Another musing from the mind of Mr. Leeman Kessler …
To my mind, there are just enough songs about rainbows and the only one that counts was never sung by Judy Garland (the celebrity painkillers/diet pills addict). Why is it that a hand stuffed in felt resonates with not only my generation but most of the surrounding ones as well? Perhaps looking to my personal past might reveal some answers. My childhood in West Africa was a pop cultural hodgepodge at the best of times but amidst the decades-old Mad magazines and Betamax copies of The Messenger, I had access to the Muppets in my own small way. (I will be excluding Sesame Street from this conversation because of its ubiquity)
First, there was the deuterocanonical Muppet Babies televised serial I owned, copied with dubious legality from TVs in the States and transported at great risk to the dusty lands of Nigeria for my consumption. I stared slack jawed as cartoons danced before the tumbling stone from Indiana Jones or battled against TIE fighters and wanted more. Those green and white striped socks are forever glued to my brain and I think I will always somewhat prefer that iteration of Gonzo. But many might consider that era to be a pop regurgitation of the Muppets so allow me to add further street cred by describing the wide-eyed wonder of watching the movie itself at an older couple’s house and being so blissed out that I returned the next day to see what other wonders they might possess only to be shooed away. If this were not enough, my parents had the brilliance to acquire the LP of the songs from the movie which I listened to as soon as I was tall enough to reach the arm and set the needle down carefully on the rim of the record.
Even given these things, I can’t justify my love. I had VHS copies of Garfield and Friends, Who’s the Boss, and Thoofer and yet they have not stuck in my heart with quite the same weight. I listened to the Chipmunks Sing the Beatles and and the Pretty Woman soundtrack on repeat and yet I have no interest in viewing either a Chipwreck or a New Year’s Eve. So there must be something more, some trauma that never truly healed and formed a perfect scar over my heart that marks me forever as Jim Henson’s own. If you’ll allow, I believe this trauma to be dark and twofold.
First was Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas. I only viewed it once or twice but it left an indelible mark upon me. I knew just enough from my readings of the Wind in the Willows to be absolutely terrified of weasels and the texture of the creatures I was watching reached out to me as no piece of animated celluloid or plain old flesh and blood human could. I felt for Emmett Otter in a quiet, sad way and I find myself even now growing cold at the memories of that 34 year old film.
And finally the real artifact that would determine the course of my love. It was strange and dark, familiar yet discomforting. I am of course speaking about the Frog Prince. Forty years old now, I watched the ever-loving crap out of this thing in my formative childhood in between power outages. I remember my heart beating at the injustice of the princess’ plight, fearing Sweetums as only a child can fear, and longing to sing along with all the frogs and truly be a part of that world. When the orb cracks and the purple goo explodes everywhere, a part of me still shivers. I wonder just how much of my childhood can be decoded by simply watching that today and recognizing how in love with it I was.
Each of us who looks on a piece of felt and wire with fondness and groans at the sight of Goober or other lesser attempts at puppetry has taken our own particular path to get here. Whether it was a love of Charles Grodin and Diana Rigg, a need to understand just who those creatures were who invaded the Fraggles’ home in that once Christmas Special, or fate that brought you in touch with the Muppets, their magic is hard to deny and I for one, choose not to.