Growing up in New York in the 1970s, I tried out a few schemes to boost my pocket money. The first was shining my father’s shoes: I turned a pair of brown loafers a queasy tortoiseshell with black polish. That was not a success. Next, I tried a lemonade stand on West End Avenue. But if you think the phrases “lemonade stand” and “West End Avenue” sound kind of weird together, you’d be right: another dud.
But then, when I was 11, another option suddenly became available. I could help my mother with her new job, sitting at our kitchen table, slitting open envelopes and sorting the letters inside those envelopes into piles. At first, as I recall, there really weren’t so many envelopes; she would bring them back from a brownstone building on the Upper East Side, 117 East 69th Street. Every so often my mother would head over there on the bus and come back in a cab with a sack — not a very big sack — of letters.
But then, quite soon, she wasn’t asking me to help her just to be nice. She was asking me if I could please finish my homework quickly so I could come and help her now. Because suddenly the sacks were bigger, heavier, and there were more of them. My father, an engineer and graphic designer, began to get involved with the sacks, too. The sacks were taking over our lives, not to mention our not very big apartment. Because the letters inside the sacks were addressed to the Muppets — that brownstone building was the company’s New York office.
A brand new Muppet movie is about to hit our screens and bring these wonderful characters back into the limelight from which they’ve lately been rather far removed; that descent into semi-obscurity giving the new movie its theme and a lot of running gags, too. But back when I was a kid and starting my after-school job, Jim Henson’sThe Muppet Show was well on the way to becoming one of the most successful shows in television history, broadcast in more than 100 countries around the world. After its fifth and final season, it had been nominated for 21 Emmy Awards, winning four; it had won two Baftas, too, having been up for 11.
The history of the Muppets began long before their (continuing) appearance on Sesame Street. From 1955 to 1961, Sam and Friends,a five-minute live show created by Henson, aired nightly on WRC-TV in Washington DC. It was on Sam and Friends that a Muppet made out of Henson’s mother’s old green coat made his debut as Kermit. Rowlf the dog took his first bow in a dog food commercial in 1962; between 1966 and 1971 the Muppets were regulars on The Ed Sullivan Show — it was Sullivan who was responsible, of course, for introducing the Beatles to an American audience in 1964.
Jim Henson, born in 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi, had big dreams for his Muppets. He wanted them in primetime and by the mid-1970s was working to make his dream come true. But all three major American networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — thought that the idea of a puppet show for grown-ups was about as good an idea as black polish for brown shoes. Lord (Lew) Grade, however, hailing as he did from the land of Punch and Judy, understood Henson’s vision. He agreed to let Henson create his show in England and distribute it back to the US through ITV. Grade’s action was instrumental in bringing The Muppet Show to the screen and led to its wide success on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. It was for that reason that The Muppet Show was always filmed in England.
Undoubtedly, the show started small; during the first season, the guest stars were mostly friends of Henson or his manager. But by the third season all that had changed and stars were clamouring to appear on the show. The guest roster reads like a Who’s Who of late-1970s performers: Roger Moore, John Cleese, Diana Ross, Alice Cooper, Julie Andrews, Steve Martin … think of what it means for a star to have a cameo in The Simpsons now, then crank it up a notch, and you get the idea.
So The Muppet Show swiftly became a very big deal, not least because, well, there was a lot less to do in those days. You watched the TV show you liked when it was on. You didn’t have another option. Maybe because of that, certain shows became real phenomena. People all over the world loved the Muppets. And — this being the days before e-mail — they picked up pen and paper and wrote letters to say so. Every single one of those letters was opened, then answered, in my parents’ two-bedroom apartment on West End Avenue and 67th Street. Like millions of kids in the Seventies and Eighties, I grew up with the Muppets — but in a very particular and rather special way.
Afternoons — post-homework, as I’ve said — or after dinner, weekends too, I’d sit with my mom at our dining room table with a pile of mail. We each had a bone-handled letter opener for slitting open the envelopes. Sometimes the letters were many, many pages long. No pages were discarded; every letter was read. Once we had a good group opened, stage two could begin: the sorting. This is where my dad got involved: his engineer’s mind loved systems. Did you want to visit the set of The Muppet Show? One pile. Did you want Jim Henson to speak at your school/church group/synagogue/college? Another pile. Did you want to be a puppeteer? Another. In the end, there were nearly 35 categories. Batches of our replies were printed up on company stationery, stored in stacks and hand-signed by my mother (“The Muppets”) before being sent out.
And then there were the letters that no printed reply would suit. So my mom would retreat to the Olivetti typewriter in my parents’ bedroom and tap out a reply. There was one to a young woman in Albany who was particularly serious about puppetry. My mother, on behalf of the company, sent her a book and the phone numbers of UCLA’s Department of Theatre and the name and number of a professor at the University of Connecticut, who she might like to contact. Sometimes she’d answer just because she liked the person who wrote, kid or adult. One was to a little boy who invited Jim Henson to dinner and was worried (in a pps) whether Henson was a vegetarian. There was a man imprisoned in an asylum for the criminally insane. My mother replied to his letters for years because she knew — on the company’s behalf — that it’s not easy being green. “As long as there are Muppets, there’s hope,” says Walter, the new Muppet in the new movie. If you ask me, he’s not wrong.
I had one other job in those days. Of course, people wrote asking for autographs, and it was here that I came into my own. Every character had a signature, originally developed by that characters’s creator — Kermit’s first drawn by Henson, Miss Piggy’s and Fozzie Bear’s by Frank Oz and so on — and it was my job, well … OK … it was my job to forge the signatures on the glossy photographs. I’m sorry if anyone reading this feels a sudden shock of disillusion, but I can promise you that I signed every photo with truth in my heart. No, I’m not being funny or smart. I mean it.
I mean it because the Muppets meant a great deal to me. They still do. I was anxious before I saw the new film. I was afraid that the Muppet ethos would have been diluted or snarkily adjusted to better suit us 21st-century cynics. But it hasn’t been. The old gang is really back, endearing as ever in a film that’s a heartfelt, old-fashioned delight. For the Muppets were many things: self-referential and clever, but never, ever cynical. And that’s why, I am sure, millions of people all over the world took Kermit and his gang to heart.
James Bobin, co-creator of the HBO series Flight of the Conchordsand the new film’s director, expressed it very well when we spoke. “That’s the magic over all these years: these wonderful characters with their amazing spirit. They’re the perennial underdogs: Fozzie’s a terrible comedian, Piggy can’t really sing or act — but you love them for trying. They have a great sense of belief in each other. And that’s one of the main themes of the movie, that philosophy of positivity. In the hard-bitten, cynical world of today, does that still count? We answer that with a resounding ‘yes’. It’s more important than ever.”
He’s right. Because the magic of the Muppets doesn’t spring from special effects — it’s no secret that they’re puppets. The magic of the Muppets is the magic of the human spirit in its purest form. And yet their admitted artificiality gives them a sophistication that anticipated the affectionate, yet always knowing, humour that would later be found in Pixar films such as the Toy Story series andMonsters, Inc. It was a magic that did not depend on the illusion of reality, which is why I never felt cheated of that magic by my close contact with the world behind the scenes.
Occasionally, I’d go with my mom to visit the workshop in the basement where the Muppets were built. There were drawers whose labels said “eyes” or “noses”; there were drawers, too, labelled “Kermit” or “Fozzie” and sure enough, there they’d be. Resting? Waiting? I don’t know. I do know, however, that seeing them in their inanimate state never, ever made them any less real to me then — or now. Kermit, with his astonishing combination of deep anxiety and, somewhere beneath it, a fundamental optimism about the world, is as real a fictional character as I’ve ever come across, which is to say, in my book, as real as anyone.
In 1991, a year after the death of Henson at the age of 53, my mother wrote to his son, Brian, to bring him up to speed regarding the work she did for the company. Over the years her work had expanded to encompass organising the annual, very grand, costume balls that Henson gave every year for his staff and friends. They were an opportunity for people in the workshop to use their extraordinary talents on their own behalf; as a teenager I could be found at these in the uniform of a French cigarette girl, agog at the costumes that the Muppet-makers had created. In 1979 my mother created an exhibition, The Art of the Muppets, that drew huge crowds at Lincoln Center in New York City and then travelled all over the US. She mentions these achievements in passing, but what stood out for me was the number of fan letters she had answered since 1978: well over 90,000. And still they came: until the company was sold to Disney, in 2004, my parents remained a part of the Henson family — and it did feel like a family.
Imagine, 90,000 letters! From every state of the Union, from England, Scotland and France. Hundreds of letters from Poland; they loved the Muppets in Poland and would send Miss Piggy icons of the Virgin Mary. All these years later, I’m not surprised at all that they wrote; I’m glad and grateful that their letters came to our house. My parents aren’t around any more. But Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie and the gang still are. So I know I’ll be OK. We all will.