Sunday, 6 June 2010

It’s Time To Raise The Curtain….

So I figured I should explain not just a little about myself, but also my history in the things I’m into and will probably post about the most. This may not completely explain my insanity, but it may at least justify it (somewhat). Hopefully these pieces will be informative and, rather than be just about me, will also explain a little about the subjects too to make them a little more interesting. But overall, I figure, that if these blogs are going to be about what I think, I should at least start off by telling you how these things have influenced my life and give some indication of what they mean to me.

I’ve decided to start with the Muppets; mostly because they are probably my oldest interest
I don’t actually remember a time without the Muppets. I remember living in my second home (where I lived from the age of 3ish till 6ish) and watching the Muppet Show and when I think about that house and vaguely remember the layout, and what items were where, it’s the Muppet Show that I picture being on the TV. I know I watched Sesame Street too but it was the Muppet Show that I was truly in love with.

Yes, the cute kid in the Muppet Show tshirt is me.
As an infant my parents bought me this 1976 Kermit the Frog stuffed toy, and over 30 years later and while it may have seen better days, it is the only toy from my childhood that I still have.

I’m not going to go into the complete history of the Muppets, because to do that I would also need to delve into the complete history of Jim Henson too and quite frankly we would be here all week. If you would like to know more about the history of the Muppets and Henson, I strongly suggest visiting sites such as:

Anyway, to cut to the more pertinent areas of history. Following the success of Sesame Street (which has run since 1969 and is still going strong), Jim Henson wanted to make a prime time show that could appeal to adults as well as children. Using a mixture of existing characters from Sesame Street and other Henson projects such as Kermit, Rowlf (who was created in 1962 for Purina Dog Chow adverts) and Gonzo (who had appeared on a couple of TV specials) as well as a bunch of new characters; Henson made 2 pilots, “Valentines Special” in 1974 and “Sex and Violence” in 1975.

Despite the popularity of Sesame Street, neither pilot was able to land a TV deal in America; and if you’ve seen either of them, it’s not overly surprising why they failed. However, Henson was offered a deal by ATV to produce the show for ITV (which at the time was Britain’s only commercial TV station), and as a result the Muppet Show was filmed at the Elstree Studios in the UK; about 20 miles from where I live.

The Muppet Show debuted in September 1976, a few months after I was born, and, as fate would have it, in 1979 my family moved to a house where our new next door neighbour (Percy) worked as a set designer on the show. I don’t remember much about Percy, not surprisingly, but I do remember that he let me sip his beer on occasion (odd as I can’t stand the stuff now) and he would bring me Muppet stuff such as balloons and other marketing materials. Most importantly though, thanks to Percy, twice in the summer of 1980 my family and I got to go to Elstree studios and see the filming of the Muppet Show.

Being only 4 at the time, it’s hard to go into too much detail about what I got to experience while seeing the Muppet Show filmed; sometimes I wish I had been just a couple of years older so I would have retained more from the experience. But that said, I do remember a lot and that is probably due to how much this meant to me then and still does. I got to see two episodes from series 5 being filmed; the guest stars were Gene Kelly and Debbie Harry.

Being so young, I can’t always remember which time I got to see or do certain things, I can put some of it together now from knowing which sketches were in each episode; but some of the experiences or images that have always been lodged in my mind could have happened on either or both of the visits. Likewise, I don’t know if we had special backstage passes or if everyone there had the same access that we did; I have to think it was the former because I would be amazed if it were the latter.

Anyway, one of the first things I remember while walking through the building is walking past the HUGE Muppet Show sign that would drop down at the end of each opening credits with Gonzo; it was just propped up against a wall. I’m pretty sure located near this was the permanent set for the audience (the Muppet audience that is, not the audience watching the filming).

The real audience area was very dark and, I’m pretty sure, very quiet. I don’t remember seeing a whole lot of sketches being filmed on the main stage, I don’t know how long it takes to film a particular sketch; but I do remember that they seemed to spend AGES (well, ages to a 4 year old) filming the “Cool Water” jugband routine. I also saw Gene Kelly record the end of "Singin' in the Rain" where he walked through the wet street set; and Blondie record "Call Me".
My cousins on the set for "Call Me"

The Muppet backstage area, where you would often see Kermit orchestrating the show and the dressing room doors, was filmed separately but shown to the audience via hanging television screens.

In another whole area which I think was “backstage” to most people, we were in what I remember to be like a large sound stage where in the distance I could see a Rowlf being puppeteered. This is where things are a little confusing for me now, because Rowlf doesn’t have much exposure in either of the two episodes I was at, especially not at the grand piano; but I distinctly remember seeing it because I was amazed at just how large the puppet was, especially in the body where his loose “skin” just flowed down over what I guess must have been Jim Henson.

The reason I don’t have much memory of what was going on in the distance though is because I was far too engrossed in what was happening to me at the time. I had a conversation with Scooter. I don’t remember any of what was said, but Richard Hunt set himself down in front of me and started to fully puppeteer Scooter; and as soon as he did, the puppeteer disappeared into the background and my eyes were fixated (from what I am told) on Scooter (why oh why didn’t my mum take a picture????).

In January of 2008, episode #41 of Steve Swanson’s MuppetCast did a tribute show to Richard who sadly passed 1992. He was described by his peers and family as being such a hugely warm and giving man who would always go out of his way to make others happy. Obviously I didn’t know him, and as a kid I probably didn’t even thank him properly (I hope my mum did); but I listened to that podcast on the train with a tear running down my cheek while I finally heard and learnt about the man who took the time to give me a few minutes that I would cherish for the rest of my life.

My final real memory of being at the tapings was being in the creature workshop. As you can see from this picture of my aunt and I, hanging on the wall were a lot of Muppets; including three Kermits just behind us. Now imagine an entire large room like that, with not only wall to wall Muppets hung up but also benches of them in the middle of the room as well (many of the Piggys were kept on pedestals rather than hung up; but what else would you expect from the original Diva); this room was amazing. I remember my mum spending a lot of time talking to the women who worked in the creature shop preparing, repairing and cleaning the puppets; I don’t remember which Muppets I got to hold if any but as you can see from the picture, I was as close to them as physically possible.

One thing I have learnt while writing this blog post is that while it was not the final episode to air, the Gene Kelly episode was the final episode filmed for series 5; the final season of the original show. I don’t know which of the three days between August 19th and 21st I attended, but there’s a 33% chance that I was there on the final day the Muppet Show was filmed……wow!

Taking a small step back in time, The Muppet Movie was released in 1979. I remember seeing the movie at a young age, but don’t think I saw it at the cinema. It was released on video tape as early as 1980 so its very possible that I saw it that way for the first time; I know I had a Captain Jack copy I would watch often by the time I was five or six. The other video I would watch over and over was the “Muppets Go to the Movies” 1981 special which we had taped from the TV. I did however have the soundtrack album from the movie with the original cover art, it was given to me on vinyl by a friend of the family; again several years after the original release. Unfortunately, I played it to death as a child and eventually although I transferred it to cassette before the record bit the dust completely and disappeared into the trove of treasures that I would love to have now but were a long time ago disposed of, it already had a few jumps in it; not that it ever stopped me from listening to it. While I love all the songs on the original soundtrack, Rainbow Connection is a song that I would include on a soundtrack of my life.

While I didn’t see the Muppet Movie at the cinema, I did get to see most of Henson’s future feature films on the big screen. The Great Muppet Caper in 1981, the Dark Crystal in 1982, Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984 and Labyrinth in 1986. At some point after Take Manhattan, so I’m guessing either late ’85 or early ’86, I also got to see the Muppets on Ice tour at Wembley Arena (I think). I’ve tried to Google more information on the ice show but unfortunately come up blank; but it was soon after the release of Take Manhattan because the Muppet Babies were the “new” thing and made an appearance in the ice show.

With the Muppets off TV, I of course watched Fraggle Rock from 1983 to 1987; but for me it never reached the level of affection that I held for the Muppets; and with no further Muppet productions, they unfortunately started to move to the back of my head as I neared my teenage years.

Unfortunately Jim Henson died May 16th 1990; just over 20 years ago. I don’t really remember it happening, I must have heard about it, but a week before my 14th birthday, I don’t think it hit me then as much as it does now to know what a great loss the world suffered that day.

At the time of Henson’s passing, the final details were just being put in place for the sale of the Muppets to Disney; Henson was expected to sign to official documents the following week. The Muppets were already starting to appear in the Disney parks with the “Here Comes The Muppets” stage show beginning on May 25th 1990 and the MuppetVision 3D attraction in the final stages of production which opened on the one year anniversary of his passing. Just two weeks before his death, the TV special “The Muppets at Walt Disney World” had aired; designed to promote the Muppets joining the Disney fold and coming attractions. Henson’s untimely passing stalled everything; what would have been an entire Muppet land at Disney/MGM (now Disney’s Hollywood) Studios never grew past the stage show(s) which ran until 1994 (after Here Comes was replaced by “Days of Swine and Roses” at a different location in the park) and MuppetVision 3D, which is still going strong today and just goes to prove the absolute timelessness the Muppets possess. It wouldn’t be until 2004 that the Muppets were finally sold to Disney.

While I saw and enjoyed much of the post Henson era, I was always more nostalgic for the original Muppet stuff than either the new series Dinosaurs (1991) or even the post Henson Muppet Movies like Christmas Carol (1992) or Treasure Island (1996). My personal view is that if you compare the original Muppet Movie to Muppet Treasure Island, you can really see a difference in quality; not so much in the puppeteering itself, but in the richness of the story and overall beauty; the later movies just seem so much more children orientated whereas the original Muppets were much more aimed at adults but in a way that children could also enjoy watching.

1996 saw the launch of Muppets Tonight and I was quite excited as it was a return to the Muppet Show format and I was hopeful that it would be a return to everything I loved about the Muppets. I have mixed feelings of how it went; and that’s without even factoring in the feelings stirred by Sandra Bullock singing her version of Mahna Mahna. I liked Clifford, but let’s face it, he was NEVER going to replace Kermit, and every time the frog made an appearance, you could just tell who the real lead was. I wasn’t so keen on some of the other new characters created for the show; however like many Muppet fans (I have no statistics to back that claim up), I fell in love with Pepe the King Prawn who is the only new character from Muppets Tonight to have since been treated and used as a headline Muppet rather than an extra.

What Muppets Tonight did do is remind me how much I did enjoy the original Muppets and brought my own history with them, especially the taping visits, back to the front of my consciousness. The lull in Muppet activity coincided with my teen years so it was very easy to put them behind me; now having just turned twenty I could properly appreciate what I had experienced.

In 1998 Rainbow Connection became one of “our songs” as my now wife and I recorded it together in a recording booth kiosk at the Trocadero. We saw Muppets from Space on DVD in 1999, the best thing about it being the directors commentary with Gonzo and Rizzo; and in the early 2000’s several “Best of” Muppet video’s were released which we picked up and enjoyed. Again the Muppet activity lulled but they, especially Kermit who had always been my favourite, were now with me for the rest of my life as one of the things I loved in a nostalgic sense.

The Muppets were finally sold to the Walt Disney Company in 2004, and as a fan of both it was the perfect marriage; something Henson himself knew 15 years earlier. While the Muppets didn’t make an immediate come back, they did become more accessible. Disney started to licence them out and finding Muppet merchandise on sale in stores has become increasingly easier over the years since; there have also been a number of book releases, and since 2005 complete seasons of the show have been released on DVD with some excellent special features. In 2006 I started collecting Disney Pin Trading pins, I have several lanyards dedicated to certain things, but my every day lanyard for in the park is monopolised by three characters; one of which is Kermit.

After the success of “From The Balcony”, a webcast series of Statler and Waldolf heckling movie trailers that aired on in 2005 and 2006 and won the 2007 Viewers Choice Webby, in 2009 the Muppet Studios, the name for the Muppet division at Disney, started releasing viral Muppet videos directly to YouTube. These too have proved to be a huge success and again highlight how the Muppets can reach not only the fans like me that grew up on them, but also make new fans of today’s youth. One of the first videos “Ode to Joy” staring Beaker won the 2009 Webby People’s Voice award for Best Music Video, and the entire Muppet crew recreating “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the same award in 2010 as well as the Webby for Best Viral Video.

The Muppets were used as the spokespeople for Disney’s “Give a Day, Get a Day” promotion of 2010, and at the D23 Expo in September 2009, the Muppets made appearances on stage in the announcement that there would finally be another Muppet major motion picture. I was watching live vidcasts of the D23 Expo as one of the “Box People from Lou Mongello’s Basement” thanks to WDW Radio Live; and while many people were most excited that weekend about the unveiling of the new Fantasyland at WDW, or Star Tours 2.0, or Pirates of the Caribbean 4, for me, hearing about and then the next day seeing the video of the Muppets coming out on the Mark Twain and singing Rainbow Connection; gave me goosebumps.

It’s becoming clear now that Disney are finally ready to start using the Muppets again in a main stream capacity; whether it has just taken the time to prove that they can still be hugely popular or it was just a matter or waiting for all the licence deals to expire that were sold prior to Disney buying the Muppets, I don’t know; but the Muppets ARE BACK!!, judging by the Muppet Studio YouTube shorts they are back to their former high standards, and I am very excited about what the future may bring.

And so thats my LONG history with the Muppets; I was wearing a Muppet Show tshirt as a 2 year old, and I was wearing Animal PJ pants a tshirt last night as I finished typing this blog; some things never change.

Speak soon :)


  1. The fact that you were at one of the Muppet Show tapings may make you the coolest person I know.

    Great post, Mark.

  2. I did try reading it all but got muppeted out about a quarter of the way in and picked it up again when you where talking about your PJ's.....not a pretty thought!

  3. Wow. AMAZING story! To be at any filming of The Muppet Show, let alone possibly the final episode being filmed - that's fanastic!

    BTW, sometimes if a certain segment wasn't filmed in time for an episode, the segment would be shot during a later week of filming and incorporated into the earlier episode. That may be why you saw Rowlf performing a segment even though he wasn't in those shows.

  4. That's what I thought about Rowlf & the grand piano- it was for a pick up from a previous episode

  5. Wow! Shut the front door!!! That brings a tear to my eye. You have lived (or visited) in a world a have dreamed of. We shall be best friends! Wocka Wocka!!

  6. Hey, did you ever have your photos on display at a small museum type even just off of Borehamwood High Street? Ifso, i may have seen them there, this could have been 10 years ago...

    let me know,
    wozzay2k AT

  7. Great story! As far as the Ice show that you mentioned, I think you're referring to The Muppet Show On Tour:

    Hope this helps,
    Artie Esposito

  8. ThAnk you for sharing this story with us! Do you have any plans to attend the Expo this year or will you be joining lou in the box again?


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