The primordial Muppet Show productions are wonderful, almost-lost gems — not at all as famous as the television series and movies that followed. Some reader younger than ourselves may be surprised to learn how old the Muppets are — that that Rowlf the Dog got his start in a Purina dog food commercial in 1962. Rowlf was also the last Muppet performed by Henson on television, in an appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1990. Always Henson’s favorite Muppet, he made regular appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960s, and if you want to spend the next hour of your day laughing at grainy television footage on Youtube, just start here.
The enormous popularity of Sesame Street was instrumental to the steady rise of Henson’s Muppets, but along the way they appeared in other programs, notably a 1971 version of The Frog Prince which stars Kermit the Frog and his nephew Robin, along with actress Trudy Young. This is our daughter’s all-time favorite record — one that sadly, she have worn with the nylon stylus on her Fisher Price record player. The Frog Prince, like the Muppet Show would be a few years later, a magical combination of wit and whimsey.
The Frog Prince was the second in a “Tales from Muppetland” series produced by Henson for CBS and later sold to ABC. Tthe first had been Hey, Cinderella!, a more network-tinkered tale than The Frog Prince and less distinctly Henson-esque, which aired in 1969. The idea of an ongoing series was scrapped by the network in favor of a contract to air college basketball, leading to the sparse appearances of “Muppetland” fairy tales.
The third and final story appeared a year after The Frog Prince, and delved deeper into Henson’s idiosyncrasies than nearly every other Muppet production, especially his taste in music. The Muppet Musicians of Bremen is based on a Brothers Grimm telling of an old German story, and is re-cast in the Louisiana bayou, providing Henson the opportunity to introduce children to dixieland jazz.
Our old copy of this album is like most children’s records fairly destroyed — it also has the misfortune of having once belonged to the St. Paul Public Library, so it’s seen a lot of love in its long life.
When Henson’s Muppet Show was finally aired (after two pilots rejected by American and British networks) its cornerstone was musical comedy. We’ve already posted some highlights from the Muppet Show cast albums here, but it is just a tiny sample of the hundreds of hilarious numbers the show produced. The fact that the soundtrack albums for The Muppet Show were called “cast albums” hints at their inspiration in musical theater. Jim Henson was undeniably influential in reviving musical comedy in America, along with the amazingly talented musical directors at Sesame Street, Jeffrey Moss and Joe Raposo.
People don’t always understand that this is our Beatles, or Ramones, or Radiohead, or whatever the all-so-very-important foundation in your musical leanings may be. We will take The Muppet Musicians of Bremen or Grover Sings the Blues over the “White Album” any day.
Sesame Street surprised Billboard by periodically creeping up the charts (we posted some examples here) — some of the albums on the Children Television Workshop’s record label (Sesame Street Records, of course) have become cult classics, like My Name is Roosevelt Franklin, for which Matt Robinson (aka Gordon) provided hilarious rants and raps, and Raposo provided funky beats. Others lived up to Sesame Street’s (then) high standards by teaching us about everything from being lonely (Grover Sings the Blues) to basic skills (the also funky Count Counts), all through great musical arrangements.
Henson, Moss and Raposo were all taken from us by illness at tragically young ages, none of them living to sixty years old. There are many reasons this could make your heart heavy, least of all that the three hardly got to see the generation they spoke to grow up filled with so many wonderful musicians and storytellers.