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2003: The Year in Review

By Luke Robbins
January 1, 2004

It was a year of change and transition as the Jim Henson Company found new owners in a climatic last minute race to save the Muppets. While fans applauded the announcement that it was the Henson family themselves that had regained control of the company there were less happy moments when it was reported production work would end in London and the historic Townhouse would go up for sale in New York. These cutbacks came as the Hensons began to rebuild the company into a more streamlined, cost-efficient operation based in Los Angeles.


The new year started with Big Bird making an appearance in the 2003 Rose Bowl Parade, marching bands played the themes to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Meanwhile Farscape was in trouble as executives at the Sci-Fi Channel announced its cancellation due to financial problems which meant the fourth season would end abruptly in March. Fozzie Bear attended a puppet conference at the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh to discuss the history of puppeteering and Kermit the Frog appeared on Hollywood Squares. The direct to video movie Mirror Mask was announced by Jim Henson Pictures, the story idea had been developed from conversations about a possible Labyrinth sequel. January 10th marked the twentieth anniversary of Fraggle Rock debuting on HBO in the United States. The sale of the Henson Company continued to drag on as EM.TV's loan repayment was extended until February, although an unusual offer to buy the company came from Herbert Becker - a wacky media mogul planning to develop Internet TV. Despite this, the Muppets’ German owners still insisted they planned to sell to Dean Valentine despite his failure to arrange financing for the deal.


Adding some glamour to the month, Miss Piggy co-hosted a show by designer Jeremy Scott at New York Fashion Week, the diva herself being a big fan of his creations. It would be a sunny day for the people of Pittsburgh as their Children's Museum played host to a Sesame Street exhibition which enabled visitors to interact with much loved characters from the program. TDK Mediactive announced the Muppets would go On With The Show when they debuted later in the year on the Game Boy Advance. Search engine Opera released a version of its browser which meant people accessing MSN were fed search results in the language of the Swedish Chef. This recipe for disaster was a prank aimed at Microsoft who had earlier restricted access to their pages. Henson collectors welcomed a more unusual addition to their ranks when a Michael Jackson TV documentary revealed he owned an expensive Swarovski crystal pillbox of our favorite frog, Kermit. As if things couldn’t get any more off the wall, Pepe the Prawn co-hosted a Valentines Day edition of TVs The Other Half where girls modeled Muppet underwear.

In Germany the trial of brothers Thomas and Florian Haffa which had begun the previous November heard evidence from an expert witness who claimed the former EM.TV chiefs had knowingly published false financial reports. He said the Haffas had indicated to their shareholders that the revenue they expected to earn from ownership of Jim Henson Productions was much higher than it should have been. It wasn’t all bad news in Germany though as licensee Catric (formerly Igel Toys) released a new selection of Muppet collectibles which included slippers, backpacks and plushes. Among the characters released in plush form was a rare treat - none other than Gonzo's sweetheart, Camilla the Chicken. The most surprising new merchandise wasn’t to come from overseas though as Palisades Toys announced at the 100th American International Toy Fair they had been given special permission to make a limited edition action figure of the Jim Henson Muppet.


This was a particularly poignant month in Henson history as Lynne Thigpen, veteran actress and voice of Luna the Moon on Bear in the Big Blue House passed away. Her friend, puppeteer Noel MacNeal wrote a touching tribute saying a special goodbye of his own. Fans and the entertainment industry remembered Lynne’s work as the show received four Emmy award nominations with Sesame Street also picking up thirteen. What was expected to be the last ever episode of Farscape aired on the Sci-Fi channel but supporters of the cult show continued their campaigns to save it. Dave Barrington Holt, creative supervisor of the Creature Shop gave an interview for BBC show Xchange giving British fans a rare look around Henson's puppet workshops. Pez websites announced that Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie would be featured as candy dispensers when a new line of Sesame Street Pez products debuted. It was reported that Kermit and Miss Piggy would be featured as a Christmas ornament in Hallmark's Keepsake Collection. Visiting the dentist became less of a chore for Muppet fans as Recall postcards were produced - now Dr. Teeth would remind the public to keep their appointments and avoid molar mayhem. DVD collectors in the USA were treated to Volumes 3 and 4 of Columbia Tristar’s Best Of The Muppet Show collection as well as Superbit editions of both Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. Dean Valentine and Haim Saban both dropped efforts to purchase the Henson Company but there was press speculation that Disney was back in the running. Its Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner was even confident enough to tell shareholders he wouldn’t be surprised to see a deal made soon.


Star Wars actress Natalie Portman made an elephant of herself at the beginning of Sesame Street’s 34th season when she dressed in costume for a guest appearance on the show. The adorable furry little monster Grover got his own segment, Global Grover which saw him traveling the world to teach children about different cultures. Gaming fans were excited to hear the Muppets would be taking to the sea in a new release for the PS2 and GameCube called Muppets Party Cruise. The Jim Henson Company announced they had signed a licensing agreement which would see Muppet finger puppets and cookies being sold at Starbucks. Caroll Spinney wrote about what it’s like to be the most unknown famous person in America when his book The Wisdom of Big Bird was published. Kermit made his second appearance of the year on Hollywood Squares when he participated in their Tournament Of Champions. Fans of the Dark Crystal continued to enjoy the renewed interest in the fantasy film as a limited edition version of the CD soundtrack was released, it featured 30 minutes of extra music unheard in the movie. Muppet collectors had the chance to own a unique piece of Henson history as the Electric Mayhem Bus was auctioned once again on eBay. This time though it was successfully sold to a lucky fan. Outtakes from It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie aired on NBC's Funniest Outtakes 2. Nanco released pictures of a new range of Muppet and Sesame character plushes, including the first ever Pepe the Prawn doll. Repayments on EM.TV's bank loan were extended until the end of May but its former Chief Executives Thomas and Florian Haffa were found guilty of fraud. Convicted by a Munich court they were sentenced to pay fines totaling almost $1.6 million although they narrowly avoided the eight month suspended jail terms demanded by prosecutors. In sad news, Sesame Street's Mr. Noodle, Michael Jeter passed away at age 50.


In a blaze of media publicity, Caroll Spinney made numerous TV and Radio appearances this month to promote his book The Wisdom of Big Bird. As part of this, many Henson fans got to meet and greet the much respected Henson puppeteer when he signed books at many locations around the USA, bringing Oscar the Grouch along with him. The rare 1982 book The World Of Dark Crystal was re-released in a new collector's edition with updated content from concept artist Brian Froud. It was announced Capitol Films would join forces with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to adapt the novel Five Children and It into a new movie. The Swedish Chef was pictured creating calamity in the kitchen for FHM as he reviewed culinary gadgets for the famous men’s lifestyle magazine. Meanwhile Canadian fans were excited to hear episodes of The Muppet Show would be shown daily there beginning in September. Sesame puppeteer Marty P. Robinson talked to the Sun-Sentinal newspaper about his dark-side as he created a new version of man-eating plant Audrey for the revived Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors. Cult sci-fi hit Farscape may have been cancelled but was still winning awards as it received a Saturn for best cable series. Derek Stucker, product developer of the new Muppet Monopoly board game allowed Muppet Central readers to see the finished product in a special preview article - they had been giving feedback to the games designers over previous months in the site forum. The Sesame Street characters paid tribute to the late Fred Rogers at the 30th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, Sesame Street also won Outstanding Television Series for Pre-Schoolers and appeared a few days later on Oprah. The Muppets appeared on the cover of KidPlanet magazine with Bill Baretta interviewed inside about his work as a Muppeteer. Miss Piggy appeared on Hollywood Squares to take part in "Blondes Have More Fun Week".

The most important news of the month, and the entire year came when EM.TV finally found a new owner for the Jim Henson Company. Muppet fans heard how Disney had withdrawn from negotiations two weeks prior leaving Classic Media as the only remaining bidder. With backing from Sony and Sesame Workshop it was looking like they would succeed in their attempt to acquire the business, but it was Jim Henson’s own children who stepped in at the last minute and agreed to buy back the Muppets. Announcing the deal Brian Henson said that watching the drawn out sale process had been painful and when Disney pulled out the family had decided to act rather than see his father’s characters owned by another smaller company. Henson CEO and president Charlie Rivkin sent a letter to employee's saying he was thrilled that the Muppets were once again in Henson hands.


Miss Piggy gave fans more priceless moments as a new Muppet Mastercard commercial aired in the USA with her in the starring role. It was revealed the Muppets would be featured in a promotion for Jack In The Box restaurants - each kids meal would contain a Hollywood themed action figure toy. Things weren’t so great over on Broadway as the Little Shop of Horrors musical revival was cancelled. The second season of Noggin’s Play With Me Sesame began with Edgeworx providing graphics animation. The Jim Henson Company announced it would partner with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Muppet plush and bobbleheads would be available to buy at the Dodger Stadium throughout the 2003 baseball season. It looked like 2003/2004 would be great years for Henson collectors as the company revealed its licensing plans - new merchandise would include playing cards, a dartboard and Electric Mayhem plush as well as more great action figures from Palisades Toys and busts from Sideshow. The most surprising announcement from Henson at the 2003 Licensing Show was a new initiative to promote the Muppet Babies during its 20th anniversary year. A new merchandising campaign for the Emmy award winning cartoon would see new plush, clothing and books based on the popular characters. Pam Arciero, puppeteer of Grundgetta Grunch on Sesame Street took charge of the O'Neill Puppetry Conference, becoming its director. DVD collectors were treated to more classic Henson material as John Denver and The Muppets: Rocky Mountain Holiday and The Storyteller were both announced for release. Sesame Workshop announced it would distribute 75,000 copies of a video called You Can Ask! to schools, it featured Sesame Street characters encouraging children to ask their parents when they’re confused about their feelings. Fans began to look forward to Christmas already when it was reported Barnes & Noble planned a massive Muppet promotion over the holiday season and that one of the characters might make a guest appearance in New York stores.


EM.TV shareholders approved the sale of the Jim Henson Company to its founder’s children and Charlie Rivkin, CEO and president appeared at the Sun Valley Media Conference in Idaho to announce a hand-over date of August 1st. He also said the Henson family were planning a complete makeover for the company and were looking to make strategic alliances with others. It wasn’t all good news at Henson though - almost half the employees based in New York were made redundant in order to cut staffing costs, this included most of the licensing department. The first wave of Mini Muppets, a new line of collectable PVCs from Palisades Toys began arriving in stores. Taking a stand against racism the Henson Company joined forces with Oneness to sponsor the 2003 songwriters summit. UK fans were able to collect plush character toys from The Hoobs when they purchased a McDonald's Happy Meal in a new fast-food promotion. Songs from the Street - a 3 CD boxed set of music celebrating the 35th anniversary of Sesame Street was announced. Rhino Records, Palisades Toys and Columbia Tristar joined forces with the Henson Company for a contest to "Win a Basket of Muppet Mania".

It was reported the TV movie It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas would be released on DVD in October with special features and deleted scenes. The movie was also nominated for an Emmy along with Kermit’s Swamp Years. Filming was underway on Five Children and It, the 20 million dollar production directed by Lisa Henson. Muppeteers Dave Goelz and Jerry Nelson boarded the QE2 for a luxury transatlantic cruise - taking their puppets and other Henson staff along to participate in a live presentation on The Muppet Show. Screenwriter Neil Gaiman and director Dave McKean appeared at the San Diego Comic Con to discuss the new MirrorMask fantasy film due in 2004 from Henson Pictures. Computer generated preview images were shown. The University Of Maryland - where Jim Henson first began his career announced that the class of 1998 had decided to honor the Muppets creator with a statue.


Jim Henson’s children regained control of the Henson Company at the beginning of the month, the sale closed at $84 million. As the new management continued efforts to streamline and re-focus the organization TV production ended at their Camden offices. Several key staff were made redundant although the UK division of the Creature Shop remained. Isaac Mizrahi designed a tuxedo for Elmo to wear at the Sesame Workshop 35th anniversary gala. Kermit sang the Jaws theme and remembered other nostalgic shows and events during interview segments on VH1's I Love The 70's special. Award winning Muppeteer Kevin Clash brought Elmo to Toronto as they led an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the largest Hokey Pokey. In more preparations for Sesame’s 35th anniversary year in 2004, Sesame Workshop and Ninja Tune released a vinyl disco mix of songs from Sesame Street to DJ's, most notably the Pointer Sisters' Pinball Number Count. People using Photo-Me booths in the UK were able to have their picture taken with a digital Kermit, the company was searching for the ultimate Muppet fan in a competition to win lots of merchandise. Fans of the Little Shop of Horrors were pleased to hear the on-off Broadway revival was back on as the musical opened its doors. For those who missed out the previous December, viewers of the Wayne Brady Show were treated to a repeat showing of Kermit’s Christmas appearance. The word "Muppet" was chosen for inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of English.


The Muppets began the month with special appearances throughout the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Bear from Bear in the Big Blue House appeared in the studio while Johnny and Sal took part from Hollywood via a live video link. Miss Piggy was listed as one of the best dressed celebrities in the "Best and Worst Dressed" issue of People magazine. Clifford stole a kiss from Paula Abdul in a clip from behind-the-scenes of Muppets Tonight, shown as part of her E! True Hollywood Story. Sonia Monzano, otherwise known as Maria from Sesame Street was honored at the Hispanic Heritage Awards. Fans of vintage Henson material were in for a treat as Muppets Magic from the Ed Sullivan Show was released on DVD. The MuppetVision 3D Theater in California was the location for a taping of the Wayne Brady Show. Kermit The Frog guest hosted The Jimmy Kimmel Show for a week, Statler and Waldorf were on hand to heckle his performance. Variety reported that Martin Baker and Angus Fletcher, two employee’s who had held senior positions with Henson in the United Kingdom before the cutbacks had signed production deals with the company. The dedication ceremony to unveil Jim Henson’s statue at the University Of Maryland took place on his birthday, September 24th. The Henson family attended the event along with many other friends and employees. A weeklong series of related activities were held at the University including a Muppet film festival.


During the month exciting news came about the Muppets next big project, Ain't It Cool News reported they would star in The Muppet Wizard Of Oz. It was rumored this would be a TV movie for the ABC network and would shoot in Vancouver, Canada. A fantastic tribute to Jim Henson was held at The Museum of Television and Radio in New York. Muppet Rarities: The Unseen Work of Jim Henson was a chance for fans to watch early archive material and take part in a discussion panel with Craig Shemin, Jane Henson and Jerry Nelson. Kermit the Frog encouraged passers by to live their dreams in a new billboard constructed in Times Square by the Foundation for a Better Life. Sesame Street came under attack from the Commercial Alert organization, they demanded PBS cease airing McDonald’s corporate-sponsorship messages before and after each program. Fun-4-All toys announced it would produce action figures based on the Sesame Street characters with the first wave released in March 2004. Jim Henson Pictures feature film Good Boy was released to mixed reviews. They also announced they were looking for a deal to make Neverwhere, another Neil Gaiman fantasy film set in the sewers and subway tunnels beneath London. Elmo, Miss Piggy and Kermit all made appearances on The Wayne Brady Show. The makers of Muppet Monopoly released their next product - a 550 piece collectors edition Jigsaw puzzle which included obscure characters from The Muppet Show. Fraggle Rock was featured during the 1983 edition of VH1's I Love The 80's Strikes Back. Bear from Bear in the Big Blue House appeared on Hollywood Squares as part of their "Stars of Daytime TV" week. It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas was released on DVD - Pepe the Prawn interviewed director Kirk Thatcher as part of the special features. A new Muppet Calendar was published, unlike recent years the 2004 edition featured classic cast pictures from The Muppet Show rather than film parodies.

Photo by Daniel Dunnam

Muppet Central forum members Jogchem Jalink and Thijs van Domburg appeared as Muppet fan experts on TV when they took part in the Dutch version of BBC’s I Love The Muppets documentary. Elsewhere in Europe, Muppet Family Christmas and A Christmas Toy were released on DVD with The Very Best of the Muppet Show Volume Three announced for release in January and rumors of a Fraggle Rock disc coming in 2004. Kermit appeared on the Today Show in the USA while Animal played the drums in a UK advert for Renault. A new balloon based on Super Grover, Sesame Street’s very own furry super hero appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Steve Whitmire appeared with Kermit The Frog at two Barnes & Noble stores in New York singing songs and taking questions from the audience. They were there to launch the stores endcap promotion of Muppet merchandise. A special limited edition Dark Crystal DVD box set was released including various collectable premium items and a forward written by Cheryl Henson. TDK Mediactive's video games Muppets Party Cruise and Spy Muppets: License to Croak arrived in stores. Sababa Toys began releasing Fraggle Rock merchandise at speciality stores with Doozer PVC's and the first wave of character plushes. Kermit and Miss Piggy appeared on Hollywood Squares as part of their "Dynamic Duos" week. President and CEO of the Henson Company Charlie Rivkin stepped down after 15 years service, he would continue to serve on the Henson board. It was also announced that Henson was talking to Disney and Viacom about possible partnership deals in TV production, Home Video distribution and merchandising. There was a fantastic end to the month as news broke that Farscape would be returning as a 4-hour miniseries. Efforts by the Jim Henson Company and a massive web based fan campaign had led to the cult sci-fi show being revived, production would begin in December.


There was a solemn start to the month as fans and supporters of the Jim Henson Company were dismayed to hear reports that the Townhouse, the New York headquarters of the organization was to be put up for sale. The staff who had remained at the offices after earlier cutbacks would be relocated to the Chaplin Studios in LA, along with the mural and other displays that had made the building home for the Muppets since 1977. On a more positive note, Ain't It Cool News released further information on the still unofficially announced Muppet Wizard Of Oz. They listed Natalie Portman as a possible candidate to play the lead role of Dorothy. Michael Horn, President of Palisades Toys appeared alongside Al Roker on the Today Show. For every Holiday Rizzo figure bought they would be donating an action figure to the show’s toy drive. Even more surprising than one Camilla plush being released during the year a second came out, this time as part of Sababa Toys Vet's Hospital themed set. Sideshow Toys released the last two waves of their Muppet Bust series which had been in production since Summer 2002 - although strangely the collection included every member of the Electric Mayhem apart from Floyd. It was revealed Elmo would duet with Martina McBride singing "Let's Pretend" for a future episode of Sesame Street next season. The Count, Big Bird, Super Grover and other characters from the show also joined him in a new advert about their love for the NBA. The festive season was topped off by Bear from Bear in the Big Blue House. He appeared at the ABC/Disney Christmas Parade to sing Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree.

While the year had its less positive moments with the staffing cutbacks, building closures and lack of any new Muppet productions, the high point was that the Hensons were back in control of their father's company and it appeared that the foundations were being laid for a more stable future.

The previous twelve months had certainly seen a boom in Muppet merchandise with the continued action figure releases from Palisades Toys leading over sixty other licensees who had released or were planning to release Henson related products. This looked set to continue with the addition of vintage properties like Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies being promoted at retail. Things are starting to look good for 2004 with the reported return of Farscape, a possible Muppet Wizard Of Oz movie and Sesame Street's 35th anniversary celebration.

Editor's Note: Now that you've read the top news stories of 2003, find out what were our favorite Henson collectibles of 2003 in this year's merchandise guide.

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