Show Business: Those Marvelous Muppets

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

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Henson is clearly a gifted businessman, and on the point of becoming a very wealthy one, but he is secretive as a nesting hen when asked to talk figures. The Muppet Show, considered separately, is listed on the books as making no profit, in part because Henson keeps putting money back into the program. Help is on the way. "The long-range profit for this show is down the road, when it's syndicated and sold to the stations," says Henson. "It's a couple of years away." Lord Grade adds with satisfaction that the take from this "strip syndication"—the sale of a show for the same time slot several days a week—will be split equally between HA! and his ACC group and will mean "millions of dollars." Until then HA! is supported handsomely by fat merchandising contracts with such outfits as Fisher-Price Toys and Hallmark Cards, Inc. Muppet faces appear on coffee mugs, T shirts, yo-yos, playing cards, pillowcases and anything else that will take an imprint. Henson is good at big money deals and smart enough not to boast about them. "It's important to me that the audience doesn't think of us in terms of figures," he says. "I don't want people looking at the Muppets and thinking, 'How much are they worth?' It's just not us. It could be destructive to the show."

Henson has little time for brooding, even about money. After a few days of business talks in New York, he packed his winter clothes and a new tube of toothpaste and flew to London, where, according to his contract with Grade, the TV series must be taped. Within hours of his arrival, shooting had started. Several of the pig Muppets had started an off-camera fight but had been quelled. Guest Star Harry Belafonte had overcome his initial queasiness at working with shaggy short people and had sung The Banana Boat Song with spirit, even though Cap tain Link Hogthrob pigged one of the bananas.

In New York City, Costumer Calista Hendrickson worked on a purple chiffon dress for Miss Piggy to use in one of the fall shows in which she dances cheek-to-cheek with Danny Kaye. She began to talk about what puppets mean to people, and that reminded her of the first time the Muppet crew met Edgar Bergen, who was the guest star on one of their early shows. "When he walked into our studio in London, they all gathered around him like children. And then the box was brought in, Charlie's box, and they all sank to the floor and sat in a circle around it. And then Bergen opened the box and Charlie came out and said hello and introduced himself around. He met Fozzie, and the two of them went on and on, all ad-libbed. No one moved an inch." Later, in Holly wood, Bergen did a cameo appearance in The Muppet Movie, and a few weeks later he died. "One of the stagehands on the movie couldn't understand why every body was so affected by Bergen's death. 'You'd think Charlie McCarthy had died,' he said. One of the puppeteers whirled around and said, 'But he did! Don't you see? And so did Mortimer Snerd! And if Henson goes, Kermit goes!' "

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