As a child, two non-family member deaths left long lasting effects on me: Jim Henson and John Candy. I was a strange child who obviously spent too much time watching television and movies. Jim Henson died on May 16th 1990, leaving his fans to wonder what would happen to Kermit and the Muppets, who had become entertainment mainstays. The answer was the television special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. It aired on CBS on November 21st 1990 and served as a tribute to Henson’s life and body of work. In the world of the Muppets, it had been awhile since the last Muppet movie, but the world of Henson was still spinning and expanding. Henson. who had decided to focus even more on the creative process of his work, was negotiating to sell his characters to the Walt Disney Company. He wanted to ensure that his characters would continue to thrive, and who better to do that than a company responsible for cultivating a cast of characters into a constant household presence for decades after their founder had died? In order to promote this acquisition and smooth the transition for fans of both companies, another special had aired just days before Henson’s death entitled The Muppets at Walt Disney World. In fact, an entire section of theme park rides starring the Muppets had been planned. Sadly, the only ride that would come to fruition was Muppet*vision 3D. It took another 14 years for the Walt Disney Company to purchase the Muppets. At first, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson seems like another other television tribute to a departed celebrity. The logo combining smiling Muppets from Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show seemed bittersweet considering that their creator had recently died and the future for these characters and properties seemed uncertain. The set looked like an updated version of the backstage set from The Muppet Show combined with the Muppet Central set from The Jim Henson Hour. Our familiar friend, Fozzie Bear, has been charged with the responsibility of organizing a tribute to Jim Henson. At first, you wonder how the Muppets will handle the subject of Henson’s sudden passing, but you are quickly relieved as you find out that they have seen him “down there” and look down at the puppeteers performing them. This is one of the great parts of the Muppets. They act completely unaware of the fact that a group of men are standing below them. Once they discover them, they are slightly surprised, but not terribly upset at the strangeness of it all. The puppeteers may as well have been a chair or carpet as far as the Muppets were concerned. The special takes place backstage of a regular Muppets television show and has several monitors in the background. They are utilized brilliantly as they each run through different behind the scenes footage from Henson’s many works, ranging from The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson’s Storyteller, and Labyrinth just to name a few. There is so much activity in the background, you feel as if you are missing something while watching the Muppets perform and following the plot, but all this activity in done in a rather subtle way. If you did not have a keen eye for the footage, it would not be too distracting. The monitors are also used to show interviews and are presented in a way that allows the Muppets watch them along with the audience at home. One such monitor shows a concise biography of Henson spanning from childhood, college, Sam and Friends, and on to the development of Sesame Street. One impressive and delightful aspect of The Muppet Show and most Muppet projects are the cameos and celebrity guests. Carol Burnett, John Denver, Ray Charles, Steven Spielberg, Harry Belafonte, and even Frank Oz (as himself instead of a Muppet character) join the Muppets to pay tribute. Each celebrity speaks about a different aspect of Henson and present a highlight from his career. Burnett discusses parts of the magic of The Muppet Show and we see clips of her on the show, as well as some noteworthy and classic skits such as Mahna Mahna. Steven Spielberg discusses Henson’s unique innovations combining puppetry and special effects, including his work in his fantasy based films. Harry Belafonte discusses the global impact of the Muppets, such as the number of countries who still ask in their native tongues “how to get to Sesame Street?” Although all of these special guests are heartwarming and sincere, the most touching moment is when Frank Oz discusses his work with Jim Henson. In my opinion, the personalities of Henson paired with Oz are what made the Muppets. Kermit would not be as funny without Miss Piggy karate chopping him across the stage. Ernie would not be as endearing without straight-laced Bert reminding him not to eat cookies in bed. The magic happened when the flint of Henson struck against the flint of Oz, erupting into a shining spark. Being the closest to Henson professionally and personally, Oz’s remarks were show-stopping. As with any Muppet production, this show is family friendly. Whenever tears begin to well up in your eyes, a Muppet character quickly appears to defuse the sadness and delivers a pun or gag that causes you to laugh the mourning away. The Muppet characters and clips of classic skits make you forget that Henson had recently died and the characters and performers are saying “goodbye” to him. When Fozzie discovers a folder left by Kermit to help him plan the musical number to honor Henson, everyone is quickly reminded of Henson’s passing. As the Muppets read actual letters from Henson fans both young and old, Fozzie cancels the number, deeming it not good enough to honor Henson. Robin the Frog cues up the song “Just One Person,” to start honoring Henson. Soon, the song grows into Scooter and Gonzo singing along. After a few more bars, the rest of the Muppet gang, characters from Sesame Street, and even Fraggles join in. This is one of the few times that the different Muppet franchises appear in the same special. Since the properties are now owned by different companies, it is a rare and enjoyable sight that will not happen again. Up to this point, Kermit has been noticeably absent and the fate of Henson’s signature character was on everyone’s minds following his death. Then Kermit walks in, listening to his friends singing and he needs approvingly. Kermit assures Fozzie and the crew that they have created a fitting tribute to Henson. Then, Kermit addresses the audience and reassures us that he will be seeing us all soon in many future Muppet productions because “the boss would want it that way.” This was a poignant moment for Muppet fans everywhere. What will Kermit sound like? Can anyone perform him like Henson? Kermit’s voice was quite different and in future airings was even edited to match Whitmire’s later interpretation. This marks the start of Whitmire’s career behind Kermit, but it also one of the last times Richard Hunt would perform Scooter and Janice. He died in 1992 from AIDS related complications in 1992. This special serves not only as a fitting tribute to Henson, but also as a statement, “The Muppets ain’t leaving!” The Muppets never shied away from discussing death. The residents of Sesame Street remembered Mr. Hooper, and explained to Big Bird what happens when someone dies when Will Lee died in 1982. Wembley mourned the loss of the Mud Bunny when he died, too. The best way to handle Henson’s death was honestly and head on. I believe that Henson would have been very pleased that his characters honored him with music, humor, and wit. The best tribute to Henson in this special is when Fozzie says that the production number must exude “style, wit, and eloquence…” Gonzo interrupts with, “You’re right! I’ll get the whoopee cushions!” Whenever I hear that line, I picture Henson as he stood in the introduction of The Tale of the Bunny Picnic. He is in the distance, smiling, chuckling, and nodding in appreciation. That line made me feel that everything would be okay. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.