Show Business: Those Marvelous Muppets

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

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One morning on the set of The Muppet Movie, Oz stood among the camera cables, waiting to do a shot with Henson/Kermit. He considered Miss Piggy's psyche: "She's had her consciousness raised, but she still likes diamonds. She's a very '50s lady, and that's part of the problem." As he talked, his hand slipped into its working position inside Miss Piggy, who was due on-camera. She twisted this way and that, looking for Kermit, eager to get on with the movie.

After a take, as Director Jim Frawley (Kid Blue) yelled, "Cut!" Miss Piggy patted Kermit on his little green behind. Kermit, who is not comfortable with bawdiness, swatted at her hand and jumped aside. Miss Piggy then complained teasingly about "the man who is always following me around," referring to Oz, and coyly peeked under the green flap at the bottom of Kermit's costume, exposing Jim Henson's arm. "Oh, you've got one too!" she said. It was the kind of off-camera byplay that goes on more or less constantly.

Making a full-length Muppet movie was a gamble. Could the loopy, slapdash spontaneity of the television program be sustained through a long film narration? Could Frawley frame his shots so that it would not be painfully obvious that most of the characters lacked workable feet? How would Muppets look outdoors? To settle that point, Frawley last spring took a super-8 camera to England, where the Muppets' TV show is taped, and did a test with Henson and the others in a meadow. As he was shooting, a cow wandered over to have a look at Fozzie. The results were amazingly good; the brown cow and the puppet covered with burnt-orange fake fur looked as natural together as Newman and Redford.

The shooting for the film was slow and difficult. The first scene called for the camera to swoop down on a Georgia swamp, where Kermit is discovered sitting on a log in the middle of a pond, playing a banjo. The decision had been made to try for the realism of actual photography, rather than to fake scenes with process shots. So a watertight tank was built, and into the tank went a small television camera and all 6 ft. 3 in. of Jim Henson. (Muppet performers often cannot see directly what their hands are doing or what the other Muppets are up to, but TV monitors give them a precise check on scenes as they progress.) The tank was lowered to the concrete bottom of the movie set's swamp, the log was fitted on top of it, and Kermit was perched on the log. Air was fed to Henson through a hose, and electric cables brought him Frawley's instructions and the TV picture. Divers stood by to rescue Henson in case the tank leaked. Through a rubber sleeve at the top of the tank, Henson manipulated Kermit's head, and, using a stiff and nearly invisible black wire, made Kermit's right hand strum the banjo strings. Another Muppeteer onshore worked a radio control that allowed Kermit's left hand to do the chord changes. Now and then, between takes, someone would row over and pass a cup of iced tea down to Henson through the rubber sleeve.

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