And now here’s a word about the non-people stars of Sesame Street—The Muppets: Ernie, Bert, Kermit, Big Bird, Oscar, Cookie Monster, Roosevelt Franklin, et al.
Way east in Manhattan’s 70’s, scrunched between a radio station and warehouse, is a small, linguini of a brownstone. The crudely lettered hand-painted sign tacked up alongside the peeling red door reads:
HENSON ASSOCIATES and MUPPETS, INC.
THIS SIGN WILL BE REPLACED WITH A NICE EXPENSIVE ONE…SOMEDAY…MAYBE.
Walking up the steep, narrow staircase to the second floor work area is an experience in itself. About halfway up the stairs, something compels the visitor to look up. If he is lucky he has a firm grip on the handrail, which will prevent him from cascading backwards in fright. Above, suspended from the ceiling and hanging menacingly from its right claw is the grand-daddy Cookie Monster of them all—Splurge—an anemic, plucked chicken in its right claws. They say in Henson’s lean days this apparition prevented bill collectors from proceeding much further. These days, however, having been conditioned by Sesame Street’s ugly Cookie Monster, who mooches cookies, the visitor (breathing normally after the initial shock) chuckles (a-ha, a-ha) and continues up the stairs (eyes warily searching). This surprise element and off-kilter humor pretty much size up Jim Henson’s band of zanies, better known to Ed Sullivan and Sesame Street watchers alike as The Muppets.
Ask any preschooler to name his absolute favorite Sesame Streeter and the percentages pretty much divide evenly among Big Bird, Oscar, Cookie Monster, Kermit the Frog, Ernie or Bert—all Muppets. (The word Muppets is a Henson crosshatching of words moppet and puppets.) Kids have switched from playing Batman to playing Big Bird. A little girl in Reading, Pennsylvania, saves up all of her weekly snacks so that come Friday, she can have an Oreo-eating orgy, pretending she’s the Cookie Monster.
The high-ceilinged, cluttered studio of Henson Associates offers insight into what makes the Muppets click. On the all near the front bay window is a stage setting of a house that was used in filming an FHA commercial. Only now the house has eyes and ears and a mouth. Looking around, even the room seems animated. Jim and his associates see personalities in everything—including a cactus plant, meager and kind of scuffy that was rescued from a garbage heap. Two days after the orphan was perched on a worktable, it had sprouted whiskers and eyes and was now “part of the family.” More of the family—every Muppet that has ever been used—line the entire backroom wall and spill over into the workroom. Large neat filing cabinets labeled “assorted ghouls” and “miscellaneous nondescripts” pull out to reveal Muppet creations. The Muppeteers are music and old film buffs, both influences are obvious in their work. Even the names of the Muppeteers seem significant—Frank Oz manipulates Bert and Cookie Monster; Kermit Love is the main creator of Big Bird (although Carroll Spinney actually wears the gorgeous yellow plumpage of the 7-foot overgrown canary).
That the people behind the Muppets really care about the tradition of puppeteering was self-evident during a workshop they conducted. Henson Associates, considering the amount of work they produce—500 commercials, TV specials for Ed Sullivan and Hollywood Palace, as well as the frantic pace of Sesame Street—has worked through the years with a skeleton crew. In the summer of 1970, the time had come to expand and encourage new talent into the field. They chose a very democratic way to go about it. By placing ads in various newspapers, they attracted young people from all walks of life who were yearning to take a whack at being a Muppeteer. For two intense weeks of training these prospective Muppeteers were given a crash course in such things as on-camera technique, double-takes, body English, voice flexibility. Before getting involved, not one of the hopefulls ever imagined what hard work, concentration and genius it takes to make the things that the Muppeteers do look so natural and right. Working in a dance studio of a friend, Jim along with fellow associates Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, patiently worked with the group, giving advice here, perfecting a technique there. Watching Henson and his staff in action you realize there is a uniqueness about them that goes beyond the mastery of skills. They are all temperamentally individual. Yet they possess a kind of humorous-humanitarian outlook on life that is uniting. Hard to explain, but somehow watching them work, improvising a scene, you get the feeling that a Muppeteer is—either you have it naturally or don’t. But when the two weeks were over, Jim and his two friends had done a commendable job shaping the group into respectable potential Muppeteers. Now they had “new blood” to call on.
Not that Jim Henson is suffering from tired blood. At the ripe old age of 34, he moves and looks like a dancer—lithe, catlike, a casual quiet manner behind his gaunt good looks. Talk to him for a minute and all of the sudden you realize: gad, it’s Kermit the Frog!
Jim began fooling around with puppets long before he leaped onto the Sesame Street lily pad. As a student at the University of Maryland, he did a late night music and comedy puppet show called “Sam and Friends.” One of his “friends” eventually became his wife. Jane and he went on to create the Muppets. The Hensons worked together for some years before Jane left the Muppet brood to stay home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and take care of the Henson clan of four.
What appeals to Jim about puppetry is its total control—“An individual can do entire theater: act, direct, produce, stage design, write, the whole thing”—and its universality. He says: “All the world over children seem to love puppets and have for centuries.”
The Muppets are made of a foam rubber-like material that makes their facial movements extremely realistic and their bright-hued covering is ideal for color television. Because they belong to no recognizable class, they have universal appeal—cutting across ethnic, social and economic bounds. Says Jim jokingly: “The only kids who can identify along racial lines with the Muppets have to be either green or orange.”