The Henry Ford’s 1951 Studebaker Champion, a cousin to Fozzie Bear’s 1951 Commander. / THF90649
Cars and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, or cake and ice cream. It’s only natural. The two industries appeared almost simultaneously around the turn of the 20th century. Southern California became a major center of American automobile culture and, of course, the center of the U.S. film industry. Over time, certain movies even came to define certain marques. Aston Martin had Goldfinger, DeLorean had Back to the Future, and Studebaker had… The Muppet Movie.
For those who haven’t seen The Muppet Movie, which brought Jim Henson’s creations to the big screen, for the first time, in 1979, stop reading and go watch it right now. Seriously. I’ll wait.
But if a summary has to suffice, then I’ll tell you that The Muppet Movie is in the tradition of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies, where a simple trip turns into a series of misadventures. But instead of Bing and Bob, you get Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. (Well, you get Bob too, but I digress.) The movie follows Kermit as he makes his way from the Florida swamps to the bright lights of Hollywood, chasing his dream to “make millions of people happy” in show business. Along the way he meets Fozzie, the Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and all the usual Muppet favorites.
Paul Williams, seen on a 1980 visit to The Henry Ford, co-wrote The Muppet Movie’s songs. He’d previously penned hits for Three Dog Night, the Carpenters, and Barbra Streisand. / THF128260
Kermit begins his journey on a bicycle, but, after meeting Fozzie Bear, the two continue the trip in Fozzie’s uncle’s 1951 Studebaker Commander. The Stude doesn’t make it all the way to Hollywood—they trade it in for a 1946 Ford station wagon partway through—but it features in two of the movie’s memorable musical numbers: “Movin’ Right Along” and “Can You Picture That?,” both co-written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.
The Muppet Movie is more than great songs and story. The film set new standards in puppetry by convincingly putting its characters into “real world” settings. Prior to Henson’s work, puppets were largely stationary figures, stuck behind props that hid puppeteers from view. Even early Muppet projects, notably The Muppet Show, suffered from this limitation. But in The Muppet Movie, Kermit rides a bicycle, Gonzo floats through the sky below a bunch of balloons, and Fozzie, of course, drives his Commander.
The Studebaker’s “bullet nose” served a practical purpose for the filmmakers. / THF90652
In a way, these elaborate special effects were responsible for the Studebaker appearing in the film. The 1951 Commander’s most distinctive feature is the chrome “bullet nose” between its headlights. The special-effects Commander used in The Muppet Movie had its bullet removed and replaced with a small video camera. The car’s trunk was fitted with a TV screen connected to the camera, a steering wheel, throttle and brake controls, and a seat. With these modifications, a small person was able to operate the car, hidden from view and able to see the road ahead via the camera. With Fozzie placed in the driver’s seat; his puppeteer, Frank Oz, hidden under the dashboard; and the car’s operator concealed in the trunk, it appeared as though the comic bear himself was driving the Studebaker in several scenes. The trick worked so well that, more than 40 years later in the age of computer-generated special effects, Fozzie’s driving is still remarkably convincing. The crew used a second, unmodified Commander for shots where driving effects weren’t needed.
Practical concerns weren’t the only reasons a Commander was used in the movie. In comments published in Turning Wheels, the newsletter of the Studebaker Drivers Club, The Muppet Movie screenwriter Jerry Juhl described the ’51 Commander as perhaps the “goofiest” looking car ever put into production. Goofiness, Juhl added, was a highly-respected quality in the Henson organization, so it seemed only fitting that Fozzie should drive that particular car.
Studebaker’s bullet nose was part of a long, productive relationship between the automaker and industrial designer Raymond Loewy. / THF144005
That bullet nose is a story unto itself. Credit for the feature goes to designer Bob Bourke, working for Studebaker contractor Raymond Loewy Associates at the time. As Bourke later recalled, Loewy told him to model the car’s appearance after an airplane. Bourke responded with the bullet, more properly described as a propeller or a spinner, since it’s a direct reference to that crucial aviation device. And a divisive device it was. People either loved the Studebaker bullet nose or they hated it (and so it goes today).
It’s worth noting that the feature wasn’t without precedent. Ford had used a similar device on its groundbreaking 1949 models. (In fact, Bob Bourke later said that he had contributed informally to the design of the 1949 Ford. You can read Bourke’s reminiscences here.) Studebaker used the bullet nose for just two model years, 1950 and 1951, but it remains one of the company’s most memorable designs.
Studebaker emphasized the aviation influence on the bullet nose design in this 1950 advertisement. / THF100021
The Henry Ford’s collections include a Maui Blue 1951 Studebaker Champion coupe. The lower-priced Champion featured a six-cylinder engine, while the Commander came with a standard V-8. Other than their different badges, the look of the two models is nearly identical. But if you’d like to see the actual car that Fozzie and Kermit used in The Muppet Movie, then head over to South Bend, Indiana. The effects car survives in the collections of (where else) the Studebaker National Museum. It still wears the psychedelic paint scheme applied by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in a clever plot device—faded with age, but unmistakable.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
An early version of Kermit the Frog appeared in Henson’s Sam and Friends TV puppet show, but Kermit became a breakout star during The Muppet Show. THF304042
It’s hard to believe that May 16, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s passing. His influence can still be seen in so many places: on-demand TV shows, movies, and specials; related books, toys, games, and other merchandise; and modern-day puppets, puppet performances, and puppeteers.
In his lifetime, Henson’s titles included puppeteer, writer, director, producer, and entrepreneur. But titles can be misleading because he was so much more than these. A brilliant innovator, he continually questioned the status quo, broke boundaries, and experimented with new ideas. By stretching the known capabilities of both puppetry and the medium of television (and, then, of motion pictures), he created a new art form. And, in the process, he inspired us—the viewers—to use our imaginations, to take ourselves less seriously, and to treat others with greater tolerance.
Jim Henson (born 1936) was drawn to the arts at a young age, including an early fascination with puppetry. When he entered college, he thought about majoring in fine arts. But he found—buried in the course list of the home economics department at his school—a class on puppetry. So, even though most of the students majoring in home economics were females learning domestic skills for future homemaking, he decided that would be his major.
Henson was inspired by early radio and TV puppets, including Charlie McCarthy, a “cheeky” boyish dummy voiced by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.THF106436
As a freshman in college, Henson developed his own TV puppet show called Sam and Friends, which appeared briefly twice each evening. While working on this show, Henson started questioning many long-standing puppetry traditions. Why not, for example, use the entire frame of the TV screen as the actual puppet theater stage rather than bringing a separate puppet stage into the TV studio? Wouldn’t it follow, he then asked, that the puppet operators could work from off-camera rather than appearing to viewers on the screen?
Henson moved from there to questioning the puppets themselves. Why not make them more lifelike, with flexible fabric-covered foam rubber rather than the traditional carved wood? Why not use rods to move their arms—rather than the more traditional strings—to give them greater flexibility? Why not make the puppets’ mouth movements more precise to match their dialog—enhancing their believability and letting their full range of emotions be conveyed through words as well as actions? Finally, why not give the characters distinct personalities? Better yet, imbue their personalities with whimsy, playfulness, and humor. As Henson continued to refine his ideas and his characters, an entirely new kind of puppet was born—part puppet, part marionette, and all Henson. He called his new creations Muppets.
During his early career, Henson studied the artistry of traditional wood-carved marionettes when he spent time in Europe. THF38105
The publicity that Henson gained with his Sam and Friends show led to his invention of a host of new Muppet characters for a range of TV commercials. By this time, the 1960s, it seemed that people were coming to appreciate humor, irony, and satire more than the serious “hard sell” that had been the norm.
Adding life-size Muppets like Big Bird to the regular cast of Sesame Street increased the show’s popularity. THF97451
Though he was initially reluctant to collaborate on a TV show aimed specifically at kids, Henson experienced their first major breakthrough with Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969 (for more on Sesame Street, see this post).
But Henson’s greatest claim to fame came with The Muppet Show (1976-81)—produced in England because American TV networks wrongly assumed that Muppets would just appeal to kids. Hosted by his somewhat “bolder” alter-ego, Kermit the Frog (whom he controlled and voiced), this show introduced millions of viewers to Henson’s unique blend of humor and imagination. The Muppet Show would go on to air in more than 100 countries, win several Emmy awards, and lead to several spin-off motion pictures.
The song “Rainbow Connection,” first written to provide depth and humanity to Kermit the Frog’s character for the 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, has gone on to become a sort of Muppets anthem. THF182956
Jim Henson went on to contribute his talents and ideas to new fantasy/adventure films, most famously aiding in the creation and articulation of Yoda for the 1980 film, The Empire Strikes Back. He tried his hand with a few of his own fantasy/adventure films, including The Dark Crystal (1981) and Labyrinth (1986)—both of which were destined to become cult classics. He also created two additional popular TV series—Fraggle Rock (1983-87) and the Saturday morning animated show, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies (1984-91). Just before his passing, Henson worked with The Walt Disney Company to develop the themed attraction, Muppet*Vision 3D at Walt Disney World.
Fraggle Rock characters Wembly and Boober in a pickle-shaped vehicle from a 1988 McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion.THF308672
Inspired by a flashback sequence in the film, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies were represented in the McDonald’s 1994 Happy Birthday Happy Meal promotion.THF319291
Today, Jim Henson’s Muppets delight children of all ages. Henson once claimed that, with puppets, you can deal with subjects in a way that isn’t possible with people. The Muppets may not be people, but they certainly reflect who we are as people, providing a mirror to our thoughts, hopes, and dreams.
Jim Henson had plenty of his own dreams. He wanted to make a difference in the world, to change people’s lives in positive ways—through laughter, delight, and imagination. Henson once said that, “I decided that there are many situations in this life that I can’t do much about: acts of terrorism, feelings of nationalistic prejudice, cold war, etc. So what I should do is concentrate on the situations my energy can affect.” Wise and timeless words for the times we live in today!
Appearing in short segments on Sesame Street, ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie demonstrate to kids that good friends can be tolerant of each other’s differences. THF309817, THF309818
During his lifetime, Henson was deeply committed to encouraging, mentoring, and recognizing the talents of a new generation of puppeteers. In 1982, he established the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop puppetry in the United States. Today, the Jim Henson Foundation’s web site is the go-to place to find out what’s happening in contemporary puppet theatre and currently features extensive listings of online puppet shows to “help people collectively navigate the COVID-19 Health Crisis.” Instructions for making your own puppets are included here as well. Through his efforts, and those of his family who carry on his vision, Jim Henson’s legacy has ensured that puppetry is no longer relegated simply to home economics classes but has become a highly respected art form.
Jim Henson and his legacy live on, through Muppet programs and specials; Muppet operators and performers; those who have cherished memories of growing up with Muppet characters and pass these on to younger generations; new audiences who have discovered the old classic characters and shows; and the modern-day puppeteers Henson has inspired.
At a special tribute by the Muppets for Jim Henson back in 1990, Robin the Frog (Kermit’s nephew) remarked that, “Jim Henson may be gone, but maybe he’s still here too, inside us, believing in us.”
I like to believe this is true.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Additional Note: Just down the road from The Henry Ford, The Detroit Institute of Arts recently brought out on exhibit a 1969 version of Kermit, donated to them by Jim Henson himself in 1971. See more here.
Big and Little Bird reinforce the concept of contrasting sizes in this 1973 Playskool puzzle. THF97463
No television show has influenced how we think about children’s learning and thought processes as much as Sesame Street. For 50 years, this innovative TV show has continually broken barriers in its portrayal of diverse human interactions and relationships, its clever integration of Jim Henson’s wildly creative Muppets, and its rapid-fire approach to teaching basic educational concepts.
The idea for Sesame Street began back in 1966 at a dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, a TV publicist turned documentary producer, and her husband Tim. In attendance was Lloyd Morrisett, who was both Vice President of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation and an experimental psychologist interested in children’s education. At the dinner, Morrisett described his three-year-old daughter’s fascination with television—which included not only tuning in to Saturday morning cartoons, but also watching the pre-programming test patterns on the screen and reciting every commercial jingle by heart. Talk turned to the potential of television as a medium for educating young children. Could the seemingly addictive quality of TV be harnessed to both entertain and instruct?
This monster with the insatiable appetite—especially for cookies—has, under adult pressure, increasingly shown an awareness for healthy eating habits. THF97460
Cooney quickly developed a proposal entitled, “The Potential Use of Television in Preschool Education.” Her goal was groundbreaking at the time—to test the premise that TV could help level the playing field in education, preparing less advantaged three- to five-year-olds for school by teaching basic academic skills, self-esteem, and positive socialization. In March 1968, Cooney and Morrisett announced the formation of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and set out to create an educational TV show that would both appeal to young children and help them get a jump on learning. With an eight-million-dollar startup grant from private foundations and government agencies (including the rather skeptical Department of Education), Cooney was able to test ideas for the type of show she had in mind.
The colorful, fast-paced Batman TV show, which premiered in January 1966, provided one of many inspirations for Joan Ganz Cooney in creating Sesame Street.THF6651
Cooney’s reference points included the rapid-fire pacing of the hip new adult-oriented TV show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The campy breakout TV show Batman also provided a model, with its fast-paced action as well as its bright, bold colors and even its use of cartoon balloons. Cooney drew additional inspiration from short TV commercials, with their simple melodies in bright major keys. She did not get inspiration from most children’s TV shows, which she thought were dull, slow-paced, and seemed more oriented to adults than kids—with the possible exception of the kid-friendly Captain Kangaroo.
This 1970s Fisher-Price music box plays the song, “The People in Your Neighborhood,” while the Sesame Street scene moves horizontally across the “TV screen.” THF135804
Cooney soon realized that, while she had plenty of vision, she needed help in writing, directing, and producing the show. For this, she called on several veterans from Captain Kangaroo—most significantly Jon Stone, who played such a significant leadership role in shaping Sesame Street that he took over as executive producer for the next 20-odd years. Other talented and dedicated scriptwriters, composers, and directors also joined the team, while psychologists and educators lent their support from the beginning.
Cooney and her collaborators initially created a show that included brief skits, musical numbers, cartoons, and live-action video footage—all basically teaching school-readiness concepts. The idea of portraying a diverse group of people living and working together in a community was intentional, providing a hopeful real-life model for an integrated society, which encouraged respect, mutual tolerance, and cross-cultural friendship. The live action scenes were interspersed with pre-taped “commercials”—that is, short “bits” about letters and numbers presented either as animated segments or featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets. The live-action segments were purposely kept separate from the pre-taped “commercials,” as researchers felt that combining these “reality” and “fantasy” elements would confuse children.
Having the sweetly quizzical Big Bird live in a nest near, and interact with, the live actors on Sesame Street became a key to the show’s success. THF97451
Initial testing, however, revealed that children thought the live-action scenes were boring, the dialog tedious and lengthy. On the other hand, they found the short “commercials” to be catchy and memorable. Pushing back on the researchers’ advice, Cooney and Stone brought in Jim Henson as a full-time producer, while his Muppet creations Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch joined the live-action human cast. The resulting interaction between humans and Muppets—seamless and convincing—provided the missing alchemy. The foundation was laid for Sesame Street as we know it today.
Ongoing episodes about ultra-serious Bert and fun-loving Ernie reinforce to children that vastly different personalities can still be good friends. THF92308
The first episode of Sesame Street premiered on November 10, 1969 and the show aired weekdays on the new Public Broadcasting System (PBS) network. It was immediately hailed as a groundbreaking blend of learning and fun, despite some criticism about its high entertainment quotient, its threat to teachers for undermining early school lessons, and—in Mississippi—its initial banning because of its integrated cast. Time magazine featured popular Sesame Street character Big Bird on its November 23, 1970 cover, next to the headline, “Sesame Street: TV’s Gift to Children.” This issue devoted nine pages to the show’s impact and importance, calling it “the best children’s show in TV history.”
Puppeteer Kevin Clash breathed new energy and vitality into Elmo in the 1980s, but this furry red Muppet became a breakout star in 1996, when comedienne Rosie O’Donnell featured both Clash and this doll on her TV show. THF176791
As Sesame Street has continually changed and grown with the times, its popularity and impact have endured. Comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, whose remarks on her own TV show helped transform Elmo from a minor character to a superstar, described the show’s unique contributions this way:
"From the beginning Sesame Street encouraged imagination and playfulness. It always felt like a show to me about freedom, and it has always spoken to children in a pure and truthful way. Children are children, rich or poor, and there is a language of truth that is innate to these tiny, undeveloped beings that they can hear. Sesame Street had respect for its audience and respect for itself. They never cut any corners and they stuck to their democratic ideals."
Innovative, groundbreaking, and radical when it was introduced, Sesame Street has become nothing short of an American institution.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.