Retro Review: Live, Scary Muppets at Disney World

Published: September 7, 2017
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Hey, did you know that the Muppets are performing in their own show this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl? If not, read the previous sentence again from the first use of the word “the” and stop after “Bowl.” And now you’re caught up. Moving on, we’re taking a look back at an early live show from the Muppets, which we are revisiting if only to see how creepy these things can get.  From the halcyon days of the Disney-MGM Studios, we’re looking back at Here Come the Muppets and Muppets on Location: The Days of Swine and Roses.

Well, when I say Muppet live shows, I mean that it’s a show that involves the characters of the Muppets, but not the puppets that have made them icons. Like most characters at Walt Disney World, the Muppets are represented by actors in full-body costumes, similar to both incarnations of The Muppet Show: On Tour! But since it is the Muppets, the mouths on the characters are movable in an attempt to resemble speech. And that’s part of what of what makes these shows seem… kinda off. First of all, because of the larger size, the puppetry functions are minimal. And because of the scale of the full-body costumes, the actors must make exaggerated movements to seem expressive, which can lead to some uncharacteristic choices. On one video I saw of Here Come the Muppets, as Fozzie does his classic “thank you, thank you, and thank you” line, he attempts to subtly, well, bust a move. It goes about as well as you’d think. Animal crawls around on all fours, which isn’t typical Animal behavior unless Dabney Coleman is taking hostages.

And another thing about these costumes that makes these shows slightly unsettling is that some of these costumes are so off-model. I’m not expecting a scale replica of the puppets, but I’d certainly like them to look somewhat like the characters I know and love. To be fair, some of them I see and I say, “Sure, you could convince me that’s Miss Piggy, or Gonzo, or Animal, or Zoot, or even Bean Bunny,” but some of them look like something went wrong in the process. Fozzie’s facial features are out of proportion. Floyd’s mustache looks like it’s on the verge of conquering the lower half of his face. Dr. Teeth looks like he’s been given a lion’s mane. And then there’s Kermit and Janice’s battle with chronic smooshyface. Kermit looks almost passable, but poor Janice looks like she took a grand piano to the noggin. But enough about the costume issues, let’s get to the actual content of the shows.

Let’s start with the first full-length Muppet show in the parks, Here Come the Muppets. After a rather humorous preshow starring Rowlf and Sam the Eagle (only a portion of it is on YouTube, unfortunately), the show proper involves Kermit getting his friends together to put on a show, and that’s about it. There’s a cute opening bit involving a Walt Disney World videophone where Fozzie and Miss Piggy can be seen in their puppet forms, which has the best character moments in the whole show. (And a neat Muppet trivia factoid: Aside from Mickey Mouse, who is the only celebrity to have an onscreen cameo in a Muppet theme park attraction? The answer: Lily Tomlin!) The majority of the cast makes its entrance on a crashed monorail, which somehow is less exciting than I’d think it would be. The rest is…serviceable. Once the show within the show begins, it consists of five songs with very little in between. And for the first exclusive Muppet outing in the parks, of the five songs, only one is known for its association with the Muppets: “Bein’ Green.” Maybe with actually puppets, you could get some big laughs out of these numbers, but it loses something with full-bodied costumes.

The show didn’t last terribly long, just over a year, from May 25th, 1990, (less than two weeks after Jim Henson’s death) to September 2nd, 1991. Given the dates, it certainly seems like it acted as a placeholder as Muppet*Vision 3D was finishing production, and as a placeholder, it’s okay. It’s not a long attraction, clocking in at less than twenty minutes. It certainly feels like a Muppet show, just not The Muppet Show. You want Muppets in your park? You got Muppets in your park.

There is some improvement as we move to Muppets on Location: The Days of Swine and Roses. Running from September 16th, 1991 to January 23rd, 1994, the show swapped the indoor theater for an outdoor stage in an open audience setting near the newly opened Muppet*Vision 3D. The full-body costumes are pretty much the same as Here Come the Muppets, so there’s no need to rehash those feelings. (Though honestly, I think I may want to do a walkathon to raise money for a cure to whatever happened to Janice’s head. Poor girl.) The show’s title also acts as a sort of synopsis: the Muppets are on location, shooting a new movie, and everyone has their role in the crew. Kermit directs, Fozzie is assistant director, Gonzo does special effects, the Electric Mayhem does the soundtrack/stalls for time while the other characters sign autographs and pose for pictures, Bean Bunny assists Miss Piggy, and Miss Piggy, unsurprisingly, is the film’s star (even though we later find out that the actual star mysteriously can’t go on, and she must take her place, which is also not surprising at all).

While its predecessor has most of the characters enter all at once, this one allows for an opening number, a modified version of “Hey, A Movie,” with most characters getting their own entrance and a chance for fans to cheer for their favorite Muppets. Kermit and Fozzie appear out over the crowd, making use of the outdoor space, while Miss Piggy and Bean arrive in a luxury car that actually comes into the performance area. It’s much more immersive than the previous show, and I’d argue that it’s the best moment between both shows.

The show actually follows a plot, and it works well. Piggy does her scene as a flower shop attendant who’s allergic to flowers, and Gonzo’s special effects go a bit haywire. As the scene is reset, as mentioned before, all the characters except the Electric Mayhem go out into the crowd to meet the adoring visitors and do the usual autograph/picture thing most Disney characters do. For people not into that scene, the Mayhem do an extended set, with each member getting to do lead on a song. Some are good background music, like Floyd’s “On the Road Again” and Zoot’s “Yakety Sax.” (Though I do have one complaint: during “Yakety Sax,” Zoot sings, “Yakety Sax, don’t talk back,” which isn’t even the same song, it’s the other popular song that has the word “Yakety” in the title.) Dr. Teeth leads a nicely choreographed version of “Great Balls of Fire,” while Animal gets to sing “Feelings” as only he can. (Well, maybe Beaker can, but he didn’t get a walk-around character.) And Janice’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” signals the rest of the cast to sign their last autographs and make their way back to the stage. The second take turns the whole show into a musical number led by Piggy, which makes for a nice finale (with more explosions provided by Gonzo). The show is more enjoyable, and the new setting helps to make it a more immersive, interactive show, which works to its advantage.

If you’re looking to watch the show on YouTube, I have a recommendation: watch both the dress rehearsal and the two videos of its final performance. The dress rehearsal will give you the full show without crowd noise, while the final performance will give you a sense of how it plays with a full audience and the full surroundings.  Or if you want just the audio, hey, the internet has that too!

So this has been a somewhat strange journey into the world of the early Muppet stage shows at Walt Disney World. Naturally, these shows don’t show the Muppets at their best purely by design, as the full body costumes don’t capture the full range of emotions a puppet can provide, but you can see things improve somewhat over time. On the bright side, of the three Muppet shows that have graced Disney’s Hollywood Studios in its history, the best one was Muppet*Vision 3D (not surprisingly, the one that actually used the puppets and their performers the most), and that has managed to stick around for well over 25 years. With rumors starting to swirl that a new Muppet live show may be coming to Hollywood Studios, things can hopefully look up for the future of live Muppet shows. (But please, Disney, stick to actual puppets and leave the full-body costumes for characters that won’t give us nightmares.)

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by Matthew Soberman –

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