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Part 2: The Presentations, Props, and Purchases

By Tom Holste
Photos by Phillip Chapman and Ken Martinson

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 didn’t 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 hadn’t been seen in years, and complete or extended versions of ones we’d seen, instead of the same old clips we’d 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:

A very rare 1975 promotional film created by Jim Henson to sell The Muppet Show to the networks—specifically, 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 Jim’s 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; I’ve 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 show—kids, 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 he’s 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 Man’s 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?”

Lisa Henson came onstage to introduce her father’s 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 man’s room. We see alternate takes of the same scene, sound effects used out of place, Jim’s 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. There’s lots of sexual imagery and symbolism, and for one brief moment a stripper appears completely naked! Still, Timepiece is a fascinating record of Jim’s 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!)

Another rare 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 we’re about to see a documentary about how the Henson company would make these commercials. The documentary, we’re 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, there’s 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 he’s just seen of the other character’s “documentary.” “What’s 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, I’m 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?”

The “I’ve 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 Yorrick’s 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 mouth.

Another familiar 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t quite sure how he felt about other people “messing around” with his routines. Once he saw a couple of Henson’s bits, though, he was quite happy.) While it was great to see new footage from this routine, the tape’s sound quality was clearly in need of restoration and was very difficult to hear.

The puppet 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 Kermit’s 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 I’d never seen before. In one, Wontkins asks Wilkins (the puppet) what the creator of Wilkins Coffee would do if Wontkins didn’t drink his (Mr. Wilkins’) coffee. At that point, a foot comes down and flattens Wontkins! The puppet Wilkins concludes, “I think he’d put his foot down!” In the next ad, Wontkins asks Wilkins if it’s true that he’s just finished four cups of coffee. “Sorry, I’m not gonna answer that,” says Wilkins. “Why?” “Because I’m takin’ the fifth!” The audience groaned; it was a terrible pun, but entirely worthy of the Muppets.

There was also a commercial involving an old southern colonel puppet that I recognized from a photo in “The Works,” but I can’t remember specifically what happened in that one.

The entire opening monologue from Kermit’s 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. “I’m doing my best out here!” protests Kermit. Fozzie peeks out again. “You’re 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 Kermit’s! The two of them manage to make it through the monologue so Kermit can introduce the night’s guest stars, which included Vincent Price and Bernadette Peters, both of whom had previously guested on The Muppet Show.

Henson CEO 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. We’re the ones who still really miss him.

That’s all I can remember. If anyone else can recall any other specific clips, please send in the synopses to this site.

THE PROPS

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 weren’t 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 I’d 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, I’d 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 I’d be more interested in seeing that than characters from productions like Jack Frost. And while I realize this last idea is completely biased, I’d certainly like to see some Labyrinth stuff on display next time! (I’d love to pose next to a Fiery head…)

THE PURCHASES

Of course, what would any convention be without merchandise? There were five different dealers’ tables—pretty 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, I’d 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. Andy’s 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! There’s the book where you had to play the pages like a record); other stuff served as exciting new finds (I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 I’ve 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.

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