Tribute to Jim Henson: September 24, 1936—May 16, 1990

5/16/2010 Posted by Admin


Tribute to Jim Henson: September 24, 1936—May 16, 1990

By our guest blogger, John Shannon

In my world, there are two 'I Have A Dream' speeches. One of them is, most obviously, the one spoken by Martin Luther King in his effort for racial equality. The other is spoken by Kermit the Frog towards the end of "The Muppet Movie":  "I have a dream, too. But it's about singing and dancing and making people happy. That's the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And I found a whole bunch of people who share that dream, and that kind of makes us like a family."

Making people happy. It's that simple. The Muppets can always put a smile on my face. As a toddler, I watched "Sesame Street" and, as my mother often crows, I learned all my letters by the time I was 18 months old. My grandfather would tell me to go get one of the magnetized letters from the fridge, asking for a J or an R, and I always came back correct. Or at least, so I'm told. One thing I do remember, Ernie was my favorite.

When I was a kid, I'd watch reruns of "The Muppet Show" on Nickelodeon. I don't remember if it was part of Nick's line up or if it was part of Nick-at-Nite, but I remember that after "Doug" and then "Rugrats," there would be two episodes of "The Muppet Show," and then "I Dream of Jeannie" would come on, and on occasion my mom would let me stay up and watch that as well. But normally I would go to sleep, thinking of the oddball adventures Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie and Miss Piggy had gotten involved in, humming the song and dance numbers softly (Mahna Mahna, doo doo, do do doo...).

I remember seeing "Muppet Treasure Island" in theatres back in second grade. I then asked my mother if the Muppets had any more movies, and she took me to Home Vision Video (which has now become Movie Gallery) and we found both "The Muppet Movie" and "Muppets Take Manhattan." I like the other Muppet films a lot, from "Manhattan" to "Great Muppet Caper" to "Christmas Carol," but there's something about "The Muppet Movie" that puts it ahead of all the others.

Maybe it's because it's the "origin story." It tells us how the gang got together. Kermit the Frog, lured out of his Florida swamp by a lost Hollywood agent who hears him singing and tells him he's got talent, embarks on a journey to Hollywood ("The Dream Factory!") to fulfill his dream of making people happy. Hilarity ensues as he makes his way across the country, meeting Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Rolf the Dog, and Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, taking them along on the ride. All the while, the villainous Doc Hopper is in pursuit, hoping to entice Kermit into being his spokesfrog for his Fried Frog Legs fast food chain.

The story is simple, as it should be, but the characters are immensely lovable, the songs are catchy, and the jokes come in all shapes, sizes and styles. Wordplay, running gags and all out slapstick are employed to please the low and high brow alike. Monty Python fans and Three Stooges fans can find something to love in "The Muppet Movie." There are jokes for the kids and the parents, and you don't need to be lobotomized to enjoy the film.

And, while that obviously puts a smile on a person's face, it's the film's incredible optimism that makes us smile brightest. All Kermit wants to do is make millions of people happy. That's his dream. That's the reason for this movie to even exist. Not personal gain, or money, or fame. Just to make it possible for someone to see him on their television, or in a movie theater, and make them laugh and smile and believe that they too can achieve what they want to achieve.

And Kermit succeeded.

I saw the movie. I listened to his songs, and laughed at his jokes, and I can't help but feel that my optimistic nature is somewhat the Muppet's doing. Whenever I feel like I messed up, or something is just going terribly wrong, and no matter what my friends or family say to try and make me feel better, I still feel terrible...when I need that comfort, I watch "The Muppet Movie."

I don't know why. I practically have it memorized. I know all the songs by heart, and all the jokes. But watching it, seeing it all play out, even if it's for the millionth time...I just feel better. Because it reminds me of what matters most.

Being happy. Doing what you feel is right, and not letting anyone else or anything else stand in your way of doing what you want to do. Following your dreams. So many kid's movies try and teach us that--it's almost a cliché. And I know I sound kind of naive and immature when I talk like that, but I don't really care. Because so what if the Muppets make me happy, right? We all have things we go back to from our childhood, that nostalgic feeling, that show we loved, or that toy we couldn't sleep without, or the book we read a zillion times.

And sometimes we grow up and away from these things. I loved "Doug" when I was a kid. I never missed it when it was on. But now, I don't need it. It was a great show for me, for the time I liked it, but now I really have no use for it. I grew away from "Doug." I grew up with "The Muppet Movie."

There's nothing wrong with being "heartbreakingly optimistic," as one of my professors once called me. And maybe my optimism was lost on her, but her pessimism is lost on me. I can't imagine going through this world expecting the worst to happen. Because it will. I know how harsh and screwed up life can be sometimes. But, to quote another beloved classic, you need to just keep swimming. Keep moving forward. Otherwise all you'll ever be is bitter and broken.

I firmly believe that we reap what we sow, and that you need to keep moving toward your goal. No matter what the obstacle, even if it throws you off the road completely, there is more then one way to get somewhere. If one path is taken away, find another path. Find your happiness. Don't be ashamed of dreaming.

I could go on and on about the film's technical qualities, how the puppetry is superb, and how I still have no idea how they got Kermit to ride that bicycle. I could talk about the celebrity cameos, like Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Orson Welles (who honestly looks like he had no clue he was sharing the screen with the Muppets until arriving on set). I could talk about the further accomplishments of Jim Henson, the genius behind the Muppets who went on to create "The Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth" and one of the greatest TV shows of all time, "Fraggle Rock."

But I won't. Because all of that is secondary. There's a lot to be said for it, but I'm sure that Jim didn't want any of it to be said. He wanted us to focus on the message, so much so that the film ends with it's heart on it's sleeve, and in honor of that I will end this essay the same way.

Life's like a movie, write your own ending
Keep believing, keep pretending
We've done just what we set out to do.
Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you.

Thank you, Jim.

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