Show Business: Those Marvelous Muppets

How Kermit, Miss Piggy & Co. captivate 235 million people a week

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Like other geniuses, Henson is a sly fellow whose sound artistic instinct is to resist critical analysis. If you peel art away, layer after layer, what you have at the end is all peelings and no onion. For years Henson, who plays Kermit, insisted that the character was not a frog but "a froglike creature." Peel that, you peelers. Now he backtracks and says that "muppet" was simply a word that sounded good to him. The sound combination of puppet and marionette is merely an explanation that happens to sound logical.

Logic peeling aside, a Muppet is (most of the time but not always) a largish arm puppet, whose body contains the arm and whose head surrounds the hand of its operator. When the operator's thumb and fingers come together, the Muppet's mouth closes; when thumb and fingers separate, the mouth opens. If the Muppet's face is pliable, as Kirmit's is—he is not much more than a green felt sock that fits over a human hand, with a wide pink split for the mouth and what look like glued-on halves of Ping Pong balls for eyes—the clenchings and wrigglings of the operator's fist can change the expression with considerable subtlety. Not simply smiles, but wistful smiles are possible. If the face is relatively stiff, like that of Kermit's formidable friend Miss Piggy ( her head is carved from a block of plastic insulating foam), then, although a certain degree of meaningful nose crinkling is possible, expressiveness is largely an illusion created by body movement and voice. In either case, the puppeteer can synchronize the figure's lip movements to its speech, a technique Henson originated early in his career. Muppet jaws do not move with each syllable—that would make bigmouthed figures look too agitated—and it takes long practice to learn the knack of mouthing the important syllables of a sentence.

An observation made with some regalarity is that Kermit the Frog is the Mickey Mouse of the 1970s, and that Jim Henson's firm, Henson Associates—known somewhat alarmingly as HA!— will become the Disney organization of what remains of the 20th century. Maybe so; the Muppets have just finished making an $8 million film in Hollywood, called The Muppet Movie, which chronicles their journey from the boondocks to show business glory. Another film is under discussion; an astonishing variety of Muppet toys and other artifacts, including arm puppets, fills the stores; a theme amusement park of the Disneyland sort has been talked of; Muppets have been visible in TV commercials and in guest appearances on such varied offerings as the old Ed Sullivan Show and the current Saturday Night Live. This week an hour-long TV special, Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, is on view in the U.S. And, of course, the Muppets Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, who lives in a garbage can, and the renowned Big Bird, who is 8 ft. tall and has not just an arm but an entire person inside him, have presided over Sesame Street since that wonderfully imaginative children's show began ten years ago.

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