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Puppets & Puppeteers  

Muppets - Lovable, fuzzy puppet-like characters on the Public Television program SESAME STREET/PBS/1969+ and the successful variety program THE MUPPET SHOW/SYN/1976-81.

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The Muppets (a combination of marionette and hand puppets) were the creation of a soft-spoken, bearded puppeteer named Jim Maury Henson (born 9/24/36) who was deeply inspired by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Henson's Muppets are sculpted out of foam rubber and covered with wool, flannel or some other kind of fleecy materials. By swapping noses, ears and the like, Henson and fellow puppeteers can construct some 15 basic types of Muppet characters including the "Whatnots," one shot bit players with interchangeable eyes, noses, and wigs.

Henson's characters have now become as familiar as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck with their likenesses seen on books, clothing, record albums, parades (a block-long Kermit balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade), television series and theatrical movies.

The first Muppet created by Henson starred on a local Washington, D.C. program SAM AND FRIENDS in the 1950s. Sam was bald-headed little guy. It was on this show that Kermit the Frog, Henson's most popular Muppet character appeared in 1956.

Originally cut from the green cloth of his mother's old coat, Kermit was two-feet tall (head to flipper) with Ping-Pong balls for eyes. His little amphibian arms and legs were manipulated by control rods.

 By the time Henson graduated from the University of Maryland in 1958, he had produced a series of 160 TV commercials for Wilkin's Coffee (the show's sponsor) using his Muppet characters. In 1959, SAM AND FRIENDS won an Emmy Award for Best Local Entertainment Program.

Henson's Muppet characters also made appearances on THE TONIGHT SHOW, THE PERRY COMO SHOW, THE TODAY SHOW and THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.

On the musical variety program THE JIMMY DEAN SHOW/ABC/1963-66, Henson manipulated and provided the voice for Rowlf the dog, a furry bundle of foam rubber and artificial brown fur who played the piano and cracked terrible jokes for host Jimmy Dean.

With the debut of the National Education Television production of SESAME STREET Jim Henson created a new group of Muppets including: Big Bird, an eight-foot tall yellow bird; Ernie, a sweet little Muppet guy; Ernie's roommate Bert; Snuffleupagus, a furry, elephant-sized Muppet (operated by two people) originally seen only by Big Bird; Sherlock Hemlock, the show's resident detective; Oscar the Grouch, a green hairy Muppet living in a garbage can; Grover, a blue-skinned Muppet; and Cookie Monster, who constantly craved "Cookies!"

Henson's Muppets were also part of the lineup (and later phased out) of the original SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE show debuting on the NBC network October 11, 1975.

In the book "Of Muppets and Men" (Knopf Press, 1981) the author Christopher Finch described THE MUPPET SHOW as a "docu-drama about a mental institution in which the inmates are encouraged to act out their neuroses while disguised as animals, vegetables or whatever happens to take their fancy."

The program was set in a theatre with Kermit the Frog responsible for putting together a weekly entertainment program. The Muppet cast included:

  • Miss Piggy (Frank Oz), a vain karate-kicking porker
  • Gonzo the Great, resident artist and chicken trainer (later revealed to be an outer space alien)
  • Fozzie the Bear, a terrible comedian
  • Scooter (Richard Hunt), whose uncle J.P. Grosse owned the theater where the Muppets performed
  • Sam the Eagle, the show's censor and self-appointed guardian of good taste and culture
  • The Swedish Chef, a goofy unintelligible gourmet
  • Dr. Bunsen Honey Dew, a resident scientist who worked on unsuccessful invention with the help of his terrified assistant Beaker
  • Waldorf and Statler, two grouchy old men who heckled the Muppet performers from a theater balcony.

The Muppet's in-house band was "Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band," a parody of late 1960s burnt out heavy metal musicians, who hung around the Muppet show cause "it was a good gig." Members included: 

  • Floyd Pepper (Jerry Nelson), their verbal rep and laid-back hipster
  • Zoot (Dave Goelz), an aging, saxophonist
  •  Janis (Richard Hunt), a California surfer girl/guitar player
  • Leon "Dr. Teeth" Elton John Don't Shoot (Jim Henson), the piano player and band leader with a big round body, skinny arms and protruding teeth
  • Animal (Frank Oz), a hairy drummer who cried "Animal needs WOMAN!"

THE MUPPET SHOW was awarded the Emmy Award in 1974 for Outstanding Achievement in Children's Programming and in 1978 for Outstanding Comedy Variety or Music Series.

The program also spawned an animated spin-off called MUPPET BABIES/CBS/1984-92 with stories of the Muppets when they were little children under the care of a nanny (voice of Barbara Billingsley).

Support players in the Muppet magic included puppeteers:

  • Don Sahlin (died in 1978), who formerly worked with puppeteer Burr Tillstrom
  • Franz "Faz" Fazakas, the resident mechanical genius who devised remote controlled eyes and puppets
  • Frank Oz (born in Hereford, England in 1944), sidekick and assistant to Jim Henson who was the talent behind Miss Piggy, Animal, the drummer and the voice/puppeteer of Yoda in the movie Star Wars (1977).

The Muppet characters have appeared in the feature motion pictures The Muppet Movie (1979); The Great Muppet Caper (1981); and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984).

The wizardry of Jim Henson and his talented puppeteers from his special effects division called the Creature Shop have also loaned their skills to such motion pictures as The Dark Crystal (1983), Labyrinth (1986), Witches (1990), The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret of the Ooze (1991); as well as such television programs as TALES FROM MUPPETLAND, a special that aired on the ABC network (4/10/1970); FRAGGLEROCK (which became the first American TV show to air in USSR), and THE JIM HENSON HOUR/NBC/1989.

In 1987, Jim Henson was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Six years after Jim Henson died of pneumonia on May 16, 1990, the Muppets returned to television on MUPPETS TONIGHT/ABC/1996/DIS/1997 as the Muppets put on a "live" program at TV station KMUP.

The show included regular sketches such as "Pigs in Space: Deep Dish Nine! The Next Generation of ...Pigs in Space!" starring Miss Piggy and the new crew of Swinetrek II.

Other sketches included "E-I-E-I-O/R" billed as a fast-paced medical drama starring Mister Poodlepants"; "The Bay of Pig Watch," a seaside parody of BAYWATCH; and "Tails from the Vet" with such strange animals as a ham-eating pig and lactose-intolerant cow.

Henson Productions under the guidance of Jim's Son, Brian have continued the Muppet legacy with the sci-fi adventures BRATS Of THE LOST NEBULA/WB/1998 (Five teenage refugees wander the universe and FARSCAPE/SCI/1999-2002 with Rygel XVI, a slug-like Dominar of the Hynerian Empire).


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