Coverage of Muppets, Music & Magic in Edinburgh, Scotland
Martin Harvey - It’s only retrospectively that I realize that Edinburgh is the backdrop to some of my greatest Muppet memories. It was where I excitedly bought a copy of The Muppets Take Manhattan and took it with me to Malta where I spent two weeks reading the back of the box and looking forward to getting home to watch it. Then, at the Edinburgh Fringe I was lucky enough to attend a performance of Puppet Up! and even luckier to get to meet Brian Henson afterward, shake his hand, and collect his autograph.
So, for me at least, it’s appropriate that Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson’s Legacy should come to Edinburgh and it was certainly worth the train journey from my home on the West Coast of Scotland to spend the day there. I’m a big enough kid to want to see Muppet movies in a cinema but sadly a bit too much of a grown-up with work commitments to have made it over the weekend of 23-24 April where Martin Baker will introduce some real archive gems in Muppet History 101 and Muppet History 201: More Rarities from the Henson Vault so this is a report on what might be considered an “average day” within the season.
The interior of Screen 1 of the Filmhouse, with its red seats and curtains, is oddly reminiscent of the Muppet Theatre. Sadly there are no boxes nor were there two curmudgeonly old men heckling from the audience, but then you can’t have everything. Muppet music was playing as the audience made their way into the auditorium and waited for the film to start.
The first feature, The Art of Puppetry and Storytelling, was attended by about 20 people. I don’t know whether that is good or bad for this sort of event but it was early afternoon on a weekday and the numbers did increase over the course of the day (although I didn’t notice anyone else attending all three screenings.)
The Art of Puppetry and Storytelling began with the Harry Belafonte episode of The Muppet Show, the episode with perhaps the strongest story telling theme and a great example of how Jim Henson was able to combine both the important and the downright silly. In this episode, Fozzie acts as the script writer for the show (“Curtains open; Lew Zealand and Rowlf do something funny; curtains close”) and tries to improve Belafonte’s rendition of "The Banana Boat Song" with a choir of pigs and actual bananas, although Beauregard has difficulty in remembering which particular fruit or vegetable they happen to be. The show of course ends with Belafonte’s "Turn the World Around"--inspired by a meeting with a storyteller in Guinea.
There followed about twenty minutes' worth of clips of various lengths. Some of these were more appropriate to the storytelling theme than others, but they certainly represented a fairly wide spectrum of Henson’s work. They included the Sam and Friends skit “Visual Thinking”; three Wilkins Coffee advertisements (which got the biggest laughs of this screening) and Henson (assisted by puppet builder Don Sahlin) on a chat show demonstrating how simply changing the facial features can completely change the character of the puppet. The longest clip was taken from a Henson narrated backstage Muppet Show documentary showing amongst other things the making of the “In The Navy” number. One quite startling fact that cannot at all be appreciated from the final cut of “Another Opening Another Show” was the sheer distance covered by the Muppeteers during the recording of that number which reminds us that a huge amount of stage, televisual and puppetry tricks were used by Jim Henson and his team.
This feature ended with The Storyteller episode "The Heartless Giant," which was perhaps intended to demonstrate how puppetry can be used as one element within storytelling. This included The Jim Henson Hour introduction and closing where Jim Henson himself notes that the idea behind the series was to combine folk tales with fast paced and up-tempo pop music videos.
Sesame Street at 40: Milestones on the Street was the second film to be shown. This screening had a slightly higher attendance with around 20 adults but also 10 little kids. It opened with some clips from the first episode with Gordon introducing a little girl called Sally to the inhabitants of Sesame Street with the rather odd looking early versions of Big Bird and the orange Oscar the Grouch.
There were too many clips featured for me to list them all but they included Gordon and Snuffleupagus running the marathon; various trips away from Sesame Street to New Mexico, Santa Fe, Hawaii (with Mr. Snuffleupagus being airlifted in) and Puerto Rico; Big Bird’s nest being damaged in a storm; Maria and Luis’s wedding and, of course, the grown-ups helping Big Bird to understand that Mr Hooper died.
Best for Sesame Street Muppets were: Ernie counting cupcakes while Cookie Monster reduced the number; Waiter Grover serving Fat Blue alphabet soup; Prairie Dawn’s Four Seasons pageant; Bert teaching a pigeon to play checkers and the hilarious Ernie and Bert disguise kit sketch. Kermit doing the alphabet with the little girl who thinks Cookie Monster is a letter received audible “awws” and Herry and John-John counting and getting louder (and in John-John’s case much older) also got laughs.
There were plenty of cartoons (including Ladybug’s Picnic and The King of 8) but not so many songs (Sing: The Music of Sesame Street is a separate feature later in the season) although the arguing art critics with living works of art and the tongue-twisting “An elevator operator is a person in your neighbourhood” were among the few included. There was one block of Kermit’s Sesame Street News Flash made up of many short clips and Elmo’s World was dealt with similarly.
A recurring feature was “Family Album: Before They Moved To Sesame Street” showing actors Will Lee, Roscoe Orman, Bob McGrath in pre-Street roles, in Bob’s case on the panel game I’ve Got a Secret singing Irish songs in Japanese. This was later turned on its head when a clip of Big Bird and Elmo on The West Wing was shown allowing us to see Lily Tomlin and Stockard Channing on Sesame Street before they moved to the West Wing. More celebrity appearances included The Fonz, R2D2 and C3PO, Fred Rogers, Patrick Stewart (“B or not a B?”), Liam Neeson; Ben Stiller as a cheese; Robert DeNiro as a Muppet Cabbage; and Michelle Obama helping Elmo and some kids plant a garden.
Of most archive value might be the brief appearance by Rowlf in the Song of Nine but of equal interest to me were some more recent clips I had never seen before (Sesame Street is no longer shown in the UK) which were parodies of recent hit shows (Meal or No Meal, 30 Rocks, and Mad Men). I’ve heard the criticism that Sesame Street is now geared towards younger children but these clips were certainly appreciated by the adults in the audience. There were a couple of vocal interventions from the children though and it was genuinely heart warming to here a small child excitedly shout “Cookie Monster” when our cake scoffing furry friend popped up to eat Ernie’s cupcake while (perhaps more predictably but no less cute) another small voice announced “There’s Elmo” the moment the small red monster first appeared in the corner of the screen in a non speaking role.
The final film of the day, attracting about 50 cinema goers, was The Great Muppet Caper. Before the screening began a member of Filmhouse staff apologized that the print was of variable quality and in places faded and too pink (“A little too much Miss Piggy and not enough Kermit” as he put it.) Seeing The Great Muppet Caper at a screening is something I would highly recommend to everyone, Muppet fans especially. I’ve always thought of it as being the funniest of the Muppet films and almost every line got a big laugh – not least the scene with John Cleese and Fawlty Towers guest star Joan Sanderson as the upper crust couple plagued by pigs climbing up the outside of their house and lizards in the cupboards. I won’t go through the movie but suffice to say it was enjoyed by all and, in spite of the brief Gonzo scene at the end of the film being cut, there was spontaneous applause at the finish.
As I said earlier, the more obscure clips will be part of two Muppet History films to be shown at this weekend (full details at http://www.filmhousecinema.com)but other less commercially available gems feature in Commercials and Experiments–which includes "Time Piece" and "The Cube." There are two other Sesame Street compilations and one of musical numbers on The Muppet Show. Five of the first six Muppet Movies (The Muppet Christmas Carol was shown separately last year), The Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Elmo in Grouchland, and Muppet Fairytales round out the program. Some more recent productions, by that I mean those made since Jim Henson’s death, would have helped to show his ongoing legacy and a more location specific film showing how British involvement was important to the success of The Muppet Show would also have been appropriate.
Having said that, Muppets, Music &; Magic: Jim Henson’s Legacy is a fitting celebration of both the obscure archive piece and a rare and welcome chance to see some of our favourite films as they were intended to be shown on the big screen. I very much hope that this collection of features will be added to and that it will go on to tour around the UK and further afield.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier