The following article was written by Muppet fan and journalist Drake Lucas. You can find more of her work on the whisky-centric blog Whisky Goddess. Thanks Drake for all your hard work!
Earlier this week, Craig Shemin launched his long-anticipated book that chronicles Sam and Friends at the Museum of the Moving Image. It was a big day for Muppet fans – September 24th being Jim Henson’s birthday and the public debut of the new book.
Somehow, the event made me think of a Phish concert – with a few less drugs and (much) shorter songs. Thanks to my husband, I have been to a lot of Phish shows and the fans are never so enthralled as when the band pulls out some obscure deep cut that hasn’t been played since (insert exact date and location of concert). No explanation is needed or given. The shared research and experience of the crowd makes it unnecessary.
That was last week’s program to launch Sam and Friends: The Story of Jim Henson’s First Television Show – a concert of deep cuts. If you were in the room, you were in the know about why this topic, these events, and these people were so important to the future of the Muppets. As the lights lowered, the crowd sat back to laugh at some well known early clips featuring Kermit in a wig singing “Old Black Magic,” Kermit and Harry creating doodles in the air with “visual thinking,” and the Hank and Frank twins lip syncing to actual audio from newscasters Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. We also saw some lesser known or newly found segments like “Punsmoke” and the series finale that Craig pulled together with surviving audio and limited visuals that had an ending worthy of the Muppets. A hushed joy fell over the room punctuated by amused and sometimes surprised laughter at the silliness and rebelliousness of an almost 70-year-old show that could seem edgy and clever even by today’s standards.
It was satisfying to see a full theater of people who gathered to watch a show that was intended for a relatively small audience. The original Sam and Friends ran in 5-minute segments in only the Washington, DC area and went off the air decades ago. That’s how enduringly entertaining it is and how essential it was to the characters who would become favorite viewing for many of us in our childhood and beyond.
Craig Shemin also presented many of Jim Henson’s commercials from the era, which extol the virtues of bizarre Esskay meat products or repetitiously torture people who don’t drink the right coffee. Unsurprisingly, they were reverently absorbed and appreciated by the crowd. As a special treat, Craig showed a previously lost episode, all animation, featuring a square who fell in love with a cone. It’s early and experimental and, charmingly, you can see Jim’s movie camera reflected in the screen. Even in its simplicity, it’s impressive. As with all the clips, it’s a peek into what happens when creative minds are allowed to play, when humor and candor and fun are as much the ad product as the combined great taste of a pork and bacon sausage.
After the viewing, Barbara Miller – Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs at Museum of the Moving Image – hosted a brief Q&A with Craig to talk about the importance of Jane Henson to the beginning (and lasting legacy) of the Muppets, the serendipitous finding of the audio tapes that provided enough material to write the book, and how those early sketches formed the Muppet spirit, some of them performed again in later Muppet shows and appearances.
During the Q&A, Craig also brought out his very own custom-made Sam plush, expertly crafted by Emily Engel.
The event had the feel of a family at a reunion gathering to watch home movies of the early years. Bob McGrath, at 90 years old, attended and talked to each one of the fans who lined up, often shyly, to meet him. Jim and Jane’s daughter Heather was also there as well as Karen Falk, keeper and organizer of the Muppet archives. Current Sesame Street performers and staff were there, including puppeteer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, vocal music director Paul Rudolph, and, of course, Craig’s wife, Stephanie D’Abruzzo of Sesame Street and Broadway fame. They patiently and kindly talked with any fans who approached them for photos, autographs, and questions. Many fans had brought puppets, one fan handed out his drawings, and another took polaroids of people and then handed them a sharpie to sign it. A happy hum filled the lobby of the museum after the presentation.
After the event, the party continued in the lobby. Muppet fans from all over the globe rubbed elbows, folks who had only previously chatted online got to meet in person for the first time, and it cemented a true sense of belonging amongst the Muppet fan community. It’s always a highlight of a Muppet event at MoMI to have a reason for us all to connect.
At the beginning of the talk, Craig joked that he knew Jim Henson and the Muppet spirit was present because he arrived to find the signage announcing the event hung upside-down. Even more, the lasting joy and warmth of the Muppets was apparent in the gracious hugs shared by strangers, the excited reminisces of fans catching up, and the collective smiles of the audience.
Maybe Jim knew from the beginning that his art was destined to entertain and inspire generations. Or maybe he and Jane were just making each other and the crew laugh. But the jokes were so good, and the puns so bad, that the laughter continues to be passed along.
“Sam and Friends: The Story of Jim Henson’s First Television Show” is now available for purchase in softcover and hardcover. Click here to purchase!
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by Drake Lucas