Little Case of Horrors

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of this decade of our own, the human race not-so-suddenly encountered an informative film podcast hosted by three old friends. 

And this (hopefully) educational episode surfaced, as such indie podcasts often do, in the seemingly most common and likely of places…

The Black Case Diaries!

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Well, it’s that time of year again. The temperature outside is dropping, Spirit Halloween stores are taking over vacant retail spaces, and the evening air is starting to smell like woodsmoke. Summer’s end has come, and Autumn is here! 

And since the end of September is fast approaching, we thought it was the perfect time to talk about something a little…horrifying. In December of 1986, a strange and mysterious plant appeared on theatre screens across America. Cared for by a soft-spoken man named Seymour, the botanical oddity quickly seized the attention of audiences throughout the country. The only problem was that this plant didn’t feed on sunshine and water, but instead craved human blood! 

Little Shop of Horrors is not your average Hollywood musical film. It’s darkly funny, with the gritty texture of the off-Broadway production on which it was based. While musicals like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music featured brightly colored locations and sweeping cinematography, Little Shop of Horrors takes place on the bleak and infamous street called  “Skid Row,” and follows a protagonist that feeds people to an evil plant from outer space.

This wonderfully odd film appeals to the strangeness in all of us and gives a biting commentary (pun intended) on human nature. Not to mention, it’s absolutely packed with hilarious comedic performances, incredible songs, and mind-blowing special effects! 

So, let’s head back to an early year in a decade not too long before our own to explore the seemingly innocent and unlikely origin of the greatest threat to human existence, in…Little Shop of Horrors

Before Little Shop of Horrors became a movie musical, it was a stage musical. And before it was a stage musical, it was a movie! So, let’s talk about the origins of this odd story, and how it went from movie to musical to movie musical! 

  • In the late 1950s, director Roger Corman started experimenting with horror-comedy films. A studio manager that was friends with Corman told him that a film was about to wrap with no projects on deck. This gave Corman a funny idea, and he decided to give himself a unique challenge. He asked the manager to leave up the sets from the previous movie so he could come in and shoot another film in only two days. 
  • Corman and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith brainstormed for a day and developed the general plot of a horror/comedy B-movie about a man-eating plant. Griffith then spent about two weeks writing the screenplay before the film began production with a budget between $15,000 and $22,500.
  • For years, rumors circulated that Corman shot the film on the infamous 2-day deadline because of a bet. Others speculated that he wanted to throw together one last low-budget film before a new rule went into effect, which would require filmmakers to pay actors residuals for their performances after films had been released. Corman has never confirmed this and says it was more of a joke–he did it to see if it was possible.
  • The movie turned out to be a joke in more ways than one. First of all, audiences found the film to be hilarious, including a cameo appearance from rising star Jack Nicholson as a masochist. Second, the two-day filming schedule cemented the film in B-movie history, and it was widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s most notorious jokes. 
  • But, as you might’ve guessed, the influence of the film didn’t stop there. For years, the film was replayed on late-night TV shows, which is how a young teenager named Howard Ashman first saw it. 
  • In 1979, Ashman wrote and directed a musical called, “God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater,” with musician Alan Menken (it was their first collaboration). The musical was a hit at the WPA theatre where it premiered but hadn’t done well outside of those productions. 
  • Ashman wanted their next project to be fun and remembered the off-beat silliness of Little Shop of Horrors. The next time the film aired on TV, Ashman taped it, and Menken immediately saw the musical potential for the story. 
  • According to Kyle Renick, then-producing director of the WPA theatre where Little Shop of Horrors would eventually premiere, it took the theatre a year to secure the rights to the film, and 8 months for Ashman and Menken to write the musical. 
    • Ashman wrote the book and lyrics, while Menken composed the music. Menken said, “I decided that I wanted the musical approach to come from some early 1960s music—the girl group sound. It has a very dark, menacing ring. You can almost hear whips and chains in the background. There were two ponytailed teenagers in the movie and we decided to turn them into a black trio that functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action.” 
    • Although the plot was similar, Ashman made major changes to the story. He cut out characters and changed the ending. Every death in the original movie was accidental, while Ashman’s version showed the protagonist, Seymour, killing people and feeding them to the plant. 
    • The subject matter may seem gruesome, but because of the humor in the show, audiences didn’t seem to mind. 
  •  For Audrey II, the theatre hired Martin Robinson, a Muppet performer known for portraying Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. Apparently, Little Shop of Horrors was Robinson’s favorite film, and he had been dreaming of developing the plant for years. He would finally get his chance.
  • In May of 1982, Little Shop of Horrors opened at the WPA theatre to rave reviews. It quickly became a crowd favorite, selling out almost every show. After a couple of months, the WPA was approached by at least 26 different producers that wanted to move the show to Broadway. Eventually, it opened at the Orpheum Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for 2,209 performances. 
  • As the musical’s popularity continued, talks of a major motion picture began to emerge. Producer David Geffen, who helped bring the show to Broadway, signed on to produce a film adaptation of the play. 

1986 FILM SYNOPSIS

  • Seymour Krelbourne is a young assistant at a struggling flower shop in Manhattan. He pines after his beautiful coworker, Audrey, as they both dream of one day breaking free of their financial burdens and escaping Skid Row. One day, Seymour witnesses a total eclipse of the sun and discovers a very strange and unusual plant that he names Audrey II. Just when Seymour’s boss is about the close the shop for good, the exotic plant attracts a great deal of attention to the store, allowing it to stay open. As Seymour cares for the plant, he soon discovers that the only way to make it grow is to feed it human flesh! Although he doesn’t initially want to hurt anyone, Seymour must choose between his morals and his only chance at finding a way out of Skid Row and starting a new life. 

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • Years after producing the Broadway musical and the feature film, David Geffen admitted that he initially thought that a musical version of the 1960 film Little Shop of Horrors was possibly the worst idea he had ever heard. Of course, audiences disagreed, as the show was an undeniable commercial and critical success. 
  • Geffen’s original plan for the film was to not surpass a 6 million dollar budget, and have Stephen Spielberg as a producer, with Martin Scorsese as the film’s director. This plan never came to pass.
  • The film would eventually reach an estimated budget of about 25 million dollars. Instead of Martin Scorsese as a director, Geffen approached puppet master Frank Oz. Oz had previously co-directed The Dark Crystal with Jim Henson, and just recently finished directing his first muppet film, Muppets Take Manhattan. Initially, Oz wanted to turn down the project, as he was unsure how to make it work. It was actually the concept of the three women that acted as a Greek chorus, narrating the story on stage, that convinced him to take the job. He felt like they were the key to making the story flow, and they added a certain magic and style to the production. 
    • Frank Oz started the directing process by storyboarding almost every scene, especially musical numbers with Audrey II. This way, he could figure out exactly how big the sets needed to be, and how to work around the limitations of the plant. Each scene averages about 30 takes, and sometimes the takes would last only a few seconds. 
    • Oz wanted the film to flow seamlessly between scenes. One way he achieved this was by planning out each scene’s transition. If you watch the movie carefully, you will notice how well the transitions fit together. 
    • In many scenes, Oz utilized tight angles and close-ups to help the audience connect with the main characters. He refrained from using wide shots, because he felt like they made the setting look grand and very “Hollywood.” 
  • Howard Ashman stayed with the project to write the screenplay for the film, and also penned additional lyrics. When Frank Oz was planning scenes for the film, Ashman was there to help him through the process. Ashman told Oz that it wasn’t just the music that had rhythm, but that there was a rhythm to his dialogue as well. Oz said that advice was incredibly helpful. 
    • Ashman also made sure that Oz understood that the musical wasn’t meant to be subtle. Ashman and Menken’s songs don’t ease the audience into the music, the music just starts and the viewer either accepts it or they don’t. The film is unapologetic in every aspect. 
  • The entire film was shot over 6 months at Pinewood Studios in the UK, on the 007 stage. Oz wanted the movie to be a strange hybrid of stage musical and film, so he knew they would have to create their own universe and environment for the story to take place. Many films are concerned with realism, making their environments look as close as possible to real-world situations. In Little Shop of Horrors, everything is real to the characters, and whether or not the sets and backdrops look realistic to the audience is immaterial. That being said, Audrey II is as real as it gets! 
    • Roy Walker was the production designer for Little Shop and is also known for The Shining as well. It took him and his team three months to build a Skid Row replica. Walker created three different sets for the flower shop in the film. One set was for people to act alone. Another set was for people to act with the plant, and the third set was specifically for the finale, when Audrey II destroys the store. 
    • In order to make the set look as American as possible, Walker gathered up huge containers with trash cans to place on the street corners of skid row. 
  • The key to Little Shop of Horrors was Audrey II, and having a director with puppet experience was vital for production. Oz had previous experience working with designer Lyle Conway in Jim Henson’s creature shop. Lyle was the mastermind behind Audrey II.
    • According to Frank Oz, it took Conway and his team 9 months to prepare the plants for the shoot, and they continued to work on them even during production. 
    • Oz said that Lyle researched extensively about plants in order to create the beautiful textures and colors within Audrey II. At the end of production he and his team had created 15,000 handmade leaves, 20,000 feet of vine, and 11.5 miles of cable for all the plants combined!
    • Conway created 7 different sizes of Audrey II, and some that performed different actions for the movie. With each size, more people had to operate the plant. When the plant was small, only two or three people needed to operate it. But by the end of the film, about sixty people stood in a tank underneath the massive plant, looking at monitors as they operated its movement. One person even stood inside the plant’s mouth to make it move, while Brian Henson was camouflaged in a suit of vines and leaves as he helped operate the head. 
    • In order to make vines that would bend seamlessly without wearing down, the filmmakers had to approach the Atomic Energy Institute to research the best metal core to use. 

THE MUSIC

As we mentioned before, Little Shop of Horrors features music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman. Composer Miles Goodman wrote the score for the feature film. Goodman was a prolific composer who wrote music for films like A Muppet Christmas Carol and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. In this film, he used the foreboding sounds of organ music in his theme for Audrey II. 

PROLOGUE (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) 

  • Little Shop of Horrors opens with a drumroll that leads into the prologue music, followed by an iconic narration, setting up the story. This opening gives off the vibes of a classic horror B movie, much like the one on which it was based. The style of music shifts into a 1960s era number, and as the camera takes us through 16 different cues, we hear the voices of the greek chorus that will lead us through the story. 
  • As we mentioned before, Frank Oz almost turned down this movie. In a 1986 LA Times article he says “I didn’t think I could get my hands around it. There were too many elements. It was a period piece, it was horror, it was comedy, there were 14 songs and a puppet that was going to weigh a ton.” He was finally able to bury these worries and take a chance on the film, and one of the reasons he did so was because of the three muses.
    • The singers bring the camera around the set, introducing the location and characters to the audience as they manage to stay dry during a rainstorm. They provide a type of visual exposition, ending with our main character Seymour. 

SKID ROW (DOWNTOWN)

  • Skid Row is the first ensemble song, and further introduces the setting and intentions of the characters. We hear the two leads, Seymour and Audrey, sing for the first time, and learn more about their characters. 
  • Frank Oz planned “Skid Row” a year before shooting, and the actors knew exactly how many steps they needed to take during the song. 
    • The chorus walks in an off-beat way on purpose, to further drive home the uneasiness and discomfort of their lives. 
  • The song ends with a medium shot of all the actors singing out toward the camera, in a unifying moment. Frank Oz purposely kept the shot tight because he didn’t want the number to feel grandiose. 

DA-DOO

  • Seymour introduces his boss, Mr. Mushnik, to a strange and interesting plant that he named after his coworker and love-interest, Audrey. Immediately after placing the small plant in the window, a man steps into the office to inquire about it. 
    • According to Frank Oz, Christopher Guest (who played the customer in this scene) would play the scene much too seriously. Finally, he gave a over-the-top performance that made it into the final cut. 
  • In the song, Da-doo, Seymour explains that he discovered the plant during a total eclipse of the sun. The song features one of the only optical effects in the film, as a light shines around Audrey II. 

GROW FOR ME

  • After just one day, Audrey II’s presence has boosted business for Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop. However, the plant seems to be wilting, and Seymour stays late to care for it. It’s in this song that he discovers the plant’s lust for blood. 
  • For this scene, only a couple people needed to operate the plant. When Seymour leaves the room, Audrey II breaks through its coffee can and grows. The special effects team achieved this effect by placing the plant behind the coffee can, and just moving it closer to the camera to create the illusion that it was growing. 

SOMEWHERE THAT’S GREEN

  • In this song, Audrey reveals to the audience her true dreams of marrying Seymour and moving into a suburban home with a chain link fence. She highlights the “luxurious” lifestyle she pines for, taken straight from 1950s sitcoms. 
  • For this scene Ellen Greene wanted to make sure that she really felt at home before shooting, and spent time in her on-screen bedroom. 
  • The scenery for this song is an excellent example of how Frank Oz leaned into the theatre and pushed the boundaries. 
  • The scene is packed with visual jokes that, according to Frank Oz, test audiences reacted to even more than they had hoped. One such visual is an animated bird that lands on Audrey’s hand, akin to Cinderella. The scene took immense planning, especially for that effect to work well. 
    • In order to get a real magazine that they liked for the shot, Frank Oz flipped through dozens of old magazines until he found a Better Homes and Garden magazine that had the perfect imagery of homes and appliances that he was looking for. They used the magazine with permission from Better Homes and Gardens.
  • When Howard Ashman wrote the screenplay, he expressed that he wanted a continuous shot from Audrey’s room to the rooftop, leading seamlessly into the next song. To make that happen, Frank Oz needed to put two cranes on top of each other, as there didn’t exist a crane tall enough to film the sequence. 

SOME FUN NOW

  • “Somewhere That’s Green” transitions to this next song, where the greek chorus sings about the “fun” Seymour is having taking care of Audrey II. 
  • Since the muses are up at the top of the buildings, they are surrounded by billboard space. Oz hates product placement, so an art director suggested that they use a product from the 50s that no longer existed for the billboard, hence the Chooz billboard.
  • The scene originally showed more footage of Seymour feeding Audrey II, but test audiences were squeamish, so Oz cut out much of it. 

DENTIST

  • In this song, we meet Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend, a dentist played by Steve Martin. The song opens with Martin riding a motorcycle in front of a 3-foot model, composited onto a blue screen behind him. 
  • Before Roy Walker built the set, Oz had counted out how many steps Martin needed to take while filming the number. The steps needed to match up perfectly with the music. 
  • Although he has one of the biggest roles of the celebrity cameos in the film, Martin was only on set for 6 weeks of shooting. Martin brought a lot of hilarious ideas to the role, and worked hard to avoid comparisons with characters like Fonzie.
  • For one shot in this song, Lyle Conway created a gigantic human mouth for Steve to sing into, while holding a huge dental tool to scale. 

FEED ME (GIT IT) 

  • After Seymour sees Audrey ride off with her abusive boyfriend, Audrey II speaks for the first time. It tries to convince Seymour to kill people for plant food, offering him anything he could possibly want. This is the moment when he decides to make a deal with the devil. 
  • Because the plant couldn’t move fast enough to sing along with Seymour (Rick Moranis), Rick was forced to film sequences in slow motion, so they could be later sped-up. When he’s singing alone on screen, he’s singing at a normal speed and the film was 24 frames per second. When he’s singing on screen with the plant, he’s moving slowly and the speed is 16 frames per second! It was like this for every scene filmed with a talking/singing Audrey II. 

SUDDENLY SEYMOUR

  • After Audrey’s boyfriend disappears (because Seymour fed him to Audrey II), Audrey is free to pursue a romantic relationship with Seymour. Suddenly Seymour toes the fine line between funny and sweet, as Howard Ashman meant for the song to be very tongue-in-cheek, yet the characters are taking it very seriously. 
  • The imagery for the scene references Romeo and Juliet, which foreshadows a not-so-happy end for the two protagonists. 
  • At the end of the scene, the actors run up a fire escape and embrace with the sun behind them. The scene took about 36 takes, and they used the final take. Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene both got lip burns from kissing. 

SUPPERTIME

  • When Seymour cut up Orin, Audrey’s boyfriend, he was spotted by his boss, Mr. Mushnik. In “Supertime,” Mushnik confronts Seymour, threatening him with a gun. Seymour has the option of leaving town, letting Mushnik take over the plant. But instead, he lets Audrey II eat his boss. 
  • The scene is incredibly dark, but is offset by the quick transition into the next song. 

MEEK SHALL INHERIT

  • After feeding two people to the plant, Seymour has found immense fame and success. But, the plant wants more. Some of the song’s imagery was inspired by “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

MEAN GREEN MOTHER FROM OUTER SPACE

  • In the theatrical release of the film, Seymour confronts Audrey II just after the plant attempts to eat Audrey. The scene escalates as Audrey II reveals that it is being from outer space, here to take over the human race. It’s clear that the plant is too powerful for Seymour to control, and he must destroy it. 
  • This scene was shot in bits and pieces, but pieced together to create a cohesive musical number. At this point, the plant had sixty people operating it, with giant levers and machinery. On set, the music was slowed down so the operators could mouth the words correctly with the song. 
  • The end of this scene is different in the original version of the film, but in the theatrical release, we see Seymour rise from the rubble of the flower shop and electrocute Audrey II. 

After Seymour defeats the plant, we see him and Audrey start their fairytale life…with another Audrey II not far away. 

STARRING

  • Rick Moranis as Seymour Krelborn
    • We all know him from movies like Spaceballs, Ghostbusters, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
    • Rick was cast before they even knew he could sing! Geffen had Rick in mind for the role the entire time. He even saw Rick at a concert and told him that he would star in his movie someday. 
  • Ellen Greene as Audrey
    • She has been in films like The Cooler, and Talk Radio.
    • She had performed Audrey on the Off-Off Broadway for 4 years and David Geffen wanted her for the part because he knew she would be perfect. Warner Bros had actually wanted Barabara Streisand for the role.
  • The three young girls that act as a Greek Chorus or muses that lead us through the movie were:
    •  Tisha Campbell as Chiffon
      • She was most notably also in Martin and My Wife and Kids.
    • Tichina Arnold as Crystal 
      • She has been in The Main Event and The Lena Baker Story.
    • Michelle Weeks as Ronette
      • She has not been in much but a TV movie called Norman’s Corner.
  • Vincent Gardenia as Mr. Mushnik
    • Known for parts in Moonstruck, Death Wish and more.
  • Levi Stubbs as the voice of Audrey II
    • Most well known for his role as Audry II, as well as Captain N: The Game Master.
  • Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello (the dentist) 
    • A very popular comedian known for roles in Roxanne and Cheaper by the Dozen.
  • Jim Belushi as Patrick Martin
    • Known for many movies including Red Heat and K-9.
  • John Candy as Wink Wilkinson
    • A comedian who we just talked about in our John Hughes episode! 
    • Frank Oz didn’t want any ad-libbing but he made exceptions for some of the comedic actors in the film, like John Candy, who was known to be one of the best ad libbers in the business. 
  • Bill Murray as Arthur Denton (the masochist)
    • Well known for many roles such as Ghostbusters.
    • When Bill Murray came in to do his role, he wasn’t sure about the dialogue. So, even though Steve Martin’s lines are completely scripted, Bill Murray’s weren’t. Every take was different, and the men decided how to end the scene together. 
  • Stanley Jones as the Narrator
    • He is a voice actor most known for his roles as Scourge in the Transformers animated series, and Lex Luthor in the Justice League animated series. 

ALTERNATE ENDING

  • When the test audience saw Little Shop of Horrors, the screening went very well. That was, until the end of the film. In the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour and Audrey do not end up somewhere that’s green. Instead, Seymour suffers greatly for his deeds, when his true love dies at the hands of Audrey II. Seymour then feeds Audrey to Audrey II, and gets eaten himself. 
    • Then, the muses sing the finale, “Don’t Feed the Plants,” which describes how Audrey II and its clippings spread across the country, eventually taking over. 
  • When he was adapting the screenplay, Howard Ashman felt it was important to keep the original ending. First of all, it drives home the message of the story. Secondly, fans of the musical might be disappointed if the film ends differently. Frank Oz was on Ashman’s side, and convinced David Geffen to let them shoot the ending that Ashman had written. Geffen told them from the beginning that it wouldn’t work, and that they would eventually need to change it. They went ahead anyway, hoping Geffen was wrong. 
  • Frank Oz said in an Entertainment Weekly article in 2017 that, “We [screened] the film the way Howard and I wanted it. The audience was clapping after every number. Then, when Seymour and Audrey died, they turned like an icebox. The reaction was so bad, Warner Bros. wasn’t going to release it. When one dies in the theater, one dies and comes back for a curtain call, but in the movie you don’t come back for a curtain call. The audience was very angry.” 
    • Special effects artist Richard Conway developed a fantastic sequence of the plants, taking over the US. It was dark, yet comical, with groundbreaking visuals and incredible sound design. It was essentially a mini monster movie, ending with a comically large, “THE END?!?” as a plant covered the statue of liberty. 
    • Only 13% of the test audience said they would recommend the film, so Oz and Ashman worked on a new ending and called back the actors for re-shoots. Unfortunately, this also meant that Conway’s effects wouldn’t be seen by most audiences, which Frank Oz felt was the real tragedy. 
  • Oz has said that he learned a very valuable lesson from the experience. While he prefers the original ending (and he knew Ashman did too) he understood that he wasn’t making a movie for him, he was making it for millions of people. 

RECEPTION

  • The film grossed $39 million at the box office which, from the viewpoint of the studio, was considered an underperformer. However, it became a smash hit upon its home video release in 1987 on home video.
  • Roger Ebert said in his review: “All of the wonders of Little Shop of Horrors are accomplished with an offhand, casual charm. This is the kind of movie that cults are made of, and after Little Shop finishes its first run, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it develop as one of those movies that fans want to include in their lives.”
  • The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: one for Best Visual Effects and one for Best Original Song for “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”. The song was the first Oscar-nominated song to contain profanity in the lyrics and also the first to be sung by a villain. The film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Original Score at the 44th Golden Globe Awards. 

FUN FACTS

  • Heather Henson plays the distraught young dental patient with the headgear on. 
  • Pieces of Orin the dentist’s body were created for Seymour to toss into Audrey II’s mouth, including Steve Martin’s severed head, dripping with blood. This was deemed too graphic, and the pieces were used, but they are covered in newspapers so the audience wouldn’t see them. 
  • The film was originally going to be gorier. For example, there was supposed to be blood on the walls of the dentist office. 
  • If you watch the original ending, there is a scene where Seymour tries to commit suicide after Audrey dies. The scene has no musical score because it became clear that they would not use it in the final cut. 

When Ashman first had the idea to turn a B horror film into a musical, it was because he wanted to make something fun. And boy, was he successful. Little Shop of Horrors is weird and wonderful, with a solid story and killer musical numbers. Its lyrics are heartfelt and hilarious, and its performances are to die for. 

It’s been forty years and yet, this film seems to get better every time we watch it. So if you’re hungry for a good time, turn on this treat of a film. It’s suppertime!

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

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The Case of The Muppet Movie

Well, it’s no secret that we here at The Black Case Diaries are BIG fans of alliteration. So, last week we departed from Musical May, and this month we are heading into…Jim Henson June! Usually, June is the month reserved for June Tunes, but we decided to shake things up this year. This week, we’re covering a Jim Henson film that is near and dear to our hearts. 

From 1976 to 1981, The Muppet Show dazzled audiences everywhere with its chaotic charm. Jim Henson was known everywhere as an innovator, and master entertainer. He took the rigid medium of puppetry, which was known to cater almost exclusively to children, and turned it into something for everyone. So, in 1979 when the Muppets were at their peak popularity, Jim Henson produced their first ever full-length feature film. It was a beautiful musical journey of how The Muppets met and came to be, with a variety of high-profile cameos speckled throughout. 

So this week, we’re moving right along, out of the swamp and on our way to Hollywood! It’s time to explore the Magic Store with The Muppet Movie! 

In the late 1970’s, Jim Henson was one of the busiest men in show business. Caroll Spinney, the man that brought Big Bird to life, called him “the hardest working man I’ve ever met.” In 1977, as Henson juggled The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, holiday specials, and live performances, he started working on The Muppet Movie. 

The film would be incredibly ambitious. No one had ever made puppets the main actors of a feature film before. Of course, Jim Henson could have turned an episode of The Muppet Show into a film. But, instead he did something much more challenging. This film would be the reverse of The Muppet Show. Instead of live actors coming to visit the muppet characters, the muppets were venturing out into the living world. 

Jim Henson brought this idea to Lord (Lew) Grade, the chief of ATV, which was the home of The Muppets. Grade was enthusiastic about the idea, and granted Henson an 8 million dollar budget (quite steep at the time). Filming started in 1978.  

SUMMARY

  • After being discovered by an agent in a swamp, Kermit the Frog decides to head to Hollywood to chase his dream of becoming a professional performer. Along the way, he meets a struggling bear comedian named Fozzy, a talented dog pianist named Rowlf, a beauty queen that happens to be a pig, an alien plummer, and many more! As the group heads to California, Kermit must also escape the clutches of an evil restaurateur that intends to use Kermit to sell deep-fried frog legs! 

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • Jim Henson wanted to direct The Muppet Movie himself. But, he was eventually persuaded to allow an experienced filmmaker to come in and take charge. Henson had never shot film, and the producers chose director James Frawley to take the helm. Although this was incredibly frustrating for Henson, he seemed to work well with Frawley. Frawley was familiar with directing quirky material, like episodes of the TV show, The Monkees, and Henson liked his sense of humor.  
    • Frawley performed a screen test, which helped him understand the characters and how they worked, and whether or not they would fit into the real world.
    • In a USA Today article, the director said, “We shot them in and among cows — real locations though — trees, farmland and cars to see if you accepted their reality mixed in with real reality.” 
      • Frawley admitted to not understanding their mechanics and process at first, but he was soon an ally to the muppet performers. Jim Henson had worked with directors in the past that did not understand the physical demands of puppeteering. For this film, performers would often stand in small, claustrophobic places while holding their arms above their heads. In some scenes, they hid in underground cylinders, covered with plywood and dirt. Frawley was sympathetic, and would often shout, “Muppets relax” between takes, so the actors could rest.  
    • Making a groundbreaking film meant solving a lot of problems. Frawley felt that the most difficult scenes to shoot involved driving. The scenes inside the Studebaker forced up to four puppeteers to squish together under the dashboard with their monitors since there was no room for an actual driver. Frawley had the car rigged, so a stunt driver could operate it from the trunk, while watching the road on a monitor! 
    • But the sequence that Frawley felt was the most difficult of all, was the opening shot of Kermit singing in the swamp. Originally, Jim Henson wanted the scene to be in a real swamp, but quickly abandoned the idea. Instead, he shipped in trees from Georgia, and turned a water tank into an incredibly realistic swamp set.
      • Henson had a diving bell made to sit in the four-foot tank. He squeezed inside, and was sealed in. A rubber sleeve at the top allowed him to reach up and control Kermit with one hand, and a wire allowed him to operate Kermit’s banjo movements. Except for a headset that allowed him to communicate with the outside world, and the oxygen being pumped in, Henson was essentially buried alive. The scene took 5 days to shoot. At one point, Henson was sealed in for over three hours. 
      • Any time a muppet was shown with their feet, a creative solution was required to make it happen. For example, one sequence when Kermit walked across the sand in a ghost town, the camera was ground level as someone operated two green legs from above.
  • This movie was written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl, the head writers for The Muppet Show. Back when Jim Henson first pitched the show, Juhl was the main writer. But, the network hired comedian Jack Burns to take the head writer title, because he was a more well-known comedian. So, Juhl understood Henson’s frustration when he wasn’t named director of The Muppet Movie. For years afterward, Juhl continued to write muppet content, and is responsible for many of the jokes that we associate with the muppets today. 
    • Juhl and Burns wrote a film that was a nod to old Hollywood. There were elements of classic movie musicals, buddy films, and slapstick comedy. But, Juhl also made sure to incorporate elements of Jim Henson’s own life. Jim Henson had left Mississippi (where there are a few swamps) to achieve his dreams in Hollywood. Like Kermit, he gathered up a group of coworkers and friends that shared his dream of wanting to bring more light into the world. He also fought to escape the clutches of the advertisement business. 
      • In Brian Jay Jones’ biography on Henson, he points to the climactic scene in which Kermit faces Doc Hopper at High Noon, as a true Jim Henson inspired moment. 
      • “Yeah well, I’ve got a dream, too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, Well…I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And it kind of makes us like a family.” 
      • Jones wrote that Juhl could have lifted those words verbatim from Jim Henson’s mouth. 
  • Filming took a total of 90 days, with many shots done on location in California and New Mexico!
    • The entire film was done in camera with no after effects added. Every scene was choreographed so that the actors knew exactly where to be. It’s a complicated process, because the muppets need to appear autonomous, which means that puppeteers cannot ever appear. 
    • “Simple is good,” was always one of Jim Henson’s philosophies. But, it seemed as if his definition of simple would fluctuate. Writer Jerry Juhl said, “We always used to kid Jim that after telling everybody that ‘simple is good,’ he would turn around and try to produce the most complicated work in the world.” 
      • One notable example of this would be the scene in the film when Animal consumes chemicals and grows a gigantic head. Although some suggested filming the scene using the regular-sized Animal puppet with miniatures, Jim Henson instructed his crew to build a 60-foot Animal head instead, controlled by Frank Oz. 
  • When you’re watching a Muppet movie, you’re witnessing a series of complicated maneuvers by people so talented, that it all looks seamless. Only two characters in the film were operated as suits. Sweetums, the ogre muppet that works at the used car lot, and Big Bird! 
    • Another example of these maneuvers was the scene that included legendary actor Orson Welles. As the group is about to appeal to Welles to become rich and famous, the five or six puppeteers were wheeled on a dolly across the stage and objects in the foreground were used to help conceal them, such as chairs and couches.
  • In the finale we see many of the muppets all together under a rainbow. When watching you may not even think about what kind of an amazing feat this is. You see the muppets as actual characters, but in reality they must be moved by puppeteers. In this final scene there are more than 250 Muppet characters with 137 puppeteers hiding. The scene took an entire day to shoot and several of the puppeteers were called to help from the Puppeteers of America. In the beginning of the day Henson and Oz gave a crash course in the art of cinematic puppetry.
    • We will include in the blog a picture of how they organized where each puppeteer would stand with their characters by numbers written on the ground.
The Muppets.jpg

The Muppet Movie released in America on June 22,1979! It was a critical and commercial success, just like Jim Henson knew it would be. It was one of the most profitable films of the decade. 

MUSIC

  • The music and lyrics were written by Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams.
  • In an interview with Stephen Deusner, Paul Williams said “Jim instructed us never to write down to children. That was never the point. We were writing the story and the characters. I think the special thing about the Muppets is that they encompass every age.”
  • When Williams was asked about working with his co-writer he said that, “The way Kenny (Ascher) and I write, it’s almost like we’re one consciousness. I probably write about 85 percent of the lyrics and a little bit of the melody as I’m singing, and he writes 85 percent of the music and a little bit of the lyrics. It was a perfect collaboration for The Muppet Movie.”

SONGS

  • The Rainbow Connection
    • There are a lot of magical moments in this film, but the opening of “Rainbow Connection” is other-worldly. It starts in the sky, as the orchestral opening music fades away, to make room for the humble sound of a banjo. The camera comes in from a wide shot, reminiscent of the opening of “The Sound of Music.” This first song of the movie sets up our main protagonist Kermit so that we see him as a true character and not a pile of fabric. 
    • At the film’s premiere, Jim Henson’s 14-year-old son, John, burst into tears. When asked about it later he said, “I cried in the opening. I still do.”
      • The inspiration for The Rainbow Connection was “When you Wish Upon a Star.” Both songs deal with inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
      • The Rainbow Connection is essentially an “I want” song. Linda Holmes from NPR wrote this about the song, “His ‘I Want’ is not just for his own dreams to come true. It’s for those who believe in the enchanting myths that we’ve all written together to be proved right. Someday, he hopes, we will find a thread that makes all this make sense. You know. Life. It’s almost a ‘We Want’ song.”
    • Jim Henson decided that when the audience first sees Kermit he would be sitting on a log. When Williams and Ascher asked Henson what Kermit would be doing, Henson thought briefly and said Kermit would be playing a banjo. Williams and Ascher built from there.
    • Performed at the 1980 Oscars
      • It was named in 2017 by Billboards Andrew Unterberger as one of the 100 Greatest Award Show performances of all time.
    • The song hit number 25 on the Billboard Chart and stayed in the top 40 for seven weeks! 
    • Since then the song has been covered by many artists. It’s wise lyrics may not be grasped by younger listeners but it has the capacity to be appreciated by all. It has been covered by Willie Nelson, Sarah McLachlan, and Jason Mraz.
  • Movin’ Right Along
    • This song comes just as Kermit is able to “convince” Fozzie to come with him to Hollywood. It sets up the beginning of their journey together.
      • This song also shows the audience the chemistry between Fozzie and Kermit, two best friends hittin’ the road together. It sets up the film as a “buddy” and “road trip” movie. It also shows how creative the characters are, as they are singing the song and writing it in real time! 
      • This song is filled with funny asides and is a plucky tune pounded out on banjo. Movin’ Right Along is an absolute jam. It also has a great cameo from Carroll Spinney’s Big Bird! 
    • In January of this year The Muppets social media uploaded a video of current day Kermit and Fozzie singing the tune together via a phone video call as Fozzie does a quick road trip. We will link to the video if you would like to view it.
  • Never Before, Never Again
    • This song really shows Frank Oz’s range, as Miss Piggy sings a love ballad while noticing Kermit for the first time. This song is filled with silly moments of the two Muppets being in love and spending time together, although only in Miss Piggy’s imagination. 
  • I Hope that Somethin’ Better Comes Along
    • This song is unique in that Henson duets himself! In order to accomplish the performance the two tracks were recorded separately and then composited together. 
    • The Muppets constantly walk a line between entertainment for children and adults. It’s tough to say if anyone has ever done it as well as they have. This song has the most grown-up jokes, as Rowlf and Kermit lament their lady troubles.
    • Rowlf the Dog was a very special character for Jim Henson. He was as much Jim as Kermit the Frog. When Jim Henson passed away, Rowlf only made a cameo appearance in The Muppet Christmas Carol, because Brian Henson didn’t want to recast him. 
  • Can You Picture That?
    • Shortly after Fozzie and Kermit meet up, the two encounter Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (aka the heroes of the film). Hanging out in a church, which they hope to turn into a coffeehouse. Once the band finds out about Kermit’s troubles with Doc Hopper, they decide to help by disguising their car. 
      • This is also the introduction of Scooter, Kermit’s eventual stage manager! 
    • This song is filled with trippy lyrics, and hilarious Animal moments, not to mention it absolutely rocks harder than almost any song ever. 
  • I’m Going to Go Back There Someday
    • When The Muppets break down in the desert, all dreams of Hollywood seem to have been lost. Sitting around a campfire, Gonzo performs one of the most poignant songs of the film. 
    • When Dave Goelz first took up the Gonzo puppet, he was a quieter, more emotional character. He was always very emotive, more so than many other Muppets. As The Muppet Show progressed, so did Gonzo’s character. He became more confident, and hardly afraid of failure as the resident daredevil.
    • But, when it comes time to perform this song, we see the complex emotional side of Gonzo that’s more akin to his original character. “I’m Going to go back there someday,” describes how it feels when you think you have finally achieved your dreams, just to have them fall apart.
    • Just after this song, Kermit goes and has a conversation with his inner self. He feels responsible for everyone’s misery, and wishes that he never left the swamp. Then, he realizes that they came along with him because they believed in the dream, and he owes it to himself to keep trying to achieve it.
    • Kermit says, “I guess I was wrong when I said I never promised anyone. I promised me.” And he looks up just as a shooting star strikes across the desert sky. 
      • The shooting star has been recreated for several other movies in honor of Jim Henson. It was a Christmas tree light rigged to a wire. When Frawley gave the signal, it shot across the other desert stars.
    • After Henson’s passing, I’m Going to go Back There Someday was one of the songs performed for his funeral at St. John’s Cathedral in New York City.
  • America
    • In one of the funniest and most off-beat moments of the movie, Fozzie Bear sings an off-key version of America The Beautiful. The rendition is charming and warm, with Fozzie singing along to the swelling music at the end. This is the kind of moment that really appeals to younger audiences, children that are listening to the songs, but also singing along. It’s also a great representation of the silly shenanigans that often happen on a long car ride. 
  • The Magic Store
    • This song is the big finale, a moment of celebration for our heroes that finally found their way to fame! The group sings to the audience, detailing their paths from being awkward kids in school, to successful entertainers. It’s a song for the audience, inspiring them to follow their dreams, too. 
    • The group starts to perform “The Rainbow Connection” together. Then, the ceiling breaks open and a rainbow appears, distracting everyone with its beauty. The music seems to stall for one haunting moment, except for two notes gently played on the piano. Then, Kermit turns to the camera, and tells us what he learned: Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

STARRING

MUPPETS

  • Jim Henson: Kermit the Frog/ Rowlf/ Dr. Teeth/ Waldorf/ Swedish Chef/ Link Hogthrob 
  • Frank Oz: Miss PIggy/ Fozzie Bear/ Animal/ Sam the Eagle/ Marvin Suggs/ Motorcycle Guy
  • Jerry Nelson: Floyd Pepper/ Crazy Harry/ Robin the Frog/ Lew Zealand/ Camilla/ Blue Frackle
  • Richard Hunt: Scooter/ Statler/ Janice/ Sweetums/ Beaker
  • Dave Goelz: The Great Gonzo/ Zoot/ Dr. Bunsen Honeydew/ Doglion/ Nigel/ Pig
  • Steve Whitmire: Fletcher Bird

GUEST STARS:

It isn’t The Muppets without some guest stars. The puppeteers on set were thrilled to work with the large group of celebrities that agreed to appear in the film, from Bob Hope to Richard Pryor. 

  • Charles Durning as Doc Hopper (He looks a little like Colonel Sanders)
    • At one point on set, Jim Henson and Frank Oz got into an argument about Hopper. Henson believed that they should redeem the character. He believed that of any villain, and was once quoted saying, “Our villains are innocent, really–and it’s that innocence, I think, that is our connection to the audience.” Oz reportedly responded with, “bullshit.” 
  • Austin Pendleton as Max
  • Edgar Bergen as himself and Charlie McCarthy (you know, that monocle puppet)
    • Of all the celebrities, this was the most revered by the muppet cast. Edgar Bergen was a trailblazing puppeteer that paved the way for Jim Henson and every other performer on set. Writer Jerry Juhl said that watching him perform was like being a child again. 
    • Bergen was ill while filming The Muppet Movie, but agreed to do it anyway. It would be the very last footage of him, as he died that fall. Jim Henson spoke at his funeral, and the film is dedicated in Bergen’s honor. 
  • Milton Berle as Mad Man Mooney
  • Mel Brooks as Professor Max Krassman
  • James Coburn as El Sleezo Cafe Owner
  • Dom DeLuise as Bernie the Agent
  • Elliott Gould as Beauty Contest Compere
  • Bob Hope as the Ice Cream Vendor
  • Madeline Kahn as El Sleezo Patron
  • Carol Kane as Myth
  • Cloris Leachman as Lord’s Secretary
  • Steve Martin as the Insolent Waiter
  • Richard Pryor as the Balloon Vendor
  • Telly Savalas as El Sleezo Tough
  • Orson Welles as Lew Lord
    • Lew Lord is a nod to the head of ATV, Lord Lew Grade!
  • Paul Williams as El Sleezo Pianist
  • Scott Walker as the Frog Killer

AWARDS/ HOW IT WAS RECEIVED

  • The movie grossed almost $66 million in its initial release. Lew Lord certainly made back his 8 million dollar investment. Thanks to the film’s success, several other muppet films followed. 
  • It was nominated for two Oscars, for best song and best score. It won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film. 
  • When Jim Henson’s agent Bernie Brillstein saw the film, he said, “Kermit was Jim. Jim believed in the entire world.” 

The Muppet Movie was another triumph by Jim Henson. He took his team of dreamers and continued to push the boundaries of his medium. He found artists that truly understood his vision and songwriters that captured the true magic of The Muppets and what they represented. The Muppet Movie works for many reasons, but one of the most notable is because of how much every single person that touched it believed in its message. This film walks the line between silly and sentimental, displaying a truth that will stick with audiences of all ages. 

The Muppet Movie is beautiful. It’s magic personified. And the best part is that it’s for absolutely everyone: the lovers, the dreamers, and you. 

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The Muppet Case

In the mid 1950’s, a young man obsessed with television was about to get a degree in set design,  when he saw an ad in a newspaper. It was from the local TV station, looking for performers for a new show. They were looking specifically for puppeteers, and although he knew nothing about that, he got a couple books from the library and created his own puppets for the audition. The man was Jim Henson, and even though the show he auditioned for was short-lived, it set him on the path of changing the puppet medium, and television, forever. 

But this episode isn’t about Jim Henson (don’t worry, we’ll get there). Today, we’re taking a specific look at one of his most well-known and beloved creations: The Muppet Show. The Muppet show aired from 1976 to 1981, five seasons of perfect insanity and uninhibited joy. It followed Kermit, a hapless producer and host of a weekly variety show, and the rest of the Muppets as they put together a live performance with a special guest. The show followed back-stage hijinks, and even included commentary from Statler and Waldorf, grumpy critics from the upper balcony. 

The show became more popular than anyone could have imagined, and the appeal of The Muppets continues today. So, it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to learn about the Muppets on the BCD tonight!The Muppet Case 

JIM HENSON’S EARLIER WORK

  • Back in the 1950’s, an 18-year-old Jim Henson put together an old felt coat and two halves of a ping-pong ball. Placing his hand inside, he brought his creation to life: a charismatic monster named Kermit. He would use the puppet on a local TV station’s 5-minute time slot between the evening news and the Tonight Show. It was called, “Sam and Friends.” 
  • Along with his future wife, Jane Nebel, Jim had been working on various shows on the local TV station in the Washington, DC area. His creations, that he started to call Muppets, essentially changed the game for puppeteering, and he was given his own program with more freedom. 
    • Up to this point, puppets weren’t considered a versatile medium. They were often rigid, made of wood or plastic, and while they appeared on various children’s programming, they were not commonly used in adult entertainment.
      • Jim Henson changed this by building new types of puppets with various materials. They were more flexible, and easy to manipulate. They also had a lot of character, as he constantly used new technology to give his creations movable features and expressions
    • While working on the show, Jim hired Jerry Juhl, a puppeteer and friend of future Muppet performer Frank Oz. Juhl was Henson’s first employee, and he even filled in for Jane on the final season of Sam and Friends.
  • Juhl moved to New York with Jim and Jane to help them put together their team of puppeteers, and he began to work as a freelance writer in the late 1960’s. He also followed Jim to Sesame street in 1969 as a performer and writer.
  • Eventually Juhl moved to California to pursue writing further, and would help with Jim Henson’s projects from afar. 
  • This relationship is incredibly important, as Juhl was vital to the creation of the Muppet show and the signature humor of the Muppet characters.

THE MAKING OF THE MUPPET SHOW

One of the pseudo pilots- The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence
  • In 1969, audiences everywhere met the lovable and unique Muppet Characters through the widely distributed Sesame Street. Although the show gave his characters exposure, Henson was afraid that he was becoming typecast as a children’s entertainer. 
    • Although the content that Jim and Jane created wasn’t inherently for children, the public eye saw puppets as a means of entertaining children. Popular children’s shows like Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody often used puppets, which cemented this mentality. 
    • The creatures Henson created were brightly colored, and had a friendly look that attracted younger audiences. But, he believed his Muppets were for all ages, as the characters themselves have a wide range of ages.
  • To attempt to get out of this, he began to play with the concept of a more adult oriented program. Two television specials were produced for ABC and are pseudo pilots for The Muppet Show. They were The Muppets Valentine Show (1974) and The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence (1975). At the time, neither of the two specials were ordered to series. 
    • The Valentine Show was written by Jerry Juhl, while Sex and Violence was not. Juhl’s writing voice was now a signature part of Jim Henson’s work, and the Muppets were not as successful without it. 
    • One great thing that came from Sex and Violence was the introduction of Statler and Waldorf, who became staples on The Muppet Show.
  • After the prime-time access rule was enacted, networks were able to shift their 7:30-8pm time slot to their affiliates. This helped convince CBS to consider airing some of Jim Henson’s show proposals, though he would have to go across the pond in order for him to get a green-lit series.
  • Luckily for Henson, British TV station ATV was interested in having his creations appear in a weekly show. He would have to move production to London, and Henson called his best writer Jerry Juhl to come on and develop the show. The station allowed Henson to hire Juhl, but they would not give him the head writer role, as they were looking for a more established comedian, and they hired Jack Burns.
    • The team met to develop the concept of the show, and they would pull elements from both specials. One of these ideas was the “show within a show” format, with a human guest that the characters can play off of.
    • This meant that Jim Henson’s manager Bernie Brillstein would have to find celebrities willing to travel to the UK and appear on the show. This was difficult in the beginning, but once the show became popular, celebrities were calling him!
      • With his team in the UK, Jim filmed two pilot episodes that they attempted to sell to US networks.
  • Meanwhile, the Muppets were featured during the first 1975-76 season of Saturday Night Live. Although they lasted for only that one season on Saturday Night Live, Henson and his team learned a great deal from being involved in the show’s production. They gained knowledge about adapting the current affairs of the world as well as quickly creating a television episode within a seven-day period. Henson also gained friendships with many celebrities through his work on SNL that were later able to be guests on The Muppet Show. 
    • This experience also helped Henson and his team to figure out the personalities of the Muppet characters and how they could be used on their own show.
  • Because Jim had been using the characters for TV appearances for almost 20 years already, he had well-set ideas for them and knew where they could fit in the show. All of the pieces were coming together.
    • Jim Henson chose one of his most well-known puppets, Kermit, to be the host of The Muppet Show. Kermit was originally a character that had trouble finding his footing. He seemed rough and a little rude, often criticizing other characters and frequently yelling. Placing the character as a frustrated stage manager really changed the context of his personality and made him a much more relatable character–someone who just wants things to go right. 
  • After leaving SNL, the creators were able to focus more on the show. They made huge improvements on the characters, based on the notes from the networks that did not want to buy The Muppet Show. The team went back to London and set up a studio to make the endless amounts of puppets needed. 
    • The next episode was far more successful, and the actors started to understand their characters. It also introduced Scooter! 
    • Each episode improved on the last, an incredible feat. Being able to adapt is what made Jim Henson and the Muppet performers so special, and it’s how the show lasted as long as it did.
    • There were cases of violence on the show, but Jim Henson was generally against any kind of TV violence, but the beauty of using puppets meant that viewers always knew that no one was getting hurt.
  • The Muppet Show first aired in September of 1976. By Christmas of the same year, the series saw around 14 million viewers on Sunday evenings in the UK. In January 1977, over 100 countries had either acquired the series or were making offers. 

SHOW PRODUCTION

  • The show had multiple writers. Jerry Juhl, who was appointed head writer for season 2, conveyed that there is a lot of freedom in writing a show like this. He said you can write down any insane fantasy you can think of on paper and there are people standing by to make it happen. 
  • Episodes were typically written a couple months before recording.
    • The other writers included: 
      • Don Hinkley
      • David Odell who began working with them first in the Muppet Movie.
      • Chris Langham
        • He was the only English writer and Jim Henson said  that he had an off the wall sense of humor.
  • The crew would start building sets about 5-6 weeks before they were needed on the show.
  • The Workshop was where the puppets were created and oftentimes they would spring ideas on the builders at the last minute.
    • In order to have multiple puppets throughout the series with different personalities they created The Whatnots. These puppets had blank faces that you could add features like eyes, noses, mouths and wigs in order to give character and personality. They had a variety of sizes, colors, etc for the features and they were typically attached via tape or pins.
    • Most, if not almost all, of the characters did not exist below the waist meaning they didn’t have legs. The trick was convincing the audience that there was a whole world for them and that they have their own reality. 
  • Stages of events leading up to a show
    • The first day was a script read-through and music rehearsal for vocals.
    • The Second day they would record the band and vocals.
    • Next they were in the studio rehearsing and videotaping the action.
    • Each episode of course had its own set of problems or hurdles to jump over.
    • They typically spent about three days shooting everything for the week’s episode. Sometimes a seemingly small number like, The Viking number (In the Navy), can take an entire day to perfect for an episode.
  • Philip Casson and Peter Harris were television directors that switched back and forth between weeks and would control the final product of what the audience sees on the television. They acted as regular television directors, but also dealt with the special problems that arise with working with puppets.
    • Richard Holloway would be the in-between for these two directors and those that were controlling the puppets. 
    • In order for the actors to see what the audience would see, there were monitors all around on the ground. They needed to make sure that every actor was looking at a monitor in order for them to fully understand the world that they were creating.

THE MUPPET PERFORMERS

  • The stars of the Muppets were of course those that controlled the Muppets. These performers became known as a Muppeteer. This term simply means a puppeteer for the Muppets. They each manipulate the puppets, provide voices, and bring a life, attitude, and character to the diverse characters.
    • The term Muppeteer derives from a portmanteau of “Muppet” and “Puppeteer”. This term has been used as early as the 1960’s in order to help promote Muppet projects. 
    • However, according to Brian Jay Jones, author of 2013’s Jim Henson: The Biography, Henson was not a big fan of the term. His entry reads:
      • “There was one term that Jim expressly would not allow to be used to describe his performers—and that was the word Muppeteer. While the media and others would use the term freely to describe Jim’s occupation, Jim thought it was just a bit too gimmicky. In 1984, when the Apple computer company sent Jim a mock-up of a page from its annual report proudly hailing Jim as an Apple user and listing his occupation as “Muppeteer,” Jim scratched darkly through the term and wrote “Muppet performer” beneath it. He was a performer or a puppeteer, not a Muppeteer.”
  • Many of the performers acted as many characters throughout the show. 
    • The men behind the Muppets had pros and cons of not being the seen stars. On one hand they weren’t recognized, so they could shop in peace. On the other hand they were not recognized, so they were not seen as famous. 
    • Jim Henson himself performed as the voices of Kermit, Rowlf, Waldorf, and even the “Mahna Mahna” singer.
      • Mahna Mahna originally appeared on Sesame Street! 
      • Jim Henson saw himself as Kermit. They were both trying to hold together a bunch of crazies.
    • Frank Oz voiced Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Snowths, and T.R Rooster.
      • Jim Henson said that he credits Frank Oz with one of the reasons that the Muppet Show is so funny. 
        • Frank Oz was such a big part of the show.
        • He was such a great performer, which was his absolute best attribute.
    • Richard Hunt voiced Scooter, Statler, Wayne, and in some cases, Miss Piggy, as well as Miss Piggy’s Dancing Partner.
    • Dave Goelz voiced Gonzo, Muppy, Miss Kitty, and Zoot
      • He was encouraged to perform by Jim Henson, and didn’t necessarily believe in his own ability. This made Gonzo seem a little quiet and childish, as Goelz was a shy performer. 
      • Gonzo developed to be a complex character that has a sensitive quality to him that other Muppets lack.
    • All of these performers would also voice many more minor or one off characters, along with additional voices from Jerry Nelson, Louise Gold, Steve Whitmire, and Kathryn Mullen.

GUEST STARS

  • After 5 seasons and 120 episodes, The Muppet Show never repeated a guest. According to manager Bernie Brillstein, celebrities contacted the show and asked to come on!
  • The initial contact with a guest is a phone call, where they find out information about the guest and figure out how to play to their strengths.
  • David Lazer the Executive Producer would be the one to guide each guest star through the week. 
  • Some of their most popular guests were: 
    • Julie Andrews 
    • John Denver
    • Gene Kelley
    • Elton John
    • Dom Deluise
    • Bob Hope
    • Steve Martin
    • Carol Burnett
    • John Cleese

RECEPTION

  • The Muppet Show was an unprecedented piece of television, because no other prime-time show had attempted to make its main characters puppets. It allowed both adults and children to come together and was more popular that anyone could have imagined. 
    • Jim Henson was thrilled with the success, but he couldn’t shake the fear that audiences saw the Muppets as children’s characters.
      • Network executives were seemingly the only ones who saw it this way.
    • It left such an impact that there have been several movies and shows since. Some classics are: The Muppet Movie, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppet Treasure Island.
  • The show was well received and was given awards, even early on!
    • 1977 the British Academy Television Award for Best Entertainment Programme
    • 1978 British Academy Television Award for Most Original Programme/Series
    • 1978 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy-Variety Or Music Program
    • 1979 The Peabody Award
    • 1979/1980 WGA Award for Best Variety Series or Special: Musical or Comedy – Television
    • 1980 The Raven Award
    • 1981 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing – Variety Series- to Jerry Juhl

It has been 44 years now since The Muppet Show first aired and we are still seeing its influence and characters today. On the Disney+ streaming service they have even put out a new series titled Muppets Now which is labeled as an improvisational comedy based on the franchise.

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