The Man Behind the Muppets

Although Jim Henson’s 30-year career was cut short when he died of pneumonia at the age of 53, he gave his creations so much life, they had the ability to carry on the show without him. As Kermit the Frog’s nephew, Robin the Frog (who played Tiny Tim in A Muppet Christmas Carol), put it in the TV special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson: “You know, this Jim Henson may be gone, but maybe he’s still here, too, inside us, believing in us.”

In a lively, funny and inspiration new exhibition at ACMI, Muppets, Music and Magic: Jim Henson’s Legacy celebrates the genius puppet-maker and storyteller. Featuring documentaries, clips, animations, rare commercials and experimental films made by Henson, it’s a special insight into the history of The Muppets and Sesame Street.

If you’re banking on unearthing the real details behind Miss Piggy and Kermit’s separation, though, you’re out of luck. Representative of The Jim Henson Foundation, Martin G. Baker says they’re pros: “I think from the film program, you will learn only what they want you to know about their many years together. Like so many relationships, there is both a public and private side to this legendary couple.”

Here’s a taste of what you will learn about The Muppets at this mini-festival of all things fuzzy, funny and Fozzie.

(ALMOST) 50 YEARS OF BIG BIRD

Designed by Henson and built by Kermit Love in 1969 for Sesame Street, Henson originally intended to be Big Bird, but Love didn’t think Henson walked enough like a feathered friend. Caroll Spinney then stepped into Big Bird’s legs and gave him his child-like persona. He has embodied him ever since, and also plays Oscar the Grouch. Despite being in his seventies now, and the physical demands of the suit (he can’t see from inside the costume and wears a TV monitor strapped to his chest), Spinney is still the main puppeteer for Big Bird. His understudy Matt Vogel has been learning how to be Big Bird since 1998, and has filled in for him occasionally. Spinney hopes to see out 50 years as Big Bird before he retires. If you can watch Spinney as Big Bird perform Bein’ Green at Henson’s memorial service without welling up, you are not a human being. Spinney says he started crying even before he began singing.

You can hear all about the feathery yellow icon straight from the Bird’s mouth in the documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.

A CREATIVE GENIUS WHO WAS ALSO A NICE GUY

Jim Henson was an exceptionally good dude. Baker has described him as, “An amazing man” and “Everything you wanted him to be”.

“First and foremost he was extraordinarily creative,” says Baker. “But the other side of him was that he was a very gentle man, and a wonderful collaborator. People say to me, ‘What was it like working for Jim Henson?’ and I always correct them and say, ‘You don’t work for Jim Henson, you work with Jim Henson’ – and it was that subtle difference that made him who he was. He was one of those people, unique in many ways; yes he was clearly the boss, and you were the employee, but he never made you feel that way. I say working with Jim was a lot like going to work with your best friend every day.”

Baker says he, “Was very lucky to have had a long and close relationship with Jim Henson … and his kindness lives through the characters he created.”

Other collaborators, including Frank Oz, Fran Bril and Carroll Spinney also discuss working with Henson in Jim Henson: His Sesame Street Story.

JIM HENSON WAS NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR, BUT NOT FOR THE MUPPETS

Between 1963 and 1964, before The Muppets landed any of their TV shows, Henson was making commercials and performing as his first Muppet character, Rowlf the Dog on The Jimmy Dean Show. He also began shooting an experimental short film about a man, played by Henson, trying to escape the passage of time. Each scene was less than four seconds long. The eight-minute live-action film, Time Piece, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966 and is one of only a few projects Henson created without puppets.

For more on Henson’s filmmaking, see Jim Henson: Commercials & Experiments. It includes his TV show, The Cube, which follows the story of a man trapped inside a white cube visited by intruders.

THE MUPPETS GOT THEIR START IN ADVERTISING

Being a huge fan of TV, and having already created TV show, Sam and Friends in 1955 for NBC, making commercials allowed Henson to filmmaking and develop some of the characters we love. Rowlf the Dog got his start selling dog food for Purina before joining The Jimmy Dean Show in 1963. A prototype for Kermit the Frog (who had also been in Sam and Friends) encouraged his co-star to drink Wilkins Coffee. The predecessor for the modern Cookie Monster also appeared in IBM training videos eating computer screens. This growing presence on television led to Henson being invited by PBS to help produce a new children’s TV program, Sesame Street.

Muppet History 101 and Commercials & Experiments both contain rare footage of The Muppets during their earliest days on TV.

THE MUPPETS WERE ONCE A PART OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE

There are two sides to The Muppets world: the Sesame Street kids entertainers and the more “adult” Muppets, who are best personified by the Henson Alternative’s Puppet Up! (they performed at The Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2014).

When producer, writer and actor Lorne Michaels was approached to develop what would become the late-night variety show Saturday Night Live in 1975, NBC pushed to have The Muppets join the cast. For the first season of the show, The Muppets had their own segment. But the comedy of the SNL cast and The Muppets didn’t quite mesh, and tension grew.

The Muppets were offered their own show the following year, and they moved to England to create The Muppet Show. If commercials had been an important part of introducing The Muppets to a TV audience, Baker says appearing on SNL took them a step further. “Their presence on a late-night show like SNL made audiences realise that there was more to The Muppets than just kids’ entertainment. It proved it could reach a far broader audience ,” says Baker. The Muppet Show premise draws on their SNL roots, with a behind-the-scenes, 30 Rock-Style format.

This article was originally posted on Broadsheet on 23rd September, 2015.

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