Mah Na Mah Na...

The release and subsequent success of This Is It seems to have cemented the status of Michael Jackson's musical genius in the minds of many, but so far, I have resisted the temptation to buy into all the hype. Instead, I spent my weekend at the cinema celebrating the genius of another performer cut down in his prime -- Jim Henson. After all, the Muppets he created have been a part of my life since before I can remember. My mom has always been a huge Muppets fan and she started my immersion in Muppet culture at a very early age.

Here I am as a toddler, surrounded by Muppets paraphernalia.

I know that I must have watched Sesame Street growing up, and I was quite fond of several other shows as well, but I can remember with the greatest amount of clarity watching Muppet Babies and tapes of old episodes of The Muppet Show. The Muppet Show provided my earliest introduction to pop music, and for years whenever I would hear the original, non-Muppet version of a song that they had performed, my first thought was inevitably, "Hey, that's the Muppets' song!" In fact, embarrassingly, it wasn't until I started studying the Vietnam War in college that I paid attention to the lyrics of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and realized that the song was actually about social protest, and that the Muppets had rewritten the words to relate to the woodland creatures in their sketch.

Nostalgia being the powerful force that it is, I still love the Muppets today. When the Gene Siskel Film Center (Chicago's preeminent screening space for independent, experimental, foreign, and classic films) held a retrospective on Jim Henson last year, I was lazy about making my way there to see it, and I ended up only catching Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas. Even though I was somewhat disproportionally excited about seeing it again (the only version you can find on DVD has had portions excised due a legal battle with Disney), I didn't realize how sad I was to have skipped the other screenings until I saw on the Siskel Center website that they were bringing back a new Henson retrospective this month due to popular demand. Immediately I vowed to be more diligent about attending. After all, second chances in life are rare, much less third.

Hence, Saturday found me at the Gene Siskel Film Center with Mom, watching Muppets History 201, a collection of rare clips from Muppet performances and television appearances, many of which came from Henson's very early career, when he was still experimenting and refining his craft. There were surprisingly violent commercials for Wilkin's coffee from the 1950s, appearances from The Ed Sullivan Show and other variety shows, and some test footage of Jim Henson as Kermit and Frank Oz as Fozzie wandering the British countryside in a car, testing the viability of shooting the Muppets on location for a potential movie (a project which later became The Muppet Movie). All of these pieces gave me a much deeper appreciation for Henson's genius. He brought puppetry to new media, and expanded everyone's conception of what puppets could be and what they could accomplish. It was truly inspiring.

Sunday I returned to the theater for another Muppets screening -- Muppets Music Moments. This compilation featured memorable music performances from The Muppet Show, and although they didn't offer any rare or less-frequently seen footage, it was still a crowd-pleasing selection. Almost all of my favorites were represented: "Mah Na Mah Na," of course, Kermit singing a jungle-themed version of "Coconut," Harry Belafonte's African-themed rendition of "Turn the World Around," the woodland creatures hiding from hunters in "For What its Worth," Viking pigs singing "In The Navy" and biker pigs singing "I Get Around," and my personal favorite, Linda Ronstadt singing "Blue Bayou" accompanied by ribbeting frogs. The presentation may not have expanded my appreciation of the Muppets, or their history, but it was a powerful dose of nostalgia that totally made my day.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more Muppets screenings to come in the month of November, and I am pleased as punch. Some things you never outgrow...


  1. I am SO far behind on reading your blog (like I'm still on your vacation-behind, that's how behind I am), but I had time to check this one out. I remember seeing your mom's muppet collection. It seemed huge, and I remember wanting to touch it all...really badly. I still think of your mom when I see muppet memorabilia!

  2. And...look how stinkin' cute you are in that picture Baby Hay!