with the P theme! There were several great classic video clips shown over the weekend. Many were used as filler in between panels, but one panel on Sunday, hosted by Jane Henson, was almost entirely devoted to them. When asked about her own involvement with the Muppets, particularly in the later years, she chuckled and said, Oh, I didnt do much. I mostly stayed home with the kids! Of course, Jane was being humble; she was much more instrumental than that.
In my initial post regarding MuppetFest, I had asked that they show us rare clips that hadnt been seen in years, and complete or extended versions of ones wed seen, instead of the same old clips wed seen in a hundred other specials and retrospectives. The company came through in a major way in this regard. Among the wonderful clips we saw:
very rare 1975 promotional film created by Jim Henson to sell The Muppet
Show to the networksspecifically, to CBS. (The opening crawl reminds
us that, amazingly, CBS passed on the show even after seeing this promo.)
A sedate-looking salesperson Muppet (familiar to some from Jims
IBM meeting films) calmly begins explaining that the proposed Muppet series
would be a combination of the creative minds of Jim Henson and Charlie
Schlatter, the man behind Laugh-In. (Schlatter must have dropped out of
the project sometime after this; Ive never otherwise heard his name
associated with The Muppet Show.) As the salesperson continues to talk
very calmly, the photos of Henson and Schlatter behind him cross their
eyes. An American flag appears behind the salesman, and he tells us, America
needs The Muppet Show! as he removes his glasses to reveal a more
manic expression. The salesperson explains how everyone will love the
showkids, parents, serious intellectual types who will see
all the symbolism in everything, weirdo hippie types who will
be attracted by all our weirdo hippie types, etc. While hes
saying this, several of the images behind him are altered so that they
have weird Muppet heads. Finally, the salesman claims that God Himself
will be happy about the show, as Kermit appears in Mans position
in the famous scene from the Sistine Chapel! As the fanfare reaches its
climax and the CBS logo appears in the middle of the screen, Kermit calmly
walks by, looks at the logo and then the audience, and says, What
the [heck] was that all about?
came onstage to introduce her fathers experimental short, the 1968
Academy Award-nominated Timepiece. The live-action film is basically a
free-form experiment with sound, color, film techniques and animation
that Jim would later use to great effect on Sesame Street. It starts and
ends with a man on his deathbed (played by Jim), and everything that happens
in between occurs to the rhythm of a clock in the mans room. We
see alternate takes of the same scene, sound effects used out of place,
Jims head popping up in unexpected places like on a dinner plate,
etc. People expecting a Sesame-type experience should be warned, though,
that the similarities to Sesame end with the creative edits and the visual
style. Theres lots of sexual imagery and symbolism, and for one
brief moment a stripper appears completely naked! Still, Timepiece is
a fascinating record of Jims developing style of working with film,
providing a transition between his early work in the 50s and 60s
and what would become his signature style with Sesame Street. (In the
most bizarre transition of the Fest, the very adult Timepiece was immediately
followed by the Bear in the Big Blue House presentation!)
film involved an early 1960s pitch for a couple of abstract Muppet characters
to become spokespersons for a meat company. The film started with the
characters explaining that were about to see a documentary about
how the Henson company would make these commercials. The documentary,
were told, was made by one of the characters himself. (Both this
framing sequence and the documentary, by the way, are in black-and-white.)
As the documentary begins, we see the puppets rigged up with parachutes
for the filming, and we hear Jim in voice-over explaining the filmmaking
process. Nothing unusual is happening (yet), and since Jim often took
us behind the scenes of his productions, theres no reason at the
moment to think that anything strange will happen. It turns out, though,
that Jim is once again just setting us up. As the narration drones on
about the difficulties of the work day, we see Jim and company
goofing around and not doing their job. The puppets continue to hang in
position, untouched. Finally the secretaries are called in for assistance,
which involves bringing a radio into the studio and dancing with Jim and
company. Eventually, the puppets are seen lying on the ground, being trampled
underfoot from all the partying! The investors look on in astonishment.
Finally, Jim and his co-workers leave without an inch of film being shot,
feeling confident that today was a very productive day.
The film now takes us back to the two Muppet characters, the one reacting in horror to what hes just seen of the other characters documentary. Whats the matter with you? the first one asks. Do you dislike the Henson company? No, I like them just fine. Do you dislike me? No, of course not. Well, do you dislike [the meat company]? Actually, Im a vegetarian. At this point, the first Muppet pulls out a gun and shoots the other one in the head! (Rather than seeming grisly, it came off in the goofy, cartoony spirit in which it was intended.) Finally, the finished commercial was presented (in color). The two characters are parachuting and the one on our right asks the other one if he falls for the brand of meat. The one on the left replies negatively and the one on the right says "You will!" and promptly cuts the strings of the other's parachute. Kirk Thatcher came out after the clip was shown and said, Now when was the last time you saw a Muppet shoot another Muppet?
Grown Accustomed to Your Face routine was shown in its entirety,
for the first time to most in the audience. For those unfamiliar, Kermit
(in a wig) lip-synchs to an actual record, singing about Yorricks
face (which is painted on a handkerchief covering his head). Slowly, Yorrick
begins eating the face until all that remains is his skull-like
head. Kermette sings on unawares, until she happens to glance
at Yorrick and does a huge double-take! Kermette nervously tries to go
on with the show, continuing to sing as Yorrick moves closer and closer,
nibbling at her foot. As the song finishes, she frantically kicks Yorrick,
trying to make him let go as he drags her offscreen with her foot in his
bit that was shown in extended form was the Person to Person
sketch involving (supposedly) Edward R. Murrow and Alfred Hitchcock (played
by Harry the one with the shades and Chicken Liver). This
is another lip-synch to a pre-recorded comedy album; though Jane Henson
couldnt remember who specifically recorded this routine, it sounded
to me like the actors normally heard on a Stan Freberg record. (Jane did
later comment that they got a lot of their material from Stan Freberg,
who wasnt quite sure how he felt about other people messing
around with his routines. Once he saw a couple of Hensons
bits, though, he was quite happy.) While it was great to see new footage
from this routine, the tapes sound quality was clearly in need of
restoration and was very difficult to hear.
used as Alfred Hitchcock in the previous bit was also used in a cowboy
sketch with Kermit that actually involved a script written by Jim, so
Kermits actual voice came out of the puppet. The next sketch, also
a cowboy routine featuring Kermit and another puppet on horses, was a
lip-synch to a Bob Hope comedy record. Again, the new footage was a delight,
but the sound quality made the routines difficult to understand.
Our two favorite
commercial spokes-Muppets, Wilkins and Wontkins, returned in two ads that
Id never seen before. In one, Wontkins asks Wilkins (the puppet)
what the creator of Wilkins Coffee would do if Wontkins didnt drink
his (Mr. Wilkins) coffee. At that point, a foot comes down and flattens
Wontkins! The puppet Wilkins concludes, I think hed put his
foot down! In the next ad, Wontkins asks Wilkins if its true
that hes just finished four cups of coffee. Sorry, Im
not gonna answer that, says Wilkins. Why? Because
Im takin the fifth! The audience groaned; it was a terrible
pun, but entirely worthy of the Muppets.
also a commercial involving an old southern colonel puppet that I recognized
from a photo in The Works, but I cant remember specifically
what happened in that one.
opening monologue from Kermits hosting stint on The Tonight Show
was screened. Kermit tells corny jokes about not being let out of the
gate at Disneyland (eerily prophetic, perhaps?) until Fozzie starts peeking
out from behind the curtain. Uh, louder and funnier, Fozzie
instructs the frog, going back behind the curtain while the audience laughs.
Im doing my best out here! protests Kermit. Fozzie peeks
out again. Youre dying! After another minute of Kermit
trying to make it on his own, Fozzie comes out to help. Unfortunately,
his jokes are even cornier than Kermits! The two of them manage
to make it through the monologue so Kermit can introduce the nights
guest stars, which included Vincent
Price and Bernadette Peters, both of whom had previously guested on
The Muppet Show.
Charles Rivkin came out to introduce a video tribute to Jim Henson. The
music played during the first half of the 3 ½ minute piece was
Follow Me from Fraggle Rock; the second half was Happy
Feet. The clips, often featuring shots of Jim with one of his famous
creations hoisted over his head for a shoot, were culled from a couple
of different retrospectives. It was a beautiful piece, and it was playing
to the right crowd. Were the ones who still really miss him.
Thats all I can remember. If anyone else can recall any other specific clips, please send in the synopses to this site.
The touring exhibits that Henson has done over the years are fan favorites, so at MuppetFest we were also treated to a small exhibit hall where several famous Muppets and Creature Shop creations were on display. In fact, I believe the Muppets on display were not actual puppets used in performance, but poseable characters used specifically for photo shoots and exhibitions such as these. (At least that was the case for the main characters; I think the Treasure Island characters were actual puppets.) Still, it was a lot of fun to be up close and personal to such characters as Statler and Waldorf and the Swedish Chef. Best of all, these characters werent behind glass, so one could take a picture without a glare from the glass on the camera! As many have noted, the Piggy that appeared in the display was earless. (I think the idea was supposed to be that her hair was combed over her ears, but still, the comment Where are her ears? was heard repeatedly. The ears were added late Sunday.)
I really enjoyed the exhibit, but next time Id like to see more vintage puppets on display. How about some vintage puppets from the 50s and 60s, like one of the old Kermits or some of the characters from the commercials? Also, while the emphasis was on The Muppet Show this year, Id like to see some Sesame Street characters next year. Of course, security would have to be a little tighter if these creations were on display, but Id be more interested in seeing that than characters from productions like Jack Frost. And while I realize this last idea is completely biased, Id certainly like to see some Labyrinth stuff on display next time! (Id love to pose next to a Fiery head )
Of course, what would any convention be without merchandise? There were five different dealers tablespretty much the right amount for a convention this size. Three of the tables were run by Creation/Henson; two were run by outside dealers. Of the three Creation tables, the first sold MuppetFest exclusive merchandise (T-shirts, mugs, hats, etc.); the second one sold glossy photos of various characters like Fozzie and Piggy, as well as the classic Art of the Muppets book from the early 80s (which sold out rather quickly. If I had realized it was so rare, Id have snatched one up too!); and the third one sold merchandise for non-Muppet Show productions represented at the convention, like Bear in the Big Blue House and Farscape. The fourth table sold posters and soundtracks for various movies, both Muppet and otherwise.
The fifth table, though, was my favorite. Andys Muppets and More had a great table filled with vintage Muppet merchandise. (One of the great sights of the convention was a stack of Fisher-Price Fozzie puppets sitting in a plastic container. A stack of them!) Toys, books, magazines, promotional photo stills, posters you name it, Andy had it. Much of his merchandise was a wonderful blast from the past (hey! Theres the book where you had to play the pages like a record); other stuff served as exciting new finds (I didnt know Scholastic did a series of storybooks about the TMS characters!). I got the sense that this was what it must have felt like visiting the Muppet Stuff store in New York before it closed down in the 80s. Part of the fun was just looking at all the stuff that was there, even the stuff one didnt end up buying!
A note should be made here about the prices. While typically conventions do charge a lot for merchandise, and the sellers must have realized what a prime opportunity they had to cater to such a relatively small market, I was a little taken aback at the price tags on some of the items. Merchandise that Ive seen available for $10 or less was being sold at $40! Most of us had already spent way too much money just to get to the convention in the first place, which is why we were standing around and looking at items more than we were buying them. If the merchandise had been priced at a more reasonable rate, the sellers would have probably sold out of everything by the end of the second day. Just a thought.