Phantom of the Opera: Everything’s better with Muppets

phantom5

 

Faust, a five-act grand opera, is by Charles Gounod with a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.  It is loosely based on Faust, Part I, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  Goethe’s lesser-known follow-up, 2 Faust 2 Furious, focused on a man who made a deal with the diesel.”

–Erik Forrest Jackson, pushing all my geeky English-major buttons in an explanatory footnote of Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera

When I opened the book and saw that the epigraph was a quote from a renowned French philosopher and a line from an old infomercial, I knew I was going to like this book.

When I started laughing hysterically at the table of contents, I knew I was going to love this book.

When I finished reading it, I wanted to go back and read the original novel again to compare the two; the mark of a good book is that it makes you want to read more.

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“Oh…may I?”

When I was a kid, I never understood this scene from The Muppet Movie.  I never understood why the waiter (Steve Martin) was being so mean to Kermit, why the scene was supposed to be funny, or really why it existed at all.

Eventually, of course, I grew up.  I entered the workforce and have had several jobs which involve customer service in some capacity…

…And now I understand.  

I recently took a second job that once again requires me to interact directly with other human beings, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to bite my tongue to avoid imitating Steve Martin’s sarcastic, “Oh…may I?” when customers (or managers) ask/tell me to do something in a tone of voice that implies that they think they’re bestowing a great boon upon me.

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“Which one of you is the real Kermit?”

Answer:  Neither of them.  It’s a trick question.

So…this last Monday that just happened, there was a Pentatonix Christmas special on TV, and the report was that Kermit was going to make an appearance.  I debated with myself about whether or not to watch it, and ultimately I compromised with myself that I would watch it, but only with the sound down and the captions on.  And I hoped that Kermit would appear early on, because watching a musical program with the sound down didn’t really appeal to me.

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Creativity

“Do something creative because you can’t NOT do it.”
–Kermit the Frog

Last week or so I was in a morbid mood, indulging in my self-defeat and wallowing in self-pity as I looked at my life:  Working two jobs to make ends meet, which sucks up all the time I’d rather be spending on researching and writing.  One job transcribing/editing other people’s words instead of writing my own; the other job working in retail, making me feel like I’ve come full circle and ended up right back where I started in high school, as though all my education and training and experience and suffering over the past 20 years has all been for naught.

Desperately in need of some inspiration, I turned back to Kermit’s TED talk from 2015, and that was very helpful.  One part was particularly helpful, and you know how much I love to take other people’s/frogs’ words and put them into big block quotes, so here goes:

“We need to help kids–and all of us trying to connect with our inner tadpole–to pursue our passion, even when the going gets tough.  Now, for grown-ups, that just might mean, folks, you gotta have a day job.  Cuz let’s face it, it’s easier to take creative chances when it’s not how you’re trying to support yourself.  That can be tough.”

That made me feel better about taking the second job.  No shame in doing what it takes to survive, so long as you don’t hurt others in the process.  And if that means I have to try to bang out part of a blog post in the time between stopping one job for the day and starting another, then I guess that’s what it takes.  It’s not ideal–it’s not at all the way that I prefer to work–but if that’s what the situation calls for, then I’ll just have to be flexible and learn to adapt, which is a professional skill on which I have always prided myself.

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Thanksgiving

Character.chistmasturkey

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  I know the holiday is not really a thing outside the U.S. and Canada (and in Canada it happened a month ago), but there’s never a bad time to be grateful for the good things in our lives, especially when the bad things threaten to overwhelm us.

Thank you especially to Steve Whitmire, for teaching us (back in 1987) that turkeys are selfish, ungrateful bastards and that we should eat them, because if we don’t, they will conspire to murder Big Bird. 😉

Seriously, though…

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“The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson”

On November 21, 1990–twenty-seven years ago today,  and six months after Jim Henson’s death–the tribute special “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson” aired on CBS.  It was Steve Whitmire’s first performance as Kermit the Frog.  He had had less than six months to prepare.

Here is the finale.  Kermit enters at 04:27:

Puppetry-wise, Steve was spot-on from the very beginning, giving Kermit these beautiful, subtle facial expressions.  You can feel Kermit’s emotions as you watch; the sorrow and pride, the quiet joy and gratitude.

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“Steve Whitmire Saturday” (The Muppet Mindset: September 5, 2009)

In 2009, Disney briefly replaced Steve Whitmire as Kermit for a few appearances, most notably on America’s Got Talent. I was curious about what the mainstream Muppet fansites thought about that at the time, so I went digging through the archives and found this gem by Muppet Mindset founder Ryan Dosier about why Steve should not be replaced:

Steve Whitmire is Kermit the Frog, and Muppet fans should fight for whatever they must to keep it that way.”

Oh, what a difference eight years makes!

But Ryan got it exactly right in 2009, and good on him for it. I don’t know if he still stands by what he said back then.  Nevertheless, everything that he said back then is as relevant and true now as it was when he originally wrote it eight years ago. 

(Except the part about Steve being “scraggly-haired” in the ’70s; the available evidence suggests that he was, in fact, meticulously coiffed according to the style of the times.)

Also of interest is that our old frenemesis “Anonymous” makes an appearance in the comments section, up to his old tricks (although back then they might have been new tricks) of trashing Steve relentlessly, without regard for either facts or feelings. How far back in time does this ridiculous grudge go anyway? Dude, get a life!

The Muppet Mindset

The year was 1978. A 19-year old, scraggly-haired, tall, lanky puppeteer approached a bin of puppets. These weren’t just any puppets, mind you, these were the Muppets. This young man had his wish granted by truly the greatest genie of all time, Jim Henson. A man who, to this young puppeteer, was on the same plane as John Lennon is to a musician, Albert Einstein is to a physicist, or Thomas Edison to light-bulb enthusiasts. This young man picked up a puppet, came up with  a voice, and was immediately a featured player on The Muppet Show. The most widely aired show ever.

This young puppeteer was named Steve Whitmire, and this is his Saturday.

STEVE WHITMIRE

Main Characters…

Kermit the Frog (1990-still)
Rizzo the Rat
Beaker (1991-still)
Statler (2002-still)
Ernie (1990-still)
Wembley Fraggle
Sprocket

Secondary Characters…
Foo Foo
Lips
Marlon Fraggle
Bean Bunny
Waldo C. Graphic
The Muppet Newsman…

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It’s Not Easy Being the Last Jedi

You don’t want to admit how possessive you’ve become [of Luke Skywalker]. There are times where you go, ‘Really? That’s what they think of Luke? I’m not only in disagreement‚ I’m insulted.’ But that’s the process and you thrash it all out.”
                            —Mark Hamill

Watch your back, Mark.  Star Wars is a Disney property now, and at Disney, nothing is sacred, everyone is expendable, and expressing opinions about a character you’ve played and/or been associated with for decades is considered “unacceptable business conduct.”  If Kermit the flippin’ Frog is fair game, so is Luke Skywalker.

(Also of interest is the original New York Times article in which the above quotation originally appeared.)

 

Sin of Omission


(Isn’t it miraculous how there seems to be a Fraggle Rock song that fits every occasion?)

Dear Steve, especially…but also friends, readers, “followers,” and people who surfed in here randomly looking for extended metaphors on child care or something…

(To that last group: thank you for stopping by, and I’m sorry that I didn’t have what you were looking for.)

I have a confession to make:

I went to a Halloween party on October 21st dressed “sort of approximately” like Kermit, with the intention of, to paraphrase what I said on October 19th, getting the word out, trying to evoke some “epiphanies” in the casual fans, perhaps spurring them to some kind of action, but at the very least, bringing them into the conversation.

And I failed.  

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Kermit’s Appearance on “Dancing with the Stars”

MY MOM:  You were in kind of high dudgeon [about Kermit’s recast] before.
ME:  Yeah, I still am.
           –Excerpt from phone conversation, October 29, 2017.

Well, it’s been two weeks, so I should really talk about this. 

It’s hard to find good clips of this on YouTube.  Here’s a short, official clip:

Here’s a bootleg clip, which is very tiny and has a flashy background that I think should come with an epilepsy warning:

Some general comments before I get to the Kermit-specific stuff:  Drew Scott’s Miss Piggy impression sounds more like Yoda, which (a) is hilarious, and (b) may have just become my new OTP (Yoda and Kermit, that is).  

During the actual performance, I didn’t like the style of the vocalist that they had singing “Rainbow Connection”–and also she got the words wrong, which really rubs me the wrong way (as my mom could tell you, I’m sorry to say). 

Nevertheless, I’m glad they didn’t have Kermit sing it; it’s still too soon.  Not “Rainbow Connection.”  Not now.  Not yet.  

Also, the fact that they had Kermit judge the dance but that his score didn’t count is strangely ironic and sadly fitting.

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My Perspective on the Aftermath of Jim Henson’s Death

I address myself to the Muppet fans who were either not born yet when Jim Henson died or are too young to remember it:

I’m very impressed with you and the depth of your passion and your dedication and your knowledge of Jim Henson and his work–which, for a variety of reasons, often outstrips my own.

I know that you love Jim Henson, just as we all do.  I know that you grieve for him, and I know that you mourn for the opportunity that you never had to have first-hand knowledge of the time that he spent among us here on Earth.

I was approximately 10 when Jim died, so I have some first-hand knowledge of both his life and his death.  Elsewhere, I’ve discussed his death subjectively; i.e., how I reacted to it and how it affected me, but now I’d like to take sort of a broader, more objective look at the effect that his death had on everybody.

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What Would Walt Disney Do?

(or “WWWDD?”)

I think I was about seven years old when I learned that “Walt Disney” was the name of an actual person.  Prior to that point, I assumed that it was just a meaningless, made up brandname, like “Kodak.”  I bring that up because it seems to me that a lot of people, even–and perhaps especially–those who work for the company itself, sometimes forget that there was a real person behind the name, a man behind the mouse.

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Emperor Disney Has No Clothes; or, Attempting to Strike While the Iron Is Hot

I intended (and still intend) to write my own review of Vogel!Kermit’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars on Monday, but I was waiting until I had a chance to talk to my mom about it, because I suspect that she will give me a good sound bite to turn into an opening quote.

But I’m just now hearing about the negative reaction to the appearance on Twitter from the casual Muppet fans, and it is strange and wonderful.

(Here’s the link.  Just watch the video.  Don’t read the little story underneath it; it’s unnecessarily snide and hurtful.)

It’s strange (and a little frustrating) because this issue has consumed my life for three months now, so to see other people just cottoning on now kind of makes me want to scream “Where have you BEEN for the last three months?!?”  But it would be hugely hypocritical of me if I were to scream that because (a) prior to when the news broke in July, Muppets had been a fairly low priority for me and (b) I’m the woman who came 30 years late to the Fraggle party; I can hardly criticize anyone for being a measly three months behind the times.

On the other hand, after three months of rationalizing and justifying from the mainstream Muppet fandom–all the walking on eggshells on the big-name fansites for fear of pissing off Disney–and Tom Bergeron et al. on the show itself pretending that everything is normal, it’s so refreshing to hear people outside of our little die-hard circle of Steve’s loyal fans candidly speak up, like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, and say, “What the hell is going on?  That doesn’t sound like Kermit at all!”

I’ve never considered myself a Jeanne D’Arc, and it doesn’t come naturally to make a call to figurative arms, but now might be an opportune moment to try and get the word out about what we know to be true about Steve and Disney.  Now might be a good time to write more letters to the Disney execs.  Now might be a good time to start re-circulating the petition.  Now might be a good time to start talking to the casual fans about our concerns.

At the very least, we should try to gently persuade them to direct their anger where it belongs, toward the suits at Disney and the Muppet Studios, and try to deflect their anger away from Matt.

The mainstream Muppet fandom seems to have largely turned its back on both Steve and us, so now might be a good time to get the word out, to try to evoke some epiphanies in the casual fans, perhaps spur them to some kind of action, but at the very least, bring them into the conversation.

(And for me, it starts on Saturday when I’m going to a Halloween party dressed “sort of approximately” like Kermit.)

The Garth Brooks episode of Muppets Tonight

I was thinking about this recently because Garth Brooks came to Sioux Falls last month and gave nine concerts over the course of two weekends.  I didn’t get to go, but it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of it all.

I only got to watch the first season of Muppets Tonight, before it skipped over to a cable channel, but of that first season, the Garth Brooks episode is the most memorable for me for several reasons; some lighthearted and some more serious.

This isn’t the entire episode, but it’s the section most relevant to what I’m going to discuss:

At the time that this episode aired, I was 15 years old and was involved in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at our high school.  (Not on stage; I played second clarinet in the pit band.  At first, I was bummed about not being cast in the play, as I had auditioned, but apparently the band director had asked for me specifically for the pit band, so that made it a little better.)  Anyway, for that reason I was really tickled watching this episode when Garth Brooks started singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” although I was disappointed that he didn’t do the Tevye dance.

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Looking at what I don’t see

“With a war of words in the press with the Hensons, Disney executives will never be held accountable for mediocre creative directions that lay at their feet, or for the way I have been treated.  After literally refuting every one of Brian’s allegations on paper throughout the night, I cannot bring myself to send it to the media out of respect for Jim. No matter how carefully I frame it, because I know so much about them, it feels like a counterattack that might do real personal damage. […] I will continue to speak about the issues surrounding my dismissal by Disney, but I cannot in good conscience speak against my mentor’s children. It flies in the face of a great man’s philosophy of watching out for each other and loving and forgiving everybody.”
                     –Steve Whitmire “The Last Few Days, Part 1,” July 22, 2017

Rarely have I seen a better practical, real-life example of someone “turning the other cheek” (cf. Matthew 5:38-39)  than this example of Steve refusing to fight back against the unwarranted personal attacks leveled against him by the Henson children.  It tells me everything I need to know about who Steve is as a person and completely validates the faith and trust that I have invested in him.

And yet, while I understand and agree with Steve’s personal decision not to retaliate against the Hensons, I nevertheless feel that the Hensons should be held accountable for their words and actions.  As responsible adults, we all understand (or, at least, we should understand) that actions have consequences, and one cannot reasonably expect to be held to a different standard due to the high regard in which people hold one’s late father.  In fact, it is precisely because of the high regard in which we hold Jim Henson that his children ought to be held to account, because their actions are reflecting badly on him, and he’s no longer able to defend himself or assert his own point of view.

I agree with Steve that it is inappropriate for him to criticize the Hensons, for the reasons that he stated, but I don’t think it necessarily follows that the Hensons should not be criticized at all.  If I criticize the Hensons, it is unlikely to turn into a war of words, as I doubt that they would consider refuting me to be worth their time.  I have already provided well-reasoned, well-researched criticism of Disney and will continue to do so; therefore, I do not anticipate that anything that I have to say about the Hensons will distract from the Disney critique but rather show it in sharper relief.  Moreover, since I do not know the Hensons personally, I doubt very seriously that my criticism of them would have the potential to do “real personal damage.”

Which is not to say that anything and everything about the Hensons is fair game.  I have always been mindful of the inexpressible pain that they must have felt, and presumably still feel, about the loss of their father, and I will always try to be sensitive of that, as I always have.   And yet, I look to the example of Jon Stewart who, when he was hosting The Daily Show, had a talent for knowing what was foul and what was fair, for calling people on their hypocrisy without hitting below the belt.  And if Jon Stewart were still hosting The Daily Show, I would like to think (though, of course, I have no way of knowing) that he would have devoted some time–not a lot of time, mind you, maybe just five minutes of the show on July 17th or July 18th–to go over to camera 3 and say, “Seriously, what the hell, Hensons?”

So that’s what I’m trying to do now.  More than that, however, I’m just trying to work through the negative feelings of hurt and betrayal that I myself feel over the Hensons’ words and actions.  These negative feelings are burdensome to me, a stumbling block that I will have to get over if I have any hope of being able to move past these issues towards the forgiveness which Jim Henson himself advocated. 

If Steve is reading this, I hope that he will understand my rationale for doing what he has nobly refused to do and forgive me if I am out of line in doing so.

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