Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mr. Muppet

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mr. Muppet

Article excerpt

IT started with a stick, a piece of his mother's spring coat, and a Ping-Pong ball sliced in half for eyes.

Jim Henson once told me he was really just fooling around at the time, trying to come up with another puppet to improve his chances in local television. He didn't realize the green, goggle-eyed fellow he was creating would become the most familiar pop image of its kind since Mickey Mouse and preside over a whole passage of early childhood for two generations.

It was, of course, Kermit the Frog - or a lizard-like precursor - whose wistful, croaky voice would echo the longings and dreams of kids around the globe.

Henson himself always did that voice, and Kermit became Henson's alter ego. But back then - more than 30 years ago - Henson didn't know Kermit was a Muppet. That name would come later. And Henson certainly didn't know he would go on to make puppetry a mass media art form, one that would people world culture with indelible images like Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, or that odd couple of the puppet world, Bert and Ernie.

For more than three decades, the career that ended when Henson died last week sustained and vitalized an ancient, symbolic art that children naturally respond to. On public TV's "Sesame Street" - the Muppets' home ground - broad reactions playing across muppet faces have enthralled fans since 1969. Joan Ganz Cooney, creator of "Sesame Street," told me the historic children's series wouldn't have existed in the form we know it without Muppets. When she first saw them in action, she fell on the floor laughing, then picked herself up and insisted they be on the show.

Muppets could also be big business. "The Muppet Show," launched in 1976, reached an estimated 235 million viewers in 100 countries, reputedly the biggest audience for any television program in the world. And you knew the "The Muppet Movie" would be a smash the minute you heard those shrieks of delight from the young audience when Kermit bicycled on screen.

Maybe the creatures have been marketed a bit opportunistically at times, but Muppets themselves have a decency nearly all children put their trust in. They aren't cheerful warriors, like the Ninja Turtles - though Henson had a hand in that current film hit. …

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