There’s a story told by the Canadian film crew who worked on Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium a few years back – about the day Kermit the frog appeared to do a cameo. So what if Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman were on the Toronto set? It was Kermit that had them star-struck.
This was part celebrity magic – here was the most famous frog in the world – and part puppet magic, as the grown-ups willingly suspended disbelief to give life to the inanimate.
“You just sort of stare into those plastic eyes and go with it,” says CBC Television host George Stroumboulopoulos, who recently interviewed Kermit on his show The Hour – while Kermit’s human operator lay at his feet.
Kermit was back in Toronto to publicize The Muppets, the holiday movie that opens next week and marks the colourful puppets’ first big screen appearance in more than a decade. Despite that absence, they have never left the culture; witness the Sesame Street generation’s affectionate YouTube mash-ups of the Muppets covering Radiohead, AC/DC and Nirvana. They are the most popular and widely copied puppets of their time and their look – wide mouths, googly eyes, colourful bodies – has come to define puppetry in North America.
Professional puppeteers say their owe their legitimacy to Muppets creator Jim Henson, attributing the characters’ success to their humorous relationships and rainbow skin tones as well as technical innovations that made them work on TV.
“Growing up, when I said I wanted to be a puppeteer, nobody knew what I meant,” said Ronnie Burkett, the Canadian performer acclaimed for very grown-up shows about love and death enacted by marionettes. “As soon as Jim Henson became famous, everybody knew what a puppeteer was. He was the Walt Disney of puppets.”
Once upon a time, Punch and Judy was a folk entertainment for all ages, but by the 1950s, as the rise of TV took its toll on live performance, puppet shows were regarded as children’s fare. They did migrate to television, but awkwardly, leaving the jerky marionette Howdy Doody bouncing around the screen.
“Before Henson, any puppetry on TV was stage puppetry on television,” Burkett notes.
Henson’s genius was to recognize that the television screen could function as the frame of the old-time puppet booth: The operators did not need to be hidden between a screen or scenery; they just needed to be off-camera.
“You can come in from the bottom, the side, the top [of the screen] whereas with a marionette you are stuck coming in from above; you are stuck with Howdy Doody,” says Toronto puppeteer David Powell.
And the Muppets were not made of wood, but of foam rubber that allowed the camera to focus on moving, expressive faces. Children’s television had seen plenty of hand puppets, creations like Shari Lewis’s Lambchop, whose soft form and pastel colours influenced the Muppets’ creator, but Henson’s foam heads were larger and manipulated with the whole hand. He also insisted that the puppeteer’s voice be in sync with the movements of their mouths, further adding to the naturalism of the effect.
And why did audiences of the 1970s so embrace these expressive characters as they made their appearance, first on Sesame Street and then The Muppet Show? They were funny and, most of all, their relationships were funny, well observed and fairly complex, puppeteers say, pointing to the sunny Ernie and the grumpy Bert, or the aggressive Miss Piggy and her unrequited love for Kermit.
“So many people talk about the two old men in the balcony [on The Muppet Show] they see themselves in them,” said Vincent Anthony, executive director of the Centre for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, an institution that plans to build a museum to house Henson’s original puppets and props. “He stuck a chord with the human factor.”
The original puppeteers were key to creating those Muppet relationships, Frank Oz playing Bert to Henson’s Ernie. Where traditional puppetry, such as Japan’s Bunraku or Britain’s Punch and Judy shows, uses iconic characters reinvented by each generation, contemporary puppetry is often an individual, multi-disciplinary art form in which the puppeteer both builds the puppet and creates its character, operating and voicing it himself.
Indeed, some puppeteers wonder whether you can really hand over the Muppets to a new generation of operators without them becoming blander, each one a cartoon brand like Mickey Mouse rather than a living theatrical character.