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2004: The Year in Review

By Luke Robbins
January 1, 2005

From the outset things looked like they were beginning to settle down at The Jim Henson Company with the buyback from EM.TV having been completed and new projects in the works. However it soon became clear that more dramatic changes were to come when Disney announced it had reached an agreement with Jim’s children to purchase the Muppets along with “Bear in the Big Blue House.” Elsewhere “Sesame Street” celebrated its 35th birthday, Farscape returned to screens, and “Fraggle Rock” began a long awaited resurgence.


It was a great month for Muppet merchandise as Palisades Toys revealed that the Henson Company was their “Licensor Partner of the Year” and showed sneak photos from the UK Toy Fair of their series 9 action figures and backstage playset. The long running series of Muppet Show busts from Sideshow-Weta came to an end with the release of its fifth series. There were DVD releases for Sesame Street which included a compilation of Cookie Monster’s “Best Bites” and for the first time it was announced “Fraggle Rock” would appear on DVD in April. Although this would be a UK only release the worldwide fan campaign for Fraggle DVD’s continued to build. There were to be celebrations for Sesame Street’s 35th birthday in April with a special prime time episode called “The Street We Live On.” Throughout their new season shows would include new live action and animation sequences as well as parody characters like “TriangleBob Trianglepants.”


The Superbowl kicked off the month and along with it a new Muppet commercial for Pizza Hut. The advert featured the Muppets having a heated debate over which topping to order, with Jessica Simpson suggesting they try new product innovation - the 4forALL Pizza. There was big news for fantasy fans as it was announced several licensees had signed on to produce a whole new range of collectibles for “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth”. Products were to include posters, apparel, collectible figures and more in the largest Henson fantasy merchandise launch seen since the films debuted. It had been talked about for nearly fifteen years but when news broke that The Walt Disney Company had finally managed to acquire the Muppets most fans were taken by surprise. The deal would see them taking control of the Classic Muppets, Muppet Babies and Bear in the Big Blue House characters as well as their related film and television programming. Henson would continue to play a role in the Muppets future with a three-year production and four-year consulting deal but there was speculation as to how involved the company would be after this.


Although the project had long been in the works, Variety magazine carried reports that Disney was going ahead with the production of “The Muppet Wizard of Oz”. It would be a Telepic for ABC, based on the original novel by L. Frank Baum. Following the success of their Superbowl commercial it emerged that the Muppets would be working again with Jessica Simpson. This time they would be guests on her ABC television special “The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour” joining in with wacky sketches and musical performances. The Sesame Street Muppets also guest starred on prime time TV in March for the first time ever. Elmo, Big Bird, Zoe and Rosita appeared in “The West Wing” in an episode where the First Lady films a public service announcement with the characters. In merchandise news series 7 of Palisades Muppet action figures arrived in stores. The lineup included Kermit as Captain Smollet, Beauregard, Johnny Fiama and Frog Scout Robin.


There was exciting news for fans of Henson’s classic family properties when a new five-year global rights and production venture with HIT Entertainment was announced. This would see shows like Fraggle Rock, Emmet Otter and The Ghost of Faffner Hall being given a new lease of life as well as continued exposure for newer properties like “The Hoobs” and “Mopatop’s Shop.” The agreement would also see Henson and HIT join together to produce new children’s shows. Following on from the success of “Good Boy”, The Jim Henson Company also inked a two-year first-look deal with MGM to produce more live action films. Science Fiction fans were in for a rare treat as Brian Henson took part in a special on-line chat organized by the Sci-Fi Channel in the US. He was there to promote the upcoming four-hour Farscape mini-series “Peacekeeper Wars” due to air in November. Towards the end of the month The Walt Disney Company revealed that their acquisition of the Muppets and “Bear in the Big Blue House” was complete. New initiatives under consideration included live action releases, theatrical productions, computer-generated three-dimensional animation projects and attractions and parades at Disney’s theme parks. Sesame Street Season 35 began!


Muppet fans went crazy for plush during this month as a whole range of new cuddly toys were released. Plush Janice, Swedish Chef, Kermit and Animal were available from Sababa Toys while a brand new Muppet Vision 3D Sam the Eagle arrived at Disneyland California. The theme park also played host to a “block party” as costumed Muppet characters took to the stage in a special show called “Animal’s House Party.” Carroll Spinney received an honorary degree from Villanova University. As commencement speaker he told of how he dreamed big as a child and realized those dreams playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. Sesame Workshop, producers of the show also launched a campaign against childhood obesity. Their “Healthy Habits for Life” initiative would include two public service announcements and a traveling museum exhibit on diet and exercise. Fans of the Muppets Pizza Hut commercials were in for a treat as a new one aired, again featuring Jessica Simpson. The new advert featured Animal, Gonzo, Miss Piggy and the long awaited return of Camilla the Chicken.


How do you get to Sesame Street? Would you believe pass “GO” and collect $200? America’s favorite street met America’s favorite board game in June when the all-new MONOPOLY: Sesame Street 35th Anniversary Collector’s Edition was released. HIT Entertainment’s new distribution venture with the Henson Company began to pay off already for fans when they announced the first US Fraggle Rock DVD called “Where It All Began”. The disc was to contain two episodes and be released in July, if sales were good there were indications that more releases would follow. Congratulations were in order for “Avenue Q”, the Broadway musical featuring Muppet style Puppets and Henson related puppeteers. The fuzzy stage show was the upset winner at the Tony awards taking home three awards including best musical. There were rumors that Classic Sesame episodes as well as a whole range of Henson family shows could return to television as early as 2005. Sesame Workshop and HIT Entertainment were reported to be in advanced negotiations with the Comcast to develop the first 24-hour network dedicated to pre-school kids.


There were further reports in July about “The Muppet Wizard of Oz”. It was rumored the planned made-for-TV movie would shoot in September and that the puppet building and costume departments at Henson were busy preparing for the project. Kermit the Frog was to play the Scarecrow, Fozzie the Cowardly Lion, Gonzo the Tin Man, Pepe as Toto, and Miss Piggy taking on the roles of both the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch. There were also indications that auditions were being held to recast some of Jerry Nelson’s Sesame Street and Classic Muppet characters. Although the much-loved Muppeteer would continue to perform the Count his workload was to be reduced as he began a semi-retirement. Palisades Toys, creators of the award winning Muppet action figure series shipped their eighth wave to retailers. Marvin Suggs, Sam the Eagle, Usher Scooter and Dr Phil Van Neuter were all among the line-up.


The United States postal service announced their 2005 stamp releases and ten Muppet characters were honored as part of a series called “Jim Henson & The Muppets.” Creator Henson would also be featured on a stamp and be pictured on the sheet’s selvage. It was a super month for Grover fans as the Sesame Street favorite received his own DVD release called “Grover - Celebration of Me.” The cast was announced for “The Muppet Wizard of Oz.” International R&B star Ashanti would play Dorothy while Queen Latifah would play her Auntie Em. Fans were surprised to hear that action film director Quentin Tarrantino would be making a cameo as himself. A Henson film festival was announced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for November. The event would celebrate Jim Henson’s work, featuring classic Muppet, Fraggle, & fantasy favorites and rarely seen footage, along with talks by Henson collaborators and puppet-building workshops for kids. Henson was also to be honored by Palisades Toys in the form of an action figure likeness of the Jim Henson Muppet to be released later in the year. They released pictures of the packaging during August which was in the form of a special red curtain window box. Fraggle fans received news from Sababa Toys that a Mokey Fraggle plush was to be made.


Johnny Fiama and his monkey pal Sal made their usual yearly appearance on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Also featured was Bear from “Bear in the Big Blue House” performing a brand new song for the occasion. Kermit and Miss Piggy were also in the limelight this month when they interviewed Hollywood stars on the red carpet in “Countdown to the Emmys.” Fans also began to count down to the debut of an all-new Muppets.com website as a preview page displayed a special timer. Supporters of the Fraggle Rock DVD fan campaign were delighted to hear rumors that HIT Entertainment were considering following up their earlier release with a full season one set possibly by the next fall. Joe Raposo, a gifted music composer who had died in 1989 and had worked on “Sesame Street” was to be honored in a new children’s book called “A Boy and his Music.” News broke that Palisades Toys range of Muppet action figures and playsets would come to an end at retail stores with series nine. Any releases from then on would be mail order exclusives with some being made available at conventions. Yet another new Muppet Pizza Hut commercial began to air. The advert featured Miss Piggy rock climbing on Mount Rushmore to tell the Presidents about the benefits of the 4forALL Pizza.


The Jim Henson Company website - Henson.com was relaunched in early October with the noticeable absence of any Muppet related content. This was due to the sale of the property to Disney earlier in the year. Henson Films unveiled the trailer for their upcoming feature film “Five Children and It” featuring the voice of Eddie Izzard. The rumored cable TV venture between Sesame Workshop, HIT Entertainment and Comcast was also confirmed this month. Over 50 hours of pre-school programming would be available via video on demand from early 2005 with a 24/7 digital cable channel being launched in the fall. As the first single disc US Fraggle Rock DVD’s began to arrive in niche retail outlets HIT Entertainment announced a wider national release for January which would include a second release called “Dance Your Cares Away.” They also promised to launch a grassroots marketing campaign to offer the online fan base bonuses like screensavers, downloads, games and Web-exclusive collectibles. The highlight of the month was the premiere of Sci-Fi mini-series “Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars.” The series had been cancelled the previous year and this special aimed to bring the adventures of John Crichton and Aeryn Sun to a thundering climax.


In a month packed full of Muppety fun and surprises Disney re-launched Muppets.com - the characters flagship website. As the site went live Chris Curtin, general manager and vice president of the Muppet Holding Company announced that the occasion marked the first day of the Muppets being back. The build up to the holiday season began and Palisades Toys certainly delivered. Not only were their series 9 action figures and backstage playset released but also the limited edition Jim Henson Muppet figure. To follow was the Santa Swedish Chef figure, a special seasonal exclusive in partnership with eBay. The best news came towards the end of the month at the “Muppets, Music and Magic: Jim Henson’s Legacy” event in New York. Henson writer and historian Craig Shemin announced that Disney would be releasing season-by-season box sets of "The Muppet Show" on DVD from summer 2005. He was interviewed there along with Jerry Juhl, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Carroll Spinney, Michael Frith and other Henson employees and fans for bonus material on the discs.


During the month an article in the Hollywood Reporter gave fans an insight into Disney’s plans for the Muppets. It said that the initial focus would be on getting today’s audiences reacquainted with the classic characters rather than brand extensions like the “Muppet Babies.” It was also revealed that Disney's Muppets unit had already held three "summits" with the parks and resorts division alone, discussing how to maximize synergy between the Muppets and Disney's parks, cruise line, etc. The latest issue of Toyfare confirmed rumors of the next step in Palisades Toys range of Muppet products. Beginning next summer, they would be making Sesame Street action figures, Palz block figures and collectable display environments. For those who can’t wait that long they also announced a Super Grover exclusive tour figure debuting at the Wizard World LA comic convention in March. Ending the year on a festive note the Muppets appeared on the ABC network’s annual airing of the Walt Disney World Christmas parade and guest starred on Saturday Night Live.

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