kermit the frog -- 12/21/15

Today's selection -- from Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. In 1955, television was still in its infancy and struggling for popular content. A small, Washington, D.C. station added a short puppet show called Sam and Friends created by nineteen-year-old Jim Henson with a cast of characters he had come to call the Muppets. Unlike most puppets that had preceded them, Henson's creations had flexible rather than wooden faces -- and thus could make expressions easily picked up by the new, more intimate medium of television. A minor character in the ensemble was Kermit, who was light blue and not yet a frog:

"For his new show's point man, Jim had decided on [a puppet called] Sam, a bald, bulb-nosed human character, with knobby ears that stuck straight out from his head and wide-open eyes that gave him a perpetually surprised look. ... Jim said, 'he proved the most popular Muppet of all. That gave us the idea for Sam and Friends.'

"The 'Friends' of Sam and Friends, however, were more abstract, hazily defined and colorfully named: Harry the Hipster, a snakelike beatnik in sunglasses; Yorick, a prune-colored, skull-like creature that was id incarnate; the beak-nosed Hank and Frank; the squashed-­looking Mushmellon. ...

Jim Henson on the set of "Sam and Friends," with an early version of Kermit the Frog on his knee.

"There was another abstract Muppet in Sam's cast who, while still only relegated to mostly small parts -- and usually getting de­voured at the end -- already had a special place in Jim's heart. It was a puppet Jim had built while passing several long sad days tending to his grandfather Pop, who was slowly dying of heart failure -- a pup­pet that, even early on, Jim would always call his favorite.

"It was a milky blue character named Kermit.

"Maury Brown had always been frail -- his daughters remember him demanding quiet in the house to ease his nerves -- and in 1955, a doctor had insisted that he and Dear move from their two-story home on Marion Street into a smaller, single-story apartment. The move had depressed Pop -- 'he intended to die in that house' on Marion Street, Attie said -- and his health had deteriorated rapidly, as Pop grew increasingly senile even as his heart failed. Jim was shaken by the impending death of his grandfather -- he had, after all, been partly named for him -- but Jim would do as he always did in the face of grief: he would build and create. Foraging for any suitable materials, Jim settled on his mother's old felt coat, and as he leaned over the table in the Hensons' living room he sewed a simple puppet body, with a slightly pointed face, out of the faded turquoise mate­rial. For eyes, he simply glued two halves of a Ping-Pong ball -- with slashed circles carefully inked in black on each -- to the top of the head. That was it. From the simplest of materials -- and, perhaps ap­propriately, from a determination to bring a bit of order from darkness -- Kermit was born. ... To Jim, ... with its hard K, pressed M, and snapped T, the name Kermit was memorable and fairly funny.

Kermit (abstract) and Kermit (the Frog).

"As a relatively no-frills puppet, Kermit was the epitome of ele­gant simplicity, which made him that much more fun for Jim to play with. 'Kermit started out as a way of building, putting a mouth and covering over my hand,' Jim later explained. 'There was nothing in Kermit outside of the piece of cardboard -- it was originally cardboard -- and the cloth shape that was his head. He's one of the simplest kinds of puppet you can make, and he's very flexible be­cause of that ... which gives him a range of expression. A lot of people build very stiff puppets -- you can barely move the things­ and you can get very little expression out of a character that you can barely move. Your hand has a lot of flexibility to it, and what you want to do is to build a puppet that can reflect all that flexibility.'

"If Kermit was one of the most flexible of Muppets, one thing he was not -- at least not yet -- was a frog. While it is nearly impossible for viewers today to watch Kermit on Sam and Friends and think of him as anything but a frog, viewers in 1955 saw him as simply an­other of the silly supporting cast. Oddly colored -- 'milky turquoise' Jim called it -- with padded oval feet, Kermit was still as vague a being as the fuzzy Mushmellon, or the wide-mouthed Moldy Hay. 'I didn't call him a frog,' Jim said. 'All the characters in those days were abstract because that was part of the principle that I was work­ing under, that you wanted abstract things.'

"For Jim, that abstraction was also, in some ways, an exciting way of challenging his audience -- of making them an active part of the performance. 'Those abstract characters I still feel are slightly more pure,' Jim later explained. 'If you take a character and you call him a frog ... you immediately give the audience a handle. You're assist­ing the audience to understand; you're giving them a bridge or an access. And if you don't give them that, if you keep it more abstract, it's almost more pure. It's a cooler thing. It's a difference of sort of warmth and cool.'



Brian Jay Jones


Jim Henson: The Biography


Ballantine Books


Copyright 2013 by Brian Jay Jones


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